U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on a monitor as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, right, listens during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

U.S. Withholds Pakistan Security Aid Over Terrorism Concerns

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is suspending security assistance to Pakistan as the Trump administration escalates pressure on the government in Islamabad to prevent terrorist groups from finding safe harbor in the country.

The action announced Thursday is in addition to a decision disclosed earlier this week in which the National Security Council said the U.S. will continue to withhold $255 million in military aid as the White House reviews Pakistan’s “level of cooperation” in fighting terrorism.

“This is something that should not come as a surprise to Pakistan,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. “They aren’t taking the steps that they need to take to fight terrorism.”

President Donald Trump foreshadowed the move in a New Year’s Day tweet in which he said the U.S. has “foolishly” given more than $33 billion and received only “lies and deceit” in return. It reflected his increasing warnings that the U.S. would cut off aid to those that oppose his policies, potentially including the Palestinian Authority and countries that vote against the U.S. at the United Nations. 

However, analysts doubted the move would alter Islamabad’s core strategic interests in the region, which includes keeping Indian influence in neighboring Afghanistan to a minimum. That’s especially the case given China’s more than $50 billion in infrastructure loans that continue to flow to Pakistan’s government.

Although withholding security aid may anger the Pakistani military establishment and prompt short-term measures to appease U.S. officials, Chinese money is likely to fill the gap and the Trump administration’s move is unlikely to alter Pakistan’s fundamental interests in the region, said Harsh Pant, an international relations professor at King’s College London.

“In the short to medium term, there will be a lot of bluster but they will try and show that they are serious and perhaps there will be some short term results in the offing,” Pant said. “But the larger issue of whether this will fundamentally alter Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan or India, I very much doubt.”

Haqqani Network

The impact of the latest move against Pakistan was unclear. Nauert said she couldn’t provide an estimate of how much money is involved, saying it is still being calculated.

In a briefing after the announcement, two State Department officials said the money being withheld fell into two categories: foreign military financing and funds the U.S. reimburses to Pakistan for its support of coalition forces. Budgetary figures indicate the total amount the U.S. may withhold is more than $1.2 billion.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said the U.S. owes $9 billion for services including the use of Pakistan’s airspace and air bases, Karachi-based Geo television reported on Thursday. On Friday, the foreign ministry said Pakistan has fought the war against terrorism largely from its own resources, serving U.S. interests, decimating al-Qaeda, clearing “ungoverned areas” and costing the nation more than $120 billion in 15 years.

Successive U.S. administrations have wrestled with the Pakistan relationship. The country is a partner in the fight against terrorism yet is also the place where Osama bin Laden hid for years before being killed in a raid by U.S. Navy Seals. Since 2015, the U.S. has denied Pakistan $650 million in Coalition Support Fund reimbursements that could be released only if the U.S. military certified the country is making acceptable progress against the Haqqani Network, which is affiliated with the Taliban.

U.S. Withholds Pakistan Security Aid Over Terrorism Concerns

Nauert specifically cited members of the Haqqani Network and elements of the Taliban who are permitted to operate out of Pakistan despite U.S. pressure.

In a speech on his South Asia policy in August, Trump made clear that Pakistan must do more to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, he said the U.S. “can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

‘Incomprehensible’

The cabinet of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi replied to Trump’s Tweet this week on Pakistan to say the comments were “completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity.”

The tense back-and-forth between Washington and Islamabad reflects a fundamental disconnect between the two capitals with Pakistan “over-promising” and U.S. officials having unrealistic expectations about Pakistan’s influence over insurgents, said Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The Trump administration’s decision to withhold aid will hurt Pakistan’s ability to modernize its aging military equipment, since Islamabad is reliant on U.S. military technology, Basit said. The U.S. might be more likely to shift drone attacks from Pakistan’s tribal areas deeper into the country, to areas such as the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, he added.

But the decision on aid is unlikely to have a long-term impact on regional dynamics, since Washington would be unable to impose a solution in Afghanistan, even if it had Pakistan’s full support, Basit said.

“There will definitely be anger and frustration in Islamabad,” Basit said. “But is Islamabad going to adjust its behavior? They might make some technical moves. But in terms of a strategic shift? I don’t think so.”

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