THE state of bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan which used to be one of the most faithful allies of Washington, remains in a rather sorry state after US president Donald Trump’s insulting New Year’s tweet which left Islamabad thoroughly outraged. Specifically, Trump chose to make his first post in 2018 about Pakistan, noting that:
‘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!’
However, the scandal didn’t end there, as Heather Nauert of the US state department slammed Islamabad with allegations that it wasn’t doing enough to put an end to the spread of terrorism. According to Nauert, from now on Pakistan must ‘earn’ US financial support earmarked for counter-terrorism. In turn, the sitting United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley rushed to clarify that the withdrawal of any aid provided to Pakistan was in no way connected to its decision to support the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Washington’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, it is difficult to hide an elephant in plain sight, just as it is for Washington to hide this punitive measure taken for Pakistan’s commitment to the defence of fellow Muslims upon the international stage. One can recall how ambassador Haley would sent a total of 180 letters of intimidation in late December in bid to force sovereign states to change positions regarding Jerusalem.
The Pentagon specified that Washington froze at least 900 million dollars allocated to Pakistan for counter-terrorism operations. This explanation was given on January 5 by Pentagon representative Patrick Evans, commenting on Trump’s decision to suspend aid to Islamabad in the field of security.
According to Evans, this decision affects the support provided by the Pentagon through the Coalition Support Funds, while specifying that the US Congress has allocated 900 million dollars to Pakistan, however it would now not receive this sum. In addition, the United States decided to withhold 255 million dollars promised to Pakistan in the 2016 fiscal year for foreign military assistance. Those funds were supposed to be spent on the acquisition of American-made weapons.
As a response to such steps, Islamabad, a principal US ally in Central and South Asia and a nuclear power, has decided to challenge Washington for the first time in the history of its bilateral relations. Speaking at the Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies, Pakistan’s defence minister Khurram Dastgir Khan announced that his country is planning to suspended all large-scale military operations conducted together with the Pentagon and American intelligence services. These actions coincided with the Supreme Court of the Pakistani city of Peshawar ‘out of medical concerns’ to release from prison the Sufi Mohammad, founder and leader of the Pakistani radical group Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, which resisted the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
In interviews with American media sources, unnamed Pakistani officials point out that Islamabad is planning to close a number of transit routes currently used to deliver American personnel and equipment to Afghanistan, realizing that there are no real alternative routes. A commander of the Pakistani Air Force also suggested that Pakistan’s airspace could be closed to American military aircraft, including drones.
In turn, Pakistan’s opposition leader Imran Khan urged the government to reduce the level of Islamabad’s relations with the United States, adding that Pakistan should reduce the number of US diplomatic, non-diplomatic and intelligence personnel operating in Pakistan in order to establish diplomatic parity in accordance with international legal norms.
In his interview for the Guardian, Pakistan prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi declared himself mystified by US threats to cut off funding, saying that US financial assistance was ‘very, very insignificant’ and that Pakistan was ‘on the forefront of the war on terror.’ He would add that:
‘I am not sure what US aid has been talked here, as the aid in the last five years at least has been less than 10 million dollars a year. It is a very, very insignificant amount. So when I read in the paper that aid at the level of 250 million dollars or 500 million or 900 million dollars has been cut, we at least are not aware of that aid.’
American military assistance to Pakistan first began in 1954 under US president Dwight Eisenhower and lasted for almost eleven years, in which the United States provided over 800 million dollars to Pakistan, averaging nearly 75 million dollars every year. However, in 1965, following an arms embargo imposed on Pakistan, president Lyndon Johnson ended US 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.
In recent years, bilateral relations between Washington and Islamabad have been deteriorating as the previous administration of US president Barack Obama announced new cuts in US assistance to Islamabad in 2016, depriving the latter of 300 million dollars in aid. However, while expressing its dissatisfaction with the level of bilateral cooperation with Islamabad, Washington had yet to posture itself against Pakistan as President Trump is now doing.
It’s clear that America’s support over the last six decades has failed to transform Pakistan into an obedient client of Washington. In fact, it has made Pakistan more resolute in pursuing its own goals. Although Pakistan has weathered previous US aid cuts, each past episode within US-Pakistani bilateral relationship has driven the partnership further towards an irreparable trust deficit. The first event that created 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.
This year Pakistan is going to conduct general elections, which are going to be unfortunate for Washington. With the persistent growth of anti-American sentiments boosted by recent statements and actions of the Trump administration, any politician who would dare make concessions to Washington would be perceived as a ‘traitor’ of national interests.
It is noteworthy that despite the difficulties experienced by the Pakistani economy, according to the estimates of a number of international organizations, 2017 was actually the best of the nation’s 70-year history, with GDP growth nearing 4.7 per cent. This allows us to speak of Pakistan as a state able to assert itself to a greater degree regardless of pressure the US attempts to apply on Islamabad.
Likely it is now too late to impose meaningful financial sanctions against Islamabad. The Islamic Republic has long served its well-being best in fostering relationships with its regional allies who will help it compensate for any financial losses suffered due to Washington’s steps. After the release of the new US strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, experts began to talk about the fact that recent US actions and the further cooling of relations between the US and Pakistan will likely push the latter into the embrace of Russia and China, which in the long term can lead to a major geopolitical shift across Asia. Considering that Islamabad needs external assistance, it will be happy to receive it from Moscow and Beijing, both of which are also at increasing odds with US foreign policy.
New Eastern Outlook, February 1. Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst.
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