There was always a gnawing feeling that the US wouldn’t take the Afghanistan debacle lying down. It hasn’t. A 57-page draft Bill (hereafter the “Bill”) titled “Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act of 2021” has been tabled in the US Senate by 22 Republican Senators.
The Bill makes several references to Pakistan and calls for sanctions against the country. The Bill sets out the contours of US policy towards Pakistan and the region for times to come. Whether the Bill becomes law (unlikely in the author’s view), the fire alarm has sounded, and we need to take stock of where things are headed.
First, let’s deal with Pakistan. The Bill requires an “assessment of the support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020 including the provision of sanctuary, space, financial support, intelligence support, logistics, and medical support, training, equipping, and tactical, operational, or strategic direction….”
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The Bill also calls for an assessment of the support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan, for the 2021 offensive of the Taliban that toppled the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, including the provision of sanctuary, intelligence support, training equipping and tactical or strategic direction….” Lastly, it calls for a report on state and non-state actors of Pakistan for the September 2021 Panjshir Valley and the Afghan resistance.
A damning harangue indeed.
Other items in the Bill that stand out are taking a swipe at Russia, China, and the “security challenges they present to “countries of South and Central Asia, including border disputes with South and Central Asian countries that border the People’s Republic of China….”
If it’s some consolation, we’re not alone.
In a clear indication of where things are headed in terms of the US-India strategic relationship, the Bill calls for “identification of areas where the United States Government can strengthen diplomatic, economic, and defense cooperation with the Government of India, as appropriate, to address economic and security challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, and the Taliban in the region, and an assessment of how the changes to India’s security environment resulting from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will affect United States engagement with India.”
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US Bill: An utter betrayal to Pakistan
It is understandable to expect an arrogant global power to lick its wounds after a two-decade-long humiliation and loss of 2 trillion dollars. But, worryingly for Pakistan, the Bill has entrenched the future confrontational aspects of US policy towards Pakistan. Let me say this unequivocally: the US will, for times to come, see Pakistan as Exhibit-1 of the Taliban Chapter. Our counter-lawfare must take this into account as we strategize our response to increasing US belligerence that will have serious ramifications for our national security.
The one undertone of US-Pakistan relations since 2001 has been the deep-rooted distrust between the two countries. The US has been accusing Pakistan of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. This jaundiced US policy towards Pakistan partly explains the Afghanistan debacle. But there is more to it. Pakistan’s attempt at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table (at the request of the US, no less!) has become Pakistan’s Achilles Heel. Since we cannot change that, we can change how we respond to this Bill introduced in the US Senate.
In a rather meek choice of words, Pakistan’s foreign office has called the Bill “unwarranted.” Foreign Office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar termed the Bill inconsistent with the spirit of Pakistan-US cooperation on Afghanistan since 2001, including facilitation of the Afghan peace process and during the recent evacuations of American and other nationals from Afghanistan.
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Sadly, this isn’t enough. We need a forceful retort- and now. The time to assuage concerns is over. The divorce has been finalized.
We have done enough talking about being ‘neutral’ and not supporting Taliban over others; we have played more than our required role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan; we have been reassuring the US and its allies that we support a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. But none of this has had any impact. In fact, we are being called liars, and no one is taking our statements seriously. Even worse, there could be portentous consequences for us if we continue to remain weak, fearing the unknown.
The bill presented by US senators is absurd. USA is trying to make Pakistan a scapegoat for their defeat in Afghanistan. Its time for Americans to recognize their mistakes, accept their defeat and apologize for their 20 years long war in Afghanistan
— Siraj ul Haq (@SirajOfficial) September 29, 2021
What are Pakistan’s counter-lawfare options?
Regardless of whether the Bill becomes law (which is most likely won’t), Pakistan’s Foreign Office and the NSA must send a solid point-by-point rebuttal to the Bill, which is an affront to Pakistan’s role as the US’s ally in the War on Terror. It is not time to mince words; we need to take the sting out of the US policymakers who are daggers drawn at us due to their own humiliation. Strong pushback from our side will show our resolve and commitment to stand our ground.
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The Bill is a repeat of an earlier orchestra. After the withdrawal of former Soviet Union forces from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan had to endure US Sanctions termed the “Pressler Amendment.”
Our policymakers fear that similar financial implications will result for Pakistan. So be it. In fact, let us forget about exiting the FATF Gray List. We are already perceived to be in the Chinese Camp, and expecting things to get any better would be a folly. All the better for us to accept this reality and develop an even closer relationship with our allies, including China, Russia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others. We now need to develop our economy on a war footing and create an ecosystem for foreign investment by allies that will sustain us financially.
That this Bill could not have been tabled without the active support of the Indian lobby would be an understatement. India has lost investment in Afghanistan, but above all, ‘face.’ It will now go to any extent to show the Pakistan-Taliban nexus, no matter how absurd it may sound. Our strategists must keep this in mind, but instead of criticizing any and every absurdity emanating from New Delhi, we must let the Foreign Office and the NSA handle this. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and ours has already gone stale.
A known fake news run by #India on Pakistan’s role in Taliban’s takeover of #Afghanistan & Panjshir circulated widely at a time, now being used as a reference in the US Senate bill.
Not sure who is the idiot here, Indians that are running fake news or US that is consuming it. pic.twitter.com/FfQEmJN06i
— Hussain Nadim (@HNadim87) September 28, 2021
Another strategic aspect to keep in mind for Pakistan is that this could be another ‘arm twisting’ tactic by the US to test the waters and gauge what further concessions Pakistan could be willing to offer if the US loosens the noose. Again, Pakistan must remember to repeat: “Absolutely Not” until it resonates in US power corridors. Respect is earned. It is not a commodity that can be purchased in the open market.
It is also time for Pakistan to now take up this Bill at the UNGA with the support of allies. We are a sovereign state that is paying the price for others’ blunders. This Bill is an affront to Pakistan’s sovereignty and to its people who have sacrificed thousands of lives for someone else’s war. What we have failed to understand time and again is that not all initiatives have to “succeed” in order to succeed. The mere threat of action at the right time can shake up the status quo. Above all, taking this matter to the UNGA will show the world that we shall not be sitting ducks – anymore.
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More than the US threat of an action, we have been bedeviled by our own bad choices and weak responses. Slavishly toeing the US line has brought us to this point where we are labeled the “bad guys” despite having shouldered the burden of cleaning up a mess that is the US’s own.
Unless our counter-lawfare along the above-suggested lines is implemented, the US and our enemies like India will be shooting fish in a barrel. Instead of engaging in an expletive-laced back and forth or choosing to stay meek, we must, for a change, take this lawfare to the other side and show the world that we won’t go down without a good fight.
Hassan Aslam Shad is an international lawyer based in the Middle East. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School with a focus on international law. He can be reached at: email@example.com