(Update: State Department spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday declined to comment on the appropriateness of Khan’s “peanuts” comment.
He underlined that the bilateral relationship was “important” and would continue to enjoy U.S. support.
“We fully stand behind the kinds of support that we have provided Pakistan over the last many years with respect specifically to their counterterrorism capabilities and counterterrorism needs, and we’re going to continue to look for ways to improve that cooperation as best we can,” Kirby said.)
(CNSNews.com) – Stung by Donald Trump’s assertion that as president he would get Pakistan to release “in two minutes” the doctor who the U.S. says helped to track down Osama bin Laden, a Pakistani minister said Monday his country was not a U.S. colony and dismissed U.S. aid as “peanuts.”
“Contrary to Mr. Trump’s misconception, Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America,” Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Khan said in a statement.
“Shakil Afridi is a Pakistani citizen, and nobody else has the right to dictate to us about his future,” Khan said. “He should learn to treat sovereign countries with respect.”
Afridi’s fate, he said, would be decided “by the Pakistani courts and the government of Pakistan and not by Mr. Donald Trump, even if he becomes the president of the United States.”
In an appearance on Fox News last week, the Republican presidential frontrunner was asked whether as president he would get Afridi released.
“I think I would get him out in two minutes. I would tell them, ‘Let him out’ and I’m sure they’d let him out,” he said. “Because we give a lot of aid to Pakistan. We give a lot of money to Pakistan.”
Trump said the Pakistanis have no respect for President Obama, and that they, like others, “just take us for a bunch of suckers.”
In his statement Monday, Khan described U.S. aid to Pakistan as “peanuts” and said it “should not be used to threaten or browbeat us into following Mr. Trump’s misguided vision of foreign policy.”
Since 2001, U.S. taxpayers have accounted for more than $33 billion funneled to Pakistan in direct aid and in reimbursements for counterterrorism efforts (“coalition support funds”), according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes $3.8 billion in “foreign military financing” (FMF) funds.
Pakistan consistently has been one of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, and this year stands at number five.
Afridi’s exact role in the operation that led to bin Laden’s death five years ago this week remains murky, but he reportedly carried out a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad, Pakistan, aimed at getting DNA evidence from the walled compound where bin Laden was suspected to be living.
Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director at the time of the subsequent raid on the compound, said later Afridi had “helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation.”
In 2012 the physician was sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment for what supporters – and a Pakistan commission of inquiry – said were trumped-up charges relating to links to an extremist group. The conviction was later overturned but he was charged in 2013 with murder relating to the death of a patient years ago, and remains incarcerated.
(Originally accused of treason, critics suspect the authorities chose not to charge Afridi with that offense for fear a trial would raise embarrassing questions about how the world’s most wanted man had been able to live undetected for years in a house less than half a mile from a top Pakistani military academy, 70 miles from the capital.)
‘We must leverage our aid’
Pakistan’s treatment of Afridi is one of several irritants in the bilateral relationship.
Others include a reluctance to crack down on militant groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar e-Toiba – despite the deaths of Americans at their hands – and a religious freedom record widely regarded as abysmal, including arguably the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws.
The administration’s response has been marked more by quiet diplomacy than public rebuke, with State Department officials stressing in public comments Pakistan’s counterterror efforts – particularly a military campaign since mid-2014 against Tehreek-e-Taliban terrorists in the northwestern tribal belt.
On the issue of religious freedom abuses, the administration recently spared Pakistan from being designated a “country of particular concern” for the 14th straight year.
In Congress, by contrast, lawmakers have sought to use the power of the purse to apply pressure on Islamabad to amend its policies, without evident success to date.
“It makes little sense to continue giving Pakistan billions of dollars if it’s going to continue to work against our interests,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said during a House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee hearing last Wednesday on the administration’s fiscal year 2017 aid request for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“We must leverage our aid to Pakistan so that it is a better regional partner with Afghanistan and also helps us root out terrorists within its borders,” she said. “That includes stopping the sale of F-16s that Pakistan does not need and will probably not use in its supposed fight against terrorism.”
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) called Afridi’s continued imprisonment “the single biggest impediment” to many lawmakers wishing to support assistance to Pakistan.
U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson told the hearing the administration shared Congress’ outrage about Afridi’s plight and continues to raise the issue with Pakistan – although he conceded that “those approaches have not yielded any results.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the department on principle “opposes conditions to the release of appropriated foreign assistance funds.”
“We believe that such conditions limit the president and the secretary’s ability to conduct foreign policy in the best interest of the United States,” he said.
U.S. plans to sell Pakistan eight F-16 fighter jets – also strongly opposed by regional rival India – have run into particular hurdles in Congress.
Kirby said due to lawmakers’ opposition to the U.S. using FMF allocations to support the sale of the F-16s, “we have told the Pakistanis that they should put forward national funds for that purpose.”
He restated the administration’s position on Pakistan’s importance in the anti-terror campaign, calling it “a partner here in the effort to go after extremists there in the region.”
“Nobody has ever alleged that we’ve agreed with Pakistan on every issue, but that we can have candid, frank discussions with Pakistani leaders about these topics speaks, I think, to the maturity of the relationship and to the recognition that it’s an important relationship on both sides,” he added.