WASHINGTON: A move that hopes to curtail the spread of explosives might end up detonating an already-charged relationship.
A US Congressional panel has agreed to freeze $700 million in aid to Pakistan in a punitive measure that aims to stop the spread of improvised-explosive devices in Afghanistan, raw material for which, US lawmakers say, is smuggled from Pakistan.
The US wants “assurances that Pakistan is countering improvised explosive devices in their country that are targeting our coalition forces”, Representative Howard McKeon, a House Republican, told reporters.
The freeze was agreed upon by leaders of the armed services committees from both parties in the House and Senate.
“The vast majority of the material used to make improvised explosive devices used against US forces in Afghanistan originates from two fertiliser factories inside Pakistan,” Republican Senator John McCain said in the Senate last week.
The US has urged Pakistan to regulate the distribution of ammonium nitrate to Afghanistan strictly. So far, Pakistan has only produced draft legislation on the issue.
Analysts say US demands will be tough to meet because of rampant corruption on both sides of the porous border that makes smuggling easy.
“We pay a 1,200-rupee bribe to the Pakistani Frontiers Corps on the border for every car carrying fertiliser,” said Kamal Khan, a businessman in the border town of Chaman.
Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Salim Saifullah warned that relations, which are already at a low point, could worsen further following the decision by the US House-Senate panel.
“I don’t think this is a wise move. It could hurt ties. There should instead be efforts to increase cooperation. I don’t see any good coming out of this,” Saifullah told Reuters.
Foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit also suggested pressure from the US would hurt ties, saying Islamabad believes “in cooperative approaches”.
An official of the economic affairs division, meanwhile, told The Express Tribune that the freeze would affect the Pakistan Counter-Terrorism Capability Fund which was considered military aid but had never been at the disposal of Pakistani civilian or military authorities.
“It was not economic assistance. The amounts under this package were at the disposal of US CENTCOM” the official said.
‘Pakistan, US will patch up differences’
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, said that the US and Pakistan “can patch up their differences.” According to a report in First Post, Panetta said that restoring the strained relationship with Pakistan was “critical” to long-term progress in Afghanistan, in his first statement since the November 26 Nato attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The secretary said, “I am confident that at one point, we are going to be able to restore our normal supply routes.”
However, the decision to freeze aid could prompt Pakistan to harden its stance towards Washington.
“I must say that the aeriel attacks on our army border posts on Nov 26, 2011, constituted a huge setback to the prospects of much needed cooperation between all important stakeholders.
(Read: Pakistan-US relations)
(Reuters with additional reporting by our correspondent in Islamabad)
Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2011.