By S. M. Hali

A US Congressional panel has frozen $700 million in aid to Pakistan until it gives assurances it is helping fight the spread of homemade bombs in the region. The move has been termed by Pakistan as unwise and likely to strain ties further. Homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), are among the militants’ most effective weapons against US and coalition troops in Afghanistan as they struggle to fight a resurgent Taliban insurgency. Many are made using calcium ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer allegedly smuggled across the border from Pakistan.

The freeze on US aid was agreed as part of a defence bill since the US is seeking assurances that Pakistan is countering improvised explosive devices in their country that are targeting our coalition forces. The United States has reportedly allocated some $20 billion in security and economic aid to Pakistan since 2001, much of it in the form of Coalition Support Fund as reimbursements for assistance in fighting militants.

The unjust decision to freeze aid is likely to prompt Pakistan to harden its stance towards Washington. Relations between the erstwhile allies are already at their lowest ebb. The United States has urged Pakistan to regulate the distribution of ammonium nitrate to Afghanistan strictly. So far, Pakistan has only produced draft legislation on the issue. Analysts say US demands will be tough to meet because of rampant corruption on both sides of the porous border that makes smuggling easy. The provision freezing $700 million in aid was agreed upon by leaders of the armed services committees from both parties in the House and Senate, including Senator John McCain.

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Pakistan has expressed disappointment over US plans to freeze $700 million in aid. The stoppage of US aid 700 m related with the control of fertilizer is not justified, since it will affect poor farmers/families badly. Secondly, there is no surety that only Pakistani fertilizers are being used since it is being made in Iran & Uzbekistan and smuggled in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which is an agro-based country, will have negative impact on its own economy. It will affect Pakistani people and small business.

It is unwarranted since the US took 15 years for legislation on the subject. It is unreasonable to expect such a prompt action from Pakistan, which requires thorough deliberation and discussion before legislation is evolved. Linking aid to performance in curtailing the production and sale of the chemical is not a solution to the problem, since the terrorists can resort to other forms of IEDs.

The chemical has been produced in Pakistan for the last 40 years and in the world for 60-70 years. Pakistan has produced approximately 600,000 metric tons per year (Fatima Group comprising Pak Arab Fertilizers and Fatima Fertilizers, the main manufacturers produce 300,000 metric tons each), which is less than 0.1% of total world production. On the other hand, the total world production is 3.7 million ton. Europe produces 2.89, Pakistan (0.6). India and China have also produced while in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries; Iran, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries also produce the chemical in question.

The product normally used in IEDs is made with 68% of nitric acid called ammonium nitrate. Calcium Ammonium Nitrate is made with 60% Nitric Acid. It is used in arid regions and sandy soil and where there is scarcity of water. The chemical is the lifeline of subsistence farming in regions where land holdings are either very small or unproductive due scarcity of water. Being economical, it is used by low income farmers.

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Pakistan is amongst the countries having acutest shortage of water; per capita water availability ranks dead last in the list of 26 Asian countries and is likely to become water scarce (below 1000 m3) by 2035 which was 5000 m3 in 1950.

In response to the US queries, Fatima Group has taken a number of actions, which include changing the identification of bags by using different color; handing over samples of fertilizer for experimenting color change. The dye, in which color change was successful, is pending approval of US Government. The company has cut down dealer ship in the northern region and reduced supplies.

Given the porous nature of Afghan Pakistan border, the complete stoppage of smuggling is impossible. The Joint IED defeat organization (JIEDDO) was created in 2005, provided US$ 21 billion during last six years (US$ 3-4 billion per year). JIEDDO failed to produce results despite it invested in more than 1000 counter IED initiatives.

Capitol Hill has become frustrated with JIEDDO work and House Armed Committee threatened to halve its budget last year unless JIEDDO provided detailed visibility about budget utilization. Congress is of the view; threat has been overstated and considers JIEDDO as liability.

There have been numerous proposals to make US aid to Pakistan conditional on more cooperation in fighting militants such as the Haqqani network Washington believes operate out of Pakistan and battle US troops in Afghanistan. Given the trust deficit and bad blood that has been created between the US and Pakistan, there is need for examining the areas of mistrust with sane elements pondering over the issues. The media in the US has also been active in creating bad blood, which was heightened by the Raymond Davis affair, the elimination of Osama bin Laden and latest, the attack on the Salala Check post by NATO forces. CENTCOM has examined the attack and come up with its own findings, which have been rejected by Pakistan, which believes the attack was premeditated and not an error as claimed by CENTCOM. Pakistani military were not part of the inquiry hence no relevant cross-examination could take place.

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Whereas, it was expected that the US would see reason and render an apology to the people and government of Pakistan, instead insult has been added to injury through the unreasonable linking of $700m in US aid to Pakistan until it gives assurances it is helping fight the spread of improvised explosive devices in the region and curtailing the production and sale of ammonium nitrate.