Exit Pakistan, East
lslamabad Opts Out of Lobbying as Washington-New Delhi Bond Grows
Pakistan, once a strategic ally of the United States during the Cold War, has seen its influence continue to decline since Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad in 2011. The country’s steadily decreasing influence has been magnified by the absence of lobbyists who normally would be serving as Islamabad’s voice in Washington.
Pakistan’s relationship with U.S. lawmakers and administration officials has soured for multiple reasons, according to experts.
The liberal, Harvard-educated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — who maintained good relations with the United States — was assassinated in 2008. Then in 2011, the United States found bin Laden hiding in Pakistan, which set off a series of reactions, most notably the Obama administration cutting aid to Pakistan as suspicions abounded that the Pakistani military or government were aware of bin Laden’s location well before the U.S. raid in which he was killed.
Most recently, President Donald Trump cut foreign aid to Pakistan. The September 2018 decision was made in part due to what Trump said was the country’s failure to aggressively combat militancy. However, others have suggested the move could have been motivated by unrelated factors, including a desire for a closer relationship with India and an aggressive push from Indian-American lobbyists.
Even before 9/11, past administrations have had a complicated relationship with Pakistan. President George H.W. Bush withheld the delivery of F-16s that Pakistan had already paid for when the country couldn’t prove it wasn’t developing nuclear weapons. President Barack Obama also chastised Islamabad for failing to fight terrorism as forthrightly as Washington would have preferred.
While the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, chaired by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, still exists, it is smaller than its Indian counterpart, chaired by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va. and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Furthermore, one of the founders of the caucus and perhaps Pakistan’s most steadfast defender on the hill, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., retired in 2013. Burton repeatedly introduced measures to cut aid to India, none of which became law. He says his motivations were primarily human rights abuses perpetrated in Kashmir, a long-disputed territory bordering India and Pakistan. Sikhs visited him and brought the issue to his attention, he adds.
“There were many Sikhs who lived in Kashmir who were worried about Azad Kashmir and India-occupied Kashmir,” Burton says. Azad Kashmir is a section of Kashmir administered by Pakistan. Burton says the Sikhs were concerned about their relatives and friends living in parts of Kashmir under Indian control and brought him evidence of human rights abuses and “atrocities” committed by the Indian military.
One prominent Kashmiri activist who also began to speak to Burton was Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, an American citizen born in the troubled region who went by “Dr. Fai” despite never appearing to have earned a doctorate degree. In 1989, he founded the Kashmiri American Council, or KAC, which was headquartered a few blocks from the White House.
Medill News Service reached out to Fai several times but he declined to comment by deadline.
“I did not know much about him other than he was a person that was taking the position of Pakistan,” Burton said by phone when asked about Fai, “and he came to talk to me about issues of Pakistan, Kashmir and India and I became interested so I decided to help with the problems over there.”
Fai did more than talk. From 1990 to 2010 he donated $10,910 to Burton’s congressional campaigns, the largest total among a series of donations to several other members of Congress, including Republican Reps. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, as well as Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia. From 2006 to 2010, Zaheer Ahmad, another member of the KAC, donated an additional $4,000 to Burton’s campaigns.
Top five receivers of cumulative political donations made from Fai
“My interest was not in any way to be involved in the political aspects of Pakistan,” Burton says. “My interest … was pretty much Kashmir.”
In 2011, however, it turned out that Pakistan wanted Burton involved in its political affairs whether he knew it or not, according to a DOJ indictment of Fai, who was charged with concealing the transfer of $3.5 million from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s intelligence agency, to fund his lobbying efforts. His arrest came a month after the bin Laden raid.
Fai was charged under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, a statute that was not routinely enforced at the time, but has grown in relevance after several individuals were charged under the law during the course of the recently completed special counsel’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Fai Criminal Complaint
Burton says the entire ordeal came as a shock to him.
“When I found out about that, whatever contributions he made to my campaign, I sent back” Burton says, “or else I gave it to charity.”
Burton said at the time that he donated the money he received from Fai to the Boy Scouts of America. A representative from the Scouts failed to comment when asked to confirm that the donation had been made.
Other individuals, including lobbyists and government officials who interacted with Fai during his 20 years of lobbying, say they had suspicions about his connections to Pakistan before he was indicted in 2011.
Fai wasn’t the only Pakistani contributing to Burton’s campaigns. In 1996, about a quarter of all donations to the Republican’s re-election efforts came from Pakistanis or Sikhs. But in Burton’s eyes, some money had still been left on the table, according to Mark Siegel, a longtime lobbyist for Pakistan and close friend of Bhutto.
In early 1995, Burton asked Siegel to raise and bundle donations from Pakistani Republicans for his campaign to the tune of at least $5,000, according to Siegel, who says he was surprised at the request.
“I said I would do my best,” Siegel says, “but … the Pakistani Republicans that I contacted — didn’t want to do anything because they said he doesn’t need any money. He doesn’t have any contest.”
Burton went on to beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 50 percentage points, a similar margin to his previous victory and the most lopsided congressional contest in Indiana at the time.
“The bottom line was he called me and demanded the money,” Siegel says, “and I told him that I tried but I could not raise the money he wanted.” Three days later, Siegel got a fax from the national security adviser to then-Prime Minister Bhutto.
It said that Bhutto was “distressed to know … that Congressman Dan Burton says that you were unable to keep certain promises regarding fundraising for his reelection campaign and that you were also very unhelpful in other matters.” Siegel also says the adviser told him he would “not be allowed in any Republican office on the hill.”
Burton had complained to the Pakistani embassy that their lobbyist had failed to raise money for him.
Officials at Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The Justice Department convened a task force after Siegel’s allegations to investigate the fundraising abuses by Burton. Both Siegel and Bhutto were subpoenaed to appear in front of a grand jury. Siegel reportedly told the grand jury that Burton called him five times to ask for money and the calls clearly came from inside his congressional office, which would violate campaign finance law. Burton was never prosecuted.
Burton denies Siegel’s accusations and account of the events, saying that he did not know Siegel was a Democrat when he first approached him. When asked, Burton calls Siegel a “Democratic operative” set up by President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton and then-Attorney General Janet Reno to stop him from investigating the Clintons as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
“They did all kinds of things to try and stop me,” Burton says, “which did not work.” Burton sees Siegel as a participant in another of a long line of coordinated political maneuvers orchestrated by Democrats against him.
“He is a no good, lying S.O.B.,” Burton says. Siegel maintains that Burton was in the wrong.
“I have never been shaken down like this before,” Siegel says, “This is out of a bad novel or a bad movie. This is not the way Washington operates.”
Pakistan hasn’t hired a lobbyist in Washington since Siegel’s contract ended in 2013.
U.S. Out, China In
To make matters worse, since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has increased its criticism of Islamabad for what many in Washington see as a weak response to terrorism. But that may not be the only reason for the president’s decision to end aid.
“If you look at their relationship between Pakistan and India and the United States,” Siegel says, “it is not at all surprising that someone like Trump seeing an Indian market of over a billion people and an exploding pocket of upper-middle class rich people versus the 200 million people of Pakistan with all kinds of other internal problems, Trump would put his cards on the Indian side of the table. Everyone in India understands it. Everyone in Pakistan understands it.”
For the president, the decision could be personal as well. Several Trump properties are in development in India. None are planned in Pakistan.
“I was asked in the early days of the Trump administration ‘How can we have good relations with Trump?'” Siegel says, “and I gave a very smart-ass answer that I think now, in retrospect may be true. I said to them: ‘Let him build a Trump tower in Lahore.'”
India has welcomed better relations with the United States since the end of the Cold War, while still maintaining its autonomy to interact with other nations.
“I think there is a consensus that India should have good relations with the U.S. and also with Russia and also, despite India’s many, many issues and problems with China, with China as well,” says Rajmohan Gandhi, an Indian historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and grandson of the Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi.
Meanwhile, as official Washington largely gives Islamabad the cold shoulder, officials in Pakistan have begun looking elsewhere for new allies. China has begun building infrastructure projects in the country and providing aid as part of its so-called Belt and Road Initiative to counter U.S. influence in the region. In November 2018, China promised Islamabad a further $6 billion in aid to help with the South Asian nation’s financial troubles.
“The U.S. is, in a way, losing its leverage on Pakistan,” says Robinder Sachdev, an international relations expert and founder of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, “and China is stepping in.”
Siegel sees this as another potential reason he wasn’t replaced.
“If it’s becoming a bi-polar world between the United States and China,” Siegel says,”I know where Pakistan is.”