The US is to suspend all security assistance to the country. But if Trump continues to ramp up the pressure, Pakistan could retaliateby Rupert Stone / January 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Trump administration announced last week that it would be suspending all United States security assistance to Pakistan over its alleged support for terrorist groups, such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. These groups apparently use sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks against US interests in Afghanistan, and may receive arms and intelligence from the Pakistani military, too.
Pakistan has long backed militants operating in Afghanistan. During the 1980s its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), teamed up with the CIA to support jihadists opposing the Soviet invasion of that country. When the Soviet Union lost and withdrew, Afghanistan descended into civil war, and Pakistan armed and funded the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, which eventually took control of the government in 1996.
Then came 9/11. The al-Qaeda terrorists who perpetrated the attacks had been trained in Afghanistan, where the group received protection from the government. The US therefore invaded in October, 2001, and removed the Taliban from power. Pakistan, for its part, agreed to assist America’s “war on terror” in return for large amounts of aid. But instead it played a “double game,” targeting some militants while continuing to harbour the Taliban.
Fast forward to 1st January, 2018. In his first tweet of the year, President Trump fumed about the $33 billion of aid he claimed the US had given to Pakistan since 2001. But this figure is misleading, because, while Congress has indeed allocated that amount, successive administrations have not always spent all the money they were entitled to. Funds have been withheld in recent years due to Pakistan’s support for militant groups.
Furthermore, US funding has been declining for some time. Aid peaked in 2010, at the height of President Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan, but has more than halved since then. In 2011, bilateral relations collapsed following the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden inside Pakistan, leading the Obama administration to suspend all aid temporarily. Trump’s decision is not unprecedented.
US aid to Pakistan falls into three categories: economic aid, security assistance (which helps Pakistan purchase military equipment, among other things), and the copious “Coalition Support Fund” (which reimburses Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations). Trump is only suspending military aid, which this year amounts to about $1.3 billion (but the total suspended could be as much as $2 billion, once funds still withheld from previous years are included).
In his tweet, Trump complained that the US had received “nothing but lies and deceit” for all the money it had given Pakistan. This is false and insulting. While Pakistan certainly could have done more, it helped the US capture numerous al-Qaeda suspects, provided logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, launched unprecedented military offensives in the tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan, and sacrificed tens of thousands of its citizens in the process.
Trump’s aid cut-off is clearly intended to coerce Islamabad into targeting militants on its territory. But this is unlikely to happen. Previous aid cuts (for example in 2016) have not forced firm action against the Haqqani Network. Despite years of American pressure, Pakistan has still not expelled the Taliban. Why would this time be any different?
Pakistan’s strategic calculus has not changed. It has long worried that arch-enemy India is expanding its influence in Afghanistan. And, although these fears are exaggerated, India is indeed allied with the Afghan government. Kabul, for its part, has a hostile relationship with Islamabad and has even backed anti-Pakistan jihadist groups.
Pakistan therefore shelters the Taliban and aids its insurgency against the Afghan government to weaken perceived adversaries across the border. This will likely continue, given that President Trump publicly urged India to expand its role in Afghanistan during a speech last August. The US has become much closer to India in recent years, sparking fears in Islamabad that the two powers might be ganging up on Pakistan.
“Things could spiral out of control. Given Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, this is a worrying prospect”
It is also unlikely that Pakistan will act against Taliban sanctuaries in Balochistan (where the group’s leadership is reportedly based) because of the risk of blowback. Under the rule of former President Musharraf in the years after 9/11, Pakistan followed US instructions to attack Taliban and other militants in the tribal areas. The government’s apparent willingness to act as an American puppet outraged many in Pakistan, leading to a dramatic spike in terror attacks and the weakening of Musharraf’s regime.
Domestic politics in Pakistan is still a factor. 2018 is an election year, and America is now so unpopular in the country that the ruling PML-N party, already rocked by a corruption scandal that brought down former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last year, will surely be hesitant to follow Trump’s orders. That is especially true because populist opposition leader Imran Khan is staunchly anti-American and will pounce on any subservience to Washington.
But Pakistan does not need to pander. It can survive without US aid, which amounts to a tiny percentage of the country’s $300 billion GDP. The loss of cutting-edge military equipment is a nuisance, true, but Pakistan can acquire supplies from elsewhere. China already provides far more weaponry than the US, in addition to the tens of billions of dollars Beijing is investing in the country, and Russia has been increasing its security assistance, too. Old allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia may also help.
Pakistan could retaliate against US pressure by closing supply routes into Afghanistan. It temporarily shut off ground (but not air) access in 2011 following a skirmish with NATO forces on the border. Without use of Pakistani territory and air space, the US will struggle to supply its troops. The only alternative is a much more precarious and expensive route going through Turkey and the Caucasus. Access through Iran is, of course, not an option.
Blockading NATO forces would be a drastic move on Islamabad’s part. For now, Pakistan appears to be acting cautiously. It may even take superficial measures against militants to assuage Trump’s anger. But if he continues to apply pressure (for example by conducting unilateral military operations against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan), things could spiral out of control. Given Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, this is a worrying prospect.
At the end of the day, Washington needs Islamabad’s assistance, not only to support the war in Afghanistan, but also for counter-terrorism. Last year the Pakistani military, acting on a US intelligence tip-off, rescued hostages taken by the Haqqani Network. Furthermore, if Trump wishes to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, as he claims, he will need Pakistan’s help, given its ties to the group’s leadership. His bullying may do more harm than good.