Diplomatic Enclave: Trump’s Tweet Fuels Feud
US has asked Pakistan to take concrete steps against terror groups to earn back security aid

US President Donald Trump fired off one of his famous tweets on New Year’s day accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit”. Washington followed with announcing suspension of $1.1 billion in security assistance.  The US has threatened to cut aid to Pakistan earlier as well but this time there is greater seriousness in Trump’s threats.

In August, Trump had criticised Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorist groups. Since then defence secretary James Mattis, national security advisor general HR McMaster, secretary of state Tex Tillerson and most recently in December, vice president Mike Pence, while on a visit to Afghanistan, had warned Pakistan. Islamabad may find that aid has indeed been cut off. But will that bring any change Pakistan’s support to terrorists? Islamabad has been able to ward off earlier warnings, confident of its strategic importance while Washington remains engaged in Afghanistan.

Pakistan responded angrily with Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif calling the United States “a friend who always betrays” while opposition, Tehreek-e-Insaf party leader, Imran Khan called for Pakistan to close down US access routes to Afghanistan.

Islamabad has ways to deflect American ire. It is no longer as dependent on Washington as it moves closer into the Chinese economic embrace. China has backed Pakistan in this row, urging the international community to recognise the sacrifices and contributions Pakistan has made in the anti-terrorism operations.  If Washington’s stakes in Afghanistan are high, Beijing’s stakes in Pakistan have become strategically significant. Pakistan is the lynchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor provides China with access to the Indian Ocean. Last week, State Bank of Pakistan announced that the Chinese yuan could be used for all bilateral trade and investment with China. Beijing is keen to push its currency in the global market and the Pakistani move would replace the dollar with the yuan in its commercial relations with China.

China is emerging as the main economic power in Pakistan, reducing Islamabad’s dependence on the US. China hopes to extend its BRI to Afghanistan, where Beijing has got more active in the past year. Trump’s policy for Afghanistan has not found favour with the regional powers, Russia, China and Iran. Russia and China have been making efforts to involve Pakistan in their Afghan outreach to the Taliban.

With Washington-Islamabad relations go into a deep trough, it is pertinent to examine their ties over the past few decades. Both the George W Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration followed the same path of initially increasing non-military aid to Pakistan and then cutting the quantum of aid when Washington felt that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts inadequate. Both administrations had expressed their frustration over Pakistan not doing enough to combat terrorism. Afghanistan has been a critical element in US-Pakistan ties ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. But Islamabad’s objectives in its northern neighbour have not exactly matched Washington’s interests in Afghanistan.

In 1990, President Bush imposed sanctions on Pakistan under the Pressler Amendment, which mandated the President to certify that Pakistan was not developing a nuclear weapon. All military aid to Pakistan was stopped including delivery of F-16 aircraft that were already paid for. It did not stop Pakistan’s nuclear programme. But the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan made Pakistan one of America’s most important strategic allies in the war. However, US drone strikes on terrorists hiding in Pakistan’s northwestern region resulted in killing local tribals, which built up strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

In 2011, Pakistan had shut down Nato supply lines across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region in reaction to US air strikes that had hit Pakistan border security forces by mistake. During the weeks long border closure, the US had been forced to use the northern route through Central Asia. It was an expensive route and required coordinating with the Russians. The route was reopened only after Washington gave a formal apology.

Pakistan is a crucial gateway for US military supplies to Afghanistan. Unlike in 2011, the US does not have an air base in Kyrgyzstan any longer. It was shut down over a pricing row in 2014. Also, US relations with Russia and Iran are fraught at this time. Pakistan’s significance in finding a resolution to the Afghan crisis has grown with its alliance with Russia and China.

The US has several levers of influence. There are reports that Washington is considering a range of other actions, including targeted sanctions, more drone attacks, and withdrawal of US backing in global financial institutions such as the World Bank. A weak government in Islamabad has responded with furious rhetoric, but it can take incremental steps against some groups to assuage the Americans. How this gamble plays out will depend on how focused Washington remains in getting Islamabad to take “decisive action” against terrorist groups. 

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Shubha Singh