Trump Administration Threatens to Cut Aid to Pakistan. Does It Matter?
U.S. aid to Pakistan was falling even before the president’s speech
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Tuesday afternoon that U.S. funding for Pakistan could be cut if the government doesn’t cooperate with the president’s strategy in Afghanistan.
“Obviously, we have some leverage that’s been discussed in terms of the amount of aid and military assistance we give them, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner,” Tillerson told reporters. “All of that can be put on the table.”
Tillerson’s comments follow on President Donald Trump’s threat to slash aid to Pakistan as punishment for giving sanctuary to the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups operating in Afghanistan.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said Monday evening in his speech announcing the new Afghanistan strategy. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
In fact, funding for Pakistan has been falling for some time.
Annual economic and security assistance peaked at more than $3.5 billion in 2011, but the Obama administration and Congress steadily scaled back aid for Pakistan since then, with funding falling below $1 billion in the 2016 budget request.
U.S. assistance to Pakistan falls roughly into three categories: economic aid, security aid and funding to help the country pay for the cost of counter-terrorism operations. The economic assistance includes funding to support Pakistan’s agriculture, energy and health sectors, as well as humanitarian aid. Security aid comes under several headings, including counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, military education, money to assist with purchase U.S. military equipment, and transfers of excess military gear.
Amid concern about the threat posed al Qaeda militants, U.S. aid to Islamabad increased dramatically in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But Washington’s relationship with Islamabad soured after a series of incidents, including the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad that revealed the al Qaeda chief had been hiding in plain sight in Pakistan.
In July, the Trump administration said it was suspending $300 million in aid originally obligated to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism operations near the Afghan border. The money is part of the $800 million Coalition Support Fund, which since 2002 has reimbursed Pakistan to the tune of $14 billion.
Washington has also previously cut arms supplies, which the Pakistani military has managed to weather by turning to China or other third parties for aircraft and weapons. In 2016, Congress blocked the sale of eight additional F-16s to Islamabad, citing the continuing support for the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
But the military pipeline remains a key bargaining chip for the United States. The Pakistani air force covets more U.S.-built F-16 aircraft, and pilots are waiting for the shipment of nine more AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters due to be delivered next year for the counterterrorism mission. “There are a lot of things we could pull off the table,” said Sameer Lalwani, deputy director of the South Asia program at The Stimson Center.
But Islamabad knows that at some point the Americans will leave Afghanistan, and it sees the Haqqani network and the Taliban as proxy groups needed to assert their influence in Afghanistan. “It’s the only real play they have left,” Lalwani said.
“Pakistan has an abiding interest in peace and stability of Afghanistan” Islamabad’s ambassador to Washington, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, said Monday. “We have had to manage the blowback of an unstable Afghanistan for 38 years – more than half of Pakistan’s independent life. Our leadership repeatedly, categorically mentioned absence of tolerance and safe havens for any terrorist” on Pakistani soil.
The American and Pakistani militaries retain close ties, however. The head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel visited the country this week and met with Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and was flown to the embattled Waziristan area near the Afghan border that has long been a base of militant activity.
Even if Trump doesn’t cut funding to Pakistan, there’s increasing pressure from Congress to limit U.S. support. In June, two U.S. lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill that would revoke Pakistan’s status as what’s known as a “Major Non-Nato Ally,” a legal status that confers certain benefits, such as the transfer of excess defense articles from the U.S. military.
The bill, put forward by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Rick Nolan (D-MN), would target Pakistan’s military in ways that cutting funding might not. Countries dubbed Major Non-Nato Allies are eligible for some types of expedited arms deliveries and access to a U.S. loan guarantee program to finance arms exports.
Those familiar with arms transfers done under the Major Non-Nato Ally status said that revoking it would have little more than symbolic effect. It’s also unclear how much Washington’s military assistance translates into influence over Pakistan.
In late 2011, after U.S. forces mistakenly bombed Pakistani troops inside Pakistan, Islamabad responded by shuttering border crossings along a critical ground route that NATO used for resupply, connecting the port in Karachi and Afghanistan. The route remained closed for months, costing NATO about $100 million a month in extra transportation costs, and helped lead to the dwindling of U.S. aid.
That row, according to The Stimson Center’s Lalwani, showed that when confronted by Washington in the past, “Pakistan hasn’t blinked.”
Photo Credit: ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary