Commentary: The White House is right to suspend aid to Pakistan

President Trump’s decision to freeze approximately $2 billion in U.S. security assistance to Pakistan has received cautious support from senior lawmakers and foreign policy analysts. And while the political and military calculus of suspending aid payments is complex, the Trump administration’s approach is sound.

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The $33.9 billion Washington has sent to Islamabad since 2002 may have earned it the right to supply American military efforts in Afghanistan through Pakistani territory, but it has failed to deter Pakistan from undermining those same efforts through its support for extremist groups. And while Washington and Islamabad worked successfully together in the hunt for senior al Qaeda members during the early years of the war, ties between the two countries have since been held hostage to mutual distrust, personality conflict, and even outright hostility. The occasional display of grudging cooperation notwithstanding, Pakistan has repeatedly shown its unwillingness to sever ties with U.S. enemies in Afghanistan and South Asia.

American priorities in the region are not Pakistani priorities. Washington and Islamabad have sharply different views on what constitutes success in Afghanistan, on how the Pakistani military should conduct its campaign against militancy, and on the nature of India’s regional influence.

Since 9/11, the United States has viewed Afghanistan as, first and foremost, a counterterrorism problem. Before the United States got distracted with institution-building and counterinsurgency operations, U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001 in order to drive the Taliban from Kabul, to uproot al Qaeda’s infrastructure, and to capture or kill its leader, Osama bin Laden. The mission was about retaliating against the group that had conducted the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Pakistan’s main goal in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is to prevent the country from forging a strategic relationship with India. The historical and geopolitical rivalry with its larger neighbor has governed Pakistan’s national security policy since its founding in 1947. Pakistan’s military leadership has long seen Afghanistan as an arena in which to combat an Indian influence they view as destabilizing, perfidious, and threatening to Pakistan’s own sovereignty and national security. To the United States, Indian investment in Afghanistan and constructive Indian-Afghan relations are valuable for Kabul’s fiscal and political health. In Pakistan, these same developments are understood as efforts by India to enhance its geopolitical power at the expense of Pakistan, and to increase pressure on Pakistan’s military via a new front on its western border.

Despite their bravado, Pakistani officials realize how economically vibrant, politically stable, and militarily capable New Delhi is in comparison to Islamabad. Pakistan has attempted to compensate for this strategic imbalance in three ways: by improving the range of its ballistic missile capability so its warheads can strike deep into India; by accelerating the pace of its nuclear weapons development; and by continuing to develop relationships with extremist groups that can be counted on to help check Indian influence.

In the disputed territory of Kashmir, in Afghanistan, and in India itself, Pakistan-based extremist groups have launched attacks on military installations and civilian targets, killing hundreds of people and bringing the two nuclear-armed rivals closer to a military confrontation. While the Pakistani government has always denied direct involvement with these organizations, U.S. officials believe that Islamabad continues to view these militants as critical anti-India tools in its national security toolbox. Some senior American officials have taken these concerns public. In congressional testimony, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen noted that Pakistani intelligence provided Haqqani militants with support during their attacks against a U.S. army base and a Kabul hotel. In 2008, after a group of militants attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul, U.S. officials blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate for assisting in the attack. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton reportedly confronted her Pakistani counterparts with intelligence linking the ISI to insurgents who fought against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Yet even these complaints, made in public and backed by strong evidence, failed to change the Pakistanis’ behavior. Washington mistakenly believed Pakistani leaders would change the India-centric outlook that had been ingrained in the national psyche for seven decades in exchange for tens of billions of dollars. But Pakistan views the cultivation of groups like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed as essential to its national security. As long as Pakistan’s leadership continues to view India as its main concern, its ties to these extremist groups will always be worth more than tens of billions of dollars from Washington.

To be clear, the stick is unlikely to work where the carrot failed. Those in Washington who hope that freezing aid may suddenly scare Islamabad back into line will almost certainly be disappointed. The national security interests of the United States and Pakistan diverge on Afghanistan and South Asia to such an extent that even tougher measures - such as outright aid termination, the withdrawal of Pakistan’s status as an ally, or selective sanctions on Pakistani security officials - are unlikely to be potent enough to sever Pakistan’s ties with the militants its intelligence services have courted for decades. The Trump administration rightly judged that it was time for the United States to cut its losses.

Pakistan is not a true ally, friend, or partner to the United States, but a nation whose security interests and counterterrorism goals in South Asia are not aligned with what Washington is hoping to accomplish. Until those interests are in sync - a dubious prospect at best - the Haqqani network will continue to live in comfort within Pakistan’s borders, confident in the notion that the Pakistani military officers running national security will leave them alone. American policymakers must take a step back, thoroughly evaluate the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, and determine whether further cooperation is even possible. That decision must be made carefully and explained to the American taxpayers whose hard-earned money has, for decades, funded Pakistan’s aid payments. Until then, it is long past time for Washington to stop throwing good money after bad. (Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. @DanDePetris)

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.