foreign policy

Pakistan Is a Problematic Ally, But Trump Cutting It Off Won’t Change That

Activists of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council shout anti-U.S. slogans at a protest in Karachi on January 2, 2018. Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it was suspending nearly all security assistance to Pakistan, citing what it described as insufficient action by the country to combat terrorist organizations such as the Taliban-connected Haqqani network that plot attacks in Afghanistan from its soil.

The decision could affect up to $1.3 billion in aid, including $1.1 billion in so-called Coalition Support Funds provided by the Pentagon to help pay for counterterrorism operations, along with $255 million in military funding from the State Department. Pakistan will not receive any American military equipment while the freeze is in place. However, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the exact amount of funding to be frozen was not yet determined and that exceptions could be made on a case-by-case basis. Non-military funding such as economic and humanitarian aid is not affected.

The State Department also added Pakistan to its special watchlist of countries engaging in “severe violations” of religious freedom — a designation Pakistan’s government quickly decried as politically motivated.

President Donald Trump hinted at this freeze in his Afghanistan strategy speech last August and in an angry tweet on New Year’s Day, in which he accused Pakistan of giving the U.S. “nothing but lies & deceit” in exchange for $33 billion in aid since 2002. Pakistan has quibbled with that $33 billion figure, noting that the CSF component was no gift but rather “compensation for services rendered” and that not all funds allocated for aid to Pakistan have actually been disbursed. Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, described the proposed cuts as bewildering, claiming that the amount of aid his country had actually received from the U.S. was “very, very insignificant,” amounting to less than $10 million a year over the past five years.

The administration says Pakistan can get its security aid restored on the condition that it cut contact with extremist groups and reassign agents of its troublesome military-intelligence agency (the Inter-Service Intelligence) with links to these groups. U.S. officials also want access to a member of the Haqqani network Pakistan captured during an October raid in which it freed a Canadian-American family being held hostage by them.

That Pakistan has served as a safe haven for terrorist groups is not really in dispute: After all, Osama bin Laden lived for six years in Abbottabad, a city that also hosts a major military academy, before being killed by Navy SEALS in 2011. Pakistan denied knowing he was there, but the idea that nobody in the country’s military or intelligence establishment had a clue simply beggars belief. Some members of the ISI are known to sympathize with militant groups like the Taliban, and the agency or elements within it have been suspected of abetting terror plots in Afghanistan and India.

The problem with labeling Pakistan qua Pakistan a sponsor of terrorism is that it may assume too much about the stability, cohesion, and reach of the Pakistani government. The terrorist groups that operate in Pakistan are mostly based in the country’s northern regions, between the porous border with Afghanistan and near the disputed territory of Kashmir. Islamabad has consistently had trouble governing this nigh-ungovernable region, which has been racked for decades by violence, crippling poverty, widespread illiteracy, and the kind of extremism that feeds off such conditions.

Even if Pakistan were a highly functional state, policing these nigh-ungovernable mountains would be a challenge. Unfortunately, it’s not: It’s a weak state, with less than complete control over its territory and fragmented authority among its agencies, particularly the unaccountable ISI. That weakness is sustained by poverty, ethnic divisions, and the growing influence of radical Islamic thought, promulgated in religious schools funded by Saudi Arabia.

The more complicated reality is that parts of the Pakistani state are very much sponsors of terrorism, while other parts are trying their best to fight it. That’s one reason why most observers doubt that cutting off Pakistan’s access to U.S. military aid will compel it to change its behavior: Even if it really wanted to meet Trump’s conditions, it probably can’t. Most Pakistanis hate the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, but they don’t exactly love the country that has been drone-bombing them for the past 13 years, either. Rallying Pakistan’s vast, fragmented military and intelligence community around the principle of unwavering cooperation with the U.S. would be a Sisyphean task.

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis in the anti-Taliban camp find Trump’s allegations of “lies and deceit” galling. Islamabad-based journalist and counterterrorism researcher Arsla Jawaid writes for CNN that for all its faults, the country has poured an awful lot of blood and treasure into the war on terrorism, making halting but meaningful progress in recent years, while thousands of Pakistani civilians have been killed by Taliban terrorists and American Predator drones alike. Factoring in the economic toll of helping the U.S. prosecute the forever war on its soil, Jawaid argues, the costs to Pakistan of being a U.S. ally have vastly outweighed the American aid it has received.

Even critics of Pakistan who support getting tougher with our problematic ally doubt that suspending aid will make much difference. Writing in the Washington Post, Indian journalist Barkha Dutt points out that an aid cutoff is a price the Pakistani military is willing to pay in order to pursue what it sees as Pakistan’s national interest rather than that of the U.S., whereas the American war effort in Afghanistan remains heavily dependent on supply routes through Pakistan, making it hard for leaders in Islamabad to imagine us abandoning them entirely. Unless the U.S. is willing to reroute its Afghan supply lines, while also backing Pakistan’s elected civilian government in its longstanding power struggle with the military, Dutt doubts that Trump’s move will have much effect.

In any case, we know that putting financial pressure on Pakistan doesn’t compel it to change its ways because the Obama administration tried it, repeatedly, and to no avail. As Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair explains at Foreign Policy, Pakistan holds all the cards here, because we need them more than they need us. Not only is Pakistan a critical link in our supply chain to Afghanistan, it’s also got the fastest-growing nuclear program in the world, the security of which is already terrifyingly spotty. The global security threats posed by insolvency, instability, or economic and political collapse in Pakistan are such that we can’t cut it off completely without raising the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

For its part, Pakistan has been preparing for a suspension of American aid for years, after all the other times we have threatened or attempted one. The country has cultivated other financiers, including Russia and China, as the dollar value of U.S. aid has declined in recent years. The Pakistanis can afford to gamble here, figuring that either Washington will eventually become too scared of loose nukes to let our purchased influence there deteriorate any further, or Beijing will step in to fill the gap. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the press he was not concerned about the possibility of Pakistan cutting off our routes to Afghanistan in retaliation, which so far it has not indicated it will do. An anonymous official told Reuters on Friday that the administration was examining steps to mitigate the impact of such a retaliatory measure, which they acknowledged could be quite severe, but these “risk mitigation plans” are not fully developed. Judging from these remarks, the administration does not seem to have a fully baked strategy for coping with a rapid deterioration in relations with Islamabad.

In keeping with his foreign-policy doctrine of scuttling any transaction that does not get the U.S. enough bang for its buck, Trump appears to be balancing the cost of our aid to Pakistan against the help we’re getting from them and concluding that this deal is simply not worth the money. But accounting for the full range of costs and risks inherent in cutting Pakistan loose, along with the likelihood that this punishment won’t prove corrective, the balance sheet begins to look messier. America’s strategy in Pakistan has been on the wrong track for a long time, but that doesn’t mean Trump’s approach will put it on the right one.

Cutting Off Pakistan Won’t Make It a Less Problematic Ally