Pakistan: A risky estrangement

Cutting loose a vital ally runs the risk of far greater problems in the future

 

The decision by the United States to suspend almost $1 billion in security aid to Pakistan may have been accompanied by President Donald Trump’s trademark bluster, but in some respects the move suggests continuity with previous administrations. Just like Barack Obama and George W Bush before him, Trump is struggling with a relationship that is both vital and notoriously fraught.

The US said it would suspend all security assistance until Pakistan stopped helping Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network militants. Trump had foreshadowed the move in a New Year’s Day tweet in which he said the US had “foolishly” given more than $33 billion to Islamabad and received only “lies and deceit” in return. Like his predecessors, Trump accuses the Pakistanis of playing a double game by taking American money while it actively assists or turns a blind eye to the militants. The Obama administration cited similar concerns when it suspended $800 million in military aid in 2011.

There are good reasons to expect that Trump’s funding freeze will have little effect. Even if it stings the Pakistani leadership into ramping up its counter-terrorism efforts, in the long term it could push the two countries farther apart. Trump’s tweet elicited a furious response in Pakistan, where looming elections give politicians all the more reason to distance themselves from a deeply unpopular ally. The cricket star-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan said it was time for Pakistan to “delink” from the US and go its own way.

As both sides are well aware, the US needs Pakistan’s security cooperation as well as access to its roads and airspace, which provide a key fuel and supply route to American forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, heavy Chinese investment in Pakistan means Islamabad is less exposed to a withdrawal of American aid than it was a decade ago.

US frustration with Pakistan is understandable. But cutting loose a vital ally – one with a chronically weak state, crushing poverty and nuclear weapons – runs the risk of far greater problems in the future.

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