DONALD Trump may not sound different from every other press statement and leaked comment that has come out of Washington since 9/11, but this is a different Washington. The populist House of Representatives that has made a tradition out of trying to cut aid to Pakistan ever year now has the White House as a champion rather than a bulwark against it. The Senate, where sound policy thinking usually prevails, is unsympathetic.
Then senator Carl Levin took the first step in 2015 when he successfully amended the law, requiring the United States to hold back military aid if Pakistan failed to take “sufficient action against the Haqqani network”. Amendments like this usually come from the house and go nowhere. If passed into law, they are neutered: the president can waive the requirement rather than make a determination. The Pressler Amendment fell in this category. It was waived year after year. But Levin’s amendment cannot be waived. For Levin, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to take a hard line and succeed signalled that even sound minds in Washington are reaching for sticks instead of carrots.
America’s problem is this: Pakistan can afford to walk away.
Sabre-rattling is typical of Congress, which has the final word on aid and sanctions, allowing the president to play good cop. Trump is forcing a role reversal. This puts Pakistan in a tough position. Pakistan has never had strong relationships in Congress. The US-Pakistan relationship is one between executive branches, including militaries. Now, Pakistan’s only allies might be parts of the State Department, including diplomats in Islamabad, some think tanks, and senators who will listen.
For those who just asked, what does the US military think? Trump just told you what they think. In the US, the president is the commander-in-chief. Really.
A popular argument is that America cannot afford to alienate Pakistan. The problem with this argument is that it is old, very old. Another argument is that cooperation has been working lately. There have been positive overtures, with senior US officials praising Pakistan’s progress. But it doesn’t count where it needs to. The Defence Department has failed Pakistan on the Levin certification since it became law. Last year, Obama’s defence secretary held back $300 million of $1 billion in Coalition Support Funds. This year, Trump’s defence secretary cancelled $350m of $900m.
The problem for America is this: Pakistan can afford to walk away. A few hundred million dollars isn’t much of a stick anymore. The China-Pakistan relationship is now worth $110bn, with around $4bn expected this year. And those billions come easy.
For $900m, Pakistan endures a volatile, loveless affair with the US while China offers billions without drama, as long as it promises that some government in the future will pay them back later.
The smart thing for Trump to do would have been to warm up to China and manage the relationship through them. China has a level of power and influence in Pakistan now that the US never had. They also have a deep interest in getting Pakistan to manage its militancy problem, but they are quiet in their diplomacy.
Pakistan made up its mind about the US and the Haqqani network long ago. The grumbling in the US has been the same for over a decade: Pakistan is not going after Haqqani. Trump’s national security team is still operating on the idea that US money but can buy a strategic shift, but they ignore history. Pakistan has carried out military operations, in Swat and Fata (Zarb-i-Azb), when it has felt the imperative, not when the US has asked.
Trump’s strategy is high risk. It’s one thing to exit the region and get tough on Pakistan. It’s another to dig your heels into the war in Afghanistan and then not only get tough on Pakistan but go zero-sum with India. In a single speech, Trump suggested abrogating America’s relationship with Pakistan and deepening it with India. Trump set up the contrast by asking Pakistan to contribute to the values that India represents: civilisation, order and peace. It wasn’t too different from the black and white, ‘with us or against us’ coercive diplomacy of the post-9/11 Bush days. If America is re-committing to Afghanistan, it can’t afford to have an alienated Pakistan next door and join hands with India in Afghanistan at the same time. Pakistan’s paranoia is bad enough already.
Pakistan might placate the US in the short term. They are good at that. But in the long run, little will change. Trump’s bluff can’t be called because he isn’t bluffing. If Pakistan walks away, many will wish that they had done more to manage the relationship.
The writer is a Wilson Center Global Fellow and a former staff aide to a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2017