WASHINGTON: United States (US) President Donald Trump's administration has quietly started cutting scores of Pakistani officers from coveted training and educational programmes that have been a hallmark of bilateral military relations for more than a decade, officials say.
The move, which has not been previously reported, is one of the first known impacts from Trump's decision this year to suspend US security assistance to Pakistan to compel it to crack down on militants.
The Pentagon and the Pakistan Army did not comment directly on the decision or the internal deliberations, but officials from both countries privately criticised the move. US officials, speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said they were worried the decision could undermine a key trust-building measure.
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Pakistani officials warned it could push their military to further look to China or Russia for leadership training. The effective suspension of Pakistan from the US government's International Military Education and Training program (IMET) will close off places that had been set aside for 66 Pakistani officers this year, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters.
The places will either be unfilled or given to officers from other countries. Dan Feldman, a former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the move "very short-sighted and myopic". "This will have lasting negative impacts limiting the bilateral relationship well into the future," Feldman told Reuters.
The State Department spokesperson, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the IMET cancellations were valued at $2.41 million so far. At least two other programmes have also been affected, the spokesperson said. It is unclear precisely what level of military cooperation still continues outside the IMET programme, beyond the top-level contacts between US and Pakistani military leaders.
The US military has traditionally sought to shield such educational programmes from political tensions, arguing that the ties built by bringing foreign military officers to the United States pay long-term dividends. For example, the US Army's War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which would normally have two Pakistani military officers per year, boasts graduates including Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, the Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
The War College, the US Army's premier school for foreign officers, says it has hosted 37 participants from Pakistan over the past several decades. It will have no Pakistani students in the upcoming academic year, a spokeswoman said. Pakistan has also been removed from programmes at the US Naval War College, Naval Staff College and courses including cybersecurity studies.
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In his first tweet of 2018, Trump slammed Pakistan, saying the country has rewarded past US aid with "nothing but lies and deceit."
Washington announced plans in January to suspend up to roughly $2 billion in US security assistance to Pakistan. But weeks later, Pakistan's foreign secretary was quoted by local media saying that Islamabad had been told the US would continue funding IMET programs. Officially allies in fighting terrorism, Pakistan and the United States have a complicated relationship, bound by Washington's dependence on Pakistan to supply its troops in Afghanistan but plagued by accusations Islamabad is playing a double game.
Current and former US officials said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued against excluding Pakistani officers from IMET courses. "I am shocked... We worked so hard for this to be the one thing that got saved," said a former US defence official, who was involved in the conversations.
The Pentagon declined to comment on internal government discussions, but Dana White, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Mattis
long believed in the value of the IMET programme as a way to build relations between foreign militaries. Senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, told Reuters that a US decision to cut off such exchanges would be counter-productive and push Pakistan's military towards other countries.
"It is one of those silly, punitive measures that they have deployed," said Hussain. Russia and Pakistan signed an agreement earlier this week that would allow for Pakistani military officers to train at Russian institutes.
IMET courses have been able to withstand poor relations between the two countries in the past, even after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEAL raid in the town of Abbottabad in 2011. A NATO helicopter raid killed 28 Pakistani troops later that year in a friendly fire incident on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Feldman said that after the raid, when relations were at a low point, the US limited large security assistance items, but made active efforts to continue the IMET programme.
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In the 1990's former U.S. President George H.W. Bush refused to certify that Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, triggering the so-called "Pressler Amendment" that required cutting off all military assistance. That included IMET courses. "The unintended consequence was we didn't know a decade of the Pakistani military leadership as well, and therefore couldn't engage as effectively with them when we needed to," Feldman said.
Mattis, in private discussions within the government, had warned that excluding Pakistani officers from IMET courses could contribute to a similar situation in years to come, the former US defence official said. Pakistan had been the largest recipient of IMET between 2003 and 2017, according to the Security Assistance Monitor which tracks US assistance.
"You can advocate for cutting off everything else and this was the one thing we were not supposed to touch," the former official said.
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