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Who's hoodwinking whom?

Withholding reimbursements will not serve US interests; empathy towards an embattled crisis-ridden country would probably work better

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, July 15, 2011

Imagine Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani making statements against the American government in the media. "I cannot disabuse the Obama administration of a role in the murder of X, but I don't see any evidence that the CIA or the FBI have done that." Or if Kayani mentioned books such as The Devil's Games by Robert Dreyfuss or The Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins to support his suspicion that the people like Raymond Davis were creating difficulties for Pakistan and its army. What would the US reaction be? 

But Mike Mullen, the US army chief, did precisely that when he placed the blame of journalist Saleem Shahzad's murder on the Pakistani government. It looked as if Mullen had taken up the job of the State Department spokesman.

The US seems to be campaigning to mount pressure on Pakistan by throwing all possible dirt on its government, and it is inaccurately calling the reimbursements to Pakistan "security assistance", thereby not being truthful to the American public and misleading the opinion outside the US.

Mullen's statement on Saleem Shahzad's murder (an act that must be strongly condemned) was nothing less than an affront to Pakistan. A judicial commission has already been set up to investigate the murder. Who actually terminated him, and with what motives, might probably continue to be a controversy, but one thing is clear; Shahzad's murder did defame Pakistan, implicate the ISI, and if looked at in the context of the thesis of his book and his last report on the PNS Mehran attack, did suggest that the Pakistani armed forces and the Al Qaeda were talking to each other. 

And now, the US has held back $800 million - a third of the nearly $2 billion "security assistance" to Pakistan - in a clear show of displeasure over Pakistan's removal of US military trainers, limits on visas for US personnel and other bilateral irritants. A massive string of reports out of Washington suggests that security aid has been suspended to a "thankless and difficult partner".

In response, the military announced after the 140th Corps Commanders Conference at the General Headquarters on July 12 that it could do without US assistance and would fight against terrorism using its own resources. 

Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar said a day earlier Pakistan would move its troops from its the northwestern border if the US would withhold funds.

Both the civilian government and the army failed to highlight a plain fact: the American government has withheld reimbursements that it owes to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). While the US auditors may have legitimate objections to what they call "inflated invoicing" by Pakistan Army, that does not change the fact that the money the US administration is talking about relates to the cost being incurred on the deployment and operations of roughly 140,000 troops along the border of Afghanistan. This deployment was made on the American-led coalition's request and Pakistan Army complied with it only after it was promised the operational cost (that has varied between $700 million to $800 million per year). But American leaders have consistently called the CSF "security assistance" and Pakistani leaders have largely failed in clarifying the distinction between security assistance and the reimbursements the US owes to Pakistan.

What is holding back Islamabad and the General Headquarters from putting these plain facts before the nation and the world? Ahmad Mukhtar did tell Reuters that Pakistan wanted the money it had spent on the maintenance of its troops in the Tribal Areas. "This is what we are demanding," he said. "It is our own money."

But this hardly explains the situation on ground. Out of the $800 million withheld, the White House says $300 million were reimbursement and another $500 million were aid. The Pakistani military leadership needs to explain what those $500 million were meant for.

A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel David Lapan, gave the real reason for his government's displeasure in a statement on July 12. The aid could be resumed, he said, if Pakistan increased the number of visas for US personnel and reinstated the training missions. These conditions arouse suspicions in Pakistan. Why is the issue of US military trainers so crucial for Washington - particularly if Gen Kayani plays them down as "not necessary". "We don't need US army trainers," he told a gathering at the National Defence University on May 19. "We can do the job on our own." Most of the US and almost all British trainers were eventually requested to leave Pakistan.

While the Pakistani leadership needs to come clean on its understandings with their American counterparts and explain the compulsions these agreements with the US place on Pakistan, the US administration must also appreciate the fall-out of the high-handed approach it has adopted vis a vis Pakistan. Publicly calling Pakistan untrustworthy will not serve US interests; on the contrary it adds to the groundswell of dislike, if not hatred, of the US policies towards smaller countries. Much of US frustrations flow from its perception of Pakistan's duplicity, not appreciating that double-gaming forms an integral part international relations. That is why President Barack Obama described Raymond Davis as a US diplomat, and his officials call reimbursements "security assistance to Pakistan". Smaller and embattled countries, embroiled in crisis after crisis, perhaps need a bigger margin for being duplicitous. A certain measure of empathy would probably work better than derogating an embattled and crisis-ridden country. Pakistan must now stand its ground and try to set things right on its own.

Tailpiece: In contrast with the American shenanigans, outgoing Dutch ambassador Joost Reintjes left a deep thought in the presence of half a dozen ambassadors at a farewell gathering; "We all - the diplomats - need to work on correcting the perception of Pakistan abroad. Most of the perception is negative because of how the media projects the country. But we diplomats have a different view of Pakistan - based on our detailed interaction with a cross section of the society - and must work to use that view in helping Pakistan."

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk