In freezing aid to Pakistan, Trump takes a gamble in complex war in Afghanistan
The question on the table after the U.S. cut-off of military aid to Pakistan is who will be most disrupted: the Pakistanis or the coalition fighting the Taliban.
Afghan officials have pleaded with several U.S. administrations now to reconsider their support for Pakistan, which was both receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid and harbouring on its soil the leaders of a Taliban insurgency that the Americans have struggled to defeat.
But when U.S. President Donald Trump suspended nearly all U.S. security aid to Pakistan on Thursday for what he has called the country’s “lies and deceit,” any jubilation in the halls of power in Afghanistan — and there was some — was leavened with worries over how the move might affect a complex war that has pushed the Afghan government to the brink.
If there is one consensus among Afghan leaders and their U.S. counterparts, it is that dealing with Pakistan is both vital and difficult.
U.S. and Afghan officials accuse Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence service of maintaining influence with the Taliban and the group’s most ascendant faction, the Haqqani network, which is behind many of the large-scale attacks on Afghan cities. Through those links, Pakistan has the ability to control at least some of the tempo of the fighting in Afghanistan — and it has done little to constrain it over the past two years, the officials say.
At the same time, Pakistan enjoys leverage over the U.S. military response to that militant violence: The U.S. mission has always relied on Pakistani air and ground routes for supplies to the troops in Afghanistan.
The question on the table after the cut-off of military aid to Pakistan is who will be most disrupted: the Pakistanis or the coalition fighting the Taliban.
Pakistani officials expressed both anger and caution over the U.S. move. Several indicated that cutting off ground supply routes to Afghanistan was actively being considered but that a formal decision was not likely to be announced Friday.
The commander of Pakistan’s Air Force also seemed to suggest that Pakistani airspace might be blocked to the Americans. In Islamabad on Thursday, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman said his force was “fully prepared to defend all the aerial frontiers of the country.”
On Friday, the foreign ministry released a statement saying that “we are engaged with the U.S. administration on the issue of security co-operation and await further details.”
“We believe that Pakistan-U.S. co-operation in fighting terrorism has directly served U.S. national security interests as well as the larger interests of international community,” the statement said. And in a measured criticism of Trump’s move, it said that working for peace requires “mutual respect and trust,” adding that “arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats.”
Across the Pakistani political spectrum, officials accused the United States of making Pakistan a scapegoat for the failures in Afghanistan.
Imran Khan, a prominent opposition politician and former cricket star who has long criticized U.S. actions in the region, called for steps to disengage diplomatically from the United States. His public positions on foreign and defence policy are often closely aligned with Pakistan’s security establishment.
“We must immediately remove excessive U.S. diplomatic, nondiplomatic and intelligence personnel from Pakistan so that diplomatic parity is established according to international legal norms governing diplomatic relations between states,” he said in a statement, adding that the ground and air routes for U.S. military supplies should also be shut down.
From the U.S. and Afghan standpoints, trying to change Pakistan’s outlook has only grown more difficult in recent years as the relative consensus has broken down among major players in the region — like Russia and Iran — over the U.S. mission to eradicate international terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
In private, senior Afghan officials said they were watching for just how focused the United States would be in maintaining the pressure on Pakistan, a nuclear state that has long managed to shrug off previous interludes of U.S. and international pressure.
More publicly, however, President Ashraf Ghani and his government were measured in their reaction, staying away from directly addressing Trump’s move to freeze what could amount to more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid.
“We welcome any decision that contributes to bringing stability in the region and Afghanistan,” said Haroon Chakhansoori, a deputy chief of staff to Ghani. “We want honest partnership in the region to fight against a common enemy, terrorism.”