By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
As the New Year rang in, President Trump took to Twitter to state his displeasure over Islamabad’s unwillingness to tackle terrorist safe havens within Pakistan’s borders. Pakistan has long harbored numerous terrorist and insurgent groups that undermine U.S. peace efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Islamabad has used terrorist proxies in its continuing fight with India, sparking several conventional wars as a result. With nuclear weapons in the mix between those two South Asian neighbors, the threat of Pakistan’s activities is difficult to understate.
Despite Aid, Pakistan Is Indispensable to US and South Asia
Despite its bad behavior, Pakistan has positioned itself to be indispensable to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and to the larger South Asian region. Pakistan has been politically unstable since its creation in 1947. The collapse of a nuclear state hosting so many violent non-state actors would result in devastating consequences.
As a result, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have sent billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, only to discover that Islamabad will not change its behavior. Nonetheless, aid money, with an occasional disruption, continues to flow to Pakistan for fear that cutting off funds would lead to a collapse of the state. President Trump, however, has suggested that U.S. aid to Pakistan will finally cease.
Cutting Off Foreign Aid Will Not Change Pakistan
The Trump administration’s frustration is not unique. The Obama and Bush administrations both used carrot-and-stick aid approaches to compel Pakistan to change tack, yet those attempts never seemed to work.
In the late 1990s, when Pakistan and India tested their nuclear weapons, foreign aid was cut as a result. But even then, Islamabad continued to support violent non-state actors in their fight with India.
Pakistan will not change its behavior over a dearth of foreign aid because, quite simply, it cannot. That is, at least, the view from Islamabad.
Pakistan Has Deep Geographic and Cultural Divisions
Since 1947, Pakistan has been largely divided geographically and culturally. East Pakistan became Bangladesh. West Pakistan, as it was once known, lacked strategic depth to the west with mountains acting as a backstop.
To the east, the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad was vulnerable to Indian control over all of Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, Islamabad sits less than 100 miles from their shared border.
With Maharaja Hari Singh, king of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu, on the fence about which nation to join, Pakistan took the initiative. It employed local tribal militias, known as Lashkars, to take the disputed territory by force.
The Maharaja asked for military assistance from India, thus sparking the war in 1947. Pakistan succeeded in taking a portion of Kashmir and adding some breathing room for its capital and the bulk of the Pakistani population.
Pakistan Joined US in Anti-Soviet Alliance to Rebuild Its Military
Pakistan began its independence with a fractured military. The 1947 war did further damage to the nascent state. It was not long before Pakistan chose to join the anti-Soviet alliance led by the United States. This alliance was a counter to a pro-Soviet India and a chance to rebuild Pakistan’s military with Western weapons and training.
The alliance persisted through the Cold War and was instrumental in the ejection of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the Cold War has been over for decades. The War on Terror has dragged on in Afghanistan for nearly 17 years.
The situation that led to the U.S.-Pakistan partnership no longer exists. The continuing strain between Washington and Islamabad clearly demonstrates that shared interests between the two nations have ceased.
War on Terror Only One of US Foreign Considerations
There are pressing matters beyond the War on Terror to consider as well. Japan and the U.S. have forged closer economic and military ties with several nations in East Asia as a means of containing China.
These efforts have expanded rather profoundly to India since the final years of the George W. Bush administration. This reorientation of U.S. support in the region has forced Pakistan to rely on its ally China as a counterweight to more robust U.S.-Japanese-Indian relations.
The impact that this shift in relations will have on Pakistan is difficult to understate. Indeed, Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. has persisted since its independence. But the constant political instability in Islamabad may prove fateful without the long-term support of Washington.
Pakistan has used its instability to great effect in securing aid. While a collapse of the Pakistani state would be devastating to the region, using that possibility as foreign policy has likely run its course.
In other words, the Trump administration might be willing to call Pakistan’s bluff in this regard. It is accurate to say that Trump and his advisers disagree on the finer points of handling Pakistan, especially with regard to aid. However, exasperation with Pakistan is legion in Washington.
Pakistan’s Future May Require More Support from China and Saudi Arabia
If Pakistan is to continue functioning, it will come to rely on China and Saudi Arabia for continued support (and even Russia as well, to a lesser extent). But these patrons have significant internal issues of their own.
China, for instance, has long had an interest in Pakistan. Beijing has invested quite heavily in its neighbor without receiving much return on that investment. Chinese activities at the Gwadar port are a case in point.
Pakistan is capable of surviving without the U.S. But planning for the future must include thoughts of self-sufficiency. A policy of relying on the good will and continued financial support of a few friends is no way to run a nation-state.
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