Trump administration accuses country of housing militants as relations hit new low
Angry Pakistanis protesed in August against Donald Trump's accusations that the country harboured terrorists © AFP
September 15, 2017 4:39 pm by Katrina Manson in Washington
The Trump administration is considering dropping Pakistan as an ally as it examines tough measures to quell more than 20 terrorist groups it says are based in the country.
Officials familiar with the Pakistan prong of Washington’s new “AfPak” strategy — which involves an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan and praise for India — say it has yet to be fleshed out. But they have plenty of levers.
President Donald Trump last month promised to get tough on Pakistan, accusing it of “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting”. It was the most public breach yet in an often rocky relationship.
“No US president has come out on American national television and said such things about Pakistan,” said Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US.
“US policymakers are at the end of their tethers about what they see as Pakistan not helping them while promising to help them.”
The administration has already put $255m in military aid on hold after Mr Trump announced the policy shift. It is eyeing an escalating series of threats, which include cutting some civilian aid, conducting unilateral drone strikes on Pakistani soil and imposing travel bans on suspect officers of the ISI, the country’s intelligence agency. It could also revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-Nato ally or designate it a state sponsor of terrorism.
The latter options would limit weapons sales and probably affect billions of dollars in IMF and World Bank loans, along with access to global finance.
“Thinking of Pakistan as an ally will continue to create problems for the next administration as it did for the last one,” Lisa Curtis, former CIA analyst who now leads South Asia policy in the National Security Council, wrote in a joint report with Mr Haqqani earlier this year.
Ms Curtis, who works closely with the state department, believes the Obama administration “erred” by relying on personal ties and aid packages to try to change Pakistan’s behaviour.
In 2011 when we killed Bin Laden, relations were at their worst, but on the face of it, it’s worse now just because we haven’t talked to them much
Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff
Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, visited Pakistan more than 25 times during his 2007-11 tenure, seeking close ties with powerful army head and former spy chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. He became disillusioned, lambasting an Afghan Taliban group known as the Haqqani network as “a veritable arm” of the ISI.
“It was my belief and continues to be my belief that unless we had an ally that we could work together to greatly eliminate the threat then our efforts in Afghanistan were going to fail,” said Mr Mullen.
“In 2011 when we killed [Osama] Bin Laden, relations were at their worst, but on the face of it, it’s worse now just because we haven’t talked to them much.”
Some who recall being beguiled by late nights spent with military and civilian leaders over Johnnie Walker Blue Label — the expensive whisky beloved by Pakistan’s elite in the officially dry country — say even forceful private conversations regularly disappoint.
James Dobbins, special envoy in 2013-14, became frustrated by failed promises from army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to go after militant groups
“It’s very difficult to deal with an interlocutor who says he agrees with you but actually doesn’t,” he said.
“The Pakistanis originally saw the Taliban as an instrument that they could manipulate to their advantage and since view it as a monster they’ve created but can’t afford to suppress.”
The state department, which has long been reluctant to cut aid or censure Pakistan in public, and which previously pushed Mr Mullen to “tone down” his rhetoric, is adapting to the harsher line set by the White House.
“We look to the Pakistani government to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region,” said a state department official, adding that it will address major concerns “privately”.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, applauds the tougher line. “Pakistan has reacted publicly harshly but I believe we have got their attention and this is now serious and they are making noises privately to the Afghan government about getting together to talk,” he said.
Pakistan cancelled a planned visit this month from Alice Wells, the state department official in charge of south Asia policy, in protest at Mr Trump’s announcement. But Ms Wells met Pakistan’s ambassador to the US this week and a state department official said the pair has regular contact.
Relations are expected to take a further blow from US efforts to forge closer ties with rival India. “We need to respect and trust India — they have not leaked nuclear secrets or shared sensitive nuclear technology with rogue countries,” said Tim Roemer, former US ambassador to India, a reference to Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation.
Pakistan prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said this week it is “unfair” to blame his country for troubles in Afghanistan, adding that the US should have greater respect for its efforts to combat militancy.
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, says Pakistan resents the wild oscillations in support from the US.
“They went from our most allied of allies to our most sanctioned of sanctioned,” he said, recalling that the US worked with Pakistan to defeat Soviet Russia during the 1980s Afghanistan invasion but, once it had won, cut aid and imposed sanctions over its emergent nuclear programme.
“Their narrative about us is here today, gone tomorrow and it has deeply affected their strategic thinking