Washington and Islamabad see the threat of terrorism, the role of Afghanistan and the larger world in fundamentally different ways.
For an administration accustomed to public backlash, the Pentagon’s recent decision to withhold $300 million set aside for Pakistan has received relatively little pushback in Washington. While the move led to expectedly heated opposition in Islamabad, the response in the United States was decidedly, but unsurprisingly, muted.
The United States has long complained about what it sees as Pakistan’s double-dealing on counterterrorism issues, namely fighting some Pakistani terrorists while ignoring similarly aligned groups that attack US and Afghan troops across the border. Pakistan has maintained that it has been a reliable partner in the fight against radical groups in South Asia, providing crucial supply lines that feed, clothe and equip American soldiers in Afghanistan. While the transactional relationship has succeeded at times thanks to mutual benefits, Pakistan has not engendered the deep, positive feelings in Washington that it would have liked to.
Allegations of Pakistani funding of militant groups have been sustained and withering. Both Western and Afghan officials have criticized the role of militants groups directed and funded by, and aligned with, Pakistan. In May 2006, a senior UK military official complained of Pakistani inaction in stopping Taliban fighters planning attacks in Quetta, near the Afghan border. In July 2008, US intelligence agencies reported that the ISI (Pakistan’s primary intelligence service) helped plan a deadly bombing targeting the Indian embassy in Kabul.
Afghan officials accused the ISI of planning the assassination of Afghanistan’s chief peace negotiator in September 2011. Statements from the Taliban detailing training and weaponry supplied by the Islamic State have bolstered these claims. This says nothing of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which happened near a Pakistani military academy. Despite denials, it is clear that Pakistan has a checkered record of fighting terrorists who target Afghan, US and allied targets, to say the least.
While long-time critics of Pakistan’s apparent insincerity might feel mollified by the decision, it is unlikely to change Pakistan’s behavior. Despite public proclamations of their shared interest in prosecuting a war on armed radicals, Islamabad and Washington have been drifting away from each other’s orbits for some time, and there is little evidence that important, but finite, financial incentives will be enough to reunite them.
The announcement was the latest in a series of actions and statements by the Trump administration indicating displeasure at Pakistan. Beginning with his August 2017 speech outlining his policy on Afghanistan, Donald Trump took an increasingly hostile tone toward Pakistan and its perceived irresoluteness in fighting militants and terrorists, including his infamous January 2018 tweet criticizing Islamabad’s “lies and deceit,” followed by plans to suspend most aid to the country. Other moves have occurred more quietly. In August, Reuters reported that the US military had quietly removed Pakistani officers from the International Military Education and Training program.
While Trump’s displeasure with Pakistan has taken a more acerbic tone, he is not the first to verbalize the sentiment. President Barack Obama publicly criticized Pakistan’s dealings with both the Afghan Taliban and anti-India militants operating in Kashmir. The Obama administration famously froze about $800 million in aid to the Pakistani military in July 2011, including about $300 million in Coalition Support Funds, the same source in the spotlight currently. President George W. Bush also criticized Pakistani inaction against al-Qaeda operatives active in the country.
These criticisms from US leaders have taken on various aspects of Pakistani policy, but have generally coalesced around a single point: Pakistan’s perceived indifference to certain militant groups operating on its soil. The beneficiaries of this Pakistani policy vary, but have historically included elements of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, along with militants targeting Indian troops in Kashmir, a region claimed by both New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan has protested these accusations, highlighting what it sees as important contributions in the fight against terrorism in South Asia.
The disconnect between Washington and Islamabad reflects a number of divergent points in their foreign policies. The first among these are two differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The US government considers the Taliban — and most sub-state militants operating in South Asia — as malignant actors to be stamped out. Through numerous promises of aid and other soft power outreaches, including the aforementioned educational programs and praise from US leaders, Washington has tried to instill this definition of terrorism in Islamabad.
But Pakistan does not see the fights in Afghanistan and Pakistan as equal. Beyond its public rhetoric decrying all forms of terrorism, Pakistan has historically differentiated between terrorists who operate within Pakistan and target Pakistanis, and other groups that take up arms but attack outside of Pakistan or target Pakistan’s enemies. Islamabad has demonstrated its commitment to fighting terrorists targeting Pakistanis following the December 2013 attack on a school in Peshawar that killed 132 children. Recent statements by newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan, support this reading of two varying definitions.
The United States and Pakistan also see the role of Afghanistan in fundamentally different ways. While 17 years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, Washington stills sees its mission in Afghanistan as one designed to prevent the establishment of terrorist safe havens. Pakistan sees something far different and existentially threatening: the envelopment of the nation by a hostile foreign power, India. Regardless of the financial incentives offered by Washington, they pale in comparison to the threat that Islamabad sees should India succeed in establishing itself as the preeminent political player in Kabul.
And while Washington earnestly believes that it is fighting to empower an Afghan government that would be sympathetic to Pakistani security interests, a US presence is almost certainly temporary. The US military will likely withdraw most troops from Afghanistan at some point, while the government it leaves behind in Kabul will remain.
Finally, both the United States and Pakistan have suffered from a geostrategic drift that places them in rival camps. As Chinese influence has grown, Washington has turned to New Delhi to bolster its influence in the region. Both Trump and Obama publicly expressed a desire to increase the focus of US policy on Asia, with a clear eye toward China as a potential adversary. India, as the world’s largest democracy, a major Asian power and a growing economy, appears to many as a natural ally to the United States in the region.
Pakistan, in contrast, has forged closer relations with China, including major infrastructure projects that could strengthen its geostrategic position. This relationship, antagonistic to views expressed by Trump that emphasize competition with China, has also served Pakistani interests in direct ways, including military development cooperation that bolsters its position against India. Chinese aid does not come with the same strings as US aid, and China, which also competes with India, has shown care to strengthen Pakistan’s hand vis-à-vis India.
Far from surprising, the recent suspension of aid to Pakistan is the result of a process that has developed for more than a decade. Washington and Islamabad see the threat of terrorism, the role of Afghanistan and the larger world in fundamentally different ways. Regardless of the amount, funds are unlikely to bridge the geostrategic gap between the two nations. While some might rejoice as what they see as a victory in finally bringing Pakistan to task, this and other decisions are unlikely to change what Washington sees as Pakistan’s reticence to tackle terrorism head on.
With little holding the two countries together, the drift in their respective foreign policies played out in Afghanistan and elsewhere is likely to continue. If $300 million can’t buy you a friend, what could?
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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