US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while describing the aspersions of a congressman about Pakistan’s alleged links to terrorism as ‘well-founded’, has announced an inter-agency review of US funding and support to Pakistan.
The remarks — at a budget hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week — give a rare insight into the Trump administration’s views on Pakistan. Although in power for the last six months, the administration has been unusually silent on US-Pakistan relations.
Secretary Tillerson’s declaration and comments by some lawmakers — both included in a transcript released on Thursday — led the media to speculate that the review may cause further reduction in already dwindling US aid to Pakistan.
Two Republican congressmen — Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Poe — also used this and another hearing at a subcommittee for terrorism, non-proliferation and trade to demand that the US stop selling weapons to Pakistan and declare it a state sponsor of terrorism.
Mr Rohrabacher referred to Dr Shakil Afridi’s continued incarceration and the alleged links of some Pakistani intelligence agencies to Afghan Taliban, before putting his favourite question to the secretary: “Why are we still giving Pakistan any aid at all?”
The question and the remarks of his fellow lawmaker Mr Poe are not unusual as both regularly use such hearings to browbeat Pakistan. But Secretary Tillerson’s response was unexpected as US officials often avoid giving straight answer to such questions.
“Well, we are beginning an interagency policy review towards Pakistan. This is going to be one of the considerations. The president has asked the question specifically about our level of support and funding to Pakistan. No decision is to be taken until we complete that policy review,” Mr Tillerson said.
“As you can well understand, and appreciate, Pakistan and our relationship with them touches on some much broader issues relative to stability in Afghanistan and how we achieve that, but also stability in the Indo-Pacific region. It is a very complex relationship we have with the government of Pakistan, but your concerns are all well founded,” he added.
Mr Rohrabacher expressed the optimism that the administration would take a realistic view. “And sometimes that means biting the bullet … when you’re dealing with someone who’s … been two-faced with us for so long now,” said the lawmaker, adding that “Pakistan is acknowledged by most of the people I’ve dealt with as the source of terrorism in that part of the world.”
Mr Rohrabacher then blamed Pakistan for the troubles the US was having in Afghanistan. “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, it will be because of the ISI in Pakistan,” he said.
“Congressman, we have an Afghanistan policy under review as well. And I mention that in the context of Pakistan because you cannot work one without the other,” Secretary Tillerson replied.
“What we’re following now are the policies of the prior administration, and we need to take some steps to stem the effects of those while we get our policies in place,” he added.
Congressman Poe, a Texas Republican, who also never spares an opportunity to attack Pakistan, added his views to this discussion.
“Pakistan is playing us. We give them money. That money ends up in the hands of bad guys in Afghanistan who hurt Americans. And I personally think that Pakistan should not get any American money,” he said.
“They get $500 million a year not counting the military aid. They should be designated as a state sponsor of terror. And they also should be removed from the major non-Nato ally status that they have,” he demanded.
Mr Poe said he had heard the secretary’s comments but he wanted to know: “Are any of those things that I mentioned an option?”