WASHINGTON — A key House lawmaker is sponsoring legislation to downgrade Pakistan's status as a major U.S. ally and limit its access to American-made weapons, just as President Donald Trump intends to take a harder line toward Islamabad.
Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe has proposed a bill that would take away Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally, or MNNA. The move comes amid multiple reports the Trump administration will press Islamabad to crack down on Pakistan-based militants like the Haqqani network, which launched attacks in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan must be held accountable for the American blood on its hands," Poe said while introducing the bill on Thursday. "For years, Pakistan has acted as a Benedict Arnold ally of the United States. From harboring Osama bin Laden to backing the Taliban, Pakistan has stubbornly refused to go after, in any meaningful way, terrorists that actively seek to harm opposing ideologies."
Poe said the U.S. must make a clean break with Pakistan or at least stop providing it with sophisticated weaponry and treating it like a close ally.
Poe chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee, and he has offered similar legislation several times over several years. This bill, co-sponsored with Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., is more likely to make a statement than to become reality, and it faces a long legislative road if the administration doesn't beat it to the punch.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has hinted the U.S. strategy review for Afghanistan due in mid-July will include a shift on Pakistan. He told Congress last week the strategy would be included in "a regional approach."
But Pakistan's embassy in Washington warned against "scapegoating" to explain the stalemate in Afghanistan, pointing instead to Afghanistan's own troubled internal dynamics.
"Singling out Pakistan and pinning the entire blame on Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan is neither fair nor accurate, nor is it borne out by the ground realities," said Abid Saeed, press minister at the embassy, told Reuters.
In 2004, President George W. Bush granted Pakistan MNNA status in an effort to get Pakistan to help the United States fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
That status makes it eligible for priority delivery of defense material, an expedited arms sale process and a U.S. loan guarantee program that backs up loans issued by private banks to finance arms exports. It can also stockpile U.S. military hardware, participate in defense research and development programs and be sold more sophisticated weaponry.
Pakistan has since become one of the leading recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, as Congress appropriated more than $18 billion in aid between 2002 and 2015, including $7.6 billion in security-related aid.
According to data compiled by the Center for International Policy, Congress was notified in 2014 of more than $600 million in major arms sales to Pakistan, including $200 million in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and GRC43M cutters worth $350 million. In 2015, there was nearly $1 billion in U.S. sales to Pakistan, including Viper attack helicopters and Hellfire missiles. The U.S. subsidized some of this under foreign military financing funds.
The powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was instrumental in blocking U.S. subsidies for the $700 million sale of eight F-16 Block 52 fighter jets to Pakistan in 2016. He also fended off efforts to scuttle the sale completely.
Corker, on Wednesday, declined to comment on the idea of changing Pakistan's status but said he hoped the Trump administration would take a tougher stand toward Pakistan over its alleged support of the Haqqani network.
"We have spent billion and billions and billions of tax-payer dollars toward their country, and I'm certainly unsatisfied," Corker said. "The No. 1 threat to American soldiers is the Haqqani network, and Pakistan allows it to have safe haven in their country."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.