Pakistani security officials stand guard outside a mosque in 2015. (Jamal Tarakai/EPA)
It started as a tweet
Early in the morning on Jan. 1, President Trump lashed out at Pakistan, accusing the country of “lies & deceit” and of giving safe haven to terrorists. “No more!” he wrote.
By Thursday, the State Department had announced that it would withhold up to $2 billion in U.S. aid until the country takes “decisive action” against the Taliban and Haqqani network. As The Washington Post reported, that number includes $900 million in Coalition Support Funds designated to reimburse Pakistan for fighting militants.
“No partnership can survive a country's harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.
Pakistan responded with frustration and threats of its own, prompting fears that the two countries might become embroiled in an increasingly tense tit-for-tat. That could be a big problem for the U.S., which relies on Pakistan as a key ally in its war in Afghanistan. Here's a look at what this latest fight between the two countries might mean:
How much military aid does the U.S. give to Pakistan? What is it used for?
The U.S. has given Pakistan at least $20 billion is security assistance since 2002. Much of that money is dedicated to funding Pakistan's counterterrorism activities and paying for U.S.-made hardware. However, the flow of money to the region from the U.S. has shrunk in recent years, and Pakistan is not nearly as reliant on U.S. assistance as its been in the past. Pakistan has developed a close relationship with China, for example, which is investing $62 billion in infrastructure projects in the country.
The suspension of aid may have the biggest impact on Pakistan's air force, which is still very dependent on U.S. aid and supplies.
The Trump administration is considering a range of other punishments too, including sanctions, increased drone strikes and withholding support of Pakistan at global financial institutions like the World Bank, my colleagues reported today.
Have U.S.-Pakistan relations always been this fraught?
No. In fact, the U.S. was one of the first countries in the world to establish diplomatic ties with Pakistan after the country achieved independence in 1947. In part, that was part of an effort to keep Pakistan from allying with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But Pakistan quickly became an important military asset. The U.S. was granted permission to lease Peshawar Air Station in the 1950s to keep an eye on Moscow. Lahore also allowed the U.S. to launch spy missions from their territory. Pakistan also helped President Richard M. Nixon make his first visit to China. In exchange, the U.S. offered up millions of dollars in aid and military support.
Relations cooled in the late 1980s, after Congress adopted the Pressler amendment. The accord banned military and economic aid to Pakistan unless the state was able to prove that its funds were not being used to develop a nuclear weapon. (The U.S. felt empowered to make this decision in large part because Pakistan had lost the strategic importance it enjoyed during the Cold War.) By 1992, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Nicholas Platt was suggesting that the U.S. include Pakistan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism because of the aid it was allegedly funneling to militants in India.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shifted relations again. Just as during the Cold War, the U.S. needed Pakistan for its military missions to eradicate terrorism. Pakistan became one of the U.S.'s most important strategic allies in the War on Terror, even negotiating discussions with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to see whether they would hand over Osama bin Laden. (Pakistani leaders said they felt they had no choice. The U.S. threatened to bomb them “back into the stone age” unless they complied.) In exchange, the U.S. dropped all sanctions and forgave a $1 billion loan. By 2004, Pakistan was considered a neo-NATO ally and allowed to buy weapons.
However, the U.S. war with Afghanistan created some complicated politics for Pakistan. U.S. drone strikes aimed at terrorists hiding in Pakistan killed and maimed civilians. too. U.S. military incursions resulted in the deaths of Pakistani soldiers. And U.S. officials publicly questioned whether Pakistan was spending U.S. military aid on fighting terror.
The Bush and Obama administrations both expressed frustration with Pakistan, suggesting that the country had not done enough to help eradicate terrorism. In 2011, the U.S. suspended $800 million in military aid.
So far, Trump and his advisers have seemed inclined to take a hard-line approach toward the country. In an August speech on Afghanistan, Trump remarked: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.” Pakistani officials reacted angrily, postponing a visit from a top State Department official and canceling a big bilateral visit.
Is the Trump administration right? Is Pakistan doing enough to get rid of terrorists and safe havens?
It's true that members of the Taliban and Haqqani network, an aggressive offshoot of the group, have used Pakistan as a sort of safe haven. Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence service of maintaining influence with the Taliban and Haqqani network, responsible for many 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,” the New York Times reports.
But Pakistani officials argue that they're doing all they can to stamp out the terrorists who shelter in their borders. They note, too, that they've been victims of terrorist attacks.
How is Pakistan responding?
Pakistan officials reacted to the news with measured frustration. In an interview with Geo News, Pakistan's foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, called the U.S. “a friend who always betrays.” Opposition politician Imran Khan went one step further, calling on Pakistan to “immediately remove” U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel from Pakistan. In a statement, he also advocated for Pakistan to shut down U.S. access to air and ground routes.