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Trump’s move to withhold military aid to Pakistan is unlikely to serve U.S. security interests

President Trump's angry tweet might also damage crucial U.S-Pakistan intelligence pipeline.

Supporters of Difa-e-Pakistan Council chant slogans during a protest against US President Donald Trump's statement against Pakistan in Karachi on January 02,2018. CREDIT: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
Supporters of Difa-e-Pakistan Council chant slogans during a protest against US President Donald Trump's statement against Pakistan in Karachi on January 02,2018. CREDIT: Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced on Thursday that the U.S. will freeze as much $255 million in security assistance to Pakistan.

Documents obtained by the New York Times did not provide details on how much of the aid would be cut and for how long, but the move comes after the White House on Wednesday said that Islamabad would have to “do more” in order to continue to receive the funds. Pakistan has received $33 billion in U.S. military and civilian aid since 2002. Combined aid to Pakistan now amounts to about $1 billion a year, down from a peak of $3.5 billion in 2007.

Stephen Tankel, assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University, told ThinkProgress that the United States stands to lose a lot from cutting or withholding this military aid.

“It helps maintain that military-to-military relationship, which is important for access for supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan, access to Pakistan’s airspace and also for drone strikes in Pakistan, which have taken place with Pakistan’s tacit consent, and for other forms of tactical cooperation,” he said, adding that the security assistance is viewed as “non-essential” by Pakistan.

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President Trump on Monday tweeted that Pakistan has given the United States “nothing but lies & deceit” and accused the country of providing a “save haven to terrorists” U.S. troops pursue in neighboring Afghanistan.

The porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been a source of security issues, with members of the Haqqani Network who are based in Pakistan carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, where the United States has been trying to establish stability since it invaded after the September 11 attacks.

Trump’s move, said Sameer Lalwani, deputy director at the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, is likely to “hurt U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.”

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“Because it antagonizes Pakistan in such a way that it will lead to counter-reactions that will limit the efficacy U.S. operations in Afghanistan…I think it’s understood that in order to achieve a modicum of stability in Afghanistan, and possibly a reconciliation process, Pakistan is going to have to be one of, if not the most critical party, to that process. So a breakdown in U.S.-Pakistan relations, which is what I think we’re heading towards…would be inimical to that stability,” he said.

Besides, to say that Pakistan has done nothing for the United States, as Trump has implied, “is just patently not true,” added Lalwani, who noted targeting al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as extensive intelligence sharing as points of Pakistan-U.S. collaboration.

Tankel points a finer point on it: “What Pakistan stands to lose, in terms of security assistance, pales in comparison, to what the [Pakistani] security establishment thinks it would lose by by turning on the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which it perceives as instrumental to accomplishing its objectives in Afghanistan.”

Part of the problem with what Lalwani describes as Trump’s “coercive” strategy is that it seems to disregard Pakistan’s security goals, which is not to to increase its crackdowns on the Haqqani Network, but rather, to focus on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP — a Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan) within its own borders.

“For a lot of reasons, Pakistan’s top priority is the TTP, above all other threats in the region,” said Lalwani. “The TTP has turned its guns on the state. The Haqqani Network has not,” he added. Furthermore, he said Pakistan might believe the Haqqani Network might play a part in Afghanistan’s future stability.

This makes Pakistan willing to forgo such funding (as it has in the past) because accepting it would force the country to act counter to its own strategic interests.

These “antagonistic and incendiary remarks” amount to “shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Lalwani, because these coercive measures won’t get the United States what it wants. A more effective strategy, he said, would be to clarify U.S. interests and expectations tied to the funds, with clear deliverables.

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As it stands, officials in Pakistan have slammed Trump’s “incomprehensible” tweets and have called on U.S. Ambassador David Hale to explain the president’s comments. Some officials have struck a defiant tone, such as Shehbaz Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister, who on Thursday accused Trump of disrespecting Pakistan’s sovereignty, adding, “We should come together and react with valour as well as responsibility against Trump’s tweet.”

Indeed, President Trump’s habit of tweeting does not sit well with Pakistan, a country Tankel describes as “hyper-sensitive to public slights” that might very well read the tweet to mean “that the president of the United States sees absolutely no value in this relationship, and views Pakistan as ‘guns for hire.'” This supports the narrative that the “United States is trying to rent Pakistan for its own purpose,” he added.

“The way in which it was done, the [seven] A.M. tweet lambasting Pakistan, as the president did, just provides fodder for the security establishment, for right-wing actors in Pakistan, to whip up anti-American sentiment — it makes it that much easier for them to mobilize people against the United States, and it makes it harder for reformers in the government and in the establishment…to press their case,” said Tankel.

This is not the first time Trump has taken aim at Pakistan, accusing the country of duplicity and security failures. In August, when he announced his military plan for Afghanistan, the president accused Pakistan of providing  a “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” and went so far as to invite the country’s neighbor and rival, India, to step in and help create stability in Afghanistan.

And in August, the New York Times reported that his administration notified Congress that it was putting the $225 million earmarked for military aid in Pakistan in what amounted to “an escrow account” — holding it until Islamabad did “more to crackdown on internal terror networks.”

But Trump has at times employed a more conciliatory tone with Pakistan, thanking its leaders as recently as October for their “cooperation.”

The office of then-Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif also said Trump had kind words for him. During a call on November 30, 2016, president-elect Trump allegedly told Sharif “you are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you, Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long,” CNN reported. Trump’s office gave no details on the call, only a summary of a “productive conversation.”

“There’s partly irritation, but there’s also puzzlement…not just in Pakistan, but all the states in the region, and, quite frankly, around the world, don’t know how to manage these mixed messages that come out of the White House and the administration,” said Lalwani.

The public nature of Trump’s messaging on Twitter is “harmful to any objective we have of trying to modify or attenuate Pakistan’s behavior,” he said. Trump’s very highly public statements mean that trust in the back channels relied up in the past are “starting to atrophy.”