US-Pakistan bilateral ties hit a new low in 2018 after US President Donald Trump’s tweet on New Year’s Eve that made Pakistan the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. This might not have been a huge surprise for Pakistan, considering the early warnings given by the US during the release of its South Asia Policy and National Security Strategy in August and December 2017 respectively, both being grim reminders of eroding US confidence in Pakistan. The United States toughened its stand on Pakistan due to its growing mistrust of Islamabad’s intent to eradicate terror outfits like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.
The reality is that the US decision to cut its security aid to Pakistan brings nothing new into US-Pakistan bilateral dynamics. The US had already done that previously when it cut the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) amounting to USD 900 million for the financial years 2015 and 2016, as these funds are to be released only after certification that Pakistan is taking the necessary steps against the Haqqani network. Now, both the CSF and the USD 255 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) have been suspended. What has changed now is the approach of the US administration to Pakistan, publicly accusing Islamabad of supporting the terror outfits that are waging a deadly insurgency in Afghan territory and ruining US efforts in Afghanistan. Clearly, the US is not winning the war in Afghanistan and is seeking answers for its own failures in the landlocked country. Pakistan being the most important ally for the US in Afghanistan, at least since 2002, has not lived up to US expectations, which has irked the Trump administration which is up for quick results and is known for hasty decision-making. The immediate casualty of this are cuts in security aid of up to USD 2 billion (exact figures still unknown), and the Trump administration is up for some concrete results on the Afghan front.
While many analysts argue that President Trump’s decision is a hasty one with little logic, the decision to impose security aid cuts should be considered as a measured move for three reasons.
First, the US has cut only security aid which is a small part of the total aid that it gives to Pakistan. It did not cut its development assistance to Pakistan. Understandably, the US does not want to completely alienate Pakistan from its strategic radar by cutting down all financial flows. Second, Pakistan’s fast-growing nuclear capability and arsenal are of concern to the US, considering that their security has always been a problem. Hence, the US is wary of creating any instability in Pakistan — either economic or political. Third, with no US strategy in place for land and air routes to Afghanistan, other than through Pakistani territory, the US would prefer not to escalate the crisis to the next level. If Pakistan blocks the movement of supplies for troops through Pakistani territory, it would adversely affect US interests in Afghanistan, much more than it could afford at this point in time. Hence, President Trump’s sudden tweet could be considered as a pressure tactic that could get its “major non-NATO ally” on its feet.
Pakistan has two options to explore: either choose to maintain its relationship of convenience with the US by cracking down on any of the terrorist outfits, or turn to its “all-weather friend” China.
Pakistan, on its part, has categorically rejected all the allegations made by President Trump. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi even went on to say that US aid is insignificant for Pakistan as for the past five years they have been getting only USD 10 million annually and are unaware of the higher figures quoted all over the media. However, there was no mention of anything remotely related to blocking the US from using its air or land routes. Even though they are involved in a war of words, both sides have been careful not to escalate it to a level from which there is no comeback.
How to manipulate aid for strategic gains is something that aid donors understand very well and have been doing for a long time. However, the donor-recipient relationship here is much more complex than one can assume. Aid recipients like Pakistan hold certain bargaining chips that ensure continuous flows of aid to their countries. Even when the US is trying to force Pakistan to mend its ways, Pakistan understands that the US security aid cut is temporary, and that the US cannot do without Pakistan in the Afghan war. Hence, expecting any concrete results out of the security aid sanctions will be unwise. The US’ whole Afghan policy will hollow out without engaging Pakistan. As long as maintaining strategic ties with Pakistan remains essential for the US, Islamabad has greater leverage over the US.
Pakistan has two options to explore: either choose to maintain its relationship of convenience with the US by cracking down on any of the terrorist outfits, or turn to its “all-weather friend” China. Even though China has publicly supported Pakistan and its efforts in eradicating terror outfits, whether China will fill the gap left by the US is uncertain.
Without a doubt, China has interests in Afghanistan and would be ready to support Pakistan if need be. However, whether Beijing will shoulder the huge economic and security costs involved without expecting any returns from Pakistan is something the latter might not be sure of. Notwithstanding its economic, military, and strategic ties with Pakistan, China has been doing strict business with Pakistan, and has itself been concerned about the security scenario in Pakistan as its USD 50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has come under terror threats with many projects stalled. Yet, if Pakistan convinces China, US interests would be severely hampered as China is slowly tightening its grip on South Asia.
The increasing trust-deficit between the US and Pakistan has narrowed down the scope for cooperation. From where they are positioned now, striking a middle ground will not be easy. However, it will not take long for both the US and Pakistan to realize that there is more to gain than lose by cooperating with each other.