Will Trump’s Tough Talk on Pakistan Yield Results?

By Bennett Seftel

Bottom Line: U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan to force Islamabad to take a harder line on terrorism. But in the past decade, economic leverage over Pakistan has yielded only short-term results. The Trump administration also runs the risk of incurring consequential backlash from the Pakistani government that could complicate efforts to stabilize Afghanistan – especially as Islamabad finds public cooperation with the U.S. difficult at the best of times due to conflicting interests, coupled with the high degree of anti-American sentiment in the country.

Background: U.S aid to Pakistan dates back decades, but was ramped up following the attacks of 9/11 when Pakistan offered to support the U.S. war on terror.

  • U.S. aid to Pakistan primarily falls into three categories. The first is security assistance, which added up to $308 million in 2017. The second is economic aid, which was $223 million in 2017. Finally, Pakistan receives Coalition Support Funds (CSF) as reimbursement for operations conducted by its troops in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and elsewhere in Pakistan in support of U.S-led military operations. However, the $400 million that Pakistan was set to receive from the CSF fund was frozen by U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in July and may not be lifted until the spring, when the Taliban typically resumes its offensives in Afghanistan, and then possibly only if the U.S. determines that Pakistan has taken concrete measures to restrict the movements of the Taliban and the Haqqani network
  • Over the last several decades, U.S aid to Pakistan has fluctuated depending on Washington’s regional objectives. For example, during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, the U.S. decreased its aid to Pakistan, only sending $26 million to the country. Alternatively, during the 1980s, the U.S. significantly increased its assistance to Islamabad to upwards of $5 billion as Pakistan helped funnel weapons and funds to anti-Soviet rebel fighters in Afghanistan.
  • Between 2002-2017, the U.S. provided more than $33 billion in total aid to Pakistan.
  • In August, Trump declared his intention to withhold $255 million in aid until Islamabad meets certain conditions, primarily relinquishing support for the Taliban, Haqqani network and other militant groups.
  • On New Year’s Day, Trump tweeted: “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. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
  • In response, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted: “We will respond to President Trump’s tweet shortly inshallah…Will let the world know the truth..difference between facts & fiction.”
  • Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC) convened on Tuesday, and participants expressed “deep disappointment” at Trump’s tweet. A handout at the meeting said that Trump’s allegations were “completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation.”

Alex Bolling, former CIA Chief of Station

“It is very challenging to establish a quid-pro-quo relationship with Pakistan with respect to aid. The complexity of Pakistan makes it very challenging, given their internal political dynamics as well as their historical relationship with Afghanistan and the groups that are conducting cross-border activities.”

Bill Milam, former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan

“The U.S. started withholding our goodies from Pakistan in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson cut off most of our military assistance to Pakistan when it attacked India. We cut off most assistance, both military and aid, when President George H. W. Bush could no longer certify, as required by the 1985 Pressler Amendment, that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear device. And when those sticks didn’t work, we tried to use a huge assistance package as an irresistible carrot to get Pakistan to conform completely to our way of thinking in the fight against terrorism, including in Afghanistan. The results are clear – none of it worked. Pakistan marches to its own beat.”

Issue: The U.S. has turned to Pakistan for vital cooperation in rooting out militant groups, such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network, that regularly orchestrate violence in neighboring Afghanistan. At the same time, however, the U.S. has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring these groups to promote their own regional interests.

  • During the late 1970s and 1980s, Washington used Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) as a conduit to funnel arms and money to rebel groups fighting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, however, the ISI helped support the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan during the 1990s. Today, it is widely believed that the ISI continues to protect and assist the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), all designated as terrorists by the U.S. government, as part of its strategy to keep Afghanistan on unstable footing and advance its ambitions in the disputed Kashmir region bordering India and Pakistan.
  • Pakistan has assisted with U.S. efforts to dismantle al-Qaida. Pakistani intelligence facilitated the 2003 apprehension of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and has provided information that helped target other key figures by CIA drone strike. Yet questions still linger about whether the Pakistani government knew of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts after the al Qaida leader’s compound was raided in close proximity to a Pakistani military facility in May 2011.
  • The Pakistani government has permitted the CIA and U.S. military to use bases inside Pakistan for drones and even launch drone strikes in Pakistani territory. In 2017, at least eight such strikes were conducted, which resulted in the deaths of several Taliban militants. However, many in the U.S. still accuse the Pakistani government of harboring leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, although Pakistani officials have repeatedly rejected such accusations.
  • After rescuing an American-Canadian family from the Haqqani network in October, the Pakistani military captured one of the organization’s members but reportedly refused to grant the U.S. access to the man. The Haqqani network is still believed to be holding at least two other Americans hostage.

Dan Markey, Academic Director of the Global Policy Program, Johns Hopkins SAIS

“In the aftermath of 9/11, the Pakistanis chose to be with us for multiple reasons, but mainly because they decided that the alternatives were too costly. But as they started to realize that our attention in Afghanistan began to wander, most importantly to the war in Iraq, that we weren’t actually hunting down and killing all al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, and that we were going to leave Afghanistan a bit of a mess, then they reverted back to an influence strategy, using many of the same groups and individuals that they had come to know over decades.”

Response: At certain points over the last 15 years, the U.S. has compelled Pakistan to act through either military or economic threats, albeit with mixed results. Nonetheless, Pakistan still holds valuable cards, especially as the U.S. continues to depend on Islamabad for its efforts in Afghanistan. 

  • Perhaps the most forceful pressure point occurred after 9/11, when the Bush administration, under the direct threat of American military power, asked the Pakistani government if it was aligned with the United States’ in the war on terror.
  • Threats to cut off aid are nothing new to the Pakistani government. In July 2011, the Obama administration suspended $800 million in aid to the Pakistan. The decision came two months after the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and also was tied to Pakistan’s support for militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani network. The Obama administration also threatened to withhold $300 million of military assistance in 2015 for the same reasons.
  • Since 2013, the amount of annual aid the U.S. provides to Pakistan has steadily decreased, indicating that the U.S. may be attempting to reduce its reliance on Pakistan, or Pakistan’s reliance on the U.S. For 2018, the U.S. has pledged $345 million to Pakistan, which would be a further decrease from the estimated $526 million Pakistan received in 2017.

Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A.
Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS

“The practical issues affecting any hardline approach towards Pakistan are (a) what can the U.S. actually do that will matter enough to really change Pakistani behavior, and (b) what will happen if the Pakistanis respond by limiting U.S. access to Pakistan’s airspace, ports and land routes; giving more freedom of action and support to the Taliban and other threats to Afghanistan; and/or titling even more towards China.”

Anticipation: It is unlikely that Trump’s decision to withhold aid from Pakistan in and of itself will lead Pakistan to amend its approach, as Islamabad boasts a track record of withstanding such maneuvers. However, by implementing a multifaceted strategy that extends beyond U.S. fiscal leverage to include a greater alignment of the two countries’ core interests, the Trump administration may begin to chip away at the barriers preventing enhanced and honest cooperation.

Dan Markey, Academic Director of the Global Policy Program, Johns Hopkins SAIS

“There are a couple of things that are missing from the Trump Administration’s approach right now. One is evidence of a commitment by the administration to just how far it is willing to push. The Pakistanis are pretty skilled at girding themselves for irritations from the U.S. and aid cutoffs or slowdowns. They can weather all of that. The question is, do we have other pressure tactics that we’re actually willing to use – things like denying them access to international financial institutions and resources that go well beyond U.S. assistance. Just how mean are we willing to get? On the other side, just how committed are we to the fight in Afghanistan in ways that would get Pakistan, over time, to see that its interest is [in] aligning itself with what our strategy is? That is, if they began to believe that the most likely solution in Afghanistan was one in which the Afghan Taliban were either brought to the table and brought into a political process or ultimately defeated, then they would probably be more inclined to get behind that effort themselves and support it. But for the time being, and for as long as I can remember, I think they’ve suspected that the U.S. would leave with a job half-finished and would leave the problem in their lap. Given those assumptions, the idea that they would turn [against] some of their militant allies like the Afghan Taliban and that Haqqani network, seems less compelling. So that’s where we’re stuck.”

Bennett Seftel is director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.