Washington: The United States, steadily ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan, announced Friday it was suspending $2 billion in security assistance because of Islamabad’s failure to take effective action against terrorists operating on its soil.
The announcement, made by a senior White House official, is aimed at the heart of the Pakistan army and intelligence services – the two institutions most implicated in the country’s pernicious policy of harbouring and encouraging terrorist groups.
When asked what further steps might be in the offing, the official stressed that there were “a number of tools in the toolkit,” including US taking “unilateral steps” against Pakistan.
But it’s important to note that the suspension of aid is reversible if Pakistan were to show real progress in hunting down terrorists. It gives Pakistan another window of opportunity to reassess its options and do the right thing.
It is possible that after a few days of bluster and bile, the Pakistan army would kill a few terrorists, arrest some, disappear a few others and try to meet the minimum bar for resuming relations.
The real test for Washington would be seeing the rinse-and-repeat cycle perfected by the Pakistanis over the years for what it is – a temporary and fraudulent move.
Nonetheless, the decision to suspend a large amount of aid is significant and the first attempt in years to inflict costs. It follows President Donald Trump’s maiden tweet of 2018 where he lambasted Pakistan for making “fools” of US leaders and giving “nothing but lies and deceit” in exchange for $33 billion in US aid over the last 15 years. It was a tweet that shook Pakistan and was noticed around the world.
Every day since, senior US officials, including national security advisor HR McMaster and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have publicly criticised Pakistan for providing safe havens and support bases to the Haqqani Network and the Taliban in a sign of growing impatience and anger in Washington.
McMaster said in an interview to VOA the president was “frustrated at Pakistan’s behaviour” because despite several high-level meetings, the message apparently hadn’t been heard in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
McMaster added that “our relationship can no longer bear the weight of contradictions.” He also wondered if Pakistan wanted to become a “pariah” state or follow the North Korean model of using nuclear blackmail. The explicit language and clarity mark a departure from the previous administration’s policy of keeping the hard messaging mostly behind closed doors.
The $2 billion in military and security aid being suspended includes $900 million designated as “coalition support funds” for 2017 and $255 million already blocked last September in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for 2016. But the exact composition is not yet clear and officials said they were working on the details.
The monies targeted do not include civilian aid to Pakistan, officials clarified. Even the military aid can be restored if Rawalpindi decides on decisive and demonstrable action against the many terrorist groups it patronises.
US officials are calculating that Pakistan might respond better to a reversible rather than an irreversible move, which would close all doors even though Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, has already declared the end of the “alliance” in a television appearance.
On January 5, the State Department also placed Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom.” Although the move carries no real consequence, it does inflict damage to Pakistan’s reputation in the international community. If further relegated to a list of “countries of particular concern,” Pakistan could face sanctions.
Since the announcement of the new South Asia policy last August, senior Trump Administration officials have traveled to Pakistan to deliver the message that breaking up with terrorists is required at a minimum for the relationship to continue in a semi-normal way.
So far, Pakistan’s response has ranged between belligerence and deflection. A military spokesman, responding to Nikki Haley’s comments about Pakistan’s “double game” not being acceptable to this administration, attacked her Indian origins. He then went on to blame India for the “current misunderstanding between Pakistan and the US”.
If one were to give him benefit of the doubt, it would seem he was playing to the domestic gallery. If not, his lack of knowledge of the prevailing sentiment against Pakistan in Washington can best be described as appalling.
Asif too claimed the US was speaking the “language of India,” insulting his American friends further by reducing their conclusions to parroting India’s position, which it must be recalled didn’t seem to make any dent in US policy for years on end.
A former Pakistani ambassador to the US and now a member of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) party curiously blamed the current “gap” in Pakistan’s diplomacy on the lack of a “lobbyist” in Washington. One would have expected her to know Washington a bit better.
The frustration with Pakistan has been growing steadily since the days of the Obama Administration in both the executive and legislative branches. In 2016, the US Congress blocked subsidies for the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. Lawmakers have also introduced bills to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.
For countless analysts, both American and Pakistani, who say the amount of money doesn’t matter, must remember that it’s not just about the money, it’s also about Pakistan’s place in the world. Being counted with North Korea can’t be reassuring for the Pakistani establishment.
The only person of importance who seemed to get it is Nawaz Sharif, the ousted prime minister, who said that Pakistan must introspect on its lack of credibility and put its house in order.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.