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US-Pakistan ties at a crossroads

Priyanka Singh is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 11, 2017

    Amidst high anticipation, on August 21, 2017, US President Donald Trump unveiled his strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia. Given the new strategy’s continued commitment to the previously-held planks of stability and reconstruction, it was at first dismissed by some commentators for lacking a different or new vision. What conspicuously stood out in Trump’s statement, which otherwise broadly reiterated unflinching commitment towards Afghanistan, was the scathing indictment of Pakistan. Trump stated that Pakistan continues to serve as a sanctuary for terror outfits by housing “agents of chaos, violence, and terror.”1

    There is indeed an overarching emphasis on Pakistan in the latest draft of US Afghan strategy, which primarily highlights two major strands of the US-Pakistan relationship. Firstly, it underscores the US’s core dilemma over the inevitability of partnering with Pakistan. A series of official statements from the US on Pakistan post the 2008-09 period reflects wariness about Pakistan’s duplicitous role in combating terrorism. The even more important element has been the need to modify the approach towards a Pakistan which continues to collude with militant groups targeting American interests.

    Pakistan’s deep intermesh with terror

    Trump’s tough talk on Pakistan underscored Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s subsequent statement that the US could choose to strike inside Pakistan if need be and that Pakistan must mend its approach towards terrorism to retain its non-NATO ally status. Consummation of US goals in Afghanistan is and has always been inextricably attached to Pakistan due to reasons of geographical contiguity and supply routes. The problem is that the limited gains made by the US against the Taliban, Haqqani network and Al Qaeda have been reversed by Pakistan’s support for them. Osama Bin Laden’s killing in the heart of Pakistan in May 2011 completely exposed the precarious fault lines in US-Pakistan relations. For once, it appeared that ties may even be severed. However, the relationship endured albeit interrupted by occasional discords similar to the one currently underway.

    US-Pakistan-India prism

    Seen as a break away from the past in terms of being direct and upfront, Trump’s pronouncements unleashed a war of words between the two countries. Both Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa brushed off US allegations. Official statements rejected the premise that Pakistan is dependent on US aid. Instead, it was observed that the US must learn to bestow trust and acknowledge Pakistan’s contribution in the war against terror. Pakistan also retorted that it cannot be scapegoated for the situation in Afghanistan. Instead, the US must show resolve in eliminating terror sanctuaries inside Afghanistan that have been used to target Pakistan.

    For the US, the present strategy acknowledges once again the folly of reliance on Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. It has made similar admonitions in the past: Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State called upon Pakistan to stop harbouring snakes in the backyard, while former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill advocated severing aid doles to Pakistan as its military “is not an ally, not a partner, not a friend of the US.”2 When he was still a senator back in 2008, Barack Obama observed that “we are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they're using the military aid that we use [sic] to Pakistan, they're preparing for a war against India.”3 This was before he sanctioned the USD 750 billion development assistance to Pakistan under the PEACE (Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement) Act 2009 during his first term as President. Given all this, stinging as they are, Trump’s remarks on Pakistan do not materially differ from what has been stated in the past although his wording was more strident.

    Trump’s reference to India in the strategy statement is perhaps a deviation from the past. Calling India a significant economic and strategic partner, Trump urged India to play a bigger economic role in Afghanistan. He noted that India should step up development and economic assistance, especially as it benefits a great deal from trade with the US. Overtly committed to maintaining its strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been paranoid about greater India-Afghanistan strategic cooperation. It is natural that the US endorsing a greater role for India in Afghanistan caused ripples in Pakistan and accentuated its unease. Pakistan’s National Security Committee issued a statement rejecting India’s ability to act a net security provider in the region given its “conflictual relationships” with countries in the neighbourhood and its role in “destabilizing Pakistan.”4 These impulsive responses from Pakistan with reference to the US encouraging India to enhance its role in Afghanistan raise an intriguing question: were Trump’s statements on India part of a gambit to extract cooperation from Pakistan on Afghanistan?

    Aid as a lever: billions, “peanuts”

    Aid as an instrument to induce Pakistani cooperation is an old tactic. Way back in 1980, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the US was persuading Pakistan to cooperate against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, President Zia turned down a USD 400 million offer as “peanuts” that was not “commensurate with the size of the threat”.5 Trump’s categorical statement that billions in US aid cannot continue if Pakistan refuses to further American security interests in the region is therefore along expected lines. Tillerson spoke in the same vein: “We have some leverage that's been discussed in terms of the amount of aid and military assistance we give them.”6 To which Bajwa responded that "We are not looking for any material or financial assistance.”7 Drawing upon the words of President Zia, former Minister of Interior, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, challenged US claims asserting: "It's not billions of dollars, it is peanuts” and urged that an audit be commissioned to ascertain the actual flow of aid dollars to Pakistan.8

    US attempts to fix accountability and link aid to Pakistan’s tangible actions against terror has been prioritized over a period of time. The PEACE Act laid out a mandatory clause for the US President to certify Pakistan’s conduct against terrorism in order to justify US aid to that country. All such efforts have failed to rein in Pakistan’s support for terror. In fact, the Pakistan-US bond has survived grim periods of absolute aid cut-off. In today’s context as Pakistan gravitates towards China, there is an even more reduced possibility that aid cuts would extract concessions with respect to US objectives in the region.

    Way ahead: more continuity, less change

    History indicates that there will more continuity than change in US-Pakistan ties. The “peanut” analogy is an apt case in this regard. Pakistan continues to be relevant to the US strategic calculus in the broader region. The US cannot afford to sever ties until it decides to leave Afghanistan. Similarly, for Pakistan, which has over decades deftly cultivated simultaneous ties with the US and China, the US relationship is of geopolitical salience especially vis a vis India. Even as some bilateral visits have been put on hold including those by Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khwaja Asif, and Alice Wells, acting US Envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two sides are expected to huddle together soon. Meanwhile, Tillerson has conceded that “too much pressure could destabilise Islamabad”.9 Tillerson’s moderate pitch hints that the US will exercise adequate caution. This also best demonstrates the classic blow-hot-blow-cold US approach towards Pakistan where admonition is invariably complemented by balancing acts and assuaging words. Meanwhile in Pakistan, Khwaja Asif articulated a course correction and the need to put the “house in order.”10 This came immediately after the declaration of the BRICS summit mentioned Pakistan based terror outfits such as Jaish e Mohammed and Lashkar e Taiba.

    Business-as-usual equations between the US and Pakistan would further put question marks on US intentions to fight terror. There is credible proof of Pakistan’s complicity with terror. Trump received the popular mandate mainly to bring about change and reorient US foreign policy choices. It remains to be seen whether he continues to endorse the same old pattern of neglecting Pakistan’s innate obsession with terrorism and violence as tools of state policy.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.