“We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out”, tweeted Donald Trump in November 2013, noting that the United States had been at war in Afghanistan for the previous 12 years. Nearly four years later, now President Trump, surrounded by sober generals in the White House, the message has changed. “My original instinct was to pull out”, he said last week, “and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office”. How true and reassuring! The most interesting aspect of this volte face, however, was Trump’s reference to Pakistan’s failure to deliver on promises to stop undermining stability in Afghanistan by continuing to support terrorist fighters by both financing them and providing them with sanctuary. As if to twist the knife, he praised India for its genuinely constructive role in Afghanistan.
Opinion is growing in the US questioning the country’s continued financial support of Pakistan when it appears to get so little in return. Although shrouded in secrecy until recently, it is reported that Pakistan has received some $78 billion (at 2016 value) between 1948 and 2016. A significant part of this, amounting to $18bn, was approved by Congress following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US. There has been much debate, however, on whether this has been spent on military and economic aid, or whether a significant amount has been spent by Pakistan to cover its civilian deficit. Whichever the case, questions are being asked on the return the US has received for its generosity. As Trump said in his recent speech, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” So, should the US cut off all aid to Pakistan, or will this create further problems for its strategy in Afghanistan?
Most people understand the principle of “carrot and stick” or “inducement and punishment”. President Barack Obama tried the carrot approach following the election of a civilian government in Pakistan in 2008. The following year, the “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act” offered $1.5bn in civilian aid each year for the following five years, with the possibility of a further five years. This inducement, with modest strings attached, was designed to help to strengthen democracy in the country with the hope of greater civilian control over the powerful military and intelligence services. However, with both permeating almost every aspect of life in Pakistan, this approach was doomed to almost certain failure. Throughout his presidency, Obama continuously failed to establish a regime of results-linked aid and support with Pakistan, although in its dying months it did withhold $300m in military aid. The question is, can the new administration of Trump create these conditions or will it simply repeat the frustrations of the Obama era?
Early indications are promising with the announcement in March 2017 by the Pentagon of its refusal to pay $350m in military aid to Pakistan because it deemed the country to be not doing enough to tackle terrorism. This was the first concrete indication of the willingness of the Trump administration to take a tough stance towards Pakistan. A Pentagon spokesman said that “the funds cannot be released to the government of Pakistan because the Secretary of Defense could not certify that Pakistan had taken sufficient action against the Haqqani Network”, the group of militants based around the Pakistan/Afghanistan border which has been blamed for attacks on western and Afghan forces. This provoked a reaction from Pakistan when a foreign ministry spokesperson described the decision as “very short sighted. The US should realise that without Pakistan’s help, Afghanistan cannot be stabilised.” A further indication of the new policy was provided this week when the Trump administration notified Congress that some $255m of military assistance would be held back, conditional on Pakistan tackling the terrorist organisations said to be harboured in the country. However, herein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say. How can you rely on a sovereign state to help you achieve your aims, at the same time punish it for not doing enough?
A clue to the solution of this conundrum is provided in a compelling publication earlier this year by the Washington-based Hudson Institute, entitled “A new US Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties” written by Husain Haqqani (no connection to the terrorist) and Lisa Curtis. Haqqani was the 24th Pakistan ambassador to the US, and is now an influential commentator of South Asian affairs living in Washington. In the publication the authors argue that the US should avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an ally, recognising that the country has engaged in supporting the Afghan Taliban, who have killed American troops and their allies in Afghanistan. At the same time, the option for Pakistan to be an ally of the US in the future should be maintained. If the support of terrorist groups is terminated, then substantial trade and investment would follow. Humanitarian and social aid should be continued with a prioritised engagement with civilian leaders. The US should work diplomatically with countries such as China and the Gulf states, which share concern about Pakistan’s tolerance of terrorist organisations and individuals in order to apply pressure on the country, perhaps behind the scenes to avoid embarrassment. The US should enforce counterterrorism conditions on its aid and reimbursements to Pakistan. The option of using unilateral action, including drones, to target Taliban targets in Pakistan should be kept. A time-line of specific actions, which Pakistan must take against terrorists, should be established, linked to future US military assistance. Finally, a list of calibrated actions should be presented to Pakistan, aimed at ending its support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, making clear that the failure to make substantial progress on the list could eventually result in Pakistan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The latter would preclude the US from providing any kind of aid to Pakistan and would lead to an irreparable breach in the relationship, a position some in Congress have already recommended.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.