Sunday, 2 October, 2022
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Talk Point: Is the proposed inter-agency review of American support to Pakistan different from such past exercises?

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced at a Congressional hearing that the administration is beginning an inter-agency policy review of continuation of American aid to Pakistan. This week, a key Congressional panel started hearing a proposal to make US civil and military aid to Pakistan conditional to Islamabad’s support to the fight against the Afghan Taliban. What will the implications of these moves be on Pakistan and on the South Asian region? We ask experts Alyssa Ayres, TCA Raghavan, Ahsan Mukhtar Zubairi, C Christine Fair, Rahimullah Yusufzai, Timothy Roemer, Arun Singh and Jayadeva Ranade.

US is viewing S. Asia region widely to include ties with India and New Delhi’s concerns – ALYSSA AYRES, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations

The White House has been leading a regional strategic review of US policy toward South Asia — not simply a review of US-Pakistan ties, but a review of American involvement in Afghanistan and strategy toward the region.

It is my sense, based on the public statements about counter-terrorism and Pakistan made during PM Modi’s visit in June, that the administration is viewing the region widely to include our ties with India and New Delhi’s concerns, not just through an Af-Pak lens.

From the outside, it appears that the administration seeks the right troop levels to assist with stability and counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, and wants to focus on the problem of continued safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan, which ultimately make success in Afghanistan impossible to attain. The administration is likely deliberating over how firmly and at what dollar levels to condition military funding (such as reimbursements, a large component of US funding to Pakistan) without sufficient action on the Haqqani network—a longstanding condition on aid.

They may also be examining options for more vigorous enforcement of conditions requiring action against the plethora of other terrorist groups; possible withdrawal of Major Non-NATO Ally status; escalated attention to the problem of financial flows to internationally proscribed terrorist groups, including those that target India and hold open rallies for their cause within Pakistan; and all against the backdrop of a fast-growing nuclear weapons programme.

They are probably also considering how best to shore up encouragement and/or support for Pakistan’s civilian politicians, however flawed, given the country’s recent first transition of power from one civilian government to another—an important milestone for a country so hobbled throughout its existence by military rule—and ways to incentivise Pakistan to focus on economic development and growth.


Periods of intense engagement between US and Pakistan is often followed by a relative decline in US influence over Pakistani behaviour – T.C.A. RAGHAVAN, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan

An interagency process by its very nature is a balancing act. Notwithstanding the publicly stated sense of frustration at Pakistan having ‘played us’, other factors and considerations will therefore play a major role.

What is on the table? By some accounts, the review will be a radical one and extend from Pakistan’s non-NATO major US ally status to the quantum of financial assistance and aid.

Nevertheless, US constraints are well known. There are many in its strategic fraternity who firmly believe that excessive pressure on Pakistan is counterproductive, that the fundamentals of a relationship have to be safeguarded with a country that is a nuclear power, is a player in Afghanistan and is already too far gone down the China route.

To these valid, if abstract, geopolitical considerations is added a more pressing tactical requirement. The Pakistani diaspora in the US requires intense intelligence follow up for which a large measure of cooperation with the ISI and IB is essential.

Such considerations have surfaced in past reviews but there is a difference. The Trump administration begins its tenure at the end of a long period of intense US-Pak engagement extending over two terms each of his two predecessor presidents. US financial assistance and political engagement over the past decade and a half have been massive and dense as indeed the frictions over terrorism. The historical experience is that such periods of intense engagement have been followed by a relative decline in US influence over Pakistani behavior. Much the same process is likely to be repeated again regardless of what the specific recommendations of the review are.


US needs Pakistan’s support to eliminate ISIS in Afghanistan — AHSAN MUKHTAR ZUBAIRI, Secretary General, Karachi Council on Foreign Relations

On the June 15, Rex Tillerson, US State Secretary, while talking about the vilification put forward by a Congressman that Pakistan’s connections to terrorism are very well established, reported an inter-agency review of US funding and support to Pakistan.

Although in power for a while, the Trump administration had been unexpectedly quiet on US-Pakistan relations. But the release of this transcript, including declarations and comments, has led to the speculation that this might result in further reduction in already diminishing US aid to Pakistan.

This may not be as easy as it seems because Pakistan has been a major ally of the US for years. Pakistan is alleged to have relations with the Afghan fraction of Taliban. However, Pakistan is definitely against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which poses a threat to the whole world. Due to the emergence and strengthening of ISIS in Afghanistan, US needs Pakistan’s support to eliminate ISIS in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always offered its support to eradicate terrorism on both sides of the border, including negotiations between main stake holders in Afghanistan.

The involvement of Taliban and ISIS in the recent violence, and the increasing influence of ISIS in the region clearly point to the fact that it will not be easy for Trump administration to cut off aid and end Pakistan’s Special Status of non-NATO ally in the war against terrorism. The US officials on various occasions have acknowledged Pakistan efforts in the war against terrorism.

Recently, the Pentagon has decided to send around 4,000 fresh troops to Afghanistan, which shows the American interests in the region. Strategically, any American operation in Afghanistan has little chance of success without Pakistan’s support.


The US has different foreign policy centers and they all disagree or conflict with each other — C. CHRISTINE FAIR , Associate Professor, Georgetown University, author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War

It’s very hard to say what will come out of this process and, more importantly, what our disastrous excuse of a president will do with the recommendations.

We have several different foreign policy centers and they all disagree or conflict with each other. There is that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He seems dedicated to vitiating the State Department to permit the Department of Defense to take the lead on “diplomacy.”

Then there is the policy of Secretary Defense James Mattis. Whatever he thinks privately about Pakistan, what he said during his confirmation hearing was discomfiting because he trotted out the tired canard that restricting aid to Pakistan does not work. The US has not really restricted or conditioned aid. So, who knows whether or not it would “work.”

Then there is the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s team, which has very solid talent on it, like Lisa Curtis. She has to battle less talented persons on that team.

There is also the policy of Steve Bannon and the word on the street is that Trump prefers and trusts Bannon more than his own NSA. Essentially there is a battle for influence between the racist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim father of the alt-Reich on the one hand and McMaster on the other.

And we have the Congress, which is a zoo of enablers who seem more dedicated to prosecuting the GOP’s nihilistic domestic agenda than addressing foreign policy questions. However, within both the House and the Senate there are both proponents for a harder approach to Pakistan (Bob Corker), as well as apologists (John McCain).

Finally, there is the president himself who seems abjectly ignorant about everything that matters.

Welcome to America under Trump.


Amid growing anxiety in Pakistan about Trump’s review, people feel they should be prepared for the worst – RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI, Resident Editor, The News

There is a sense of foreboding in Pakistan as the Trump administration continues to delay its unusually long review of its policy for the so-called Af-Pak region. The longer the review the more anxiety it is likely to cause because achieving goals has proved challenging in the harsh terrain straddling the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The review of US policies with the change of administration is a normal process, but with President Donald Trump it is different due to his unpredictable nature. People in Pakistan feel they should be prepared for the worst given Trump’s penchant for springing a surprise on both friends and foes.

The US Congressional panels have decisively approved defence policy and foreign affairs bills that include provisions for tightening restrictions on civil and military assistance to Pakistan and making aid conditional to stopping its alleged support to the Haqqani network and other militant groups. There are indications that US drone strikes in Pakistan would increase, though a bigger worry is targeting militants in places other than the tribal areas.

Trump could also apply greater pressure on Pakistan to release Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA to track down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and is in prison since July 2011. This was his campaign promise.

The close US relations with India is seen in Pakistan as part of Washington’s plan to coerce Islamabad into doing its bidding, particularly in Afghanistan. The talk in US political and strategic community about punishing or rewarding Pakistan depending on its behaviour is a cause for concern, even though punishment has been neither delivered in the past nor can it be expected to do in future.


Current uncertainty in U.S. policy is an open door for China to step through — TIMOTHY ROEMER, former U.S. Ambassador to India and is currently a Strategic Advisor at APCO Worldwide

Every new United States president comes into office with an obligation to review relations with nations around the world, possibly making changes from previous administrations. As the Trump team hits its six-month mark with no over-arching strategic policy towards Pakistan, this inaction is dangerous, and the president must work diligently to clarify the key goals in this delicate bilateral relationship.

We have embraced a strategic partnership with India, which is part of a continuing re-balance to Asia that started under the Obama administration and promises to reshape foreign policy for the remainder of the century. The re-balance, with India as a lynchpin, has produced significant progress in security, defense and anti-terror efforts in the region. The slow and inconclusive review process threatens progress in the region and opens a vacuum of opportunity for other powers. This void, created by the current uncertainty in U.S. policy, is an open door for actors like China to step through and promote their policies.

America must move forward to expand economic opportunities and counter-terrorism cooperation, which serve as a check on Chinese influence in the region. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan, if it is to be mutually beneficial, must be more narrowly focused on counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and democracy. The administration should also listen to bipartisan calls in Congress to ensure Pakistan is accountable on its end of the bargain on key issues, and be prepared to act when it’s not.

While the U.S. – India strategic partnership continues to broaden and deepen, the United States must continue to pursue a focused, results-oriented relationship with Pakistan. It is the only way the Trump Administration will and have a positive, lasting impact on peace and prosperity in the region.


Pakistan will buy time by convincing US intelligence and military that they are a necessary partner – ARUN SINGH, former Indian ambassador to the US.

The Trump Administration has now, for several months, been engaged in a review of policy towards Afghanistan. There is questioning of costs and likely outcomes in this longest, 16-year US involvement in an active conflict overseas, at a time when al Qaeda in the Afghanistan- Pakistan region is assessed to be severely weakened, and the Presidential campaign included articulations of “America First” and stepping back from nation building overseas.

In this context, there is also a review of approach towards Pakistan: a necessary logistics route for supplies to US forces in Afghanistan; a periodically useful source of intelligence and cooperation against terrorists; a country possessing nuclear weapons with which US would like to avoid a North Korea-like situation of hostility and lack of access, and even greater or sole dependence on China; yet, one that has trained, equipped, funded and provided safe haven to groups that have targeted US soldiers in Afghanistan, and prevented it from achieving its objectives.

The Obama administration did a similar review in 2009, and sought to allay Pakistan’s claimed security concerns and incentivise it to cooperate more.

There is growing frustration in the US with Pakistan. The blocking of sale of F-16s in 2016, the gradual reduction in assistance and increased conditionalities, and including of non- waiver provisions, are a reflection.

The likely decision would be to sustain the stalemate, with the addition of a few thousand additional US troops and enhanced rhetoric. Pakistan will buy time by providing some specific cooperation and look for constituencies in US intelligence and military who would argue that it is too necessary a partner to break with. The long-term solution lies in building enduring Afghan governance and security institutions that can meet the challenge from Pakistan.


The review may not be harsh, could just hint at US displeasure – JAYADEVA RANADE,  former additional secretary in Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India

Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President has heightened uncertainties when nations were already re-evaluating existing relationships and forging new ones. However, Trump’s focus on combating terrorism has been unwavering –reflecting a personal commitment evidenced by his persistent efforts to restrict the travel of Muslims from designated countries to the US. While Pakistan has not been named in the list, Trump, unlike his predecessors, has not been very encouraging toward Pakistani leaders including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The announcement of the inter-agency review of American support to Pakistan follows this trend. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the objective is to determine the level of support and funding to Pakistan and its continuance.  Hinting, however, that the review may not be harsh on Pakistan, Tillerson also informed members of the US Congress that US-Pakistan relations touch on “much broader issues relative to stability in Afghanistan” and the Indo-Pacific region, adding that the relationship is “very complex”.

The review will be influenced by the sizeable, influential pro-Pakistan lobby comprising serving and retired US military and Foreign Service officers. US security concerns will be an important factor. These include: Pakistan showing visible success in efforts to neutralise the Haqqani network; release of Dr Afridi (who helped locate Osama bin Laden); assuring the US that Islamabad can ensure a stable post-US withdrawal Afghan regime; and cooperation in Afghanistan. There is already limited convergence of interest between the US, China and Pakistan. And Pakistan and China are closely coordinating strategic activities. Reports of Russia quietly assisting certain Afghan ‘warlords’ might also prompt a conciliatory review.

The review could hint at US displeasure, but is unlikely to appreciably reduce funding.


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