In a clear case of deja vu, the US has blocked $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, making the release of funds contingent on Islamabad taking demonstrable steps against the Haqqani network. This announcement follows a steady downturn in Pakistan-US relations that started with vitriolic US Senate debates over F-16 sales and culminated in the drone strike in Balochistan that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor. On May 28, Pakistan missed the deadline for the now-expired F-16 deal, thus closing the door on further negotiations. Back with the dated script is another instance of unilateral military action on Pakistani soil, accusations of sheltering terrorists, and debates over sovereignty. Even within Pakistan, questions are being asked about the ease with which Mullah Mansoor was able to transit through Balochistan.
That there is resentment on both sides is an understatement. That this resentment is insurmountable is questionable. The American narrative often sees Pakistan as an impediment to desired counterterrorism outcomes. In the face of irritants such as the Haqqanis, the F-16 issue in light of relations with India, and concerns over China’s growing prowess, US policymakers are losing trust in Pakistan and, once again, throwing around phrases such as ‘double game’ and ‘duplicitous’. But from Islamabad, the view is markedly different. Even as Pakistan singlehandedly fights the largest land war against terrorism in modern history and images of dead schoolchildren dominate headlines, spillover from the US-led war in Afghanistan remains a potent security concern. After having sustained a strategic partnership with the US since the 1960s, it is not unwarranted for Pakistan to expect support from its ally as the $1.9 billion cost of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and mounting rehabilitation costs of 400,000 IDPs quickly overshadow Coalition Support Fund (CSF) payments received since the operation was launched. That even these reimbursements are dwindling is not lost on Pakistan. In this climate, Congress’ refusal to co-finance the F-16 deal, as per the initial agreement, has struck a fresh blow to relations. This notwithstanding the added injury of US policymakers’ increased responsiveness to Indian concerns and elevated defence relations with India.
Even as the strategic imbalance in South Asia continues to disadvantage Pakistan, failures in Afghanistan are offloaded onto Pakistan’s doorstep. With the Afghan Taliban unwilling to negotiate, the international community, in general, and Washington, in particular, assumes Pakistan is either unreliable or incompetent as a partner, an impression made clear by the unilateral airstrike and decision to inform Pakistan after the fact. That the ground reality is much more complex matters little. For a Capitol Hill pushing budget cuts and convinced that the conflict in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s mess to clean up, cutting financial assistance is the clear answer.
It is no secret that US involvement with Pakistan has been tied to interests in Afghanistan for the last decade and a half. About half of all US aid to Pakistan since 2002 has come as CSF payments and reimbursement for expenses incurred in support of US operations in Afghanistan. So far, Pakistan has received $13 billion in CSF payments with payments falling from $1 billion per year in 2014 to $700 million in 2015. Other security-related assistance has gone down from $1.2 billion in 2011 to $300 million today. Despite this,military aid still towers over economic assistance — as has largely been the case since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — which has been stuck at $500 million per year. Though security-related assistance may be characterised as aid, it is not exactly that, since it is received in exchange for Pakistani support to the US-led war in Afghanistan. That it can be made contingent on outcomes desired by the US reinforces this notion. As such, parliamentary voices in Pakistan look at it more as a quid pro quo arrangement than a favour, and are quick to recall how US military assistance has helped empower the armed forces against civilian governments in the past. Non-military US assistance to Pakistan, including USAID programmes for humanitarian response, power generation, literacy, maternal health and higher education initiatives such as Fulbright, have been well-received. Economic aid and cultural exchange initiatives have gone a long way in correcting misinterpretations on both sides but their role is constantly overshadowed by the security-related problems that plague bilateral relations.
As the economy falls short of meeting growth targets and the well of US aid dries up, Islamabad looks to cement alternative alliances. With many pointing to the $46 billion CPEC as a golden opportunity, the ‘all-weather’ Pakistan-China friendship grows stronger. Meanwhile, the $2 billion North-South gas pipeline with Russia, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, TAPI and CASA-1000 promise greater cooperation within the region. On the defence front, arms deals and joint training exercises with China, and talks on helicopter, defence system and tank sales with Russia, are underway. Even so, it must not be ignored that the Pakistan-US relationship remains paramount. If the relationship is to survive in the long run, the mutual trust deficit cannot be swept under the rug for interminable lengths of time. For Pakistan, this means moving towards greater self-reliance and evolving foreign policy beyond the transactional. For the US, it means moving away from solely militaristic partnerships, extending consistent support to strengthening democratic governments and helping Pakistan achieve development goals. This would benefit both players and help maintain regional stability. The alternative i.e., further polarisation, on the strategic and economic fronts, in a part of the world perpetually haunted by the spectre of conflict, would be singularly unhelpful.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2016.