Pakistan navy quits anti-piracy task force amid worsening US ties

Pakistan’s navy is no longer part of the counterpiracy Combined Task Force (CTF) that operates in the western Indian Ocean, officials told Al Jazeera.

The decision to leave the task force was taken after the US-led operation refused to pay for fuel for the patrolling warships as part of a previous agreement, two highly-placed military officials told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. 

Military officials believe that CTF nations will feel Pakistan’s absence because of its counter-piracy expertise and the Pakistani vessels’ access to waters that are not friendly to Western flag-bearing ships.

Pakistan has taken command of the task force several times since 2013 and participated in operations with two warships that patrolled the Arabian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) – the over-arching organisation of which the CTF is a part – confirmed that Pakistan is no longer participating with ships in the task force.

“Currently, Pakistan provides experienced naval personnel, very knowledgeable in areas such as operating in the Indian Ocean,” CMF spokesperson Wendy Wheatley said.

“The current constituents of CTF 151 does not include Pakistan, however, a new team of nations take over every 4-6 months,” she added.

“Participation remains purely voluntary and no nation is asked to carry out any duty that it is unwilling to conduct.”

Rocky relations

Distancing itself from CTF gives Pakistan a chance to carry out an independent Regional Maritime Security Patrol (RMSP) from the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Oman, and from the Strait of Hormuz to the Maldivian waters, a Pakistani military official said.

Pakistan, which shares a border with Iran and also has a major trade relationship with China, has had a rocky relationship with the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Pakistan participated with two warships in the anti-piracy coalition [Osama Bin Javaid/Al Jazeera]

Responding to the end of Pakistani participation in the anti-piracy task force, Pakistani military officials said the country has to guard its own interests in the western India Ocean.

“The objective of the RMSP initiative by Pakistan Navy is to maintain presence along critical areas to fulfil international obligations for maritime security and safeguard national shipping while observing freedom of navigation across high seas,” the official said.

Pakistani security officials believe Islamabad’s warming relations with Iran’s military as well as security agreements with China could be cause for concern in Washington and Riyadh.

Navy ships Tariq and Zulfiqar were part of the CTF 151 [Osama Bin Javaid/Al Jazeera]

Sources told Al Jazeera that the decision not to send warships to the task force does not mean that ties were severed, saying Pakistan could still resume the partnership with the anti-piracy coalition.

Pakistan remains a member of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), the coalition confirmed in a statement.

“It’s a team of nations who work together to enhance maritime security across the Gulf, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea to the Suez Canal,” CMF added.

“CTF 151 is currently under Singapore’s command, with staff from New Zealand, Bahrain, Brazil, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, KSA, Australia, South Korea and the UK.

“CTFs’ constituents change with every change of command. Routinely CTF 151 will have around six to 10 countries participating,” the statement added.

Restricted military ties

The maritime coalition has not commented on why Pakistan left and whether the decision to limit fuel supplies was linked to recent military cuts initiated by Washington.

In August, the Trump administration stopped funding training for Pakistani military officers.

For more than a decade, Pakistani officers’ training has been funded by the US government’s International Military Education and Training Program, which provides money for placements of international military officers at the US National Defense University.

But the relationship between the two allies in the so-called “war on terror” has been strained.

In September, the US military cut $300m in aid to Pakistan, citing its perceived failure to tackle “terrorist groups and militants”.

“Due to a lack of decisive actions in support of the South Asia strategy, the remaining $300m was reprogrammed,” the Pentagon said.

This was not the first time Washington has restricted military ties with Pakistan.

In the 1990s, an amendment by US Senator Larry Pressler severed security links with Pakistan because of its nuclear programme.

US officials later admitted that the breakdown in ties was a mistake and helped groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and others to find havens in Pakistan, which was not able to counter evolving armed groups on its own.

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