How nasty can the US get with Pakistan?
On Thursday, the United States announced that it was suspending nearly all security assistance to Pakistan which includes $ 225 million military aid and the balance in reimbursements Pakistan gets for fighting militancy, called Coalition Support Funds (CSF) .
This is, of course, not a surprise. Beginning with President Trump, nearly all top officials have publicly warned Pakistan in recent months that it had not done enough to round up terrorist and dismantle militant camps.
This is not the first time that the United States of America and Pakistan have come to the brink in their relationship with each other. In May 1992, the then US Ambassador to Islamabad Nicholas Platt delivered a letter from Secretary of State James Baker to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saying that if Pakistan did not stop supporting terrorism in Indian controlled Kashmir, the US may declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The scope of sanctions would have been far more drastic that what Pakistan had faced for its nuclear weapons programme and would have led to the shutting of funding from the World Bank, IMF and other international financial institutions.
As Hussain Haqqani recounts, Sharif and the government decided that they could “manage” the US. Washington needed Islamabad, more than the other way round. So, the Pakistanis tweaked their support for the Kashmir militancy and put up $2 million to lobby the American media and Congress. Later that year, the Americans elected Bill Clinton as President of the US and that was the end of that. Indeed, in1993, Pakistan stepped up support for the militancy in Kashmir and helped establish the Taliban.
This little history is recounted here to serve as a backdrop to analyzing the current developments which began with a US decision to withhold $ 255 million aid to Pakistan for buying US military equipment and President Trump’s Tweet excoriating Islamabad which despite $ 33 billion aid “had given us nothing but lies and deceit.” Note, of course, that the Tweet referred to Afghanistan and not Kashmir.
It is not so easy for the US to simply walk away from Pakistan. There are three big reasons for it. First, the US has decided to double down in its efforts to defeat the Taliban. Trump has ordered a doubling of US personnel in Afghanistan and given the Pentagon a free hand in dealing with the Taliban. But if the troops increase from 8,000 to around 14,000, the US dependence on Pakistan’s logistic lines of communications will only increase. US relations with Russia are such that the so-called Northern Distribution Network is non-functional. Likewise, the Trump administration’s antipathy to Iran ensures that the US cannot take advantage of the Indian developed port and lines of communications from Chah Bahar. So that leaves just Pakistan.
Second, Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state. Its nuclear arsenal, reportedly bigger than that of India, makes it vital for Washington to remain engaged with Islamabad. Any breakdown would result in creating yet another North Korea. The world and America’s nightmare is the possibility of terrorists laying their hands on nuclear weapons. Remaining engaged with Pakistan makes it much easier for the US to monitor the activities of these dangerous terrorist groups and their interface with the Pakistani society and state.
Third, a US hard line would only strengthen the Islamist parties grouped under the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, among its leading lights is the Jamaat-e-Dawa, the front for the LeT .
Pakistan’s commitments in Afghanistan and India are different. In the former, it seeks to expand its power by supporting the Taliban. While it seeks to offset India’s size by supporting militant groups like the LeT and JeM. If push comes to shove, it will be willing to reduce its Afghan commitments, especially since that would buy peace with the mighty US, but is unlikely to concede to India in any way.
One of the obvious ways in which Pakistan will seek to offset US pressure is to use China. Not surprisingly, China came to the defence of Islamabad with a strong statement hailing the “outstanding contribution” of Pakistan to counter-terrorism. Islamabad’s response was to signal its willingness to expand Beijing’s remit in Pakistan by allowing the use of China’s currency for bilateral trade and investment. However, China also shares the American worries about the growth of militancy in the region.
The Pakistanis have a deep understanding of the US and the ways of handling it. Aid cuts and the like are things that have happened before and dealt with. The bottom line is just how nasty can the US get with Pakistan? Actually, plenty. The Pakistani elite is western-oriented with relatives, properties and bank accounts in the western countries and vulnerable to targeted sanctions which could take on the military. Further sanctions on Pakistani banks could cripple foreign trade.
Any way, not many in India expect that there will be a break in Pakistan-US relations. They may desire that, but it is not likely to happen. US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ Friday press briefing suggests that the Pentagon is still hoping to strike a deal with Islamabad.
This commentary originally appeared in Greater Kashmir.