Pakistan-US ties tested but not killed by huge aid cut
Senior Pakistani military officials have confirmed that they continue to maintain ties to their US counterparts.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani and US officials are continuing to meet and cooperate “at all levels”, despite the suspension of $1.1bn in US aid and amid fiery statements by political leaders declaring the end of Islamabad’s alliance with Washington, diplomats told Al Jazeera.
“There is no freeze [in relations],” said a senior Pakistani foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are speaking to each other, at all levels. We are not sharing the details of that at this time, but the effort to find some common ground or traction on both sides is there.”
A US State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that talks between the two sides were “ongoing”.
A high level visit by a senior US diplomat to the Pakistani capital is expected in the coming week, with talks on moving an increasingly troubled relationship forward.
On Friday, Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled the country for roughly half of its 70-year history, confirmed that Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had spoken with US CENTCOM military commander General Joseph Votel twice in the last week, as well to an unnamed US senator.
A day earlier, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed the two sides were “continu[ing] to communicate with each other on various issues of mutual interest at different levels”.
The diplomatic and military contacts are at odds with public statements made by both Pakistani and US leaders.
Earlier this week, Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir claimed that Pakistan had suspended all military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, a claim the US State department denied, and which seems to be at odds with General Bajwa’s contact with the US CENTCOM chief.
“We have received no notification regarding a suspension in defence and intelligence cooperation,” said Richard Snelsire, the spokesperson for the US embassy in Islamabad.
Last week, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif declared that an alliance with the United States was “over”, after US President Donald Trump suspended $1.1bn in aid and accused Pakistan of harbouring armed groups that fight US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The foreign ministry appeared on Friday to publicly back down from that position.
“The remarks of the foreign minister need to be seen in the proper perspective,” said Muhammad Faisal, the ministry’s spokesperson. “The foreign minister was expressing his frustration at the unwarranted US accusations against Pakistan and the unilateral decision to suspend the security assistance, despite Pakistan’s extraordinary sacrifices and contribution in the war against terrorism.”
Trump tweet ignites storm
The US has long accused Pakistan of providing safe haven to members of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network armed groups, which US and Afghan forces have been fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan for 17 years.
In 2016, then Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone attack while travelling under a false identity in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.
Pakistan denies that it harbours members of either group, saying it has acted effectively against all armed groups on its territory. It accuses the US and Afghanistan of not doing enough to eliminate safe havens for the Pakistan Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
The latest tensions in the relationship began on January 1, when US President Trump tweetedthat the US had “foolishly” given Pakistan $33bn in aid over 15 years.
“[Pakistan has] given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” he said. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”
Pakistan vehemently denied the allegations, with the National Security Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, declaring the accusation “completely incomprehensible” at the time.
Since 2001, the United States has, in fact, given Pakistan $14.79bn in military and security aid, according to US government data.
It has also reimbursed roughly $14.57bn to the Pakistani military under Coalition Support Funds (CSF), a fund created to reimburse US allies for operations taken in aid of US objectives.
On January 4, the US confirmed that it was suspending all security assistance to Pakistan “until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network”.
The aid cut includes $255m in direct military aid, as well as a further $900m in reimbursements to the Pakistani military that have now been suspended.
In talks with Pakistani officials since the suspension, US diplomats and others have communicated specific demands, said the senior Pakistani diplomat.
“We are discussing some very concrete steps,” he said, but declined to specify them, given the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Aid cut ‘unlikely to work’
Analysts say the aid cut is unlikely to have a major effect on Pakistan’s policy in the region.
“Aid cuts are nothing new in the US-Pakistan relationship,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the US-based Woodrow Wilson Center think-tank. “They’ve happened various times before, and in all cases Pakistan’s behavior didn’t change.”
Kugelman believes the aid suspension has been “a long time coming”, given the Trump administration’s raised rhetoric against Pakistan since the announcement of a new South Asia and Afghanistan policy last August, but that it is unlikely to change Pakistan’s rationale for allegedly backing groups such as the Haqqani network or the Afghan Taliban.
“For Pakistan, maintaining ties to these groups, […] which are virulently anti-Indian, pushes back against the presence of Pakistan’s bitter Indian foe in Afghanistan,” he said.
“Second, these groups are a useful hedge to Pakistan against the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. When that withdrawal happens- and it will one day- Afghanistan could experience rampant destabilisation, and Pakistan will want to retain ties to the most powerful non-state actors in Afghanistan.”
Pakistan only talks a bout the Pakistani Taliban sitting on the other side, and the US only talks about people coming from Pakistan
Others point out that Pakistan has its own concerns regarding alleged Pakistan Taliban sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan. On Friday, the Foreign Office said that attackers involved in a suicide bombing in the southwestern city of Quetta on Tuesday were “traced back to Afghanistan”.
“Pakistan only talks a bout the Pakistan Taliban sitting on the other side, and the US only talks about people coming from Pakistan,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst. “So they do not want to acknowledge the concerns ofthe other side. This problem is on both sides.”
Rizvi expects that in order to vent US pressure, Pakistan may take action against some Haqqani Network fighters in Pakistan, but that this would not include any major leaders.
“Pakistan may push some of these fighters out quietly, but it won’t accept it publicly,” he said. “Because Afghanistan does not accept that the Pakistan Taliban is sitting in Afghanistan. Both sides have to be realistic, which is very unlikely.”
Despite the fiery rhetoric from political leaders on either side, however, both sides appear determined to push forward through dialogue.
“Both of us have to move from our stated positions, whether it is a superpower or Pakistan. We have to find common ground. This is exactly what we are trying to do now,” said the senior Pakistani diplomat.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim