US stick grows bigger than its carrot with new Trump war cabinet

Ahead of nuclear suppliers group meeting, bad news with Pakistan company listings

US stick grows bigger than its carrot with new Trump war cabinet
The United States has just delivered another blow to its struggling relationship with Pakistan by listing seven private companies on allegations of involvement in nuclear trade with Pakistan’s program.

The immediate reaction in Pakistan was that it was a politically motivated decision.

The seven companies, none of them publicly known, were placed on the US Bureau of Industry and Security’s “Entity List” on March 22. The listed companies include Singapore-based Mushko Logistics and Pakistan-based Mushko Electronics; Solutions Engineering; Akhtar & Munir Proficient Engineers; Pervaiz Commercial Trading Co; Marine Systems; and Engineering and Commercial Services.

The companies were broadly accused of “acting contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”.

The individual allegations against the companies slightly vary. The two Mushko companies, Solutions Engineering and Engineering and Commercial Services were accused of procuring and supplying equipment and material for nuclear-related entities in Pakistan that are already on the Entity List. Similarly, Marine Systems was accused of helping listed entities procure items without a license. Akhtar & Munir Proficient Engineers and Pervaiz Commercial Trading Co. were listed for their alleged “involvement in the proliferation of unsafeguarded nuclear activities”.

The listing would make it difficult for these companies to do business as any American entity undertaking any deal with them would first have to obtain a license.

It’s not all that plain and simple. The purpose of putting these companies on the Entity List was not meant to just punish them, but to make Pakistan’s non-proliferation credentials doubtful. The action, moreover, comes as part of a series of steps that the US started taking against Pakistan since the start of the year to tighten the squeeze around its former ally for not supporting its interests in the region.
"With the new war cabinet that Trump has formed, we can see more and more direct attacks on Pakistan and Iran," maintained Dr Shireen Mazari. "Pakistan's first signal has come with the sanctions against seven firms that are perhaps linked to Pakistan's nuclear program...

In January, security aid for Pakistan was suspended, in February the US successfully co-sponsored a move at the global counter-illicit financing watchdog—the Financial Action Task Force—for Pakistan’s grey listing, and now comes this listing of Pakistani companies.

The gradual ramping-up of pressure should not have come as a surprise for the Foreign Office mandarins. Pakistan-US relations have been tense for several years now, but a steep slide is being witnessed since the announcement of the Trump Administration’s South Asia/Afghanistan strategy last year. But importantly, the Americans had declared their intentions. The then secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had soon after the announcement of the strategy for the region, said:  “We have to enlarge the circle of interest and bring others to—into the effort as well, and that’s what we’ll be doing with Pakistan as well.” The objective, therefore, is to make Pakistan a pariah state.

The latest action comes ahead of next month’s meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The 48-member cartel that controls the global nuclear trade is discussing membership of countries that are not part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India and Pakistan have been vying for its membership since 2016. Indian candidature is being backed by the US. While there are no clear supporters for Pakistan’s bid, a few countries have been demanding a criteria-based approach to bring in new members, a position that in any case favoured Pakistan.

There is little doubt that the listing would be used to weaken Pakistan’s case at the NSG. It could not have come at a worse time, when the support for criteria-based approach at the NSG too looks to be weakening.

In its reaction, the Foreign Office pointed out the timing of the move and recalled Pakistan’s efforts in the area of export controls and non-proliferation as well as nuclear safety and security, Pakistan-US cooperation in these areas, its transparency and willingness to engage with the suppliers of dual-use items, end-user assurances, and arrangements for post-shipment verifications.

The FO further warned against politicization of the listing issue.

Former Senate chairman Senator Mian Raza Rabbani, speaking at the Islamabad Policy Institute, had said, “The government has not come clean on the issue of the seven firms that have been listed by the US.” He urged the government to “make a policy statement on the issue so that the people of Pakistan are aware about the situation.”

Recalling the worsening of Pakistan-US ties, Senator Rabbani said, “Pakistan has been bearing the brunt. This has become worse with the passage of time... I believe that with the new complexion that is emerging in Washington, the ride for Pakistan would get tougher.”

Dr Shireen Mazari, a well-known name in foreign policy and security circles, sees the listing of Pakistani companies as the first move to target Pakistan’s nuclear program.

“With the new war cabinet that Trump has formed, we can see more and more direct attacks on Pakistan and Iran,” she maintained. “Pakistan’s first signal has come with the sanctions against seven firms that are perhaps linked to Pakistan’s nuclear program. So Pakistan’s nuclear program is going to be targeted.”

Some believe that the US is pursuing a carrot-and-stick policy to push Pakistan into compliance of its regional agenda, particularly with respect to Afghanistan. They point to the recent US action against Tehreek-e-Taliban terrorists on Afghan territory as an example of the US addressing Pakistani concerns, but from the face of the events it appears that the stick is getting bigger than the carrot and the gulf between one-time allies is growing wider instead of narrowing. The sooner the US realizes the counter-productive nature of its strategy the better it would be for relations.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad