The achievements and embarrassments of Zardari’s visit to America

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By Shaheen Sehbai

WASHINGTON: Three major outcomes of the bilateral and trilateral summit talks between Presidents Zardari, Obama and Karzai are now becoming visible as officials of the three countries hammer out details of how much money would be poured in, how it would be spent and how it would be monitored.

According to officials and experts involved in the intense talks and negotiations, the broader picture emerging from the Zardari visit includes the following three conclusions:

* The tensions in relations between President Asif Zardari and President Karzai of Afghanistan have been removed and both have developed a good and cordial working relationship because both are being asked by President Obama to meet almost similar benchmarks, both are looked at suspiciously and are not fully trusted with money and both are believed to be unpopular and weak. In fact in so many ways, President Zardari has been forced to stand in the much smaller league of Karzai.

* The Americans have decided to pump in a lot of money into Pakistan, almost 1.9 billion dollars into non-military development sectors this year and $ 1.5 billion annually later. The Congress and the Executive Branch agree on this and the process of authorisations will move quickly through the House and Senate and the president will sign the laws without any delay. But the Pakistanis have been forced to accept a disbursement and oversight mechanism which will be very different from the years of General Musharraf when dollars were sent and no one knew where they were being spent.

* The Americans have succeeded, almost, in convincing President Zardari and to a great degree the Pakistan Army, that India is not playing a negative role in Afghanistan and Pakistan should not be unduly concerned. The Indian role, the Americans tried to assure the Pakistanis, was one to help both Afghanistan and Pakistan to overcome the Taliban menace and not to weaken Pakistan.

These three larger outcomes have a lot of highly controversial and even outrightly embarrassing details which the Pakistanis may find hard to explain to their domestic critics and experts. The devil is in the detail, it is said, and this cliche fits exactly in the current situation.

On relations between Karzai and Zardari, although it is now certain that Washington will back Karzai for his re-election, many still believe he would be a puppet and not control anyone and anything outside Kabul and his Green Zone. So equating Karzai with President Zardari is basically pulling a democratically-elected president of a vibrant country down to the level of a puppet. Why has President Zardari agreed to come to this level remains to be explained.

The long standing argument of Pakistan that Karzai should do more to control his border and influx of fighters into Pakistan has apparently been set aside.

The issue of spending money is more critical and embarrassing. Not only the Americans are going to put a monitoring system in Pakistan, maybe in the American Embassy in Islamabad with an authorised official, the Congress is also insisting on its own oversight.

ىThey are thinking in terms of congressional approval every three months for release of the money in stages. If the benchmarks set for each stage are met, Congress may release the money for the next stage and these stages are likely to be three months apart. Thus every three months Obama Administration Americans will have to go to Congress where every dollar spent would be scrutinised and if no corruption or wastage was found, the next tranche may be released,î an official with the knowledge of what is cooking said.

In Pakistan, the set-up would be like an Auditor General sitting to physically inspect every project. ىTo give an example, the official said, ىit would be like opening a joint account with Pakistan and US as joint signatories on every cheque. So before that cheque is cashed, both the sides will have to agree.

If such a monitoring arrangement is put in place, it would mean that the element of misuse of funds and corruption will be largely eliminated. Money will be trickling down to the people for whom it is meant and in a couple of years the positive impact of the development may be visible.

The Indian role in Afghanistan was a highly sensitive subject and according to insiders, the chief of ISI, Lt-Gen Pasha had to face a lot of questioning at almost every forum to explain the role of the Army and how it would adjust with the new Indian role in Afghanistan.

The Indians are deeply embedded in the Obama Administration and known senior officials who have been promoting India and publicly trashing Pakistan over the years are now key position holders in the vice president’s office and also in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ىEverything which emerges from these important places is obviously vetted and scrutinised by these sympathisers of India from their own perspective,î a knowledgeable expert said.

One such example of Indians pushing their agenda through the several back and front doors was seen in a strong statement by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the co-author of the $ 7.5 billion Pakistan aid bill, to roll back Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme like it was done in former Soviet Republics under a law which Lugar had initiated in 1991.

Lugar on Thursday asked the Obama administration to be “creative and dynamic” in its efforts to “help Islamabad safeguard weapons, materials and delivery systems that could pose a threat to the American people.” The first step, he maintained, must be strong leadership by President Obama “to win President Zardari’s political commitment, and that of General Kayani, head of Pakistan’s military, to get Nunn-Lugar fully engaged in Pakistan sooner rather than later.”

Lugar, reports said, who was present at meetings with President Zardari, declined to endorse Zardari’s assurances and instead pressed the White House to act under the provisions of the Nunn-Lugar Act. His demand, reports said, carry immense weight as he is co-author of Kerry-Lugar Senate bill for aid to Pakistan. One report said if he is serious about applying Nunn-Lugar to Pakistan, he could use the aid carrot and stick to ensure that.

One overwhelming feedback from the US-Pakistani meetings was that the US side, while wanting to invest heavily in Pakistan, was confused about what to do and where to invest. In one side-meeting, a source said, the agenda presented by the US side was changed three times before the meeting.

One solid suggestion made by a Pakistani official, got immense attention and generated an intense discussion in one of these meetings. It was to build a railway track from the port of Gwadar to Peshawar, passing through the mainland of Balochistan and along the western side of Pakistan, then going into Afghanistan through the dormant Peshawar-Torkham rail link and to Kabul onwards through Jalalabad.

This idea was also presented to President Zardari by an American expert, the Pakistan Embassy sources revealed. Zardari was excited about it as the project could involve billions of dollars that the US was ready to invest, it would revive Pakistan’s industry and economy, it could bring Balochistan into the mainstream by generating jobs and providing them goodies coming out of the project, it could spur construction industry by building hundreds of railway stations and other facilities needed and it could provide Pakistan an alternate route from Karachi to Peshawar.

For Afghanistan, as well it could be a booster as the rail link could enter Afghanistan at the south-eastern border with Pakistan and could be carried to any place inside Afghanistan by US dollars, lessening the dependence on transit trade through troubled Fata and Taliban-infested areas. It also fits the US goal of joint Af-Pak development, serving the US as well as Pak-Afghan interests.

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