On January 1, President Trump’s first tweet of the year complained that the United States has received nothing but “lies and deceit” in return for the over $33 billion in aid it has provided to Pakistan over the past 16 years. Then he cut off military asistance, continuing economic aid. Lets expand on that.
Why do we care about Pakistan?
– A brief history: Since largely Hindu India and largely Muslim Pakistan gained independence from Britain after World War II, they have fought wars in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999, mostly over the divided territory of Kashmir. During the Cold War, India largely aligned with the Soviet Union and Pakistan aligned with the United States as a member of the Central Treaty Organization (along with Turkey, Iran, and Britain.) Both have been nuclear powers since the 70s. Pakistani political leadership has been complicated, with US-trained military leaders alternating with the Bhutto clan, punctuated by the assasination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, and the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges in 2017. The current prime minister, Shamid Abbasi, has assumed office during a downturn in relations with the United States and has done little to change direction.
– The administration’s logic, as presented as part of an Afghan-centric policy statement on August 21: Osama bin Laden hid in Abbotobad, Pakistan, raising conjecture that elements of the Pakistani government must have known. The Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group which killed 164 people in Mumbai, India in 2008 was based in Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence service has long supported the radical Islamist Haqqani terrorist network which supports the Taliban in Afghanistan. In August, the Trump administration raised the possibility of supporting Indian involvement in Afghanistan as a prod to the Pakistanis. Little has apparently changed in Pakistani support or overall result as the US military strategy in Afghanistan has modestly expanded. The result – if they won’t help, why give them almost $1 billion per year and favorable priorities in acquiring US military equipment?
– A broader view:
— Pakistan is also the target of fundamentalist Muslim terrorist attacks, with a dozen in 2017 claiming hundreds of lives. Our greatest strategic objective in South Asia should be the prevention of terrorists acquiring access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Afghanistan posesses no strategic significance for the United States, yet we are in the 15th year of that unsuccessful war. The only reason for our maintaining a military presence there – aside from not wanting to admit defeat – is to be “in the neighborhood” if the nuclear stockpiles are threatened.
— Pakistan is in the back yard of Russia and China, and forms a key component of Xi Jin Ping’s $900 billion“Belt and Road” infrastructure project which is designed to build roads, power plants, pipelines, and port facilities to connect western China to the Middle East, South Asia, and eastern Europe. (Some $60 billion of China-financed projects have been identified in Pakistan. India is opting out.) Conversely, we are $20 trillion in debt and need to prioritize. Trump has the right instincts, aligning with the Patrick Buchanan wing of the Republican Party.
– The broader broad perspective: Southwest Asia is complicated, and a reasonable outcome depends not only on what is done, but how it is done. Can we support some “rational actors” in Pakistan at a minimal cost? Can there be some trust? By whom and how is the message delivered? Fortunately, unlike many other countries where US ambassadors have not been appointed and senior Washington staff positions remain open, we do have an experienced ambassador in David Hale who apparently has a good relationship with Secretary Tillerson, and some latitude with the President, coupled with an experienced Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Alice G. Wells. They will share the unenviable task of managing the retreat.
The punch line. Trump is right (as he often is) in strongly challenging the status quo in the region and in the State Department, but he would have better odds of success if he did not publicly push a potential ally against the wall (as he also often does.) Look for increasing Chinese influence as we retrench.