by Umer Karim and Giorgio Cafiero
President Donald Trump began this year accusing Pakistan of lying to the United States. He stated that Washington had foolishly given the South Asian country $33 billion in aid while Pakistan’s government allegedly provides safe havens to terrorists who target American troops in Afghanistan. Trump’s statement marked the latest episode in a complicated relationship that has deteriorated largely due to the conflicting strategic interests of the United States and Pakistan in Afghanistan.
Tension between Washington and Islamabad is certainly not new. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration accused Pakistan of arming Muslim insurgents in Kashmir. Throughout the US-led war in Afghanistan (2001-present) all US administrations and lawmakers in Washington have alleged that elements of Pakistan’s government have been harboring terrorists active in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Yet friction significantly heated up in August last year when Trump announced his administration’s new policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, and US officials castigated their Pakistani counterparts for taking inadequate measures against terrorist entities on Pakistani soil. Trump’s invitation to India to play a larger role in Afghanistan’s security environment also deeply alarmed Islamabad.
Bilateral ties somewhat stabilized after senior US officials visited Pakistan and Pakistani forces rescued a Canadian-American family from a tribal area near the Afghan border. Yet the subsequent visits to Pakistan by Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to relay Trump’s demands reversed the recent improvements in relations.
Last month, in a Pentagon report on Afghanistan submitted to Congress, the Trump administration informed American lawmakers of its plans to act unilaterally in areas where Washington and Islamabad’s interests conflict while also strengthening cooperation in areas where the two capitals interests converge. The report emphasized the importance of establishing a US-Afghan platform for countering more than 20 active terrorist or insurgent factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report demanded “fundamental change” in Pakistan’s dealing with groups that Washington deems terrorist entities.
The policy document spurred a debate in Islamabad about what type of unilateral action the Americans could take and how Pakistan should respond. A Pakistani military spokesperson rejected Washington’s stance that Islamabad had failed to do enough in the struggle against violent extremism. The spokesperson also warned the US against taking any unilateral steps on Pakistan’s territory, which took the relationship to its lowest ebb last year.
Then came Trump’s January 1 tweet and the subsequent cancelation of US security aid to Pakistan, including the Coalition Support Fund. Out of the $33 billion in aid that Trump mentioned, almost half of it was essentially reimbursement for costs Pakistan incurred in supporting the US war effort in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities estimate that the actual aid from 2002 to 2016 was only $18.8 billion and that the war against terror has actually cost Pakistan $123 billion.
In other words, the cancellation of security assistance will probably not significantly affect Pakistan. Nor will it pressure Islamabad into ending what National Security Advisor HR McMaster has called a policy of contradictions based on selectively targeting some terror outfits while using others as a foreign-policy arm.
Specifically, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network are the two main entities at the heart of Washington’s grievances with Islamabad. Nonetheless, Pakistan has acted against certain armed extremists to some extent by targeting them in a military operation in North Waziristan. It has also fenced the Afghan border, which has significantly decreased these entities’ cross-border movements.
Despite past cooperation in the counter-terrorism domain, Washington and Islamabad view the tumultuous security environment near the Afghan-Pakistani border through different lenses. Pakistan understands that when the US departs Afghanistan the only force that Islamabad could hedge its bets on would be the Taliban since the current government in Kabul is very much in the Indian camp and has accused Pakistan of backing terrorist entities and their functionaries in Afghanistan. With India as an arch-rival, the Pakistanis see Afghanistan as offering strategic depth vis-à-vis New Delhi. When the US and Pakistan collaborated in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s Red Army, Islamabad mastered its ability to connect with anti-Indian jihadists in Afghanistan to eject Indian influence from Afghanistan. To this day, these non-state actors have too much strategic value for Pakistan to consider cutting off ties with them.
Maintaining a positive relationship with the entity that comes to govern Afghanistan after US forces leave remains a high priority for Pakistan, which wants to ensure that friendly elements emerge as victors in the Afghan power game. In other words, from Pakistan’s perspective, completely abandoning the Taliban would undermine vital strategic interests. Other influential actors in Afghanistan’s future, chiefly China, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, have also recognized that the evolving and increasingly powerful Taliban must be contended with despite its history of human rights abuses.
Despite Washington and Islamabad’s clearly divergent approaches to Afghanistan, the two countries still have certain convergent interests and plenty of remaining avenues to pursue engagement. Both governments are deeply concerned about the threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Devising a comprehensive policy to counter this extremist force can be an area for deeper collaboration. US officials have stated that the suspension in security assistance is only temporary and might be reinstated if Washington determines that Islamabad is providing sufficient cooperation.
The Trump administration, like its predecessors, sees the need to apply pressure on Pakistan to change Islamabad’s relationship with certain non-state actors that have fought US forces in Afghanistan, particularly regarding their alleged sanctuaries in Pakistan. Yet Trump’s approach for dealing with Pakistan risks undermining vital U.S. interests in South Asia. The only US supply line to Afghanistan transits Pakistan. If tensions increase, officials in Islamabad could close this route or at least increase transit fees and create new obstacles that delay deliveries.
In the grander geopolitical equation, Trump’s actions threaten to push Islamabad closer to Washington’s top geopolitical competitors. Based on a common opposition to India, Islamabad and Beijing have deepened their relationship in recent years with China investing nearly $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing is also reportedly considering establishing its second overseas military base in Pakistan. Since 2013, Pakistani-Russian relations have grown in areas of defense, trade, and commerce. The Kremlin sees an opportunity to insert a wedge between the United States and one of its historically close allies in the Muslim world, thereby making Moscow a more relevant and influential actor in South Asia’s geopolitical order at US expense.
As America’s international influence began declining prior to Trump’s presidency, the Pakistanis began hedging their bets globally by investing in closer geo-economic and security partnerships with Beijing and Moscow in the pre-Trump era. Yet Trump’s diplomatic gun-slinging against Islamabad will only push Pakistan away from Washington’s orbit of influence at a faster rate.
The US-Pakistan alliance, rooted in the Cold War, is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The US will pay major costs for continued dysfunction in this relationship. For all the frustrations that Washington has had with Pakistan over the years, the Muslim world’s only nuclear-armed country is an indispensable US ally against transregional terrorist groups, especially in Afghanistan’s security crisis. As the US has no realistic plans to fully defeat the Taliban, Washington must come to terms with the group’s relevance and influence in the country. It must also acknowledge Pakistan’s long-term interests in maintaining its connections with the Taliban even as it pressures the Afghan government to engage constructively with Islamabad.
Umer Karim (@Umarkarim89) is a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research primarily focuses on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and internal politics. Photo: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.