Navigating the troubled US-Pakistan relationship

Navigating the troubled US-Pakistan relationship

After initially praising Pakistan and its leadership back in October, President Trump is now withholding aid and escalating rhetoric against it, which risks pushing the country closer to China’s sphere of influence. He is most likely viewing the country through his transactional foreign policy lens, in pursuit of his ‘America First’ agenda.

The US-Pakistan relationship has been strained at times, most notably after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad, which raised questions over whether members of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were familiar with his whereabouts in the city that hosts Pakistan’s military academy.

However, after Trump’s latest comments, “strained” seems like an understatement. After accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to stop terrorism, Washington is now withholding $255 million in assistance to the country and has placed it on a watch list for ‘severe violations of religious freedom.’ This is in addition to suspending all security aid until Pakistan clamps down harder on the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network organisations.

The importance of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

The US-Pakistan relationship is built around the need to confront terrorism and violent extremism. Reflecting this need, Pakistan remains the fourth largest recipient of U.S. aid. Similarly to Egypt, which also receives enormous sums of money from Washington, problems persist with corruption in the armed forces and intelligence services in addition to a disconnect in priorities when it comes to fighting terrorism. As a nuclear power, Pakistan holds considerable clout in the region, therefore its stability is paramount.

Whether a reduction in aid will lead to Pakistan changing its approach to terrorism remains to be seen. Some, including former Pakistani ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, believe that the Pakistani military is more concerned with pursuing Pakistan’s national interests than in following the conditions of U.S. aid.

In other words, Pakistan prefers to follow a more independent foreign policy model, even if it means a cessation of aid. The distance between Pakistan’s foreign policy goals and U.S. goals has only grown as America abdicates its global leadership role under President Trump and China becomes more assertive in building alliances and investing in nations from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

In the wake of President Trump’s statement, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has called for a re-evaluation of ties with the US, describing Washington’s behavior as neither that of an ally or friend. Islamabad has responded by summoning the U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Office. It is possible that more retaliatory measures will ensue, depending on how far Pakistan’s leadership is willing to go to receive U.S. aid.

Putting America first

Given the nature of President Trump’s approach to foreign policy as transactional and deal-based, it is not surprising that a rupture has occurred with Pakistan, a country that has far fewer areas of shared concern with the United States when compared to long-standing NATO allies such as the UK and Germany.

While previous administrations have also criticized Pakistan and its negligence in addressing the more extremist elements in its armed forces and intelligence services, President Trump is likely to take this criticism to a new level given his alleged xenophobic tendencies, coupled with his desire to be strong on terrorism, borders and security.

As the State Department has announced that it is suspending all security aid to Pakistan, Trump’s actions can be seen as part of a broader effort to put ‘America First’ by placing all other allies and security partners on notice that American support is in fact, conditional.

Looking ahead

The immediate impact of these particular cuts may be seen in Afghanistan and in the level of cooperation of the Pakistani security services in the fight against the Taliban, paradoxically creating higher terrorism and insurgency risks if Pakistan cannot plug the gap in funding – which goes against America’s interests in the region. The long term impact could likely be a closer Pakistani relationship with China. In the wake of Trump’s tweets, Pakistan’s central bank announced that it is replacing the dollar with the yuan for trade with China, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has come out to defend Pakistan’s record of fighting terrorism.

With US-Pakistan relations becoming increasingly difficult to manage over the years, Pakistan in 2018 will likely follow the broader global pattern of nations more closely aligning themselves with China – especially if it perceives that the national interest is held in greater respect by Beijing than Washington.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.