Buying influence in Washington

“Scarcely a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Musharraf faced pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.” Picture shows Gen. Musharraf with Mr. Bush in 2004.— Photo: AP

“Scarcely a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Musharraf faced pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.” Picture shows Gen. Musharraf with Mr. Bush in 2004.— Photo: AP  

America’s decision to supply Pakistan with F-16 fighter aircraft, despite protest from India, suggests the effectiveness of lobbying within the ambit of Washington’s Beltway politics

A shock wave ripped through South Asian policy circles in mid-February when the U.S. confirmed that lengthy negotiations between Washington and Islamabad had resulted in a decision to supply Pakistan with eight F-16 fighter aircraft worth $699.04 million, despite a year of unrelenting protest from India.

While the deal marked the continuation of standard U.S. policy on Pakistan, namely support for an “ally” in the global fight against terror, it reflects a troubling conundrum for India, which is that Washington appears to be unable or unwilling, to scale back military transfers to Islamabad despite evidence of complicity between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and various extremist groups.

Unflagging support to an ‘ally’

With the sale announced a little more than a month after the Pakistani-origin attack in Pathankot, India’s Ministry of External Affairs immediately summoned U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma to express its “displeasure”. In Washington, Republican Senator Bob Corker vowed to block the sale to the country that is acting as a “duplicitous partner” and providing safe havens to terror groups.

Yet, even as the Modi administration fumed and as Mr. Corker and other Congressmen dashed off sharp letters to Secretary of State John Kerry, threatening to block U.S. taxpayer funds to support the sale of the jets, Mr. Kerry in his annual budget sent to the U.S. Congress proposed a financial assistance package of $859.8 million for Pakistan, including $265 million for military hardware.

In other words, an all-too-familiar subcontinental dilemma for India has again resurfaced. On the one hand, Osama bin Laden’s hideaway villa was discovered in Abbottabad, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad attempted to spectacularly car-bomb New York’s Times Square, and Haqqani network terrorists regularly flee to safe havens inside Pakistan after attacking U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. On the other, the U.S. readily proffered financing to Pakistan enabled by the Kerry-Lugar Bill, sold the country around $5.4 billion worth of military equipment from 2002 to 2014, and is now handing over even more F-16s, beyond the 70 that the Pakistani Air Force has gradually acquired since the 1980s.

With what black magic has Pakistan blinded the mandarins of successive U.S. administrations to Islamabad’s dark side, and even more, kept them blithely skipping along the path of strategic handouts, all in the name of regional counterterrorism cooperation?

Setting aside explanations based on strategic calculus, all of which would in some way return to the central dictum that Washington cannot afford to lose a nuclear-armed Pakistan’s goodwill in fighting more dangerous foes, an alternative theory that could partially explain the all-weather nature of this one-way partnership is the effectiveness of Pakistani lobbying within the ambit of Washington’s beltway politics.

Islamabad’s peddlers of shadowy influence on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill have been a force to reckon with for decades, most notably during the term of General Pervez Musharraf when a battalion of fleet-footed lobbyist-ninjas rehabilitated Pakistan’s reputation on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

Scarcely one month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Musharraf faced cascading pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.

But he was not about to issue any carte blanche permissions to Mr. Bush.

Instead, Gen. Musharraf quietly enlisted the services of Houston-based Republican Stephen Payne, described as a staunch “Bush supporter” and a member of a firm known as Team Eagle, and signed a $1,80,000-a-year contract with that entity on October 13, 2001, according to a government database maintained under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

According to an investigation by Talking Points Memo, Team Eagle “helped Pakistan negotiate a 5-year, $3 billion dollar aid package from the U.S. [and] coordinated the removal of economic and military sanctions imposed on Pakistan under the Clinton Administration.”

As much as the historical record of the Pakistani lobby in the U.S. reflects creativity and single-minded focus, in equal measure it has allowed itself to be carried too far into the dark side of backroom politicking, with the expected toxic fallout. Most well-known among these is the case of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a U.S. citizen of Kashmiri origin who was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011 for clandestinely pushing the cause of the Pakistani government in seeking to influence the U.S. position on the Kashmir issue.

Lobby or perish?

Yet if Pakistan’s lobbying efforts in Washington reflect somewhat unhinged but largely successful multi-decade adventurism, then India’s efforts are clearly lacklustre by comparison and hesitant in tenor.

There is one notable exception to this observation, when the influence of the Indian and Indian-American lobbies engulfed every corridor of the U.S. Congress and animated the Oval Office like never before — in the run-up to the signing of the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement in 2005, between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to disclosures under FARA, the Indian government paid several lobbying firms $60,000 each per month, one being Barbour Griffith and Rogers, the employer of Robert Blackwill, U.S. Ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003 and a confirmed backer of India’s rise in the 21st century world order.

While the intense lobbying that characterised this inflection point in India-U.S. ties may well have led to the successful passage of the civil nuclear agreement, it was in no small measure a victory owed to the unprecedented personal commitment of the U.S. President and the Indian Prime Minister to see it through to ink on paper.

After this high point, however, with no major “big-bang” policy goals in sight, the focus on lobbies appears to have somewhat blurred on the Indian side.

For example, data collected under FARA and the Senate Office of Public Records and reported by the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics research group suggest that between 2008 until 2013 India spent $3.91 million whereas Pakistan spent $5.15 million.

If there was a price to pay for reining in lobbying expenditure, it may have come in the form of painful but relatively manageable bilateral conflicts breaking out from time to time, such as the Devyani Khobragade affair of 2013-14.

Show us the money

Regardless of how useful money and lobbying are in oiling Washington’s policy wheels, the limits to lobby power are reached when it collides with strategic reality, a fact that former senior diplomats who spoke to The Hindu acknowledged in the context of the latest F-16 transfer to Pakistan.

Some of them characterised the deal as an inevitable blip within the broader rhythm of the bilateral compact between India and the U.S., but one that was perhaps less likely to cause genuine geopolitical instability in the region than the scaremongers would have us believe.

That bilateral compact is more regularly validated, they argued, by the vast strides that New Delhi and Washington have made together — for example, in terms of defence trade and technology transfers.

Thus while lobbying Washington may bring quick wins or stave off tactical setbacks, strategic convergence between nations may depend much more on governments rolling up their sleeves and working together to deliver what lofty vision statements have promised.


If Pakistan’s lobbying efforts reflect largely successful multi-decade adventurism, India’s efforts are clearly lacklustre by comparison

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