Is Bush Waiver Good for Pak Democracy?
Weekly Pulse
February 24-March 2, 2006
In the run-up to his March 3, 2006 visit to Islamabad, US President George W Bush has waived democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan. In a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Bush said last week he was easing prohibitions under the Appropriations Act, which targets countries where a democratically elected government has been overturned by a coup. President Bush said the waiver would “facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan” and is “important to United States efforts to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism.”

The lifting of these sanctions paves the way for the export of US arms and equipment to Pakistan. One of the reasons given by the Bush administration for taking this step is to promote democratization in the country. This is not the first time the Bush administration has decided to issue a time-bound waiver for the democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan. Also, like previous waivers, the validity of the latest waiver is only for one US fiscal year. However, since the step comes at a time when both the government and the opposition leaders at home and abroad are gearing up for a political campaign, the questions it raises are worth considering.

Key Questions

Does the US move amount to an acknowledgement of the Musharraf government’s proclaimed commitment to introduce true democracy? Can it be construed as an American certification of the military-dominated government’s political strategy, or, as the government circles would say, the Bush administration’s satisfaction about the steps towards democracy taken by Musharraf’s Pakistan?

Or, as the opponents of the regime would argue, will the lifting of democracy-specific sanctions by the Bush administration strengthen the hands of the Musharraf regime? Does not it amount to encouraging Musharraf to continue perpetuating his rule? Would this development not be depressing for the leaderships-in-exile of the PPP and PML-N, the country’s mainstream political forces, desirous of using the growing public anger at the regime to their political advantage?

Given the fact that the United States is fighting a War on Terror in this region, Pakistan’s help for which is quite crucial, it was only a matter of time for President Bush to remove the last-remaining prohibitions from the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Such restrictions have prevented Pakistan from importing weaponry or equipment it deems essential for its security from American arms manufacturers. These include F-16s and their spares, P-3 Orion reconnaissance planes, helicopters, night vision devices, Armored Personnel Carriers, and even dual-use technologies.

Section 508 of the 1999 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act forbids US assistance to a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military or decree.” But it also says that assistance to such a country may be resumed “if the president determines that subsequent to the termination of assistance, a democratically elected government has taken office.”

On 22 September 11, 2001, the Bush administration had waived restrictions under the 1974 Foreign Aid Act on both India and Pakistan, which were imposed in the aftermath of the May 1998 nuclear tests by the two countries. In response to Pakistan’s support to the War on Terror, the Bush administration had allowed some of the nuclear sanctions to lapse quietly while others were waived. In October 2001, the US Congress had also voluntarily removed some prohibitions from the Appropriations Act. These included sanctions involving weapons sales, government credits and finance and some aid programmes.

Almost four and a half years have passed since the events of 9/11, yet Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror remains as crucial as before. The Afghan insurgency or resistance, whatever one may call it, continues unabated, and has even assumed grave proportions with the introduction of the hitherto absent but potentially volatile factor of suicide bombing. The situation inside Pakistan is not that satisfactory.

Bush needs Pakistan to fight his war on terrorism. Musharraf needs America to keep himself in power. It is as simple as that. This is the reality, however immoral. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration could also have waived democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan, but it decided not to do so. The sanctions were imposed under the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, after the military coup by General Musharraf in October 1999.

Musharraf’s Critics

Critics of the Pakistani military regime had then hailed the US decision for not lifting the democracy-specific sanctions, as this could facilitate an early restoration of democracy in Pakistan. By keeping these sanctions, Washington, in fact, kept the Musharraf regime under pressure. In March 2003, however, President Bush decided to waive democracy-related sanctions on Pakistan, paving the way for the country to receive about $250m of economic aid already approved by Congress. However, this was only a one-time waiver, applicable only for the one fiscal year.

In a memorandum to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr Bush had said a waiver “would facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan; and was important to US efforts to respond to, deter or prevent acts of international terrorism.” He has given the same rationale for the purpose this time as well. So, this is not the first time, the United States has lifted democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan. In March last year, an influential US Senator, Richard G Lugar had proposed the extension of the Presidential waiver on democracy-related sanctions against Pakistan for the fiscal year till 2006. The current waiver will be valid only for one year; that is, until the start of 2007.

Now that America’s democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan are once again gone for at least a year, the Musharraf regime has gained political leverage, however transitory its nature may be. This may not be a good omen for former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both of whom seem to be getting ready for a political comeback prior to the general elections.

At present, however, the government leadership is trying to manipulate the political situation in its favour prior to the general elections. Be it the forthcoming Senate elections, or the lingering issue of a President-in-uniform—President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz would, for their own respective part, will do utmost in the run up to the next general elections to secure for themselves a smooth transition to power. All the current political wrangling and wheeling-dealing point to such an intended scenario.

In retrospect, Bush administration’s democratic rationale to lift democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan is fundamentally flawed. The American move has neither been made in appreciation of Musharraf’s democratic track-record, nor is it intended to promote democracy in the country. It is based on a simple, real-politick logic—as clear from the second justification given by the Bush administration for lifting the sanctions: that Washington needs a stable Pakistan so that it could make maximum contributions to the “war on terrorism.”

Textile Exports

Since 2002, the United States has been providing over $600 million in economic and military assistance, which is part of the $3 billion US aid package for Pakistan in exchange for its role of a frontline state against terrorism in the South and West Asian region. US public and private donations for the relief and rehabilitation of the earthquake victims in Pakistan are also one of the largest from any single country, amounting to some $510 million. The lifting of democracy-specific sanctions would also facilitate US economic assistance to Pakistan.

The Pakistan leadership, no matter how undemocratic its background, orientation or approach may be, has shown growing interest in re-capturing the American market for Pakistani textile exports. During his last month’s visit to Washington, Prime Minister Aziz had tried to convince President Bush about the need to lift protectionist measures vis-à-vis Pakistani textile products, 90 per cent of which have traditionally been exported to the US. A majority of the country’s textile exporters have suffered due to protectionism in the US market. In order to overcome this problem, Islamabad wants to conclude a Bilateral Investment treaty and a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

Bush administration’s decision to lift democracy-specific sanctions on Pakistan is symbolically significant, even though its outcome for the country’s political process may go beyond mere symbolism. Leaving aside politics of the issue, what is more important for Islamabad is the re-opening of the US market for Pakistan’s textile exports. The US President’s visit to Islamabad will be one of the rarest opportunities for our leadership, which must highlight the need for institutionalizing such concrete initiatives in the context of US-Pak relationship, making it truly strategic, broad-based and long-term.