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'US-Pak relationship transactional, not built on goodwill'

August 03, 2012 12:19 IST

The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee is divided on the usefulness of continuing US aid to Pakistan, reports Aziz Haniffa.

There is apparently growing dissension within the ranks of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the utility of the continuing flow of massive United States economic and military largesse to Pakistan. Senator John F Kerry, who is the chairman of the committee, is pitted against some of his Democratic colleagues as well as several Republican members, who are incensed by Pakistan's alleged perfidy in the US-led war on terror.

The rift came out into the open this week during the confirmation hearings of President Obama's new ambassadors to Pakistan and Afghanistan -- Richard Olson and James Cunningham -- before the committee. Kerry appealed to them to explain to the members why continued aid to Pakistan was imperative, particularly under his legislation, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and then House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, that was approved over two years ago and provides for $1.5 billion (Rs 7,800 cr aprox) annually for Pakistan over five years.

At the outset, Kerry said, "Some people in Congress, ill-advisedly, but nevertheless, some people in Congress, are advocating a more precipitous kind of reaction to the current state of affairs (between the US and Pakistan that has been in the doldrums over several issues, beginning with Washington's suspicions that Pakistan was harboring Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, in close proximity to its Army headquarters there). Some don't think there is a value to it, etc."

Kerry asked Olson to "state to the Congress, why that would be ill-advised and what you see in the stakes, and also the important things you see Pakistan doing that is helpful to us notwithstanding the difficulties we've had in the relationship."

In response, Olson said, "Our relationship with Pakistan is critical to our national security interests, primarily in the area of counter-terrorism cooperation," and noted that "over the past decade, thanks in significant part to cooperation from Pakistan, we are in a position of virtually eliminating Al Qaeda as a threat to us."

Consequently, he argued that "we want to continue to formulate a relationship that allows us to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation."

Earlier, Kerry had said that "despite many of our frustrations and setbacks, serious policymakers on both sides understand that we have more to gain by finding common ground and working together on areas of mutual concern, and these are clearly from fighting terrorism to facilitating economic development."

He also pointed out that it was imperative for US lawmakers and people in the US to be aware that "Pakistan has suffered grievously at the hands of the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated terrorist groups, and that some 38,000 Pakistani citizens, 6,000 Pakistani army and security have been killed by attacks and in the war with these terrorist groups."

But Kerry's Democratic colleague Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Subcommittee on South Asia, argued that "it is incongruous to provide enormous sums to the Pakistani military …unless we are certain that the Pakistanis are committed to locate, disrupt and dismantle terrorist threats inside its borders."

Menendez questioned the Pakistani military's commitment "to ceasing support to extremist and terrorist groups and preventing Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated terrorist groups from operating within the territory of Pakistan."

"All I hear is the Pakistanis seeking an end to the drone attacks that have been the one successful effort, and turning it over to them," he said, and reiterated, "If we are going to be providing billion of dollars, what it is the concurrent commitment here."

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who along with Menendez some time ago had sought to conditioned aid to Pakistan on some benchmarks, said that the greatest frustration and concern to US military leaders in Pakistan "is fighting a war in Afghanistan that is being controlled out of Pakistan."

Corker said, "We really don't have a relationship in Pakistan. It's more of a transactional relationship -- it's almost a pay to play kind of relationship and it's been that way for a long, long time."

"It's a country that is basically controlled by the military and the elected leaders are candidly not particularly effective."

Corker reiterated, "It's more of a transactional relationship, not one that's really built on goodwill."

But Olson warned that disengaging with Pakistan would be highly counterproductive and recalled "the severe costs" that had accrued the last time the US had done so, "where a generation of military, who had previously served with the United States and trained in US institutions, no longer had that opportunity and we are frankly paying a cost in our relationship now because many of these officers are now General officers and have not been exposed to us in a way their predecessors were."

He acknowledged that "we need to have some very candid and direct discussions with the Pakistani government about the questions of the safe havens and the Haqqani Network."

But he argued that "it's important that discussion take place against a context of some predictability in the overall relationship. And, that's what I would be hoping to bring to the relationship some sense that we want to move away from a more transactional relationship to one that is based on a longer-term policy of engagement."

Olson said he believed "the assistance that has been so generously provided by the American people has had a significant role and potentially has a significant role in the future on stabilising that relationship and showing that our interests are not short-term, but rather long-term."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC