Trump’s Pakistan problem

Trump administration has recently cut almost all security aid to Pakistan, cutting the already delayed $255m military aid which Pakistan has been anticipating for the better part of 2017 - citing that the country has “failed to deal with terrorist networks operating on its soil”.

The Relationship

From its inception the US-Pakistan relationship was that of convenience. United States for its part was amongst the first nations to establish diplomatic relations with the new state of Pakistan in 1947 mainly because of the Pro-American and Pro-Capitalist Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that governed the Pakistan’s most prosperous Punjab province. Having endured independence from Britain and the horrors of partition from India, it was natural for Pakistan to ally with the United States as its rival India would side with the Soviet Union. United States for its part found strategic partners in Pakistan military dictators. Beginning from General Ayub Khan, who in return for US military aid allowed the first spy missions to the Soviet Union resulting in the 1960 U-2 incident capture of Gary powers.

United States found Ayub’s successor General Yahya Khan an integral partner in the bulwark against Communism when Indian backed East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) declared Independence in 1971, the United States fearing Soviet backed-India to be the de-facto power in the subcontinent, secretly encouraged the shipment of military equipment from the Shah's Iran into Pakistan. The defeat of the Pakistan military and the loss of East Pakistan to its emergence in independent Bangladesh remains an open wound in the psyche of the Pakistan military. In return for past US support, Pakistan Military authorized secretly to open the path to the 1972 Nixon visit to its close ally China leading to the normalization of relations between US and China.

The US-Pakistan relationship began to show its deficits in the vociferous but charismatic Oxford-educated, non-military backed, democratically elected Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was Bhutto’s warming up to Soviet Union and his obsession with developing nuclear weapons that scarred his relationship with the United States so when the Pakistan military and its General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq commanded a coup against him, the approval from Washington was not slow.

When Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, United States now had a reason to work with General Zia-ul-Haq through “Operation Cyclone” to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Covert aid funded by United States, Saudi Arabia and UAE but the execution and the cash control of the operation would be implemented by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Through arming, training and funding of both moderate and radical factions of the Mujahedeen, many who were Afghan refugees and from tribes of Pakistan’s rural northern provinces which centuries old Afghan tribal links, the covert operation paid off. After 1986, the tide turned towards these Mujahedeen groups. Al-Qaeda arrived at his time and so did Osama Bin laden; building partnerships with many of these militant groups through Saudi Intelligence and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  The Mujahedeen with assistance from the ISI, managed shelters at the northern, western and southern borders of Pakistan were now winning against the Soviet Army resulting in their defeat and withdrawal in February 1989. The Mujahedeen groups left such a brutal legacy after the war where provincial Afghan towns, cities and eventually Kabul were all under attack and ransacked by feuding Mujahedeen Warlords as each militant group battled the other for control.

With the Soviet Union no longer a threat, the United States lost interest in state-building or any reconstruction in Afghanistan while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) reaped the rewards of an intermediary, forming strategic relationships with Mujahedeen groups resulting and using them as a quality asset. So, when the Taliban was victorious in getting rid of the Mujahedeen Warlords, they did so with the blessings of the ISI. Afghanistan now was a client state. With its western borders secure, Pakistan’s military could now concentrate on their eastern front in its battle with India over the province of Kashmir; using some of the United States funding that had provided for the Afghan war effort that would be diverted by ISI to assist radical extremist and violent groups to battle the Indian Army.

Pakistan’s U-turn Strategy

With democratically elected Pakistani governments coming and going for much of the 1990s, the Pakistan’s military again staged another coup. The International community was against recognizing General Pervez Musharaf as the new leader of Pakistan but after the horrors of 9/11 all that would change. Pakistan suddenly found itself being warned by their former ally, the United States to assist in the removal of the Afghan Taliban, a group the Pakistan military had groomed for nearly half a decade.

Pakistan military General Pervez Musharaf needed the United States to make his recent coup against the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif to be legitimate. He also wanted to remove Pakistan from the US and UN sanctions imposed on them for their new status as a nuclear-armed state and badly needed economic assistance to revive Pakistan’s economy. In return Pakistan would assist United States military and NATO through intelligence and logistics cooperation in Operation Enduring Freedom. However, privately amongst Musharaf’s cabinet; some military Generals believed that immediate safe havens for its asset, the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern, western and southern borders though temporarily would be a key strategy until the United States and their allies leave Afghanistan.

Through the Coalition Support Fund, the United States has paid to date an approximate $8.6 billion (initially promised $18 billion) to the Pakistan Military for its assistance in the war effort in Afghanistan and for the use of two of its airports in Shamsi Airfield and Dalabandin in Pakistani Baluchistan. Pakistan was promised $1.5 billion annually from 2001 onwards but in the very first year that did not happen.

The Decline

In 2009 the Kerry-Luger Bill proposed $1.5 billion in annual assistance to Pakistan was not transferred due to the significant differences between the Obama administration’s policy of US drone use in Pakistan air space and Pakistan’s policy on Indian Administered Kashmir. It further laid conditions for further economic aid package in-return the Pakistan military will not obstruct and interfere in Pakistan’s elected civilian governments.

This enraged Pakistan’s military who until now had been able to control much of Pakistan’s defense and foreign policy in partnership with the elected civilian government but suddenly found the United States to actively work against their own interests. 

The relationship took a bitter turn for the absolute worst when a secret operation conducted by US Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan led to the finding and death of Osama bin Laden in May 2, 2011. Under an intelligence assessment Bin-Laden’s Abbottabad home was at a close proximity to a Pakistan military academy adding to suspicions that perhaps the Pakistan military had known all along not just his whereabouts but perhaps even had assisted him in some unknown capacity.

Six years on, the US-Pakistan relationship is stagnant. Pakistan has slowly edged away to China to seek the benefits of military and economic aid. China is already involved is several Pakistan infrastructure projects. With Trump taking a confrontational tone to Pakistan there is little hope in this US administration where the relationships can be normalized. But if not Pakistan, which country can take the role to battle the militancy to find a political solution? Russia, China, or India. All are potentially able but lack the historical relationships that only Pakistan provides.

Why Pakistan is hesitant

For US military with significant engagements in Iraq from 2003 onwards, Afghanistan was not a priority but by 2008 a resurgent Taliban was making gains and even with an additional 48,500 troops the US military was unable to stop their advances in other provinces. By December 2009, President Obama sent more troops bringing the total to 100,000. But while Afghanistan saw a surge in violence so did Pakistan. The Pakistan military for the majority of its relationship through the Pashtun tribal elders was successful as events in Afghanistan unfolded to hold them to keep their promises to not fight against the US and NATO forces but from 2007 onwards this became a difficulty. Suddenly factions of fighters were splitting from the main umbrella groups that formed the Taliban. Revolting against tribal elders, sometimes even assassinating them. These factions were now forming alliances with other groups to take on even the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan state.

One of the reasons this happened was because in 2002 when the Pakistan military under the insistence of the US government, conducted incursions into South Waziristan and neighboring tribal areas to originally combat foreign militants fleeing from the war in Afghanistan into the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan and. after some fighting, the Pakistan military came to a settlement with key tribal elders to advise militants against attacks on US and NATO forces. However, in 2006 a U.S. missile strike in Bajaur, accidentally killing school children in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas was noted by Pakistan military analysts as a key factor in the rise of tribal militancy resulting in the formation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups.

This makes the present circumstances extremely complicated for the present Pakistan civilian government that has been rocked by the resignation of its own Pri-Minister due to the Panama papers and at the same time convincing a Pakistan military to take on not just its own ally but formerly one of CIA’s main asset during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  The Haqqani network unlike other Pakistan military assetts is by far a more organized, heavily armed, well-funded, large in numbers and command huge support of tribes from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border (Rassler, Don; Vahid Brown (14 July 2011). The fear is just as Pakistan military has seen some of its own assets turn into militant groups and turn against them, it simply cannot afford to take on the might of the Haqqani network. Perhaps Pakistan military still believes that it needs all its assets to handle what will be left by US and NATO forces after they leave Afghanistan. No different from when the Soviet army left to have Pakistan military to clean up the mess.