As Pakistan finds itself in the crosshairs of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Afghan strategy, cracks continue to deepen in Pak-US relations.
It has been over six years since Washington turned from rosy to thorny in its approach to Pakistan after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Taliban chief Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, but the announcement about President Trump’s Afghan strategy on Monday night put an even heavier strain on Pak-US relations. In a televised address to the nation, Trump unveiled his long-awaited strategy on the handling of the deadly war in Afghanistan, which is the longest war in America’s history and has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 U.S. troops since 2001.
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In his remarks about the Afghan crisis, Trump saved his harshest words for Pakistan, warning that he would cut financial aid and security assistance to its decades-old South Asian ally if it doesn’t stop providing “safe havens” to “agents of chaos.” The U.S. President also warned that Islamabad had “much to lose” by continuing to harbor terrorists
His remarks sparked a furious response in Pakistan, where Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rejected his allegations and called his Afghan strategy an attempt “to scapegoat Pakistan” during a high-level meeting of Pakistan’s national security committee.
Gloomy future of Pak-US relations
The future of Pak-US relations remains undecided, as pressure on Islamabad is mounting. For months, senior U.S. officials in the Trump administration have criticized Islamabad for allegedly providing safe havens to militants and not taking sufficient action against the Haqqani Network group.
The White House is said to be considering options to strong-arm Pakistan into fighting terrorists on its own soil. Some analysts suggest that Islamabad could be declared a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has publicly hinted that it is considering stripping Pakistan of its non-NATO ally status.
This was the sentiment voiced by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Trump unveiled his Afghan strategy.
Tillerson warned that Pakistan’s status as a privileged military ally of the U.S. will be removed if it continues to harbor militants on its soil, a claim Islamabad has long rejected. However, Tillerson stressed that Washington would “work with Pakistan in a positive way” if it changes its approach to dealing with militants.
US drone strikes, “hot pursuit” operations in Pakistan: What to expect?
As Pakistan walks a diplomatic tightrope amid strained Pak-US relations, tensions could reach an unprecedented level. Some analysts say Trump’s Afghan strategy could lead to an “uptick” in U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil, according to Aljazeera’s Asad Hashim.
The U.S. has carried out drone strikes inside Pakistan without its official consent before; four such attacks have taken place in the nuclear-armed nation this year alone. By contrast, data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that 132 assaults by U.S. drones occurred in Pakistan in 2010 during the height of Washington’s efforts to eradicate terrorism from the South Asian nation. According to the same source, up to 427 Pakistani civilians have been killed in U.S. drone attacks since 2010.
Of course an “uptick” in U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil without the nation’s consent would most likely lead to deterioration in Pak-US relations. However, the possibility of U.S. troops chasing down suspected terrorists in Pakistan territory could also be in the cards as well. Trump’s televised address on Monday included an announcement that more troops will be sent to the region.
Pakistan-US ties have taken a tumble during such operations by U.S. forces in the past. In a statement released on Tuesday, the Pakistani Foreign Office warned that “Pakistan does not allow use of its territory against any country.”
Declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism would put a heavy strain on Pakistan-US ties
In a paper published by U.S. think tank Hudson Institute earlier this year, analysts argued that Washington should cut financial aid and military supplies to Islamabad and possibly consider declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. However, that’s one move that many in Islamabad would most likely view as a point of no return in Pak-US relations.
“The U.S. must warn Pakistan that its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) is in serious jeopardy,” the paper advises.
Being a major non-NATO ally grants Islamabad access to spare military parts and some U.S. defense programs.
Such radical options may be on the table in the White House if Pakistan doesn’t “appease” the U.S., which the nation has done “every time it has been pressured,” according to Hussain Haqqani, one of the authors of the Hudson Institute report.
Haqqani, who is also a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, told The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur that every “great leap forward” Pakistan has taken in “appeasing” Washington “has been followed by two steps backwards.” This time, however, it could be an unprecedented situation, as (1) Pak-US relations have never been so cold and (2) Pakistan has made a dramatic political tilt toward China lately, a move that prompted criticism in the U.S., which could leave no room for “appeasing” its former ally.
China comes to Pakistan’s defense amid Pak-US crisis
Even though Pak-US relations have been strong since the end of the Cold War era, they took a turn for the worst after U.S.-led NATO forces killed 28 Pakistani soldiers in a 2011 airstrike. For decades, Islamabad was torn apart by China and the U.S., but the tensions in Pak-US relations have pushed the nation toward Beijing and away from Washington.
In fact, China has already replaced the U.S. as Pakistan’s key economic partner. The total volume of Pak-US bilateral trade is standing at $5.78 billion, while bilateral trade between the two Asian neighbors amounts to a whopping $13.36 billion. Additionally, their joint connectivity project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), offers unique economic opportunities for Pakistan and solves its power shortages, something the U.S. has failed to address in the decades it has been Pakistan’s major ally.
On Tuesday – the next day after Trump’s warnings to Islamabad – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying defended their “all-weather” friend and praised her country’s neighbor for making “great sacrifices” and “important contributions.”
Even though the U.S. has cut its aid to Pakistan dramatically in the wake of its allegations of sheltering militants, Islamabad still remains the fifth largest recipient of U.S. aid. This year alone, the South Asian nation is expected to receive a staggering $740 million in military and civilian assistance.
However, the aid plan is on thin ice following the harsh remarks from President Trump. Signs of strained Pak-US relations are already starting to become evident in the Coalition Support Fund, where the U.S. withheld $50 million in reimbursements to Pakistan last month.
Pakistan to respond to Trump’s criticism with action
Pak-US relations have reached their lowest since Trump revealed his Afghan strategy, and now the Trump administration’s harsher rhetoric towards Pakistan and attempts to strong-arm Athe nation will most likely push Islamabad further toward both China and Russia.
Unlike the U.S., which has long opposed the idea of holding a political dialogue with the Taliban, both Moscow and Beijing have stepped up their efforts to involve the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement in peaceful political talks to resolve the Afghan crisis. In fact, both Russia and China have spearheaded a series of talks to end the long-standing war in 2016 and 2017. Washington has not taken part in any of the China-Russia-Pakistan meetings on Afghanistan.
Some analysts predict Pakistan will fortify its crackdown on militants in the region in the face of the mounting criticism from Washington, but in doing so, it would not be trying to “appease” the Trump administration. Instead, Pakistan could step up its anti-terrorism efforts on its soil to avoid misunderstandings between its own troops and the increasing contingent of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
If Washington and Islamabad consolidate their forces to fight terrorism in the region together, it would also minimize the risk of U.S. drones carrying out unpredictable attacks on Pakistani soil or American soldiers chasing down suspects into Pakistani territory. Such an approach would also allow Pakistan to remain a non-NATO ally of America, giving it access to military equipment and U.S. defense programs.
Sentiment in favor of improved Pak-US relations was voiced by a senior White House official earlier this week. Speaking to NDTV on condition of anonymity, the official said Pakistan can still “choose to cooperate with the U.S. and change some of the unhelpful behaviors,” adding that this is “very much in its interest.”
Pakistan is the key to a U.S. win in Afghanistan
Pakistan has long been considered to be the key to resolving the deadly Afghan crisis. Thus, sour Pak-US relations in the wake of President Trump’s remarks about Islamabad having “much to lose” by continuing to harbor terrorist elements on its soil would make America’s anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan less effective.
Trump announced plans to deploy about 4,000 additional troops to complement America’s fewer than 10,000 troop contingent currently stationed in the war-torn country. However, the U.S. military will still depend on Pakistan to provide supply routes for American soldiers to Afghanistan.
In the case of further deterioration in Pakistan-US relations, Islamabad could shut down these supply routes as a countermeasure against the Trump administration’s shift in Afghan policy, suggested Arif Rafiq, a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, to The New York Times. If Islamabad cuts access to these supply routes, it would prompt the U.S. to seek less effective routes that would likely entail additional financial expenses and a possible loss of life among U.S. troops. With the supply routes in Pakistan, the U.S. could make its war strategy in Afghanistan less complicated than it already is.