U.S.-Pakistan relations

What are the Kabul Attacks Signaling?

In January, Kabul endured three deadly attacks. On January 20, the Taliban stormed Kabul’s InterContinental Hotel, killing 30 people (mainly foreigners) in a siege that lasted 14 hours. A week later, Taliban militants drove an ambulance into a designated safe zone, killing at least 95 people and injuring 158, while ISIS claimed responsibility for attacking the Marshal Fahim Military Academy west of Kabul that killed 11 Afghan soldiers. President Trump responded by contending that there could be no negotiations with the Taliban. And though his State of the Union address only briefly discussed foreign policy, the president vowed not to stop fighting until ISIS is defeated. 

But neither the Taliban nor ISIS is the key to understanding what’s going on in Afghanistan. Even turning attention toward Pakistan as a source of Afghanistan’s instability is proving to be unsatisfactory for those concerned about the region. So what do the Kabul attacks tell us?  

Most observers of the U.S. war in Afghanistan consider the attacks a signal from Pakistan in light of current tensions within the U.S.–Pakistan relationship, which is currently at its lowest point. Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has a notorious relationship with the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other militant groups. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, both India and Afghanistan have blamed Pakistan for continued militant violence in Afghanistan. For example, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, alleged that the Kabul Hotel attack last week was organized in Chaman, a city in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

And Pakistan may feel compelled to send a message because of the Trump administration’s decision to come down hard on Pakistan. For example, President Trump singled out Pakistan’s support of militant groups and accused the state of providing them safe haven in the administration’s Afghanistan strategy and National Security Strategy documents last year. The administration subsequently cut Pakistan’s security aid. Pakistan, however, continues to maintain that it has eradicated all terrorist safe havens, and also claims that its leverage with the Taliban has been decreasing.

What Is the CSF and Why It Serves U.S. Interests in Afghanistan

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.

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