The South Asia Channel

A meaningless aid cutoff

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A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images


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Over the weekend, the U.S. government announced that it would not deliver about one third of the military aid it had allocated to Pakistan this year, approximately $800 million. The move was not particularly surprising; last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate Committee that  “When it comes to our military aid, we are not prepared to continue providing that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken.”

The United States has long attempted to prod the Pakistani military in a more favored direction in the so-called War on Terror, employing a mix of stern language and financial incentives, to little effect. While the aid suspension is hardly a drastic measure, it does constitute ramping up the dial on U.S. pressure on Pakistan.

We can easily conclude that a message is being sent. The question, however, remains: Is it being received? The provisional answer is that U.S. pressure is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the Pakistani military’s behavior. Certainly the military is, publicly at least, brushing off the importance of the move and claiming that it will be business as usual on the fighting front. The Pakistani military is hardly going to launch costly new operations in the tribal agencies for want of $800 million.

And despite what Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar may say, Pakistan is not going to suddenly abandon its ongoing operations. For one thing, Mukhtar – even as Defense Minister – doesn’t actually speak for Pakistan’s war-fighting effort, a sad indictment of the civil-military balance if there ever was one. For another, Mukhtar’s statement was a speculative claim on a television news show, not a prepared official statement distributed to the media.

All this is to suggest that we must not overstate the marginal value of the U.S.’s latest diplomatic salvo. Taken as an isolated act, it could have conceivably jarred the military into changing course – though whether the military would have changed course by further retrenching or actually following through on U.S. demands is a matter of conjecture.

But placed within the context of escalating coercive policy the United States has employed recently – from strategic leaks to the U.S. media to more direct verbal pressure to “do more” in the tribal agencies to explicitly accusing the Pakistani government of sanctioning the torture and murder of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad – it is but one pebble in the sand. As such, it is unlikely to provide enough of an external shock to influence the military to abandon the militant allies the U.S. deems most damaging. It is more plausibly seen as more of the same, rather than a radical departure from existing policy.

Indeed, the gradated nature of U.S. policy toward Pakistan itself reveals a fundamental truth: The U.S. cannot risk asking too much too stridently because, as has been true since the mid 2000s, it needs Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan. In turn, the dependence on the Pakistani military ensures that, for the time being at least, it can’t escalate its coercive instruments above a certain point. For instance, it is instructive that the U.S. only withheld one slice of one element of the aid annually delivered to Pakistan.

So for the time being, the U.S. and Pakistan will continue to muddle along. In the medium-term however, the deepening distrust between the U.S. government and the Pakistan military is likely to be more impactful, particularly once the U.S. embarks upon its slow withdrawal from Central Asia.

Historically, the U.S. has preferred to deal directly with the Pakistani military rather than civilian authorities, deeming strongmen rulers more reliable and trustworthy – as it did in Latin America and the Middle East. A cursory glance at the levels of aid Pakistan has received from the U.S. since 1948, collated by The Guardian, easily confirms this assertion, with steep rises associated with the onset of direct military rule.

Graph prepared by the author, based on data from the Guardian

Of course, the fact that the U.S. has fought two wars in Afghanistan – once alongside insurgents, once against them – coinciding with military rule in Pakistan does complicate things, but only to a limited extent. If nothing else, one can say that the United States has generally felt more at ease when dealing with the military, relative to Pakistani civilians. This bonhomie has been buttressed by institutional contacts between the militaries, with officers from Pakistan training in U.S. facilities, and other senior level interaction between the two institutions, particularly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

That dynamic will in all likelihood change once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. Experts and scholars such as Christine Fair have noted that both sides have justfiable grievances with the other. But in times of war, when lives and security are at risk, it becomes difficult to accommodate allies’ differing perspectives, at least to the extent it is possible during peace. If nothing else, the fitful and tumultuous relationship between the two establishments signals that a more lasting commitment and alliance – an expressed goal of President Obama and Secretary Clinton – is probably best attempted when war is not at the forefront.

For the narrow interests of reformers and civilian authorities in Pakistan, the breakdown of relations between the U.S. and the Pakistani military is a positive. As the Guardian’s data shows, the military in Pakistan has long enjoyed preeminence in the West. That its image as a reliable, disciplined and can-do ally has been punctured over the last few years, especially in the last six months, is no bad thing. It reinforces the need for Western allies to support Pakistani democracy, if not with aid – which is often a poisoned chalice – then with diplomatic and political support.

Ahsan Butt is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago, and blogs at Five Rupees.

Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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