The new year started with a bang for US-Pakistani relationship, as US President Donald Trump, opened his twitter account for the year with a hard hitting tweet against Pakistan. He called out Pakistani perfidy of pretending to work with US while supporting terror in reality, and in a first for US head of state, accepted that US had been taken for a ride all these years. The figure that he quoted as Pakistan having made of US over 15 years was 33 billion US dollars. To be sure, this was not the first time that Trump had spoken out against Pakistan.
Just over a week before the new year, US Vice President Mike Pence had declared to his troops deployed in Afghanistan while making an unannounced visit to the country, that President Trump had put Pakistan on notice. Neither was American Vice President’s statement an off the cuff remark; in the well deliberated agenda setting national security strategy document, Pakistan’s role in supporting Islamic terror and the need to contain the same had been discussed at length. This document did provide for a both a solid intellectual background to the emerging US world view and for a policy framework for them in dealing with challenges like Pakistan.
To go back further, the policy document has not been a sudden either, Trump’s presidential bid had been based on reimagining US including her international relations, and the evolving doctrine has echoes of campaign manifesto. While admittedly Trump has at best been somewhat unreliable on all issues, including having blown hot and cold on Pakistan through the year, there seems to now emerge a method to the madness. The strongest statement by any US President till date was culmination of years of continued frustrations of US administration with Pakistan, including failure of Trump’s own effort to make some headway and have some success to show for all the work done so far.
In short order, Trump’s outburst on twitter was followed by a formal policy enunciation by U.S. Ambassador to U.N. Nikki Haley who said that U.S. would withhold $225 Million in assistance to Pakistan. This amount was the payment to be made to Pakistan under Foreign Military Funding (FMF) program which enables recipient countries to obtain military training within US or for them purchase military equipment from US entities. While the FMF suspension was from 2016 budget, there were more follow on shocks in store for Pakistan. In addition US suspended the entire $900 Million of funding under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) from 2017 fiscal budget. Coalition Support Funds (CSF) refers to monies from the Defense Emergency Response Fund (DERF) of US that it pays as reimbursements to coalition partners for logistical and military support to U.S. military operations. In simple language shorn of the legalese, the CSF money is what gets paid to the rentier state of Pakistan for services rendered to U.S. by her, that is, it is the money which US pays to Pakistan for using her territory and assets. This has been a most lucrative source of money for the failed state since 2002, as it scammed the US expenditure on the war on terror.
In total, in one swoop, over 1.1 billion dollars’ worth of money to Pakistani military was stopped by a single set of tweets.
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
These steps taken by the Trump administration seem to have had a severe impact on Pakistan, as could be seen by a vehement but confused set of reactions from that country.
It swung from one extreme of dismissing the aid cut as trivial and of no importance to the other of summoning U.S. Ambassador and ranting about how U.S. has been mean and unfair. In this overreaction lays the story of the importance of American funding to Pakistani military’s existence. To play it by the numbers, the planned spending by Pakistan on its military in 2017-18 period was $8.78 Billion, and the hit of $1.125 Billion is a good 12.8% of their budget, much higher than the increase of $578 million it needed from 2016 to maintain its armies. Looking at it another way, Pakistan got $33 billion over 15 years in CSF alone, which would mean on an average $2.2 billion a year or roughly 20% of Pakistani Military budget of 2018 every year from 2002. Given that the Pakistani military expenditure has grown by around 7-10% year over year this means that Pakistan’s total expenditure on warfare has been $73.5 Billion in the 2002-2017 period based on a rough back of the envelop calculation. This would mean that U.S. has paid for 45% of all of Pakistani military expenditure for the last 15 years. It is this goldmine for Pakistan that Trump has blocked and not merely a temporary cessation of the budget. What is at stake is a relationship which has maintained half of Pakistan’s capability to fight over last decade and half. This relationship is not just money but access to American war making capabilities. This partnership is about Pakistani troops getting best in class equipment and training. This is about Pakistani SSGs learning from Rangers. This is about getting aircrafts, guns and artillery which Pakistan cannot get otherwise. Most importantly it blocks the availablity of spares for the massive footprint of U.S. equipment that Pakistan has. It would be a mistake to look at the impact of the current steps merely in terms of monetary or book keeping impact.
If U.S. holds on the decision the very existence of Pakistani state as we know it is at risk.
What the U.S. is doing is actually very close to the path laid out in a seminal paper written by the RAND strategist and Pakistan watcher C. Christine Fair, author of the fascinating book, “Fighting to the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War”. In “A New Way of Engaging Pakistan”, she has pointed out that the previous methods of dealing with Pakistan have failed to fetch the desired results and a new stratagem needs to be adopted. This would call for new steps and tactics towards the same and the ones she advocates seem to form the template of current U.S. actions. To quote from the paper “As a preliminary matter, it should cease providing CSF funds.”, which is precisely the step U.S. has now taken. If the previous step does not suffice for Pakistan to change its ways, as a follow on action, she calls for Pakistan to be declared a terrorist state, “because it is”.
Such a declaration would come with sweeping and destructive sanctions and completely change the relationships. Pakistan would have a choice in this though, as “To pre-empt such an outcome, the United States should provide a time-line of concrete steps that the Pakistan must take against the various militant groups it now supports.” Interestingly a key part of current declaration by U.S. runs as following “We have not done anything that’s irreversible here. All this funding is available to Pakistan, if they undertake to take the measures that we have asked of them” and “Security assistance funding and pending deliveries will be frozen but not cancelled as we continue to hope Pakistan will take the decisive action against terrorists the militant groups that we seek”.
To no one’s great surprise this is exactly the step two of Dr. Fair’s prescription. Clearly the US is keeping a door open for Pakistan to change its ways and the threat of “take specific actions against Haqquani’s in time bound manner or else…” is a precursor to additional sanctions and such. The paper goes on to describe further actions in the very likely event of Pakistan failing to deliver. These include targeting specific individuals in Pakistani establishment through sanctions, economic crackdown and VISA denials. This could extend to a general discouragement of Pakistanis travelling to U.S. As the coup de grace she goes on to say that U.S. should finally stop taking a neutral stance w.r.t. to Kashmiri terror and completely swing over to supporting Indian position on Kashmir and explicitly denounce Pakistani position as being illegitimate and work with India to punish Pakistani misadventures in Kashmir.
From an Indian perspective though, it is too early to celebrate, yet. The fact that US-Pak relationship has lasted 7 decades since the British handed the international system to their Anglo-Saxon cousins is not matter of chance. There are deeply entrenched geo-political interests vested in continuation of Pakistan. It would be hasty to assume that the only party which stands to lose in the changed circumstances is Pakistan. After all U.S. isn’t being entirely foolish or status-quoist when it has persisted with its relationship with Pakistan despite the blatantly obvious double dealing games which has resulted in the death of hundreds of Americans and loss of Billions of dollars.
There are reasons for U.S. to stay invested in Pakistan and reasons to fear that US leverage of Pakistan may ultimately be limited. Of the factors why it would be so, the first would be that a loss of Pakistan as a rentier state to U.S. denies it a critical pawn on worlds chessboard which kept both Iran and India in check from increasing their spheres of influence. On the contrary, that square may get to be occupied by China, which can then ally with Iran and Russia to form a new axis to stymie both U.S. and its new ally India. In immediate tactical terms, Pakistan is expected to respond to coercive actions by matching attacks of its own. Such could closing of air and ground lines of communications to Afghanistan for U.S., and denial of logistical support even through the civilian network, which enables U.S. to sustain its troops in Afghanistan. While this would be an extreme step, if taken U.S. have very limited choices to supply Afghanistan as of now through alternate channels and would be hard pressed to mitigate this risk.
Pakistan could further allow even freer movement of anti-American forces within its borders, and while it does not need to directly confront U.S. military elements, it could completely divest itself from an over watch role over the North-Western Frontier Province and especially the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas allowing Taliban to setup a parallel establishment within, creating further oppertunties for a running battle against Americans and Afghanis. Already as part of the response, the rentier state that it is, Pakistan has run to China for help, this time selling out its economic sovereignty by allowing Chinese Yuan to be used domestically. In addition Pakistan can be expected to do what it does best, which is to prevaricate, lie, confuse and provide window dressing in an effort to wriggle out of the focused expectations from Trump. Such an effort can be seen as hastily concocted appearances of acting against Hafiz Saeed and Jaamat Ul Dawa in order show action against terror, while not really clamping down on the murderous masterminds who continue their free reign and to top it all she also stepped up actions against India on the international border.
At the same time though, at a fundamental level, while Pakistanis are tactically clever, they are strategically blind. An affliction which comes as part of being a fake country without an intellectual, cultural or philosophical foundation; created merely to serve the interests of its then masters. A lack of sense of manifest destiny removes any chance of their being able to see into the distance. This limitation coupled with basic cowardice of Pakistani establishment and upper classes means that Pakistan can be no more effective than the puppeteer controlling the moth eaten marionette.
As long as US was the player pulling the strings, the wretched country was able to punch above it weight. It is not clear though that the Pakistanis would be able to seamlessly transfer their control to the Chinese without being hamstrung by confusion due to their racist mindset and competing claims on its ownership from Islamist backers. It is also not clear whether the Communist state has the capability and wisdom of its ancient roots to take over from US as effectively. Therein lies the window of opportunity of India and for US.
The key to success of current efforts is to go all the way to the end game of complete dissolution of Pakistani nuclear and military assets and end its existence as a state.
While Trump may pretend to give Pakistan a chance to reform as per the algorithm laid out in Dr. Fair’s paper, it must only be for the sake of appearances. Irrespective of Pakistani responses, US must take it as invariant truth that Pakistan has not delivered and anyway proceed to next step on the escalation ladder. He needs to work with India to supply equipment and supplies through Iran, over flight from India through Pakistan and possibly through liberating PoK rather than buckle in to Pakistan. A combined Indian and American initiative can and should completely remove PAF from skies and also neutralize Pakistani nuclear assets while this exercise is being carried out. What does go without saying is that none of this needs to be done with too much publicity. There needs to be no declaration of war, and removal of PAF elements can be very much done as a part of an air sortie to “guard” over Indian skies while USAF ostensibly provides cover to the air corridor.
While Trump is to be congratulated on taking the first right step fixing a cancer afflicting US and the also the world, leaving the treatment half way would only result in a dreadful remission which cannot be permitted. There is no running back to the safety of the crease and the batsman must cover the distance or be out. And oh yes, before we forget – he needs to do it before the year is over.