The Obama administration has refused for the first time to declare that Pakistan is making progress toward ending alleged military support for Islamic militant groups or preventing al Qaida, the Afghan Taliban or other extremists from staging attacks in Afghanistan.
Even so, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has quietly informed Congress that she’s waived the legal restrictions that would have blocked some $2 billion in U.S. economic and military aid to Pakistan. Disbursing the funds, she said in an official notice, is “important to the national security interests of the United States.”
Clinton’s decision illustrates how far the administration apparently has determined that it must go, after a near-breakdown in relations, to ensure Pakistan’s cooperation in the uphill U.S. effort to prevent Afghanistan collapsing into all-out civil war when American-led international combat forces complete a withdraw by the end of 2014.
Some experts, however, warned that the move might backfire. The waivers could encourage a belief among Pakistani commanders that their cooperation is so crucial that Washington will continue overlooking the Pakistani military’s refusal to end what U.S. officials charge is its support for Afghan insurgent groups or to shutter militant sanctuaries, they said.
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“The army is going to think that no matter how angry the Americans are at them, they are utterly indispensable and they can violate in any way, shape or form U.S. law and the United States will massage its law to accommodate them,” said assistant professor Christine Fair, an expert at Georgetown University. “That’s how they are going to read this.”
Pir Zubair Shah, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Clinton’s decision might be intended as a warning to Pakistan that aid could be withheld next year if it doesn’t end the suspected collusion between its military and its chief spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and extremist groups.
“It can be a signal that . . . next time we won’t apply a waiver and will block the aid,” he said.
In a statement to McClatchy, the State Department said that “despite recent challenges” in relations with Pakistan, there has been progress toward rebuilding ties. It called the aid funds a “critical component of U.S. efforts to continue to build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan.”
“We believe we should continue building on these steps and that our civilian and security assistance is a critical component of this effort," the statement said.
Islamabad vehemently denies charges by top U.S. officials that the army-run ISI is aiding the Afghan Taliban and allied groups, such as the Haqqani network, as part of a strategy aimed at preventing rival India from gaining influence in Afghanistan after international troops withdraw.
In her Sept. 13 notices, Clinton informed Congress that she was waiving provisions of the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act and the State Department’s 2012 budget requiring that she certify that Islamabad has met certain conditions before some $2 billion in economic, military and counter-terrorism assistance can be disbursed.
Pakistan was required to have made progress in “ceasing support, including by any elements within the Pakistani military or its intelligence agency, to extremist groups,” especially those that have attacked U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Islamabad also was required to have made progress toward stopping al Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and allied Pakistani extremists “from operating in the territory of Pakistan” and staging attacks in neighboring countries. It also must move toward shutting down “terrorist” bases in the tribal areas and other parts of its country.
Clinton didn’t disclose which specific prerequisites Pakistan failed to meet. Those details were classified.
It’s the first time that the Obama administration has waived the requirements, something the Bush administration did six times for democracy-related sanctions.
Until now, Clinton had certified Pakistani compliance even though U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and other U.S. officials had for years charged the Pakistani army and the ISI with supporting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. In September 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explicitly accused the ISI of aiding Haqqani network attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan, including a strike against the U.S. Embassy.
Four days before she notified Congress she was waiving the conditions, Clinton decided – under pressure from Congress – to add the Haqqani network to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The Pakistani military, which for years has rejected U.S. demands that it move against the Haqqanis’ stronghold of North Waziristan, thinks that the group should participate in any settlement to the Afghan war.
Clinton’s decision to waive the conditions comes as the United States and Pakistan strive to rebuild a relationship battered by a series of events that began when a CIA contractor shot dead two alleged thieves in Lahore in January 2011. Ties also have worsened over intensified CIA drone strikes, which Pakistan charges are violating its sovereignty and killing civilians.
U.S. commandoes killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan in a raid kept secret from the Pakistani army, embarrassing and enraging its commanders, and last November, U.S. forces in Afghanistan inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border post, prompting Pakistan to close the NATO supply routes that the United States needs to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan.
The sides agreed in July to reopen the routes in a first step towards rebuilding ties, which Washington considers vital as the pullout of international forces from Afghanistan continues. It’s also seeking Pakistani help in trying to draw the Afghan Taliban into peace negotiations.