Against the odds, Pakistan woos Washington | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 21.06.2012
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Against the odds, Pakistan woos Washington

Since US elite forces killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan, relations between the two countries have been frosty. But that's not preventing Pakistan from lobbying hard for its interests in Washington.

Pakistani protesters burn representations of US and NATO flags during a demonstration to condemn US drone strikes

US-Pakistani relations are at a lowpoint

The list of bilateral grievances has only grown since US troops, without informing Islamabad, raided Osama bin Laden's compound in the military garrison town of Abbottabad on May 2, 2011 and killed the al-Qaeda leader who apparently had been living there for at least five years.

A serious blow to US-Pakistani relations came in November of last year when NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani troops, and Washington, citing miscommunication on both sides as one reason for the incident, offered only condolences, but not the official apology demanded by Islamabad.

As a reaction, Pakistan closed NATO's important supply routes into Afghanistan, making it much more difficult and costly to supply troops based there.

Failed talks, presidential snub

Last week, the Pentagon announced that after weeks of talks, negotiations with Pakistan to reopen the routes had failed. That these talks weren't going well was already apparent at the NATO summit in Chicago when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari who was invited to attend didn't get a personal meeting with US President Barack Obama.

Last month, the sentencing of a Pakistani doctor to 33 years in prison by a Pakistani court for treason added further fuel to the fire. Washington had urged Islamabad to release the surgeon who had helped the CIA to track down bin Laden.

An unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan

Washington will not let up on its drone attacks

In response, the US Senate's Appropriations Committee voted to cut $33 million (26 million euros) for Pakistan, or $1 million for each year of the sentence given to the doctor and voted to block $250 million in military aid until Islamabad reopens the NATO supply routes. The US House of Representatives also slated cuts for aid to Pakistan which is the third-largest recipient of US assistance.

"These are all very strong signs that Pakistan is in deep trouble on Capitol Hill," Howard B. Schaffer, a former US diplomat who co-wrote "How Pakistan negotiates with the United States: Riding the roller coaster," told DW.

Frozen aid

Last year the US had already suspended hundreds of millions of aid payments to Pakistan. Since 2002 Islamabad has received some $18 billion in economic and military aid from Washington.

But these days, it seems, hardly a day goes by without news about some bilateral kerfuffle. Recently, the US, in a move sure to stir up more anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, not only killed another top al Queda leader with a drone strike inside Pakistan, but Obama administration officials also pointed out that the CIA had been given the green light to resume an aggressive drone campaign inside the country.

That campaign began in 2004, reached its peak in 2010 and was halted briefly after the bin Laden raid. It has killed approximately between 1,800 and 2,800 people, according to the New America Foundation which tracks all reported strikes.

In Pakistan anger and resentment about the US drone strikes has grown over the years leading to repeated demands for an end to the campaign.

Sustained drone campaign

Just how frayed US-Pakistani ties really have become, was evidenced last week when in unusually stern language, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta said that the US was "reaching the limits of our patience" with Islamabad for not cracking down on militants inside the country. "It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan," Panetta added and reiterated that the drone strike campaign would continue.

"I think relations are very bad," says Schaffer.

His colleague Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert and currently a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington agrees: "I don't think they have been as bad as they are now over the course of the relationship."

Schaffer added that Pakistan "miscalculated things very badly" and "misread the mood in the United States." Many Pakistanis still hold on to the flawed assumption that the US needs Pakistan more than the other way around, says Schaffer.

Still, despite or because of what Pakistan observers call a low point in bilateral relations, Islamabad continues to try to influence Washington policy makers by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying.

The reason is obvious: Without continued US financial support, Pakistan - the third-largest recipient of US foreign assistance - would have a hard time to finance its large military apparatus, but also numerous other economic and development programs.

"I think Pakistan is enormously needful of US assistance," notes Schaffer, who doesn't believe China would be interested in providing the same kind of assistance, should Washington decide to slash its aid, as Islamabad has suggested.

Fighter jets and duty-free products

And so Pakistan continues with what both experts consider a very professional - but given the growing anti-Pakistan sentiment - increasingly hopeless task of lobbying political Washington for its cause.

Pakistani protests against drone strike in March 2012

Pakistanis protest against US drone strikes

In the first quarter of this year alone, Pakistan paid $440,000 to Locke Lord Strategies for lobbying on its behalf, publicly filed records reviewed by DW show. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Locke Lord retains seven lobbyists for its work on Pakistan. The firm lobbies on the full range of bilateral relations from duty-free classification of certain products to economic, social and security assistance to Pakistan to upgrades of Islamabad's F-16 fighter jets.

But of course the major issue for Pakistan is continued US military aid. To press this point, Locke Lord lobbyists between October last year and March this year had dozens of meetings or phone calls with US legislators including such power brokers as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairmen Carl Levin.

Fewer friends

The problem is, while US lawmakers and officials may still talk or meet with Islamabad's lobbyists, the political tide in official Washington has turned strongly against Pakistan.

"The key point is that Pakistan is seen now as more of an enemy than a friend," argues Schaffer, who says the days are over when the country had strong friends on Capitol Hill like the famous Charlie Wilson depicted in the movie bearing his name. "I think what you have found there as in the Pentagon is an erosion of support."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, followed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Capitol Hill

The mood in the US defense circles has turned against Pakistan

Weinbaum points out that "there are a growing number of people, especially in the military, but also in the public and certainly in Congress kind of fed up with Pakistan."

In this difficult environment, Locke Lord, Islamabad's lobbying shop and an old Pakistan hand in Washington, faces an uphill struggle to push for the its clients interests. The firm has represented Pakistan since 2008. Last year the lobbyists received $600,000, the year before the firm was paid $1 million for its services by the Pakistani embassy.

In an interesting twist, Locke Lord not only lobbies for the Pakistani government, but according to documents filed by the firm also does pro bono lobbying work for the Pakistani People's Party (PPP) of President Zardari which is part of the government.

"It is odd," notes Weinbaum. "But the firm that handles this has over the years been very close to the Bhutto family and it has to be understood that way."

Locke Lord and Pakistan's embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on its lobbying activities.

But it's not just the Pakistani government and the PPP who are trying to influence Washington politics.

Musharraf makes political comeback

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is also actively lobbying US officials. Since announcing his political comeback and plans to return to Pakistan late last year, he wasted no time and quickly stepped up his lobbying efforts in the US.

As reported by the Washington Post last year, Musharraf retained Advantage Associates International, a lobbying firm founded by former US legislators, for $25,000 per month from Sept 2011 through March 2012. The lobbying effort according to the Post won Musharraf meetings with six US senators including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and former presidential candidate John McCain.

The bill for Advantage Associates was footed by Raza Bokhari, a Pakistani-American entrepreneur and Musharraf supporter. Besides managing the Advantage Associates account, Bokhari himself registered as a lobbyist for Musharraf in February 2011, official records show. Since then he has had met or phoned US officials or legislators dozens of times on behalf of Musharraf or arranged meetings for him.

US urged to support fair elections

Between the end of December 2011 and the end of February, Bokhari met twice with US Special Representative for Afghanistan & Pakistan, Marc Grossman, documents filed by Bokhari show. At the meeting, Bokhari discussed not just US-Pakistani relations and the political plans of Musharraf, but according to the files he also "urged the United States to support free, fair and transparent elections."

That's a curious demand, given that it is expressed on behalf of a man, who came to power through a coup against an elected government in 1999 and who during his tenure suspended the constitution and imposed emergency rule in 2007.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf speaks at a University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service lecture in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, Oct.20, 2011

Pervez Musharraf's comeback plans are unrealistic

Besides acting as interlocutor for Musharraf, Bokhari also spent $27,000 of his own money on political contributions between March and September 2011, records show. All the money went to Republican causes, including two donations to the campaigns of conservative presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.

Bokhari told DW via e-mail that Musharraf wasn't his client, but a personal friend.

"I firmly believe that under President Musharraf, US-Pakistan relations, while not perfect, were dependable and reliable and President Musharraf's proven track record and vision for a way forward is presently the best course of action not just for Pakistan but also for United States," said Bokhari who declined to elaborate further on his activities on behalf of the former president.

Damage control

Lobbying for the current Pakistani government in Washington government may be difficult, but lobbying for Musharraf in Washington is futile, say the experts.

"I think that it's generally recognized in Washington now that he is indeed yesterday's man and that all his talk about a comeback is really baseless," says Schaffer.

"I see no way in which there is a future for him in Pakistan's politics," says Weinbaum.

As for the damage done to Pakistan's general image in the US, that can't be repaired by lobbying alone, but only through a change in the country's politics, note the experts.

All that Islamabad's lobbying activities in Washington had managed to achieve recently was keeping things from getting even worse, says Weinbaum.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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