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Zardari does a Mush on Obama

Zardari does a Mush on Obama

Author: S Rajagopalan
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 9, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/174884/Zardari-does-a-Mush-on-Obama.html

In January 2002, Pervez Musharraf leveraged the Taliban link to get tens of billions and immunity from from US scrutiny for Pakistan; this week Zardari did a repeat on Obama

More the bungling and deeper the mess, it is advantage Pakistan in its dealings with the United States. This has happened any number of times ever since former President Pervez Musharraf's tactical embrace of Washington by dumping the Taliban after the 9/11 terror strikes in 2001. So is it now with Asif Ali Zardari's civilian government.

The Zardari government precipitated a crisis by pushing ahead with the Swat peace deal with the Taliban, despite vociferous objections from the US. It may have been an ill-conceived move, emboldening the Taliban, but it appears to have worked exceedingly well for Islamabad in terms of raising sufficient alarm in Washington to prompt some post haste loosening of purse strings by the Obama administration.

Surely, Pakistan is none the worse for it. As the Western media went hoarse with reports of the Taliban militias advance to within 60 miles off Islamabad, pundits were quick to raise the spectre of a Taliban takeover of the country and its nuclear arsenal. Some more bad publicity for Pakistan, no doubt. But its political masters in Islamabad must have had the last laugh. For, they did not have to lift their little finger to force Washington to line up that massive aid package.

By the time, Mr Zardari arrived in Washington this week for a trilateral summit, the Obama administration had done the spadework by prevailing upon several of the law makers who had initially baulked at the idea of pouring taxpayers' dollars with little scrutiny. So much so, Obama announced that he was seeking "$400 million in immediate assistance" from Congress to bolster Pakistan's counter-insurgency campaign.

Simultaneously, the economic aid package for Pakistan is moving at extraordinary speed. Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar have introduced, at the administration's request, a bipartisan Bill, called "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009", authorising $1.5 billion annually for five years, and advocating a similar arrangement for the next five. The Bill is expected to come up for vote fairly soon.

Speed apart, Pakistan appears to have had its way in getting at least some of the conditions dropped or softened. When Senator Kerry was in Islamabad last month, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made the case for "unconditional aid", asserting: "Aid with strings attached would fail to generate the desired goodwill and results."

Curiously enough, the Obama administration, even while advocating accountability and benchmarks, has opposed the idea of attaching "rigid conditionality" to the legislation. As Under Secretary of Defence Michelle Flournoy told a Congressional committee, some of the conditions could "severely constrain the Executive Branch and reduce our ability to adapt to the fluid situation on the ground".

The upshot of the pulls and pressures has been that the Senate Bill moved last Monday is a pale shadow of the House Bill introduced by Congressman Howard Berman early April. Mr Berman's "Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement (PEACE) Act of 2009" set alarm bells ringing in Islamabad. The complaint was that it bristled with far too many conditions, notably some India-related clauses that got Pakistan's goat. The Berman Bill, in its declaration of principles, states that the US, among other things, expects Pakistan "not to support any person or group that conducts violence, sabotage, or other activities meant to instill fear or terror in India".

Pakistani lobbyists have been working overtime in recent days to get the India-specific conditions dropped from the House Bill. After Zardari's visit to the Capitol Hill this week, during which he had an interaction with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Pakistani newspaper claimed that "an understanding" has been reached. There was no immediate word from the committee itself.

Another section, dealing with US military assistance, also has an India clause. It provides for a Presidential determination every year on Pakistan's progress in "ceasing support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups, particularly to any group that has conducted attacks against United States or coalition forces in Afghanistan, including Afghanistan National Security Forces, or against the territory of India or the people of India".

A third prescription involves a presidential report containing an evaluation of efforts undertaken by the Pakistan government to "close terrorist camps, including those of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba".

The Senate bill does not have any clause mentioning India per se, but its own prescription for military aid does mandate a certification by the Secretary of State that Pakistani security forces are making "concerted and consistent efforts" to prevent al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed -- the two Pakistan-based outfits that have carried out a large number of horrendous terrorist attacks over the past decade.

It remains to be seen if any of the Senators and Representatives come up with their own amendments when the Bills are taken up for consideration. The differing versions passed by the two chambers would have to be reconciled by the conference mechanism, and it would be worth watching which conditions are dumped and which ones are retained.

Overall, for all the tough talk heard from Washington lately, some analysts believe that the US' options vis-à-vis Pakistan are limited. That surely is a far cry from Obama's days as a presidential candidate when he even held out the possibility of a US hot pursuit if Pakistan was "unwilling or unable to act" on "actionable intelligence".

Intelligence sources cited by the Washington Post this week suggested a US combat presence in Pakistan is out of question, given the level of anti-American feeling in the country. "The US is fighting Pakistan-based extremists by proxy, through an Army over which it has little control, in alliance with a government in which it has little confidence. The tools most readily at hand are money, weapons, and a mentoring relationship with Pakistan's government and military that alternates between earnest advice and anxious criticism," the paper wrote.

Speaking of the diplomatic disconnect with Pakistan, the New York Times wrote: "As Taliban and other insurgents have battled government troops closer and closer to Islamabad, the one thing that no one seemed to be talking about publicly is the one thing that, privately, Obama officials acknowledge is the most important: how to get the Pakistani government and army to move the country's troops from the east, where they are preoccupied with a war with India that most American officials do not think they will have to fight, to the west, where the Islamist insurgents are taking over one town after another."

- The writer is The Pioneer's Washington correspondent


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