Looking back, US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the plug on military and security-related funding to Pakistan was neither sudden nor whimsical. In July 2017, the Pentagon signalled its displeasure with Pakistan, and in August 2017, when Trump put out his administration’s strategy for Afghanistan in a televised address, he called out Pakistan for providing “safe haven to the agents of chaos, violence and terror”. There were more warnings in Trump’s speech to the United Nations in September. But after the Pakistan military freed a Canadian-American family who were being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2012, and Trump tweeted praise for Pakistan’s “co-operation on many fronts”, there was relief in Islamabad/Rawalpindi that the crisis had blown over.
It has since emerged that the same hostage rescue turned into a source of friction after Pakistan refused to hand over to US officials a Taliban operative caught in the raid. It was, perhaps, the proverbial straw on the camel’s back and Trump has now made it clear that he was not half asleep when he tweeted at 4.30 am on New Year’s Day that all that the US had got after “foolishly” pouring in 33 billion dollars into Pakistan was “lies and deceit”. Thursday’s announcement that the US was freezing its entire security-related aid until Pakistan took “decisive action” against groups such as the Taliban heralds a new chapter in the often stormy but enduring ties between the two countries.
While the money itself may not amount to much for Pakistan, its suspension is certain to carry huge symbolism in a country where anti-American sentiment is even higher than hatred for India. The suspension comes at a difficult time in Pakistan’s politics, when the military is seen as having gained the upper hand over elected politicians. Earlier this week, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made the point that Pakistan would not have had to experience humiliation at the hands of the US had the country not been hostage to the military’s agendas and its national security strategies. As Pakistan struggles to find the right official response to the US, the Pakistan military may deliver some of the results that the US wants, at least in the near term, as it has done at every breakpoint in the relationship. That comes with the knowledge that the relationship with China can offset any setback in ties with the US only to some extent. After all, Pakistani elites, including its all-important military elites, are more deeply invested in the US than in China.
This should not become a moment for schadenfreude or triumphalism in this country. It would only give hardliners in Pakistan an occasion to reiterate that the reason it hedges on the Taliban is because it fears Indian encirclement in Afghanistan. In any case, the US announcement made no specific mention of Pakistan’s failure to act against the main India-focussed terror groups, the Jamat-ud-Dawa/Laskhar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. India is still on its own on those two.