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US climbs down on aid to Pakistan

The United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hastened to blunt the cutting edge of Washington’s reported decision to cut off military assistance to Pakistan to the tune of 800 million dollars. This comes in the face of the Pakistani response, which has been plainly dismissive. The issue has become a battle of wits. Pakistan cannot afford to fudge the ‘red lines’ it drew with regard to the eviction of US military personnel, rolling back US’ covert intelligence operations on Pakistani soil and making all future cooperation conditional on a new framework. Besides, US attempts to destabilise Pakistan has only made the latter harden its stance. Who will blink? To my mind, the US has to blink – and it will.

For, despite the US’ direct contact with sections of the Taliban leadership, a viable ‘exit strategy’ in Afghanistan critically depends on Pakistan playing ball — leave alone in reaching a durable settlement. The hard reality is that the trust element that is vital to a genuine cooperative spirit between the two countries has all but disappeared and it will take time to recapture it or restore it, and time doesn’t favour the US. As the presidential election campaign in the US picks up, candidate Barack Obama will depend on president Barack Obama to ensure there are no ‘untoward’ incidents in Afghanistan at an awkward point in the nature of heavy war casualties. As of now, all bets are off, as the attack on the Intercontinental clearly shows – and Washington understands clearly.

Hillary, the politician, would know the imperatives of the US-Pakistan standoff. She aptly sounded conciliatory on the issue of aid cut off, holding out an olive branch, as it were. She made it clear twice that the cutoff isn’t really a cutoff in the terminal strategic sense in which our external affairs minister S.M.Krishna needlessly rushed to conclude — but a mere “pause”. She also said: a) cutoff is merely partial and not entire military aid for Pakistan; b) it is more “security assistance” rather than military aid; c) civilian aid is unaffected; d) US would be happy if conditions appeared to restore “this portion of security assistance”; and, d) there is no shift in the US strategy as such toward Pakistan, which remains the US’s “valuable ally” and to whose build up of “capabilities” US stands committed.

Significantly, Clinton described Pakistan as not only vital to the US’ homeland security — something which is well-known — but also in terms of “our regional interests”. This presumably refers to a strategic dimension that goes past the immediate concerns of the ten-year war on terror — visa-vis US’ larger regional strategies in terms of Persian Gulf, Central Asia, Russia, China and India. Of course, it is simplistic to estimate, as some pundits have hastened to do, that the deterioration of US-Pak ties is a plus for China; rather, Pakistan will play the ‘China card’ now. Beijing is savvy enough to know life isn’t that simple or one-dimensional.

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