Islamabad swears it's committed to the anti-terrorism fight, but U.S. lawmakers want to see more proof before they sign over $300 million in new aid.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.
Washington has given Islamabad $11 billion over the past 11 years to reimburse Pakistan for its on-again, off-again efforts to combat militants operating along its porous border with Afghanistan. But with violence spiking in both countries, Congress has tightened a measure requiring the Pentagon to certify that Pakistan is a true ally in the anti-terrorism fight before it gives the country $300 million in fresh payments this fiscal year.
The new certification requirement included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act is the latest attempt by Congress to ensure that Pakistan abides by its promises to stop harboring terrorist groups that have been implicated in cross-border attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. It shows lawmakers’ unease in fully trusting Pakistan’s claims that it’s battling all terrorist groups.
Of the $1 billion available as reimbursement to Pakistan under the coalition support funds — used since September 2011 to pay partners for aiding American counterterrorism efforts — Congress has specified that a third of the money will be payable only if the Pentagon certifies that Islamabad’s military operations in North Waziristan make the region inhospitable for the Haqqani network. Congressional aides say that they want to hold back the roughly $300 million to ensure that North Waziristan doesn’t go back to being a stronghold for the group once Pakistan completes its current military operations.
“It’s a subtle but important shift in language that previously required them to disrupt safe havens and prevent freedom of movement for the group,” one congressional aide familiar with the latest requirement said. “The emphasis is on the outcome of Pakistan’s ongoing military operation in the [region] and is basically asking Pakistan to stick to what it has promised to do.”
The move comes as Pakistan ramps up its military campaign against the Taliban and other militants in the wake of the massacre of 148 people — including 132 children — at a military-run school in Peshawar. In recent days, Pakistan has escalated its assault on known terrorist strongholds, claiming to have killed 77 militants, and has ended a six-year moratorium on the death penalty with plans to execute as many as 500 imprisoned militants.
The tussle stems from legislation Congress passed in 2008 that has required the Pentagon and the State Department to certify that Pakistan has been keeping its commitments to the anti-terrorism fight before giving Islamabad new aid. The provisions haven’t had as much impact as many lawmakers had hoped because Barack Obama’s administration has either sought and received waivers on national security grounds or has provided certifications even though later events — such as the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani military garrison town — showed those assurances to have been unfounded.
“There’s a lot of ambivalence in Congress about what to do with Pakistan,” said Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.
While there’s agreement that Pakistan hasn’t always kept its promises to combat terrorism, she said, “there’s significant difference about what to do about it,” with some lawmakers arguing to cut off funding for Pakistan while others push to keep the money flowing to preserve access and maintain some leverage over Islamabad. The latest congressional requirement is “only a compromise position,” she said.
Pakistan has re-emerged as a top concern for U.S. policymakers in the wake of the Dec. 16 attack on the military-run school in Peshawar and a wave of ongoing strikes by Pakistani troops. The Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by a group of its gunmen, said the killings were in response to the Pakistani military’s six-month-long operation in North Waziristan to root out terrorists residing in the border region.
Top Pakistani officials have said that their military operation in North Waziristan, which began in June, is aimed at clearing the area of all terrorist groups without discriminating between those tacitly supported in the past by the Pakistani intelligence services and those that have spent years battling the Pakistani government.
“We will eliminate all terrorists without discrimination,” Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, the director-general of the Inter Services Public Relations directorate and a spokesman for the Pakistani military, told reporters on Nov. 14 in Washington. “All terrorists of any hue or color, and we will not let anyone return to these areas. We’ll not allow our soil to be used for terrorism.”
Since launching the operation in June, Pakistan has confiscated 132 tons of explosives from North Waziristan that could have killed as many as 70,000 people if deployed in roadside bombs, Bajwa said. “We have apprehended around 2,500 people and killed in various encounters about 70 hard-core terrorists,” he said then in November. The figures are likely higher today.
Still, the Pentagon has not been able to certify that Pakistan is taking on the Haqqani network, a well-trained and heavily armed group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former mujahideen commander who’s said to have the backing of Pakistan’s intelligence service. Many American commanders believe that the Haqqani group’s fighters are the deadliest foes of the United States in Afghanistan, and the militants are believed to have killed hundreds of American troops since 2001.
The Pentagon “has waived the certification requirements” on coalition support funds in recent years, Marine Corps Maj. Brad Avots, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email. “This has enabled us to reimburse Pakistan for its counterinsurgency operations along the border with Afghanistan, which impede terrorists’ ability to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the ANSF, and the U.S. homeland,” he said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces.
The Pentagon has yet to determine “whether Pakistan meets the new certification requirements” imposed by Congress, Avots said.
Washington has given Pakistan enormous amounts of aid since the 9/11 attacks. Between 2002 and 2014, the Congressional Research Service estimates, Washington has given Pakistan at least $28 billion in military and economic assistance.
Even when the Obama administration has certified that Pakistan is helping American counterterrorism efforts, later events have raised serious questions about the accuracy of those assurances.
In March 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, certified that Pakistan “has demonstrated a sustained commitment to and is making significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups,” particularly by ceasing support to groups that had attacked the United States or coalition forces. That assurance, Fair noted, came even as American intelligence information indicated that bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and came just weeks before the U.S. commando raid there that killed the terrorist mastermind on May 2.
Clinton’s certification may have reflected the differences between how various U.S. intelligence agencies viewed Pakistan and the inherent difficulty of making a conclusive decision about whether the country had dropped its support for terrorism, Fair said.
Despite Pakistan’s assertions to the contrary, there are still indications that its military and intelligence services provide safe haven to some terrorist groups. On Dec. 22, for instance, Pakistan released Malik Ishaq, the chief of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who is on the U.S. terrorism list. The Sunni terrorist group has killed hundreds of Pakistanis and Shiite Muslims. The group has been linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Ishaq had been in detention for the past three years.
On Dec. 19, meanwhile, a Pakistani anti-terrorism court granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who’s accused of having masterminded the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people. The country’s prosecutor has said the bail will be challenged.
Pakistani officials who visited Washington in June and later in November have indicated that they want the cash reimbursements for counterterrorism operations to continue even after American troops in neighboring Afghanistan depart in 2016.
While the Pentagon “currently does not have the authority to provide operational reimbursements to Pakistan after 2016,” the Defense Department “is currently evaluating whether to seek such authorities” and what “authorities to seek from the U.S. Congress in order to protect remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan, maintain pressure on militant organizations, and promote regional stability,” Avots, the Pentagon spokesman, said.
That may be a hard sell on Capitol Hill. The original intention of the coalition support funds “was to reimburse Pakistan for their support to our military operations in Afghanistan,” so it’s not clear how continuing such cash payments can be justified after the U.S. withdrawal, the congressional aide said.
“The bigger question for policymakers is if the U.S. is interested in maintaining a security relationship with Pakistan on some footing other than the conflict in Afghanistan, should there be a hard look at providing additional security assistance through other mechanisms,” the aide said. “Unlike traditional security assistance, which provides training and equipment, payments from coalition support funds are cash payments, and there may be a certain appeal for Pakistanis in continuing to get large lump-sum payments.”
Photo by A MAJEED/AFP