This is a bad week for Pakistan—and it’s still Thursday.
On Monday, President Trump tweeted the U.S. has “foolishly” given the country more than $33 billion in aid over the past 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!” Then on Thursday the longtime but troublesome U.S. ally, whose relationship with Washington has seen far better days, was placed a on special watch list of countries that severely violate religious freedom.
Then came the big move. Later Thursday Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. will suspend most security assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad “takes decisive action” against militant groups that are “destabilizing the region and targeting U.S. personnel.” She did not say how much money was involved, but noted it was a significant figure, and in addition to the $255 million in military aid the U.S. has already withheld. The suspension does not include non-military aid, but it does include about $1.1 billion in funds the U.S. pays Pakistan for the cost of its counterterrorism operations, the so-called Coalition Support Funds.
Nauert added, however: “There may be some exceptions that are made on a case-by-case basis if determined to be critical to national security interests.”
“It’s very profound,” C. Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University who is a critic of Pakistan’s support of militant groups, said of the Trump administration’s decision. “It’s huge.”
She pointed out that the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) were more than what the U.S. pays Pakistan as security aid in the form of foreign military financing (FMF). CSF is what the U.S. pays Pakistan to fight terrorist groups. FMF is a mechanism through which Pakistan buys American military equipment.
Signs of deteriorating relations between the two countries came last August when Trump unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan: He increased the U.S. military presence in the country; accused Pakistan of sheltering “the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people”; and called on India “to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” Last month, while announcing his national-security strategy, Trump said Pakistan must take “decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory.”
Pakistan’s support for groups like the Taliban has long been an irritant to its relations with the United States and Afghanistan. The Taliban is key to Pakistan’s strategic interests because it is not interested in being buffeted by two unfriendly nations on its borders—Afghanistan and India. But that support could cost it an alliance with the United States, its most important partner since 1947, when the country was created.
Cutting off military aid to Pakistan will impose costs on the U.S. too, however. Pakistan controls many of the supply lines for material into Afghanistan. When Pakistan shut these lines off for about eight months between November 2011 and July 2012, the cost of supplying the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan through an alternate route increased from $17 million a month to $104 million a month. But Fair pointed out the additional cost incurred by the U.S. was still less than what the U.S. paid Pakistan as part of the Coalition Support Funds.
“I hope [the Trump administration has] considered what the countermeasures are if [the Pakistanis] shut the” supply lines, she said, adding ultimately she didn’t believe Thursday’s action “is going to make Pakistan change its behavior.” She said sanctions that specifically target the country’s military or pressure on the International Monetary Fund, which lends the country money, are the only kinds of actions that could prompt a change. She acknowledged, however, this would be a “nuclear option.”
Security aid to Pakistan has been falling for some time. It was about 1.6 billion in fiscal 2003, but dropped sharply to $319.7 million by fiscal 2017, according to data maintained by the Security Independence Monitor, which tracks such figures. (Pakistan received $422.5 million in economic and development aid in fiscal 2017. That aid is unaffected by Thursday’s announcement.)
Pakistani officials have publicly expressed outrage at Trump’s tweets and the administration’s statements this week, pointing out that Pakistan has been one of the biggest victims of terrorism. Nauert acknowledged the losses in Pakistan, but said officials in the country will not be surprised by the suspension of security aid.
“We have contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counter terrorism operation anywhere in the world,” Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, said earlier this week. “We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated.”
There are signs that might already be happening. As U.S. relations with Pakistan crumble, Islamabad has grown even closer to Beijing, whose trade, diplomatic, and military overtures Pakistan is only happy to embrace.