Friday, October 23, 2009

Back to the dance floor

By Ashish Kumar Sen

Uh-oh. Here we go again.

Having just concluded a delicate diplomatic fox trot to soothe Pakistani egos bruised by the weight of a hefty Kerry-Lugar aid package, the Obama administration was catching its breath when it was jolted into action on Friday by developments on Capitol Hill.

Two U.S. senators, who in their well-intentioned zeal sought to ensure accountability for every U.S. dollar sent to Pakistan, run the risk of upsetting Islamabad.

Sens. Bob Corker (Tennessee Republican) and Bob Menendez (New Jersey Democrat) attached an amendment to the Defence Authorisation Act of 2010 that seeks to ensure Coalition Support Funds (money given to defray the cost of fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda) sent to Pakistan will not "adversely affect the region's balance of power." That's diplospeak for: Don't use U.S. weapons/cash to engage in an arms race with India, or worse, provoke a conflict.

A reference in the amendment to India, even in the most abstract of ways, is likely to raise hackles in Pakistan.

So it was that Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, was dragged out of his office on Friday afternoon to assure reporters that the Corker-Menendez amendment places no conditions on Pakistan. Holbrooke has, of late, been in the news for being out of the news. His low profile following the flawed Afghan election has prompted speculation ranging from the possibility of a heated fallout with the caped Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the hard-charging envoy being sidelined by President Barack Obama in the crucial stages of an Afghanistan policy review.

Holbrooke made it a point to call on a Pakistani journalist, and for his effort was rewarded with a question on the Corker-Menendez amendment. The envoy pounced on the opportunity to assure the reporter that the amendment is "pro-Pakistan." The possibility that his friends in Islamabad may be losing sleep over "conditions" in the amendment was apparently on Holbrooke's mind — and, perhaps, the underlying reason for the hurried briefing — as the envoy asked the reporter twice whether he had used the "C-word" in his question. The journalist had not but in the formidable presence of Holbrooke had his mind made up for him that he had, after all, used the C-word.

Holbrooke assured him the amendment imposed no conditions on Islamabad, and, in a bid to drive home this point, added, "and I pray that your colleagues in Islamabad report it accurately so that we don’t have another misunderstanding."

Pakistani officials told this correspondent late on Friday afternoon that they were still "reviewing" language in the amendment.

Perhaps mindful of the uproar his amendment could create in Pakistan, Corker said in a statement to this correspondent: “Recent news reports have inaccurately portrayed the intent of provisions that are contained in our annual national defense authorisation act."

"In particular," he added, "a provision that I helped insert requires our own government to be more responsive to the American taxpayers about how they spend Coalition Support Funds. I believe that this transparency and accountability is important and should not be misinterpreted as requiring the Pakistani government to meet new conditions for military assistance.”

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