Money and Mistrust: The effects of Trump’s decision to cut off aid to Pakistan

 /  Jan. 27, 2018, 1:20 a.m.


On New Year’s Day, President Trump tweeted that Pakistan has delivered “nothing but lies and deceit” in exchange for American aid and declared that the United States would stop aid to Pakistan. This decision shouldn’t be a surprise, both by the standards of the present and previous administrations. Trump similarly criticized Pakistan in his address at Fort Myers in August while outlining his policy for South Asia and Afghanistan.

To understand the implications of freezing aid to Pakistan, we must tarry a little, understand the relevant historical and political contexts, and most importantly, look to the effects of this decision on the populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A History of Pakistani “Lies and Deceit”

Mistrust between Pakistan and the United States is familiar, with a convoluted history reaching as far back as Jimmy Carter, who suspended US aid to Pakistan in 1979 due to concerns regarding its nuclear program, only for it to be later revived by his successor, Ronald Reagan. George H.W. Bush’s administration expressed similar concerns in the August of 1990, when it suspended both economic and military aid to Pakistan because of its “clandestine” nuclear program.

American policy towards Pakistan changed dramatically after 9/11, with George W. Bush’s administration’s declaration of the “war on terror;” from 2002 to 2010 aid to Pakistan reached almost $19 billion. To do so, both the administrations of President Bush and President Obama had to ignore concerns regarding Pakistani nuclear proliferation, as well as the common knowledge of the Pakistani military’s ties with groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

In 2005, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military dictator, that “the United States will be a friend for life.” A few days later, the Bush administration announced its decision to resume the sale of F-16s to Pakistan after a sixteen year hiatus. Yet a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report dated to April 21 of the same year expressed concerns over the Pakistani state and military’s support for terrorism, stating that “Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives remain in Pakistan and may have re-established their organizations in Pakistani cities.” It continued on to state that although Musharraf had banned certain terrorist groups, they were still operating. The same report detailed concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear program. These concerns, and those of the past, including a letter by twenty House representatives urging the administration not to sell F-16s to Pakistan, were ignored. Instead, as a CRS report dated to November 8, 2007 presented rather dramatically, the total value of arms sales to Pakistan in 2006 nearly equaled all the sales to Pakistan from 1950 to 2001.

The Obama administration similarly brushed aside such concerns. In fact, in 2009, President Obama signed the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, a “non-military” aid package worth $7.5 billion. The bill contained explicit conditions regarding the Pakistani civilian government’s support for terrorist and militant groups (a rather astounding admission to make while providing aid to the same state). Akbar Zaidi, a Pakistani political economist, raised an important question in this respect: “…how will imposing conditions on a civilian government ensure that these conditions are adhered to by the military and its agencies?” A valid question which largely remained unanswered.

Moreover, the Quarterly Progress and Oversight report of 2013 regarding the “civilian assistance” program in Pakistan is rather revealing: since 2010, the USAID Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted sixty audits in Pakistan accounting for a total of $635.2 million; about 40 percent of these audits found “internal control weaknesses” and one in three found “noncompliance” with procedures and regulations. “Noncompliance” seems only to be a polite euphemism to say that American aid was potentially being used for, to put it mildly, whatever the recipients wanted. These audits covered only a fraction of the total aid package; we can only try to estimate the impacts to real scale. Unsurprisingly, this was ignored in the press and by the administration.

The theme of such wilful ignorance isn’t a mere blip. To provide a more dramatic example, in 2010, a paper by Azeem Ibrahim (a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute) even showed that funds were allocated for naval repairs when no navy was in use, among other such examples. The paper was sent to the National Security Council and State Department, only to be ignored. Incidentally, this was the year the administration announced a $2 billion arms deal with Pakistan, a 30 percent increase in the same. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even stated that Pakistan is the United States’ strongest partner in counter-terrorism.

One must question American motives in this relentless provision of aid in spite of all kinds of concern. The official pretext is a standard foreign policy template: to strengthen the forces fighting against ruthless terrorists who are a threat to the world. This template merits doubt: it seems far too coincidental that Washington’s efforts saw moral motives in Pakistan only when the US military needed land-routes to support its war efforts in Afghanistan. Obama’s 2014 budget proposal described Pakistan as “strategically important.” When Pakistan cut off NATO’s supply lines as retaliation to Operation Neptune Spear (the unilateral raid to kill Osama bin Laden), John Kerry said that the United States needed Pakistan’s assistance to supply American troops stationed in Afghanistan. In a meeting with the then Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani, former CIA director David Petraeus is reported to have stressed the “continued need for the route through Khyber.”

The message of US foreign policy towards Pakistan has been clear: we will support you when we need you; we will suspect you when dispensable, we will believe you when it’s in our interests; support for terrorist organisations and irresponsible nuclear activity is problematic only when we don’t need your supply routes.

It is in this context in which Trump’s decision to withhold aid to Pakistan must be understood. The consequences of this decision must be analysed in primarily two ways: in terms of the immediate efficacy of the decision, and in terms of the impacts on the two most important stakeholders—the populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Political Consequences

The corollary to the first of these concerns is obvious. For one part, as the Financial Times reported, Pakistan has stopped sharing intelligence with the US, essential to American war-efforts in Afghanistan. We can also expect Pakistan to block important supply routes, as it has done in the past. Put succinctly by Richard Olson, a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration: “the Pakistanis could effectively shut down the war.” Such a view isn’t at all singular; Huma Yusuf, a Wilson Center Global Fellow said, “There is really no way forward for the United States in Afghanistan without Pakistan playing some kind of cooperative and collaborative role.”

As for the other part, this political manoeuvre is scarcely enough to incentivize Pakistan away from militant groups. Miftah Ismail, Pakistan’s de-facto Finance Minister, told Reuters that “aid cuts will not hurt us … that’s not the leverage [the United States has],” It is likely that the only part of the Pakistani state that the Trump administration has hurt is its pride. C. Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University specialising in South Asia, shares a similar view, stating that this policy is not enough to “make Pakistan change its behaviour.” However, in my opinion, (if that counts for anything) these are lesser concerns.

To investigate the effects (if any such exist) of this move on the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we must view this decision as part of a larger policy towards the region. In 2009, then ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson noted in one of her reports that “Taliban groups in Pakistan and the regional threat posed by Al-Qaeda” can’t be effectively mitigated without policy that leads to greater stability in Afghanistan. She reasoned that Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban stems from its fear that the United States and NATO will fail to securely establish a “non-Taliban” government favourable to Pakistan, an obvious consequence of a flippant foreign policy towards Pakistan. Her report also addresses the role of India, whom Pakistan views as one of its greatest threats, in the conflict. She writes, “Justified or not,” greater Indian involvement (including investment, trade, etc.) will cause Pakistan to support Taliban groups more vehemently as “anti-India allies.” In such a case, we can only expect more militancy and less stability in Afghanistan. Trump’s address at Fort Myers precisely contradicted these concerns.

Humanitarian Consequences

For one, Trump’s call for greater Indian involvement in the region will further antagonise Pakistan towards terrorist groups (“justified or not”), which can only portend a greater risk of more violence, more militancy and more civilian deaths.

More importantly, Trump’s policies towards Afghanistan couldn’t be farther away from the “stability” Patterson spoke of. The administration has already called for about three thousand more troops to be stationed in Afghanistan, and even more frighteningly, plans to allow for more covert drone strikes in the war, as reported by the New York Times. Along with the expectation of a more militant Afghanistan, this will serve to increase the amount of civilian damage. To estimate such, we mustn’t look farther than WikiLeaks’ Afghan Diaries.

Paramilitary forces shot at a village man both deaf and mute when he ran in confusion faced with the approaching forces; Polish forces bombed a wedding celebration, which killed even pregnant women and their fetuses in what was described as a “revenge attack”; French troops shot at a bus, wounding eight children in another incident; US troops carried out a similar attack shortly thereafter; the United States and NATO are guilty of similar “accidents” in Pakistan. These are only conservative estimates concealing what must be called larger war crimes. Further, these documents pre-date the indiscriminate and, at times, untargeted violence of the drone-strike program, issues that weren’t deemed worthy enough to be addressed by the Trump administration (neither while outlining its policy towards Afghanistan, nor while cutting aid to Pakistan). The escalation of such war efforts and the drone program is a complete contradiction of Patterson’s recommendations to work towards a more stable situation in Afghanistan, and consequently, in Pakistan.

In his address, Trump remarked, “Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace.” It would serve well, in that case, to check the desires of the Afghan people. Although polls are seldom reliable in warzones, many provide rather dramatic results. In a poll conducted by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, only 6 percent of the population held views of American troops which were “very favourable,” and the population supported local police forces over American troops in a ratio of more than two to one.

Even more revelations are made when we look at testimonies. Najib Mamalai, a political analyst in Kabul, stated that US forces alienated Afghanis and “spoke with bombs and guns” rather than humanity.

Opinions about the United States aren’t much higher among Pakistani civilians (according to a Pew Poll, 59 percent of Pakistanis hold the outright view that America is an enemy and only 11 percent see it as a friend), thousands of which have died in the “war on terror.”

Strikingly absent from the narrative presented both by the Trump administration and the press is the impact of this move (in its larger context) on the populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There has been almost no attempt even to conceal what must be called hegemonic selfishness, either by the press or by the government. Heather Nauert, spokesperson of the US State Department, said in a press briefing that it is of the utmost necessity that Pakistan deny safe havens to terrorists who pose threats to US interests The press is guilty of similar rhetoric. Foreign Affairs featured a piece by C. Christine Fair and Sumit Ganguly that concluded that Americans must celebrate that it no longer subsidises a country which “undermines its regional interests in almost every way conceivable.”

On the whole, the “regional interests” of the United States are, at most, marginally important, especially if we consider the populations which have suffered in a war which has been waged for almost two decades. A perfunctory attempt, at best, was made by Rafia Zakaria in an op-ed for Al-Jazeera: “Pakistan, on the other hand, cannot go anywhere. It is stuck with active extremists, retired extremists, and the regional players.”

Aid to Pakistan or no aid to Pakistan, realities for both populations seem grim; the Afghan population can’t expect any peace anytime soon since Trump escalated American war efforts, and if we are to believe to Patterson, neither can the Pakistani population be relieved of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda threat. Aziz Rahman, a banker in Kabul, stated (perhaps far more accurately than any American press agency) that “Trump’s speech is good for Americans, not for the poor people of Afghanistan.” Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul spoke likewise: “In the future, we will witness a worsening of the war, more killing and more problems for the Afghan nation.”

On the face of it, this decision only barely carries the moral solace in the immediate future of not further providing for a state which supports militant groups guilty of humanitarian crimes. However, we have little reason to believe that this decision is any less fickle than similar decisions in the past. It would be silly to think that the Trump administration has morally awoken in its approach to Pakistan (it blatantly hasn’t done so towards Afghanistan); it is far more likely that Washington realised that Pakistan is a poor investment, with far more loss than return. We shouldn’t be surprised if the authorities in Washington wake up tomorrow to realise once more that Pakistan is a “friend for life.”

Most importantly, regardless of the whims of Washington, the realities for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan remain as deplorable as the past. Despite intellectual and political jubilation, there is no reason to celebrate. Instead, we should be concerned simply by virtue of being human, that the most pressing issues having populational impacts remain unspoken of.     

Atman Mehta is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.

Atman Mehta


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