President Donald Trump’s administration on Thursday suspended all security assistance to Pakistan, aiming to prod Islamabad into doing more to fight terrorist groups and support the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The indefinite freeze could be a billion-dollar cut in foreign aid to Pakistan, one of the top annual recipients of Washington’s largess. In addition to the already planned suspension of $255 million in foreign military financing, overseen by the State Department, another $900 million in Pentagon coalition support funds have been placed on hold, reported Reuters.
The State Department says the freeze will remain in place until Islamabad takes “decisive action” against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, the leading militant groups fighting against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Washington has long expressed frustration with Pakistan for harboring — and at times actively enabling — both groups in their insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
With more than a billion dollars in security aid hanging in the balance, cutting off Pakistan appears to be a decisive move to force it to step up the fight against militant groups. There is also reason to believe the aid freeze will do little to alter Pakistan’s behavior.
That’s because Islamabad still retains significant leverage over how the U.S. prosecutes the war in Afghanistan, says Georgetown University professor Christine Fair, who has studied both Pakistan’s military and entrenched terrorist groups in the country. In a piece published Wednesday in Foreign Policy, she argues current U.S. strategy makes the Afghanistan conflict unwinnable without Pakistani cooperation. That reality won’t be altered by the administration’s latest move to suspend security funding, Fair says.
“In fact, there is little that is, or ever will be, new in Trump’s Pakistan policy,” she wrote. “That’s true for two simple reasons: the logistics of staying the course in Afghanistan and the night terrors triggered by imagining how terrifying Pakistan could be without American money.”
The immediate problem is logistical: Washington needs a corridor in Pakistan through which it can supply Afghan security forces. Without access to Pakistan’s ports on the Arabian Sea, the U.S. cannot sustain either the NATO coalition or the Afghan National Army in the fight against the Taliban.
The U.S. has never been permitted to move lethal supplies into Afghanistan through the so-called northern corridor, that is controlled by Russian-dominated countries. Even at the height of its use, the corridor supplied no more than 20 percent of the cargo destined for NATO forces, according to Fair.
Instead, Washington is heavily reliant on using Pakistan’s air and land corridors to furnish the war effort, that has forced U.S. administrations to continue working closely with Islamabad in spite of its support for Islamic militants.
Pakistani officials alluded to that dependency in their response to the suspension of security aid. Several said Islamabad was considering cutting off land routes to Afghanistan, while the commander of Pakistan’s air force suggested Thursday that the U.S. could be blocked from the country’s airspace, reported The New York Times.
Any move by Pakistan to block access to its Arabian Sea ports would leave Washington with few options for moving supplies over land. India ships food to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chalabar, but that route will remain closed to the U.S. as long as Washington and Tehran remain bitter adversaries.
Those logistical constraints mean the U.S. has to cooperate with Islamabad in some way, a freeze on security aid notwithstanding.
“Without an alternative port, the United States will have no choice but to continue working with Pakistan if it wants to remain engaged in Afghanistan, as Trump intends to do,” Fair wrote.
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