U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent comments regarding Pakistan have brought attention to the complex relationship between the two countries. He recently tweeted that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools."1 While ostensibly allies, the United States and Pakistan view each other with suspicion and distrust. Though each year the US provides billions of dollars of security assistance to Pakistan, President Trump has recently decided to suspend this assistance. This is just the latest twist in a long series of diplomatic and military spats between the two countries. Pakistan has a long history of harboring terrorists, recklessness regarding their nuclear weapons, and aggression towards India (a democracy and staunch U.S. ally). Therefore, it is easy to understand how American lawmakers and intelligence chiefs have run out of patience with Pakistan. In their eyes, the time has come for the United States to withdraw military support from the country. Though this decision may be cathartic, it is erroneous and will threaten the United States’ long term interests in Central Asia, especially considering Pakistan’s strategic importance in the War in Afghanistan.
The United States and Pakistan have enjoyed diplomatic relations since Pakistan was created in 1947. While the two countries have partnerships in a variety of fields, such as trade and education, the primary partnership between the two nations is the fight against terrorism. As a result, the United States has committed significant resources to help Pakistan conduct counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. However, this aid has been intermittent and has fluctuated in response to changes in diplomatic relations. During the Clinton presidency, the United States cut aid as part of sanctions regarding Pakistan’s nuclear program.2 In the wake of September 11, 2001, however, aid was reinstated. Pakistan even allowed the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency to fly drones over the FATA and conduct strikes on Al Qaeda targets.3 After increasing aid and improving relations during the initial years of the Obama presidency (annual aid in 2011 equaled $3.5 billion), the American-Pakistani relationship faced two hurdles. Firstly, on January 27th, 2011 a CIA contractor killed two associates of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In response, Pakistan closed off the ground routes that the U.S. military was using to supply its troops in Afghanistan,4 only completely reopening them in July of 2012. Secondly, the United States reduced Pakistani security aid by more than 50% in the two years following the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.5 Despite these tensions, the U.S. nonetheless provided total aid worth more than $1 billion to Pakistan in 2016 and has given roughly $34 billion since 2002.6 Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet, the State Department declared that it intended to suspend security aid, which was projected to be roughly $303 million for fiscal year 2017.7 In the past, this aid has been used for a variety of military aims, including funding hundreds of army operations, stationing Pakistani troops in Waziristan, and compensating Pakistan for use of air bases and ports.8
The main argument of those who advocate for suspension of aid is, unsurprisingly, based on the unwillingness of Pakistan to carry out their responsibility to combat terrorism and cooperate with American forces. While the Pakistani government proved useful in the early years of the global war on terror, it has been ineffective and inconsistent in recent years. Evidence of this is rife. Ayman al-Zawahiri, heir to Osama bin Laden, along with bin Laden’s son Hamza, remain in Pakistan. American intelligence suggests that many of the attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the surge of 2010 orchestrated by the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban originated in Pakistan.9 Osama bin Laden managed to hide for years hardly a mile from Pakistan’s military academy in Abbottabad. This proof of Pakistan’s lenient attitudes towards terrorism goes on and on. Despite this behavior, the U.S. has maintained security aid, albeit at varying levels, long after concluding that the Pakistani government was supporting terrorists.
Pakistan’s concerning relationships with Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba were tolerated by the United States because Pakistan was viewed as a strategic ally, especially in the war in Afghanistan. However, the 2012 closure of U.S. military ground routes through Pakistan forced the United States to search for new routes and ultimately weakened Pakistan’s position as a strategic partner. To resupply troops in Afghanistan, the United States opted to use a new path through Central Asia as well as air routes through Pakistani airspace. This new method cost the United States roughly $120 million a year more than the original setup—however, it also ensured that they avoided paying the $1 billion yearly fees to the Coalition Support Funds, which guaranteed the U.S. access to Pakistan’s ground transport routes.10
These two factors, terrorism and the potential for reduced strategic reliance on Pakistan, have led some to argue that it is time for the U.S. to cut off Pakistan from security aid, in hopes of forcing a change in behavior. Proponents of the Trump administration’s new policy believe that the critics are missing the larger picture of Pakistan-U.S. relations. They argue that the short-term geostrategic advantages that could be gained by continuing to cavort with Pakistan are overshadowed by Pakistan’s status as a state-sponsor of terrorism that hinders American interest. But although Pakistan is clearly not an American ally in the true sense of the word, the relationship is far too risky to abandon. By alienating Pakistan, the U.S. threatens to destabilize an already volatile and dangerous country, to isolate its troops in Afghanistan, and to lose further influence in the region.
The biggest fear for the United States, and the world, as it begins to cut Pakistan off from aid should pertain to nuclear weapons. Pakistan has developed an extensive nuclear arsenal that is under frighteningly poor watch—and has even used the arsenal as leverage. This renders the possibility of letting the Pakistani government collapse too dangerous to consider. Already, at least 6 different sites suspected of connections to the Pakistani nuclear program have been attacked by militants.11 Among this arsenal are “tactical” nuclear weapons, which are easy to transport and deploy on the battlefield. These weapons could theoretically be used in an attack on a city such as New York, Beijing, or Mumbai. Terrifyingly, the agency tasked with the maintenance of these weapons regularly moves them from site to site in delivery vans on civilian roads.12 While the Americans have dedicated extensive satellite and aircraft resources to monitoring Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, the United States must continue to bear in mind this nuclear threat as it considers retreating from its uneasy embrace of Pakistan. Until the United States can be sure than nuclear weapons will not fall into Haqqani or Al- Qaeda hands, then it should not leave Pakistan to fend for itself. While it is frustrating and expensive for the United States to have to facilitate Pakistan’s reckless behavior, the price of a potential nuclear terrorist attack is far greater.
Beyond the nuclear component, the United States must guard itself against military complications that could arise from the extended loss of Pakistan ground routes or airspace if Pakistan lashes out following aid cuts. The Americans must be able to use Pakistani airspace to reach Afghanistan from aircraft carriers in Arabian sea. If the U.S.- Iran relationship were healthier, then perhaps the Americans could hope to use Iran’s airspace instead of Pakistan’s, but given President Trump’s recent comments this is far-fetched at best. In addition, the last American military base in Central Asia, located in Kyrgyzstan, was forced to close following the Kyrgyz government’s attempt to curry favor with Russia. As long as the U.S. intends to continue military operations in Afghanistan, it must ensure its capacity to support troops there regardless of circumstance. This means not further alienating Pakistan, and not ceding any more military influence in Central Asia.
The third major problem with the U.S. decision to halt security aid is China’s presence in the region. One constant risk for the United States when cutting out an ally is that the country will turn to one of America’s rivals for aid instead, thereby weakening American influence abroad—and this case is no different. Pakistan appears uncowed by American threats to end security assistance, in large part because of China. The Pakistani government believes that China will be eager to offer aid in return for an expansion of China’s sphere of influence. In fact, Beijing is already giving substantially more than Washington.13 However, Pakistan should be wary of China’s offer because it is markedly different from the type of assistance that the United States has been providing. Instead of grant aid, the Chinese are instead offering loan aid which aims at allowing Chinese businesses to develop in Pakistan in a manner beneficial to China.14 Pakistan risks rather dramatic losses if it proves unable to repay the loans. Contrary to the bluster of Pakistani politicians, the United States was offering a good deal. However, now that the aid is being taken off the table it appears inevitable that the Pakistani government will be forced into the embrace of predatory Chinese investors, with unknowable effects on Pakistan’s stability and security.
The American-Pakistani relationship is undoubtedly due for a change. The unhealthy dynamic that has supported the alliance for decades is not in the United States’ long term interest, nor in that of the Pakistani people—thousands of whom have suffered from both homegrown terrorism and U.S. drone strikes. However, the change should not be reckless or spontaneous. As presidential elections loom in Pakistan and midterm elections approach in the United States, the current political environment is not conducive to rational and diplomatic discourse, but rather to fiery speeches and demagoguery. Even more foolish is to potentially alienate an entire government and people without a strategic replacement. Until the United States is certain of its ability to resupply troops in Afghanistan quickly and reliably, it should not imperil its relationship with Pakistan, whose airspace and land routes remain vital for American involvement in Afghanistan. Furthermore, completely turning its back on Pakistan would leave the U.S. in a dangerous position with regards to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Even though the U.S. exerts minimal influence on Pakistan at the moment, this is certainly preferable to clear enmity with a nuclear power. For the moment, eliminating military aid to Pakistan may be tempting, but as a long term diplomatic and military strategy it is badly misguided.