Last Friday, the State Department announced the suspension of $2 billion in military assistance intended for Pakistan — this after President Trump accused Islamabad of “lies and deceit” in its dealings with the United States. The core issue involves Islamic militants who, for years, have mounted attacks into Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan. Their targets have been Afghan government forces and the American military personnel assisting them. The Pakistan army has mounted operations against militant networks that operate inside Pakistan, but those that focus their attacks across the border in Afghanistan have been given a pass. More than that, U.S. officials have long been certain that some of the most lethal groups, notably one known as the Haqqani network, have the active support and protection of Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency. The Pentagon has long seethed with frustration as its Pakistani counterparts deny any such collaboration despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, the United States has provided over $20 billion in financial and military assistance to Pakistan just since 2002.
In return, Pakistan has allowed the United States to move troops and materiel through Pakistan into land-locked Afghanistan. Islamabad also has arrested and turned over to the United States some high-profile al-Qaida operatives hiding in Pakistan. Finally, Pakistan has allowed the CIA to use Pakistan’s territory to mount drone attacks on militant hideouts in remote regions on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
The decision to halt aid comes despite several recent conversations between senior officials from both countries. Those meetings mainly served to demonstrate that neither side trusts the other. For Americans, trust in Pakistan largely evaporated when, in 2011, Osama bin Laden was discovered living in a garrison town practically next door to Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.
The roots of current tensions go back decades and are found not only in the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations but also in the internal dynamics of Pakistan, itself. Pakistan was founded in tumult and bloodshed when Britain gave up colonial rule in India after World War II. It was created to be a “home” for Muslims living in the subcontinent — outnumbered by Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. The founder of Pakistan, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, envisioned a country that would embody the largely secular values of Europe — a modern, prosperous, democratic nation united around a nationalist ideal. But Jinnah died shortly after independence and the new nation quickly manifested internal divisions of all kinds: linguistic, ethnic, regional, economic class — and a fundamental dispute over identity. Was Pakistan to embody Jinnah’s vision of secular modernity or was it to be defined by Islam and Muslim traditions?
Jinnah’s hopes for Pakistan also were torpedoed by a fateful perception, coming out of the bloody separation of post-British India and Pakistan, that India posed an existential threat to Pakistan. That perception gained powerful credence through three costly wars fought between the two neighbors. This view of India as a mortal enemy has had hugely damaging consequences for Pakistan in two respects. First, the subcontinent, which is a natural economic unit, was severed by a state boundary, impermeable to trade and investment, that has cost Pakistan dearly over decades. Second, the internal politics of Pakistan have been dominated by the nation’s “defenders,” the armed forces. Over the years, Pakistan’s military has become deeply invested in the view of India as implacable enemy; it justifies military budgets and political influence (and often rule).
The United States has nothing to do with any of this. American interest in Pakistan originally grew out of the global Cold War contest with communism. The Eisenhower administration saw creeping communist influence in India. Pakistan was only too happy to portray itself as an anti-communist bastion — in return for economic and military aid. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan and the Reagan administration was determined to make Moscow pay by supporting a local Afghan guerrilla resistance, the Mujahhedin. But that required Pakistan’s cooperation and assistance. It was a rare instance when the overriding U.S. interest was shared completely by Pakistan; both wanted the Soviets out. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which were mounted out of Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden and enabled by the Taliban (an offshoot of the Mujahhedin). The United States was determined to retaliate militarily, but that, again, required the cooperation of Pakistan. Islamabad did not share Washington’s antipathy toward bin Laden or the Taliban, but if the price was right it would go along — but only to a point. Pakistan’s military leadership believes it is vital for Pakistan to be positioned to shape events in Afghanistan when the Americans (inevitably) leave. This means Pakistan must have forces and networks of fighters it can control — like the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban — operating in Afghanistan. So Pakistan pays lip service to America’s “war on terror” while taking U.S. money and simultaneously supporting forces the United States has identified as terrorists. A great many U.S. servicemen and women have died as a consequence. So it is no wonder that U.S. anger has finally boiled over, propelled by a President with a notoriously short fuse and a black-and-white view of the world.
But the real world is full of grays. One example: Pakistan is a nuclear power but it is close to becoming a failed state. If the government breaks down under U.S. pressure, what happens to the nuclear arsenal in a country awash in Islamic militants who have ties to international networks?