The controversy began, as nearly everything in Washington, DC, does these days – with a tweet.
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“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” complained the US president, ending his missive with the ominous warning, “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
In a testy State Department briefing the next day, a spokeswoman emphasised that Pakistan must do more to “earn” the aid that the US was giving. Before Pakistani leaders could hand in assurances, the sword fell. On January 4, the State Department announced that it was suspending security aid to the country, estimated to amount to roughly $1.3bn.
The threat and even the actual cutting of security aid to Pakistan is not a new strategy; it has periodically been deployed by previous US presidents, with mixed results. The aid freeze under Trump, however, is particularly troublesome for two reasons.
First, the unpredictable nature of the Trump presidency, its lack of a cohesive foreign policy, Trump’s keen desire to appear the tough guy and his childish aversion to reversing any of his diktats mean that there may be little chance of the decision being reversed. In Trump’s view that would be a sign of weakness and hence cannot happen.
Second, while analysts have made much of Pakistan’s ability to turn to powers other than the United States to make up for the aid lost, few have considered the possibility that it may be one of these other allies that may have persuaded the US to ditch Pakistan in an effort to make the latter more dependent on them. One likely suspect for this role would be Saudi Arabia, whose close connections to the Trump administration are well known and which would benefit from increased Pakistani dependence.
Two ‘wars on terror’
Unlike all of Trump’s other terrible tweets, the admonition to Pakistan has been at least partially hailed by Washington pundits who have made careers on playing the “do more” game with Pakistan. Many of them know that there are two definitions of the “war on terror” at play here, each dictated by geography rather than any noble ideological commitment to fight terrorism: one as the US imagines it and one as Pakistan lives it.
The US in Afghanistan wants to eliminate “terrorism” and end the insurgency; it wants a declarable victory and a happy return of its troops back home.
Pakistan, on the other hand, cannot go anywhere. It is stuck with active extremists, retired extremists, and the regional players (India and China). While Pakistan can and should do more to fight “terror”, there may be some truth to what some within the Pakistani security circles are saying: that you can fight “terror”, but you can never really eliminate it. Given the nature of extremism, “terrorist” groups, once disbanded, can simply re-emerge with another name and another local or regional sponsor. After all, “terrorism” is part of the political game.
None of that, of course, can be explained to the tweeting enthusiast in Washington, DC. If the material in the recently released book Fire and Fury is to be believed, he doesn’t, listen or read. He does, however, like to be feted and flattered. In the past few months, no country has done this better than Saudi Arabia, whose rulers delighted Trump on his maiden presidential voyage by projecting giant pictures of him on tall Riyadh buildings and treating him like the monarch he imagines himself to be. While US presidents have always been close to Saudi Arabia, this level of love is certainly not the norm.
A vassal’s predicament
This connects directly to Pakistan’s conundrums. In late November, six months or so after Trump made the trip to Riyadh and hailed the kingdom as the vanguard in the fight against “terrorism”, the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-funded and Pakistani-led Islamic Military Counter Terror Coalition was held. A few weeks after that, legislators in Pakistan’s senate demanded that the government provide more clarifications about the military’s role in the coalition.
“Unfortunately, the parliament is kept in the dark, and we do not know under what terms and conditions Pakistan has agreed to be a part of this coalition”, complained one Pakistani legislator. Pakistan’s foreign policy position has always been to maintain neutrality between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A few months earlier, Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser, had been summoned to the Senate, and the terms of reference of the agreement with Saudi Arabia were demanded. None were provided.
It is useful to remember here that in the past Pakistan has denied military assistance to Saudi Arabia because of lack of support by the civilian government.
There are, of course, many other countries, India and Afghanistan among them, which have long lobbied for an end to security aid to Pakistan. That, however, has been a static condition, long existing and ever-present.
This new one speaks to a world in which alliances are transforming, and the US is retreating. It’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia felt threatened by a few Pakistani legislators who aren’t happy with the new status of the military as Riyadh’s army for hire. At the same time, one way to ensure that a vassal state remains one is to ensure that it has no means of turning away and that its dependence is complete.
This summer there will be elections in Pakistan. The drama of another shutdown of the border with Afghanistan (like the one in 2012) may play well into the theatrics of the moment. Nothing gets ordinary Pakistanis more fired up than the opportunity to thumb their noses at the US, denial of military aid be damned.
The only problem with this plan is that in the past it was Pakistan that was the bastion of instability, its chaos so threatening to the policy wonks watching in Washington. In a bizarre turn, this may not be the case in 2018. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border may be shut down and the supplies to US troops in Afghanistan suddenly cut, but such is the chaos in Washington that no one may notice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.