Russia, Trump and Pakistan's military training

The latest US move to cut training slots for Pakistani officers could have far-reaching consequences for bilateral relations between the two countries, writes Syeda Mamoona Rubab

Russia, Trump and Pakistan's military training
Pakistan and United States have over the past nearly two decades weathered a series of setbacks in their bilateral relationship, despite all talk of their growing strategic misalignment. This was cherished by both sides as an exhibit of the extraordinary resilience of their ties and the source of this resilience was believed to be the military-to-military relationship.

However, the latest US move to cut training slots for Pakistani officers under its International Military Education and Training Program (IMET) has raised questions about that assumption on bilateral ties. It has left little doubt that the ties are now headed for deep freeze. The reactions in Pakistan over discontinuation of the program have been confounding, but, the fact remains that the move would hurt US more than Pakistan.

The State Department describes IMET as a program that is “an instrument of US national security and foreign policy and a key component of US security assistance…facilitates the development of important professional and personal relationships, which have proven to provide US access and influence in a critical sector of society that often plays a pivotal role in supporting, or transitioning to, democratic governments”.

Under the program, some 66 Pakistani mid-career officers go to US institutions for annual training. The program dates back to 1960s, but remained suspended during 1990s due to nuclear proliferation-related sanctions under Pressler Amendment. It is said that since the resumption of the program in the post-9/11 era, when Pakistan and United States embarked on a new phase in their ties, US has spent around $45 million on training of Pakistani officers at its elite institutions.
One factor that could have prompted the US decision is Pakistan's growing closeness with Russia, China and Iran
in the region

The US, by closing down the training opportunities for Pakistani officers headed for leadership positions in military, has effectively shut down the avenue of US influence here. It goes without saying that many in Pakistan attribute the ills in our foreign and security policies’ operations to US influence that had over the years grown.

It needs to be further recalled that US had continued the program even after it suspended other components of the security cooperation earlier this year following President Trump’s New Year Tweet accusing Pakistan of being an unfaithful ally. This was interpreted as a sign of recognition within US that military relationship with Pakistan was to be continued despite differences over counter-terrorism strategies. The suspension at this stage is, therefore, perplexing.

What new development has happened forced the US to review its decision of keeping Pakistan in IMET? Was it Afghanistan? Looks unlikely, because even though the peace process in Afghanistan is still stalled, cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul has improved. The two countries have signed a new relations framework that provides for cooperation in military and intelligence spheres. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan governments want to give an opportunity to the new arrangement for bridging their trust gap. Therefore, one could assume that US would not do anything to discourage the process or jeopardise it by sending negative signals to Pakistan.

The other factor that could have prompted the US decision is Pakistan’s growing closeness with Russia, China and Iran in the region - or to put it simply, the emerging anti-US alliance in Asia. US concerns could be deciphered from a statement of US Central Command Chief Gen Joseph Votel, who said: “Russia is trying to exert their authority and their presence, their influence across the region.” He further said: “I think they’d look for areas where they can do that. And so, we see them in different places across the region.”

Relations between Moscow and Islamabad have been improving for over a decade now. The process received fresh momentum after the two countries signed the defence cooperation agreement in 2014. Since then, cooperation in the military field has grown with every passing year. Russia provided military hardware to Pakistan, the two countries conducted joint military exercises, and intelligence sharing on terrorist groups has started. Importantly military commission for steering the cooperation between the two countries has become functional.

The first meeting of Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee, which Pakistan hosted last week, took an important decision in allowing Pakistani officers to get training in Russian institutions.

It’s unclear if US decision to end training program for Pakistani military officers was taken as a reaction to Pakistan signing up for training at Russian institutes, but it can be said with great certainty that the emerging realignment in the region is upsetting US. And importantly US government response is short-termed and narrow-minded. Instead of keeping the channels open, it is reducing them.

US media has over the past few months been warning about Pakistan increasingly looking towards China and Russia for military procurements. This decision would on hasten that embrace. Former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Dan Feldman rightly told Reuters ““This will have lasting negative impacts limiting the bilateral relationship well into the future.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr