Pakistan-US still intertwined despite Trump’s drastic military aid cut


After President Trump bluntly accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” on New Year’s Day, then suspended all security aid to the longtime United States (US) military ally, the relationship between Pakistan and US came under a lot of tension, reported Washington Post.

Now, after quieter military and diplomatic contacts over the past two weeks, things have patched a bit up, but not completely. At a deeper level, analysts here say, both partners acknowledge that their relationship is beset by irreconcilable differences but a ‘divorce’ is not on the cards.

For decades, the two have maintained a formal but uneasy strategic alliance, first against Soviet designs on Afghanistan and recently against religious terrorism. But the breach precipitated by Trump has exposed the underlying reality: that Islamabad and Washington view the region’s threats through opposing lenses.

One sees India as a menacing next-door behemoth; the other views it as an emerging democratic partner and a strategic ally. One sees Afghanistan as a permanent backyard nuisance and a useful platform for countering Indian influence; the other views it as a dependent war zone and potential Western redoubt against dangerous Islamist groups in the region.

“Pakistan and the United States have finally come to the undeniable conclusion that the other partner is playing footsie with its enemy,” said Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia expert at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, who is on an extended visit to Pakistan. “They have given up on strategic convergence, but they want to keep the channels open so they can cooperate on tactical matters and ensure the relationship does not totally rupture.”

Since the initial shock of Trump’s accusatory tweet and punitive action,  which suspended more than $300 million in security aid and could affect billions more,  the signals from both capitals have been revealing.

Pakistan, under unprecedented US pressure to rein in Islamist groups that operate in Afghanistan and India, has continued to deny that it supports them. It also insists that it has done all it can to curb militancy and regularly denounces terrorist attacks such as the deadly assault Sunday on a luxury hotel in Kabul.

Some Pakistani commentators, expressing outrage at Trump’s “betrayal,” have suggested that Pakistan retaliate by cutting off overland supply routes to the US military in Afghanistan or even by severing relations with Washington, now that China has become Pakistan’s most important international economic partner and appears poised to join it in a strategic alliance. But others, including senior military officials, have urged restraint.

“There is no panic in Islamabad,  rather, a carefully calibrated, mature and unemotional response to the raving and ranting of a mercurial leader of a declining superpower,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain. While China is building a solid, steady partnership with Pakistan, he said, the United States’ “bellicosity” and expanding relationship with India and its Hindu nationalist leader “could spark a new Cold War.”

American officials, seeking to lower the decibel level without abandoning the administration’s demands, have initiated calls and visits to their counterparts in Islamabad. Within days of the aid cut, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, a commander of the US Central Command, told Pakistan’s army chief that the bilateral “turbulence” was “a temporary phase.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had repeatedly pressed Pakistani leaders to take tougher action against anti-Afghan insurgents or face US sanctions, told reporters in Washington after the aid suspension that the two military communities would “continue talking with one another, as we always have,” and said he was not concerned about China replacing the United States as Pakistan’s strategic partner.

Current and former US diplomats also advised keeping the door open, if only for pragmatic reasons. Richard Olson, a former ambassador to Pakistan, wrote in an essay that US sanctions would not work because of Pakistan’s size, military strength and national pride, adding that if Islamabad cuts supply routes to Afghanistan, the US military there could become a “beached whale.” Last week, Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, visited Pakistan in what was portrayed here as a “fence-mending” trip, albeit one short on substance.

The message from both sides, in essence, was an agreement not to slam the door shut, even as reminders of major unresolved issues and divergent priorities continue to crop up.


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