Trump’s Slashing of Pakistan Aid Is Justified But Futile

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Over the holiday weekend, the Trump administration canceled more than $300 million in aid to Pakistan as punishment for its continued unwillingness to take decisive action against the Taliban and other extremist groups. That decision is eminently justified and reasonable in light of Pakistan’s long record of double-dealing. Yet it has little chance of actually altering the Pakistanis’ bad behavior.

The break has been a long time coming. Almost since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan after 9/11, American officials have been frustrated with Pakistan’s tendency to demand high levels of U.S. funding and support while simultaneously sheltering, equipping and enabling the very insurgents American troops are fighting, as well as an array of deadly terrorist groups.

The George W. Bush administration sought to change Pakistani behavior by cozying up to then-President Pervez Musharraf — treating him as an authentic partner in hopes that he would become one. (Musharraf, who had taken power in a military coup in 1999, stepped down in 2008.)

The Barack Obama administration — while dramatically ramping up targeted strikes within Pakistan — took a “more for more” approach, providing Pakistan with $7.5 billion in aid for economic and social programs, in addition to continuing military aid, in a bid to elicit greater cooperation.

Both approaches did produce significant transactional collaboration — Pakistan allowed critical logistical support and access for the war in Afghanistan, and also arrested or killed more members of al-Qaeda in the decade after 9/11 than perhaps any other nation.

Yet neither approach persuaded the Pakistani “deep state” — the powerful military and intelligence services — to sever its ties to the Taliban, even after that organization birthed a Pakistani spinoff that conducted deadly attacks against the Pakistani government. And neither approach induced Islamabad to cease supporting, either actively or passively, an array of malevolent jihadist groups, some of which were initially nurtured as tools of asymmetric warfare against India, and some of which came to target a broader set of enemies, including the U.S.

In 2011, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, went public with American frustration, describing the Haqqani network — a notable purveyor of terror and a key player in the Afghan insurgency — as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. This was only months after Osama bin Laden was found and killed just a short distance from Pakistan’s premier military academy. In terms of Pakistan’s relationship with radicals, not much has changed since then. As a result, U.S. aid to Pakistan was already trending sharply downward at the end of the Obama administration, which refused to release a portion of Pakistani military aid in 2016.

Enter Donald Trump. Although Trump had some warm words for Pakistan and its leaders during the presidential transition, it soon became clear that Islamabad’s “Pakistan First” policy was slamming head-first into Trump’s America First agenda.

The president ripped Pakistan in a speech announcing the mini-surge in Afghanistan in August 2017. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” he declared. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”

Days later, the administration delayed a $255 million aid payment to Pakistan (in the form of reimbursement for Pakistani military operations). Several months after that, Trump rang in the New Year with at tweet denouncing Pakistan for its “lies & deceit,” which led to a broader freeze on most U.S. military aid. Most recently, the administration permanently reprogrammed — not simply delayed or suspended — $300 million in military aid.

Publicly slamming a country for lies and deceit may not be textbook diplomacy, yet in some ways it is hard to argue with Trump’s tougher line. For many years, Pakistan has played both the arsonist and the firefighter, stoking the flames of Islamist insurgency and terror and then profiting from its efforts to contain those very blazes. It has manipulated its reputation as an unstable nuclear power and used its strategic frontage on the Afghan border to essentially blackmail the U.S. and the international community.

Those in charge of prosecuting the U.S. war in Afghanistan are acutely aware that Pakistan is in the business of empowering insurgents and jihadists that are trying to kill American military personnel. And although the U.S. has received benefits in return for billions of dollars in aid — it would have been impossible to fight a prolonged war in Afghanistan or decimate core al-Qaeda without the assistance Pakistan provided — Trump is right that all this aid failed to bring about a decisive strategic reorientation.

Pakistan has therefore been asking for something like this for quite a long time. Yet the remaining question is whether an emotionally satisfying policy will be a more effective policy, and here the logic of Trump’s approach is, regrettably, less compelling.

For one thing, a reduction or even a complete halt in U.S. aid to Pakistan is not likely to allow Washington to overcome the basic problem in the relationship: American and Pakistani interests simply clash in Afghanistan. The U.S. wants a stable, reasonably democratic Afghanistan that can serve as a decent partner in the global war on terrorism. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment view maintaining a friendly Afghanistan as a fundamental national security interest, and the best tools Islamabad has for achieving that outcome are the Islamist groups it has cultivated for decades.

If the U.S. could not persuade Pakistan to shift how it defines its interests in Afghanistan after 9/11, when Washington’s anger was at its peak, or in the early Obama years, when aid was initially ramped up significantly, it probably won’t succeed now by withholding a few hundred million dollars. That Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, has a reputation for fiery anti-Americanism makes Pakistani acquiescence even less likely.  

This is particularly the case because U.S. leverage is steadily decreasing. One reason Pakistan has refused to abandon its destabilizing proxies in Afghanistan over the past 17 years is that Pakistani leaders have never believed that the U.S. would actually commit the time, resources and energy to create the stable, democratic Afghanistan it claims to seek. When the country falls apart after an American withdrawal, the Pakistanis need to have reliable partners who can step into the void.

Notwithstanding Trump’s small bump in U.S. troop levels, the Pakistanis can see that U.S. interest in Afghanistan has been waning for the better part of a decade. They surely assess that at some point, perhaps not long from now, the Americans will simply go home. This calculation creates incentives for precisely the hedging behavior U.S. officials have long deplored.

Finally, Pakistan has too many options for a cutoff of American aid to have the required coercive effect. Islamabad can, of course, make things harder for the U.S. in Afghanistan, by restricting logistics support or even using Pakistani proxies to turn up the heat on American forces and the Afghan government. It can also deepen its relationship with China should Washington turn hostile. The Pakistanis are already doing this: In 2016, Islamabad received 63 percent of its foreign military equipment from Beijing and received 35 percent of total Chinese arms exports. The Chinese would surely be happy to further exploit a Pakistani-American split.

And the tightening of U.S.-India relations, symbolized by the recent visit to New Delhi by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, may give Pakistan and China extra motivation to pull even closer together.

In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that some U.S. president, at some point, would tire of the predictably frustrating patterns of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Trump is now taking that relationship into a new phase — one that may not prove any more rewarding than what came before.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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