World News

U.S. Cuts Off Pakistan, Gambling in Afghan War

Posted January 5, 2018 9:12 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 9:18 p.m. EST

Afghan officials have pleaded with three U.S. presidents to reconsider their support for Pakistan, which was both receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid and harboring the leaders of a Taliban insurgency that the United States has struggled to defeat.

But when President Donald Trump suspended nearly all U.S. security aid to Pakistan on Thursday for what he called the country’s “lies and deceit,” any jubilation in the halls of power in Afghanistan — and there was some — was leavened with worry 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 cutoff of military aid to Pakistan is who will come under the most pressure: the Pakistanis, or the coalition fighting the Taliban.

Muhammed Umer Daudzai, a former Afghan interior minister and ambassador to Pakistan, said the pressure on Pakistan had come too late, with the country having developed regional allies who would help it weather the financial toll.

“The financial sanctions may not bite Pakistan because they have developed alternatives,” Daudzai said. “The only area the impact could be huge, but it’s a bit too early to judge, is the field of air force. The Pakistani system is still hugely dependent on the U.S. It can take a long time to switch from that.”

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 the Pakistani air force also seemed to suggest that Pakistan’s 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, “We are engaged with the U.S. administration on the issue of security cooperation and await further details.

“We believe that Pakistan-U.S. cooperation 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 goal posts 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 whose positions on foreign and defense policy are often closely aligned with Pakistan’s security establishment, called for steps to disengage diplomatically from the United States.

“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.

In past cases when relations frayed and Pakistan blocked U.S. access to its supply routes, the U.S. military relied on a more expensive alternative that connects Baltic and Caspian ports through Russia and Central Asian countries. But that route is vulnerable to Washington’s chilly relations with Russia, which has used its influence over Central Asian states to limit access.

At its peak, when the United States had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the alternative route helped with the transportation of about one-third of nonlethal material with Russia’s consent. The U.S.-led coalition also used Manas, a major air base in Kyrgyzstan, as the transit point for almost all of the coalition troops and a refueling center for tens of thousand aircraft.

Kyrgyzstan, apparently in response to Russian pressure and incentives, first increased the annual rent to $60 million from $17 million, and then the United States left the base in 2014.

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 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 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 Chakhansuri, a deputy chief of staff to Ghani. “We want honest partnership in the region to fight against a common enemy, terrorism.”

Some Afghan officials and analysts feared that Trump’s pressure on Pakistan might escalate the violence across Afghanistan before it brings any change in Pakistani cooperation. Already, officials are bracing for more urban bombing attacks in the winter months, when the regular fighting slows down a bit.

Also vulnerable are about 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who feel an increase in harassment in such periods of high political tension.

An important factor in whether the U.S. pressure could result in a change of Pakistani attitude is whether U.S. diplomacy can appeal to China and Russia’s shared concerns of militant extremism in the region and persuade them not to give Pakistan a release valve. Russia is concerned about the rise of an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, most of whose fighters are from the tribal areas of Pakistan, while China fears that an unstable Afghanistan provides sanctuary to its Uighur insurgency.

“You have an anti-American sentiment in the region on the one hand, but on the other hand you have the fear of terrorism and extremism in the region,” said Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul. “If the U.S. uses active diplomacy, it can convince the regional players to align with efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, because they will not compromise on their own national security for the sake of Pakistan.” Moradian said factors that make Pakistan a military power, such as hardware and training, are oriented toward the United States, with China less able to easily fulfill them. And he described the Pakistani elite as more integrated in the West — with houses, business and bank accounts there — and thus more likely to feel the pressure of targeted sanctions.

“I don’t think Pakistan will be able to absorb sustained U.S. pressures,” Moradian said. “In the Pakistan-American dynamics, Pakistan is far more vulnerable.”

He continued: “Pakistan’s success has been in absorbing pain for a short period and then getting away. Washington has not been able to bear pain for a limited period of time in the hopes of longer success.”

Before the Trump announcement on freezing aid to Pakistan, senior Pakistani officials had shrugged off the threats. One official said every threat from Washington was pushing Pakistan closer to China. The two countries have a partnership to develop up to $60 billion in infrastructure in Pakistan under the “One Belt, One Road” program, and have tightened their military ties.

Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s foreign minister, recently urged a revisiting of ties with the United States, which he called neither a friend nor an ally.

“The world is vast enough,” he said, “and the U.S. is not feeding us.”