US freezes military aid to Pakistan: Donald Trump's adhoc policy unlikely to force Islamabad's compliance

The freezing of United States' security assistance to Pakistan is a message and a statement of intent. Donald Trump is telling Islamabad that it cannot be business as usual from here. The argument over the efficacy of the move shall continue in right earnest but the end of status quoism in America's fractious bilateral ties with a shifty ally is an important geopolitical marker. The contours of south Asian power equation have now been disrupted and it will be interesting to see how the new reality shapes up.

It could be argued that this is not the first time US administration has withheld military aid to Pakistan. Indeed, right after US Navy Seals had flown into Pakistan airspace and killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the Barack Obama administration suspended $800 million in military aid and equipment. But those punitive steps were neither comprehensive (excluding the delivery of F16 jets, for instance) nor were these widely publicised.

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

File image of US president Donald Trump. AP

As The New York Times had then reported, "the decision to hold back much of the American military aid has not been made public by the Pakistani military or the civilian government. But it is well known at the top levels of the military...". Even at Foggy Bottom, the discussion centred on why the US should refrain from pressing Pakistan too hard beyond pursuing a strategic leverage.

The difference between then and now is that under a mercurial president who lives in perennial fear of being "ripped off by allies", the US decision to freeze the funds is meant more as a disciplinary action than a diplomatic give-and-take. Trump, who fashions himself as a dealmaker has made it a cornerstone of his foreign policy that 'bad deals' of the past would be written off, and US security arrangement with Pakistan falls firmly in that ledger.

What's also noticeable is the manner in which the decision to freeze $1.3 billion that constitutes nearly all of US annual security aid to Pakistan was implemented. The move had all the imprimatur of Trump's foreign policy – a businessman, not a politician, who perceives the world in terms of profit and loss and has little time for diplomatic niceties.

Trump had started the New Year by announcing on Twitter that he will no longer allow Pakistan to take the US for a ride. There's a case to be made that US policy in this regard was suited hurriedly to meet the demands of Trump's Twitter maelstrom. The lack of coordination between different arms of the government was glaring, and it points towards an adhocism that has crept into US policymaking.

In a media briefing on Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced that the US is blocking the "security assistance" until Islamabad takes demonstrable action against terrorists operating from its soil but refused to attach a "dollar value" to the aid that is being frozen.

"Today we can confirm that we are suspending... security assistance only to Pakistan at this time until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. We consider them to be destabilising the region and also targeting US personnel," she said.

Later, in a background briefing to the media, US State Department officials clarified that the withheld funds include $255 million in Foreign Military Funding (FMF) for the fiscal year 2016 that was sanctioned by the Congress, though the 2017 instalment of another $255 has not been withheld, and subject to Pakistan's behaviour, will be realised by 30 September, 2018.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense announced that it was suspending another $900 million – that constituted the Coalition Support Fund – for the fiscal year 2017 as part of the withdrawal of "security assistance". Its spokesperson Lt Col Mike Andrews told PTI that "at this stage, all fiscal year 2017 CSF have been suspended, so that's the entire amount of $900 million”.

Nearly $400 million of these will apparently be released pending Defence Secretary Jim Mattis' approval. Earlier on Thursday, Mattis had told the media at the Pentagon that whether or not the US will cut Pakistan's military aid is a decision that hasn't been taken and that policy "is still being formulated".

The developments point to utter confusion within US ranks that cannot translate into stable policymaking. It is also unclear why punitive steps like these to trigger a behavioural change in Pakistan will work this time when these have failed in the past. The US is aware, as is Pakistan, that coercive strategies work only when the cost of non-compliance outstrips benefits.

By virtue of its geographical location, Pakistan still holds vital aces when it comes to the US war in Afghanistan. The US is still disproportionately reliant on Islamabad letting its troops access the ground and air supply routes to Afghanistan. There's also the argument that pressing Pakistan's weak civilian government too hard to "do more" will end up disempowering it more and enabling the right wing and the military-industrial complex in undermining the democratically elected government. Such an eventuality may end up destabilising further a nuclear-armed state.

Pakistan has for long utilised this 'instability' argument as a bargaining chip to maintain status quo and nothing changes the underlying reality, no matter how hard Trump tries to alter it. Therefore, we find the US hastening to add that the withheld funds will be released as soon as Pakistan shows some real intent. For a country that is "punishing" Pakistan for its perfidy, State Department officials appear almost apologetic, imploring Islamabad to see reason.

"Pakistanis have repeatedly said we don't care about this money. What matters I think to the Pakistanis is that it is the symbolism of doing this... that it represents a deterioration of our relationship that they care about a great deal. So, we were hoping that this is an incentive that they don't want to see this relationship deteriorate any further and that they're going to commit to working with us to try to find a way to put it on a more solid footing," an official said during the briefing.

That said, it is also true that Trump's disruptive action has already ruffled Pakistan more than it is ready to admit. The argument that China will now step in as Islamabad's benefactor is also specious, because Beijing has no compulsion, unlike Washington in implementing the liberal democratic order or shaping the world in its own image. It remains a mercantile power, and it will extract its pound of flesh for every penny. Whether or not Trump's coercive diplomacy works will depend on Islamabad realising this home truth.

Published Date: Jan 05, 2018 18:42 PM | Updated Date: Jan 05, 2018 18:42 PM

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