The Pakistan Problem: Why America Can't Easily Cut Ties with Islamabad

Residents and the media gather near the site of burning tankers, used to carry fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which were attacked by unidentified gunmen on the outskirts of Quetta August 22, 2011. About a dozen gunmen in Pakistan's southwestern district of Mastung attacked and set fire to some 18 trucks carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, government and security officials said. There were no reported casualties. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

The Trump administration no longer views Pakistan an imperfect friend, but as a clever enemy.

Last week brought a new low for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship that began with a stormy tweet message from the U.S. president, citing Pakistan’s deceitfulness in fighting terrorism. Following the tweet, the United States unveiled a string of measures that made a clear distinction about how the Trump administration no longer views Pakistan as an imperfect friend, but as a clever enemy. The new measures included a suspension of U.S. security assistance to Pakistan, comprising $255 million in Foreign Military Financing and as much as $900 million in the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). On top of that, the State Department placed Pakistan on a severe watch list for religious freedom violations, all while Sen. Rand Paul vowed to introduce a bill in the U.S. Senate to cut all aid to Pakistan. In response, Pakistan’s foreign minister furiously declared that there was no alliance between the two countries and that the United States has been a “friend who always betrays.”

Historically, the United States has provided Pakistan three types of assistance—military, economic and the CSF funds. In general, the military aid and CSF funds, which began in 2002, constitute the bulk of U.S. assistance to Pakistan. The CSF, however, seen by Pakistan as reimbursement for operations conducted by its troops inside Pakistan, is a misnomer that effectively serve as a slush fund that Islamabad spends on farming terrorism.

Make no mistake, Trump is neither wrong about Pakistan nor is he the first U.S. president to criticize Pakistan for its deceit and cut American assistance. The U.S. military assistance to Pakistan first started in 1954 under President Dwight Eisenhower and lasted for almost eleven years, in which the United States provided over $800 million to Pakistan, averaging nearly $75 million every year. However, in 1965, following an arms embargo imposed on Pakistan, President Lyndon Johnson ended U.S. military aid to Pakistan after the outbreak of the first India-Pakistan war. For the next sixteen years, until 1982, Pakistan received little to no support from the United States. Between 1977–1979, the Carter administration even cut off all economic assistance to Pakistan after Pakistan began its secret uranium enrichment program. At the time, Pakistan’s prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously stated that Pakistan would build a nuclear bomb even if its people had to “eat grass.”

However, United States resumed its support in 1982 under the Reagan administration after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. For the next nine years, Pakistan received over $2.5 billion in U.S. military assistance, averaging nearly $270 million a year. But, in 1990, the United States again stopped its support because of Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Until 2001, America’s carrot-and-stick approach alternated between providing Islamabad negligible assistance and imposing strict sanctions on its nuclear program. However, that changed in 2001 after the United States entered Afghanistan and renewed its support to Pakistan in 2002. Since then, Pakistan has received over $33 billion in U.S. military and civilian aid, including nearly $21 billion (an estimated $4.1 billion in Foreign Military Financing and nearly $15 billion in CSF funds) in military support.

Nonetheless, America’s generous support over the last six decades has neither helped cultivate an ally in Pakistan neither has it meaningfully changed its behavior. In fact, it has made Pakistan more resolute in pursuing its goals. Although Pakistan has weathered previous U.S. aid cuts, each past episode in the bilateral relationship has driven the partnership more towards an irreparable trust deficit. The first event that created a Pakistani distrust of the United States was in 1962 during the Indo-Sino border conflict when the Kennedy administration decided to provide India with military assistance. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president at the time, felt that the United States had stabbed Pakistan in the back without discussing it first with Pakistani leaders. Since then, the relationship has transformed to a one best described as “transactional.”

This decades-old trust deficit has made it more difficult for the United States to establish a quid-pro-quo relationship with Pakistan with regards to its assistance. If anything, Pakistan has steadily become more insincere and inconsistent in delivering on its many promises, including, for example, not abandoning its poisonous support to various terrorist groups. The only thing that Pakistan has done with remarkable consistency is: denial. Today, the underlying challenge in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is the divergence of interests. In truth, a cursory look at the past shows that Pakistan has never really trusted the United States. Pakistan’s narrative, however self-destructive, has been clear: support Pakistan’s core national interests. As such, Pakistan’s military and civilian establishment have not wavered to do so even when it came at the expense of its relationship with the United States.

The urgent questions now are: what comes next and what does it portend for the future of this tempestuous partnership?