Why Obama’s Military Aid Cut is Unlikely to Change Pakistan’s Behavior

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Soldiers take part in a patrol in Tora Warai, a town in Kurram Agency, during a military trip organised for media along the Pakistan Afghanistan border, July 10, 2011. (Photo: Khuram Parvez - Reuters)

The Obama Administration clearly wants the American public to know it is not allowing Pakistan’s double game in Afghanistan and on militant jihadists to go unpunished: The New York Times reports that the U.S. is withholding some $800 million — one third of the aid designated for the Pakistani military — to send a message that Washington won’t be taken for a ride. Pakistan continues to allow the Afghan Taliban and related insurgent groups to operate unmolested from its soil against American forces in Afghanistan; it has spent the year pushing to limit CIA operations on its soil (the controversy over CIA contractor Raymond Davis earlier this year having highlighted the deteriorating relationship); and when it turned out that Osama bin Laden had been hiding out in the Pakistani military’s back yard, possibly with help from within the security establishment, the Pakistani response was to arrest those believed to have helped the U.S. kill the Qaeda leader and to cut back on cooperation with the Americans.

The reasons for U.S. exasperation are clear to see — although they’re hardly appreciated in Pakistan. Indeed, following the raid on the Abottabad compound where Bin Laden was killed, the Pakistani public — and, reportedly, even most of the Army’s mid-level officer corps, were as furious with the country’s leading generals as were the Americans. Except, the Pakistani public doesn’t want its military doing more to help the U.S.; it expects its armed forces to break with Washington’s agenda.

And there’s little reason to expect that a public withdrawal of funds — explicitly withheld until Pakistan does a better job of meeting U.S. expectations of assistance in its war in Afghanistan — will have the desired effect. On the contrary, it’s more likely to accelerate and deepen the parting of ways between Pakistan and the United States. But Pakistani public opinion may be a less important driver of that rift than Pakistan’s reading of its own national interest.

When Washington’s “War on Terror” brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan in late 2001, the Pakistani public was incensed that its military leaders were supporting and enabling the invasion. That hostility has only deepened over the years as the U.S. began conducting drone strikes against militant suspects on Pakistani soil, some of which resulted in civilian casualties. And it reached a crescendo following the U.S. raid on Abottabad, in which the Pakistani military appeared unable to protect the country’s sovereign territory from foreign incursion.

Even though public sentiment made it difficult for Pakistani leaders to support the U.S. war effort, the generals who have traditionally maintained close ties with the United States were willing to cooperate up to a point. But that cooperation has never crossed limits dictated by the generals’ view of Pakistan’s vital national interest. Pakistan had been willing to help the U.S. roll up hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives and to try and press the Taliban in Afghanistan to expel Osama bin Laden, but U.S. and Pakistani interests diverged when the U.S. sought to topple the Taliban regime — which had been originally installed as a Pakistani proxy in Kabul, a hedge against the emergence of a pro-India regime on Pakistan’s western flank. (The Northern Alliance, fierce rivals of the Taliban, had been strongly backed by India.)

Pakistan’s military, which effectively makes the country’s foreign policy, views the Afghanistan conflict largely through the prism of its historic conflict with India, and once India’s allies had been installed in power as the basis of the government of President Hamid Karzai, the Pakistanis kept the Taliban — and other militant groups such as the Haqqani network — in reserve as guarantors of their own interests in Afghanistan, knowing that the U.S. would eventually withdraw and leave the regional rivals to their “great game” competition for influence in Kabul.

So while Pakistan’s military brass wanted their relationship with the U.S., they would not pursue it at the expense of their own national interest. Hence, for example, their refusal to act against Afghan Taliban forces inside Pakistan even when they were launching offensives against the Pakistani Taliban (those militant groups who were targeting the Pakistani state). As far as Pakistan’s generals are concerned, their country has made massive sacrifices to support the U.S. campaign — twice as many Pakistan security personnel as Americans have been killed in clashes with militants since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. And while U.S. officials routinely scold Pakistan for inadequate attention to the threat of militant jihadism on its own soil, many Pakistani leaders see that domestic insurgency as having been unleashed in response to Islamabad’s support for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and believe it will only die down once the Americans withdraw from an invasion many Pakistani leaders have always believed was ill-considered and perilous to their own interests.

It’s hard to imagine Pakistan changing its ways, now, in response to a public tightening of U.S. pursestrings. If anything, Pakistan will be tempted to do whatever it can to hasten the Americans’ departure from Afghanistan — on terms favorable to Islamabad.

And, of course, it has some leverage of its own if it chooses to push back further than it already has done since the Abottabad raid in response to the U.S. funding cut. First and foremost, there’s the fact that some 60% of the supplies on which the NATO mission in Afghanistan depends are delivered by road through Pakistan. Last September, Pakistan responded to the killing of two of its soldiers by a U.S. military helicopter by closing a key border crossing for nearly two weeks. That created a massive backlog of supply trucks, many of which were  destroyed in attacks by local Taliban allies. And in the wake of the Bin Laden raid, Pakistan’s parliament discussed cutting those supply lines in retaliation for the violation of their sovereignty.

The U.S.  military has been preparing for such an eventuality by opening more expensive supply routes through Afghanistan’s northern neighbors, which now carry 40% of the traffic (previously, some 95% had gone through Pakistan). The U.S. military’s aim is reduce Pakistan’s share of the supply traffic to 25% by year’s end, although the northern routes raise the cost of sustaining supply levels.

And in the longer term, Pakistan is deepening its historic strategic ties with China, based on a common rivalry with India, and hoping to see Beijing fill some of the gap left by a retraction of U.S. support. China’s own strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean may give it an incentive to do just that — it’s already helping Pakistan develop its port and naval facilities.

Both sides, then, have been making preparations for the sort of deterioration in ties that have emerged this week. And while Washington may see Pakistan’s basket-case economy and the threat of instability that poses as dictating greater cooperation by Islamabad in order to secure U.S. aid, Islamabad may see the precarious U.S. position in Afghanistan and the American desire for an expeditious but credible exit plan — and even concerns over cutting loose a nuclear-armed ally, no matter how troublesome — as setting limits on just how far the U.S. is willing to push Pakistan. In light of the combination of public sentiment and perception of national interests in Pakistan, it ought to surprise no observer of this high stakes poker game if Pakistan’s response to Washington anteing up is not to fold, but rather to double down.