In a major and significant move, a group of high-profile US Senators which includes an erstwhile presidential nominee moved on 27 September a bill in the US Senate seeking imposition of sanctions on the Afghan Taliban which carries the possibility of even covering Pakistan. The bill, named “Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight and Accountability Act”, led to protests by Pakistani ministers with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi being the most vocal. The 22 Senators, all belonging to the Republican Party, underlined the need for imposing such harsh sanctions to rein in the menace of Taliban fostering global Islamic terrorism.
The proposed legislation also seeks to review and suspend assistance to and potentially impose sanctions on any foreign government the US believes was or is supporting the Taliban. It singles out Pakistan by name in the section that calls for a report on “entities providing support for the Taliban”. The bill was introduced by Senator Jim Risch, the representative for the state of Idaho and a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has previously co-sponsored legislation imposing sanctions on Turkey.
In the meantime, although the movers of the bill say it is primarily aimed at addressing the “outstanding issues related to the Biden administration’s rushed and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan”, a major portion is aimed at imposing tough steps against the Taliban and those the US claims supported and facilitated it.
Further, the official press release published on websites of some of the bill’s sponsors stated that the bill seeks to “establish a State Department task force to focus on the evacuation of American citizens, legal permanent residents, and Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) still stuck in Afghanistan; impose oversight mechanisms on the processing of SIVs and refugees; require strategies for counterterrorism and for the disposition of Taliban-captured US equipment; sanction the Taliban and others in Afghanistan for terrorism, drug-trafficking, and human rights abuses; authorize sanctions on those providing support to the Taliban, including foreign governments supporting the Taliban; call for a comprehensive review of foreign assistance to entities that support the Taliban; (and) place restrictions on non-humanitarian foreign assistance to Afghanistan”.
As regards the foreign governments and non-state groups, the bill itself states “the Secretary of State, in consultation with the appropriate congressional committees, shall conduct a comprehensive review of all forms of United States foreign assistance provided to or through the government of any country or any organization providing any form of material support to the Taliban”.
Crucially, in a separate section, it adds “the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on entities providing support to the Taliban”.
With reference to Pakistan, the bill elaborates that “the first report… shall include – (1) an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan, for the Taliban between 2001 to 2020, including the provision of sanctuary space, financial support, intelligence support, logistic and medical support, training, equipping, and tactical, operational, or strategic direction; (2) an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan, for the 2021 offensive of the Taliban that toppled the legitimate Government of Afghanistan… (3) an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the Government of Pakistan, for the September 2021 offensive of the Taliban against the Panjshir Valley and the Afghan resistance”. Reacting rather angrily to the movement of the bill, some ministers in Pakistan stated that now the country would be made to pay a heavy price for being an ally of US in its “War on Terror” as the bill was introduced in the Senate in the aftermath of the US’ chaotic Afghan withdrawal.
Pakistani politicians, acrimonious towards the US, alleging that the Senate should do serious introspection and posed questions like; Where did $2 trillion disappear? Why did the heavily-invested-in ANA simply dissolve? Who asked Pakistan to free the TTA (Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan) leadership? Who signed the Doha agreement with TTA and hosted them in DC?” Pakistan’s frustration in the wake of this US bill is a setback to its foreign policy and it seems it has lost the flavour of US friendship as in the past.
Meanwhile, analysts also added that the bill was an attempt to put both Pakistan and the Taliban under pressure, and yet another sign that the US relationship with Pakistan is purely transactional and appears as good as over. However, in a related development, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has visited Pakistan. But the damage in bilateral ties is already done and appears beyond repair.
According to defence analyst Inamul Haque, the inclusion of Pakistan in the bill by name could be a way to caution both Islamabad and the Taliban, with a veiled but strong message to China and Russia as well.
As Republican senators have sponsored the bill, it is seen as an attempt to mount more pressure on Biden. Even so, he did not rule out other influences. Interestingly, this bill, as assessed by some Pakistan-based India baiters. The reference to Panjshir valley may be a ploy to put pressure but could even be on account of some senators who bought the Indian misinformation, they claimed. This is indeed unsettling for the Pakistan establishment especially for its security and intelligence agencies.
Common perception prevailing is that Pakistan’s relationship with the US has always been weak and transactional, and this is well articulated by Dr Talat Wizarat, former Chairperson of the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi. She has also cautioned the Pakistani leadership not to fall into any American trap as Washington has always treated Pakistan as a disposable item. Judging by such strong words, it is clear that anti-US sentiment within the academic circles in Pakistan is largely prevalent.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views are personal.