US postpones aid payments as Pakistan relations reach new low

Tensions in US-Pakistan relations rise as Washington announces suspension of military assistance. Serbian president Tadic vists Sarajevo to improve relations with neighbour. China criticizes US over military drills in South China Sea while Assad is further isolated following attacks on US and French embassies in Damascus. All in today's security briefing.
Radu Nikolaus Botez
13 July 2011

On Sunday, the United States announced it would withhold $800 million in military assistance to Pakistan. According to White House chief of staff William Daley, the decision came about as Pakistan has ‘taken some steps that have given us reason to pause on some of the aid which we’re giving to the military,’ referring to the reduction of US military trainers ordered by Pakistan, visa issues faced by US personnel in general as well as other recent irritants. The sum represents more than a third of the $2 billion US security aid provided annually. However, aid could be resumed if Pakistan reinstated training missions and resolved visa issues according to colonel David Lapan, the Pentagon’s spokesman.  

Responding to the aid suspension, Pakistani defence minister, Chaudry Ahmad stated in an interview that without the money, Pakistan could not afford to keep troops for long in the border area with Afghanistan where they fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

The already strained ties between the two countries had further worsened on Friday when US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said he believed the recent killing of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad was ‘sanctioned by the government’. Shortly before his death, Shahzad wrote about the infiltration of Islamic militants in Pakistan’s navy. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, said his country ‘was as interested in getting to the bottom of this matter as anyone else in the world, given our concern about human rights’.

Today, Pakistan’s intelligence chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha is expected in Washington for talks.

The openSecurity verdict: Relations between Pakistan and the US have severely worsened following the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, a city close to the capital, seen by Pakistan as a violation of its sovereignty. The whereabouts of bin Laden raised suspicions about Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts and deepened lack of trust towards Islamabad.

The latest developments, however, indicate a new low in relations. The simple fact that a high US army official publicly accuses Pakistan of complicity in the murder of Shahzad is noteworthy, as is the general verbal exchange between the two countries. Although high ranking visitrors such as Ahmad Shuja Pasha suggest an ongoing dialogue to improve ties, too many divisions remain in their relationship to allow constructive talks and progress in cooperation.

Lawmakers within the US have called for more pressure on Pakistan by making aid conditional on Pakistani cooperation following the killing of bin Laden, while US civilian assistance had already been reduced earlier this year. The recent aid suspension shows that the White House has grown impatient with what is perceived as a Pakistani double game, trying to pressure it into taking more action against Taliban and al-Qaida militants on its territory. Last weekend, US secretary of defence Leon Panetta said he believed bin Laden’s successor as head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was hiding in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.  

The practical impact of the aid suspension is unclear. While Pakistani defence minister Ahmad stated it would affect operations, General Athar Abbas, the army’s spokesman, made contrary comments on Monday. Moreover, parts of the suspended aid are reimbursements for money spent on operations against militants in the tribal areas, supposed to go to the general treasury that had lent the money to the military in the first place. As a consequence, analysts say the country’s general finances, already in a critical situation, will be strained further, affecting the whole economy. On a different note, it has been suggested that the measures will not have the desired effects on the ground as ‘Islamabad may see the precarious U.S. position in Afghanistan and the American desire for an expeditious but credible exit plan -- and even concerns over cutting loose a nuclear-armed ally, no matter how troublesome -- as setting limits on just how far the U.S. is willing to push Pakistan.’

While the US has favoured a soft response to Pakistan’s questionable counter-terrorism efforts in the past, the measures taken now indicate a shift to a harder approach, bringing their relationship to a cross-roads at a critical time for the region.

Serbian president Tadic pays official visit to Sarajevo

Last Wednesday, the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, paid an official three-day state visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the first by a Serbian head of state since the war in the early nineties. Tadic had previously attended a regional summit in Sarajevo in 2010 and went twice to commemorations for the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

During his visit, Tadic stated ‘Serbia will never cross the red line that is defined by international law, the Dayton peace agreement, and by practice of good relations between neighboring countries, by meddling into affairs of neighboring countries – sovereign and independent countries’.

While Tadic has been criticized in the past because of his support to Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina that has threatened secession, this latest move has won him praise from political actors and the media. Yet doubts about Tadic’s motivation have also been raised: Svetlana Cenic has pointed out that the visit might just have been a ‘show put on for the so-called international community, or the European Union [which] called Tadic’s attention to his support and frequent visits to Republiska Srpska, while he was avoiding Sarajevo.’

China criticizes US military exercises in South China Sea

On Monday, People’s Liberation Army chief Chen Bingde criticized the US over recently held military exercises with the Philippines. He said the timing of the drills was ‘inappropriate’, hinting at the recent quarrels between China and Vietnam, as well as between China and the Philippines over maritime borders and territory in the South China Sea. Responding to this statement, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen, who is on a four-day visit to China, insisted that ‘these exercises are all conducted in accordance with international norms, and essentially we will continue to comply with that in the future.’

Military-to-military relations between the countries have faced several tensions in the past. For much of 2010, China suspended dialogue with the Pentagon as a result of a US arms sale to Taiwan worth $6.3bn. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s offer to mediate in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea made at a forum of Southeast Asian counties in Hanoi in July 2010 further strained relations and triggered a harsh reply from Beijing. Although Chen and Mullen have discussed issues of concern to both countries and affirmed intentions to further dialogue, several obstacles to constructive military-to-military exchanges remain.

Attacks on US and French embassies in Damascus further isolate Assad regime

On Monday, supporters of the Assad regime attacked the US and French embassies in the Syrian capital. The attacks are seen as a reaction to the ambassadors’ visits to Hama, a stronghold of the anti-government protesters, last Friday. The Syrian government accused the US of inciting protest and interfering in internal affairs.

According to reports, pro-government demonstrators ‘tore down US embassy plaques and tried to break security glass’ while security men at the French embassy, where three staff members have been hurt, fired warning shots to prevent the demonstrators from entering.

Reacting to the events, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called upon Syria to respect its obligations under international law to protect diplomats and international property and stated that ‘President Assad is not indispensable and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power’ while US president Obama said Assad had ‘lost legitimacy’, the strongest criticism from Washington since the beginning of the protests four months ago. The statements are seen by observers as an indication of changing US policy towards Syria.

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