President Trump began 2018 by tweeting about Pakistan. He wrote that over the last 15 years, the United States has “foolishly” given $33 billion in aid to Pakistan for “nothing but lies & deceit” in return. He ended his tweet by saying, “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” The tweet was followed by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s announcement that the United States would be withholding $255 million in military assistance to Pakistan because of the “double game” they have been playing for years by harboring terrorists that attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s reaction was predictable: there was official outrage, with the Pakistani government summoning U.S. ambassador David Hale to the foreign office to explain the tweet. Foreign Minister Khawaja M. Asif tweeted that the world would soon find out the “difference between fact and fiction,” while the Ministry of Defense tweeted that Pakistan has been an ally to the United States, giving free access to “land & air communication, military bases & intel cooperation that decimated Al-Qaeda over last 16yrs.” Riots broke out in Karachi, with protestors shouting anti-American slogans and burning the U.S. flag. Finally, this morning, Foreign Minister Asif stated that Pakistan no longer sees the U.S. as an ally.
Is Pakistan overreacting? What impact will all of this have on the war in Afghanistan and future U.S. troop withdrawal?
Despite the ostentatious barbs from both sides, it isn’t all that clear yet what kind of assistance, and how much of it, is actually being withheld. Pakistan has received aid through several programs, such as the coalition support fund (CSF), a reimbursement program in which the United States pays Pakistan for using its military bases, and foreign military financing (FMF), a loan or grant that allows countries to purchase U.S. defense equipment, services, and training. The Trump administration is currently withholding the FMF, not the CSF. Considering how lucrative the CSF has been for Pakistan, Islamabad’s response to Trump’s tweets is an overreaction, which also explains why Pakistan’s National Security Committee has decided not to take any retaliatory actions against the United States.
Like sanctions, cutting foreign aid rarely changes state behavior. With respect to Pakistan, in 2013 the Obama administration did cut the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Fund, which was established in 2009 to provide training and equipment to Pakistan’s military and paramilitary force for domestic counterinsurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Yet, here we are again with a new administration, a new year, and the same discussion: the United States wants Pakistan to stop aiding and abetting the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban.
While U.S. military assistance to Pakistan needs to be evaluated, cutting the CSF outright will hurt U.S. troops in Afghanistan more than changing Pakistan’s militant sponsorship for one main reason: the most efficient supply routes to Afghanistan are through Pakistan. If the CSF is eliminated, Pakistan could simply shut down the routes as it has done in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. In fact, Pakistan’s parliament discussed shutting down the supply routes again this past summer. Professor Christine Fair’s suggestion of using Iran’s Chabahar Port as an alternative route is interesting, but as she points out, highly unlikely given U.S.–Iran relations. Basically, the U.S. is stuck with Pakistan, especially so long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
Without Pakistan, the United States will have an even harder time achieving a feasible and practical political resolution in Afghanistan, which will involve both Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. The CSF, therefore, still provides the United States with some leverage with the Pakistanis despite its problems.
I remain optimistic about diplomacy, and think it can work. Both the United States and Pakistan want the Afghanistan war to end and U.S. troops to withdraw. But today, that’s about all they can agree on. They have very different visions of what a post-conflict Afghani government will look like. Pakistan has always thought that the Taliban will be an active player and that they can’t be defeated so they want to make sure that when the Americans leave (regardless of when), they have a strategic ally in Kabul. The United States doesn’t want to reconcile/negotiate/talk (etc.) with the Taliban, which is a mistake—and something the U.S. is beginning to realize. Basically, for a successful U.S. withdrawal, it needs to be done hand-in-hand with diplomacy.
Therefore, if the president wants Pakistan to change its behavior, he has to learn about the kinds of military assistance Pakistan has been receiving over the years, and then use diplomacy to meet U.S. interests in Afghanistan. But first, he needs to stop tweeting.