Donald Lu Extends US’s full support to Shahbaz…

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Qamar Bashir

During his testimony before a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Donald Lu (20th March, 2024) tacitly and implicitly endorsed the legitimacy of the current government, which assumed power amidst allegations of significant election rigging. Throughout his extensive testimony, he largely echoed the narratives put forth by the outgoing coalition government, interim government, and the newly sworn-in government of Shahbaz Sharif on various contentious issues. In doing so, he underscored the United States’ commitment to supporting the newly installed government of Shahbaz Sharif in Pakistan, even when certain policy decisions may seem contrary to US interests.

During the hearing, Mr. Lu emphasized Pakistan’s significance as an important country with abundant opportunities for US companies and multinationals to thrive. He refrained from using leverage through the IMF or trade with Pakistan to impose major policy decisions, instead suggesting that the US supported the IMF’s positive review of Pakistan’s program. This support has paved the way for the release of the last tranche of over one billion US dollars, expected to be disbursed to the State Bank of Pakistan soon. Furthermore, there are expectations that the US will assist Pakistan in negotiating a new agreement with the IMF once the current Stand-By Agreement expires next month.

Moreover, the testimony highlighted several contentious decisions made by Pakistan, notably its pursuit of completing the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, carrying out surgical strikes within Afghanistan, expelling illegal Afghan aliens, and refusing to repatriate Shakeel Afridi, who assisted the CIA in locating Osama Bin Laden. Despite these concerns, the US remains predominantly focused on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Pakistan’s deepening reliance on China. Particularly worrisome is the escalating debt associated with CPEC projects, the mounting circular debt owed to Chinese companies for electricity, and Pakistan’s steadfast commitment to proceeding with the completion of the Pakistan-Iran pipeline.

Donald Lu also implicitly expressed support for the role of the Pakistani armed forces, acknowledging their involvement in civilian matters and their participation in the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). He commended the Pakistani armed forces for their significant contributions, highlighting their status as the sixth-largest armed forces globally and their extensive training alongside US generals over several decades. Lu underscored the pivotal role of the Pakistan Army in advancing US objectives, including assistance against the USSR, efforts in Afghanistan, and the eradication of global terrorist threats like Al-Qaeda, particularly in safeguarding US interests worldwide.

In his eloquent and impactful speech, Lu effectively cautioned against undermining the Pakistani army and disregarding their concerns regarding Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy, surgical strikes within Iran and Afghanistan, and the military-supported campaign to address illegal immigration within the country.

Donald Lu’s testimony highlighted the US acceptance of the contentious election results in Pakistan, acknowledging the orderly conduct of the elections while expressing concern over incidents of pre- and post-election violence and disruptions to communication networks. Although allegations of widespread rigging during the vote counting process were acknowledged, the US opted not to exert pressure on the Pakistani government or state authorities to address these claims.

Furthermore, Lu’s testimony echoed the narrative put forth by the PML(N) and PPP regarding the Election Commission of Pakistan’s role in adjudicating allegations of election rigging and ensuring justice for affected parties. However, the US refrained from endorsing specific actions to remedy these concerns, such as restoring access to blocked social media websites, including X, or ensuring freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and press freedom within Pakistan.

In response to a congressman’s assertive questioning about allegations of widespread rigging and the imprisonment of PTI leadership and supporters, Donald Lu maintained a composed demeanor and emphasized the US stance of non-interference in the internal judicial processes of other countries. He reiterated that both governments would proceed according to established diplomatic protocols and practices, indicating that the US Ambassador may or not meet with the imprisoned PTI Chairman.

Regarding allegations of US involvement in regime change and the Cipher scandal, Lu denied any direct involvement and dismissed the Cipher allegations as baseless. He contradicted statements made by Pakistan’s former DG-ISPR, asserting that the Cipher was not a reality. While acknowledging the presence of service chiefs at the National Security Council meeting, he refrained from characterizing it as a conspiracy to overthrow the government, instead labeling it as blatant interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

Moreover, there are indications that Pakistan may witness increased investment from private US companies across various sectors. This potential influx of investment signals a deepening cooperation between the US and Pakistan, particularly in the installation of alternative energy generation methods. Such collaboration serves two primary objectives: first, to reduce Pakistan’s dependence on China and offer viable alternatives to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); and second, to provide alternative energy solutions that may prompt Pakistan to reconsider its decision to proceed with the long-pending Iran-Pakistan pipeline.

I bear witness to the historic signing and commencement ceremony of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, where President Zardari, on the final day of his first presidential tenure, journeyed to the Iranian border. There, amidst the welding of two massive pipes symbolizing a pivotal moment of cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, President Zardari addressed the gathering. He highlighted the persistent opposition from the United States to the gas pipeline, despite Pakistan’s invitation for collaboration in addressing its energy challenges. In the absence of any viable alternative proposed by the US, President Zardari emphasized the paramount importance of prioritizing the nation’s interests. Thus, he took the decision to proceed with signing the agreement, recognizing its immense potential to alleviate Pakistan’s energy woes and provide cost-effective gas to households and industries.

However, subsequent governments, notably the PML(N) administration from 2013 to 2018 and Imran Khan’s government from 2018 to 2022, succumbed to pressure from the United States and were unable to advance this critical project. It wasn’t until the tenure of the new government led by Shahbaz Sharif, bolstered by support from the armed forces leadership, that the decision was made to push forward with the construction of the Pakistani segment of the pipeline.

The Iran-Pakistan pipeline, also referred to as the IP Gas Pipeline or the Peace Pipeline, is poised to transmit 750 million cubic meters of natural gas from Iran’s South Pars Gas field to Pakistan. This significant infrastructure project promises to provide Pakistan with a stable and reliable energy source, effectively alleviating the strain on the country’s energy grid. Given Pakistan’s chronic energy shortages, characterized by frequent power outages that hinder economic growth and development, the pipeline’s implementation holds immense potential for addressing these longstanding challenges.

Furthermore, access to Iranian natural gas is poised to play a pivotal role in satisfying Pakistan’s escalating energy demands, particularly within vital sectors such as power generation, industrial manufacturing, and residential heating. This infusion of energy resources has the potential to catalyze economic growth, attract foreign investment, and elevate the overall standard of living for Pakistan’s populace.

However, the effectiveness of the US in offering viable alternatives to address Pakistan’s chronic energy shortages, including shortages of natural gas and electricity, remains uncertain. The extent to which the US is willing to implement its plans, if any, and its success in providing equal or superior alternatives to the Iranian pipeline, are yet to be determined. It remains to be seen how quickly and efficiently the US can deploy alternative solutions to meet Pakistan’s energy needs and whether these alternatives can offer comparable or improved benefits compared to the Iranian pipeline.

Donald Lu’s testimony before the Congress sub-committee marked a significant milestone in Pak-US relations. The US approach towards Pakistan appeared positive, pragmatic, and supportive, albeit with underlying concerns regarding projects like CPEC and the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, as well as the repatriation of Afghan aliens. However, the tone conveyed during the testimony was not coercive; instead, it hinted at a willingness to offer Pakistan better and more effective alternative solutions to these issues, without explicitly forcing Pakistan to abandon its pursuits.

This testimony served as a promising development for the government of Shahbaz Sharif, signaling US endorsement of armed forces support for the government’s developmental endeavors. Conversely, it also implied a clear message to the PTI and its chairman that they should not rely on US support in pursuit of their objectives. It now falls upon the government of Pakistan to capitalize on this newfound positive stance of the US and leverage it to advance national interests effectively.