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EFSAS Commentary

Pressure mounts on Pakistan as a resolution to revoke its major non-NATO ally status is introduced in US Congress


With its ongoing talks with the Taliban stuttering in the background, the United States (US) is looking at an increscent baring of the leverages that it possesses with Pakistan to get the recalcitrant country to toe the line. The Taliban opted out of the last meeting with the Trump administration’s Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad that was scheduled to be held in Saudi Arabia last month. This was on account of the pressure being exerted by the Saudis on the Taliban to agree to a place on the table for representatives of the Afghan Government. The venue of the meeting was thereafter shifted to Doha, Qatar, but even this relocation did not help. Khalilzad, consequently, has been constrained to travel to Pakistan, where he is currently attempting to get the talks back on the rails. Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells is also expected to visit Pakistan this week. 

President Trump’s withholding of the financial doles that were mindlessly being handed out by successive US administrations to Pakistan, and which for the most part only served to enrich Pakistani generals, combined with emphatic, unvarnished caveats from Trump and his team that stronger measures were just around the corner, did succeed in getting Pakistan to nudge the Taliban in the direction of talks. It will, however, take a lot more coercion to actually get Pakistan to impress upon the Taliban the need for constructive dialogue that envisages some form of power-sharing between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, as opposed to the unilateral handover of the reins of governance to the Taliban that Pakistan hankers for. For the US, the Pakistani vision of an all-powerful Taliban would not only mean an outright negation of its admittedly limited achievements in Afghanistan, but also potentially take the country back to the pre 9/11 situation and leave the US exposed and vulnerable to the inherent dangers that this would engender. 

It is in this backdrop that Republican Congressman Andy Briggs has introduced resolution HR 73 in the House of Representatives. It seeks the termination of Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally, which had been accorded to it in 2004 by the Bush administration in furtherance of the Global War on Terror. Being designated a major non-NATO ally makes a country eligible for priority delivery of US defense material, an expedited arms sale process, and a US loan guarantee programme that backs up loans issued by private banks to finance arms exports. Such allies can also stockpile US military hardware, participate in defense research and development programmes and be sold more sophisticated weaponry. 

The resolution moved by Briggs also sets conditions for any future re-designation of Pakistan. These include certification by the US President to Congress that Pakistan continues to conduct military operations that contribute to significantly disrupting the safe haven and freedom of movement of the Haqqani network in the country, and that it demonstrates progress in arresting and prosecuting senior leaders and mid-level operatives of the Haqqani network. It also seeks certification from Congress that Pakistan has taken steps to demonstrate its commitment to prevent the Haqqani network from using Pakistani territory as a safe haven and that the Government of Pakistan actively coordinates with the Government of Afghanistan to restrict the movement of militants, such as the Haqqani network, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. 

This is not the first time that a demand for revocation of Pakistan’s designation as a major non-NATO ally has been made in US Congress. A bipartisan bill had been moved by Republican Congressman Ted Poe, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade, and Democratic lawmaker Rick Nolan, in the House of Representatives in June 2017. Accusing Pakistan of betrayal, Poe asserted that it was imperative to hold the country accountable for the “American blood on its hands”. Nolan stressed that Pakistan, by repeatedly taking advantage of US goodwill, had demonstrated that it was not a friend or ally of the US. He added that Pakistan was tied to the same terrorist organizations that it claimed to be fighting. 

The then Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson told reporters at the State Department in Washington on 22 August 2017, that the US could consider terminating Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally if Islamabad does not crack down on the Taliban and other extremist groups. He said, "There's been an erosion in trust because we have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside of Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against US servicemen, US officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan…. We have some leverage in terms of aid, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner – all of that can be put on the table"

It is not just in the administration or US Congress that calls for terminating Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally designation are being raised. In recent months there has been a chorus of voices from reputed think tanks, analysts and experts on South Asia that have called for throttling Pakistan of the benefits it has been receiving gratuitously from the US. The Center for Security Policy in a September 2018 brief titled, 'Terminate the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s Status as a ‘Major Non-NATO’ Ally', argued that Pakistan’s conduct with respect to the propagation of Islamic radicalism and jihadi activity, its support for activities destabilizing neighboring Afghanistan and India, and its intensifying “client-patron relationship” with China and Russia represented direct and significant threats to US national security interests that warranted the termination of Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally. 

Similarly, Richard Haass, President of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations think tank tweeted that it was a mystery that Pakistan, which had harbored terrorists for years and provided sanctuary to the Taliban, was still considered a major non-NATO ally when in reality it was anything but. 

The Economist, in a report last month titled ‘The president was never going to smile on Pakistan’, contended that the US had been “played for a fool by the generals who call the shots in Pakistan, either overtly or from behind a pliant civilian — such as the incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan…. the generals have since bagged billions in American aid. They have meanwhile given at best limited help in rooting out the Taliban and other jihadist leaders who fled across their border…. Nonetheless, the fact that a lavishly rewarded major non-NATO ally — a status Pakistan shares with Australia, Israel and Japan — has consistently undermined America in its longest-ever war is outrageous. Mr. Trump’s decision to suspend $2bn in military aid to Pakistan, among other punitive measures, could not have been more richly deserved”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), another reputed US think tank, has also suggested stripping Pakistan of its status as a major non-NATO ally. It called for a re-think of the US strategy towards Pakistan in view of the fact that the Taliban’s entire leadership, comprising Haibatullah Akhunzada, his deputies Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqub, and senior leaders Abdul Qayyum Zakir, Ahmadullah Nanai, Abdul Latif Mansur and Noor Mohammad Saqib, is based in Pakistan and “the Pakistan government – especially the ISI – has provided several types of assistance. It has given money, intelligence and strategic guidance to the Taliban and Haqqani Network and has helped provide medical care for Taliban fighters”

Stratfor, a renowned American geopolitical intelligence platform, as per its year-end report on Afghanistan released on 22 December 2018, foresaw little change in Pakistan's foreign and defense policies towards Afghanistan this year. It postulated that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s hands-off approach to the country's military would mean that these policies will continue to remain firmly under the control of the army. As the US runs out of the moderate pressure tactics such as cutting off funding, revoking Pakistani officer training and curbing defense sales, it is more likely to impose harsher measures such as revoking Pakistan's major non-NATO ally status. 

The Trump administration’s decision to use disincentives such as suspending security assistance and including Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) ‘gray list’ for its inadequate control over financial flows to terrorist groups, reflect a change in strategy that appears to have raised serious concerns in Pakistan. In the past, whenever it has come under stern US pressure to rein in its support to its myriad terrorist proxies, Pakistan has invariably proffered temporary eyewash actions to stave off the immediate threat and waited for the US’ attention to be diverted to another crisis elsewhere. There is little reason to believe that Pakistan’s intentions behind getting the Taliban to the negotiating table are any different this time around. 

In order for the talks with the Taliban to make any headway and be geared towards the inclusive, accommodative, all-Afghan solution that the US desires, the US may be constrained to bring out the heavy weaponry in terms of disincentives for Pakistan in an escalating manner. In addition to revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally, black-listing it under FATF and declaring it a State sponsor of terrorism could all be required by the US in the near-future, and they all have the potential to yield better results.