Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations forces, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has looked as if it were headed for a catastrophic breakdown. American officials have become increasingly angry and uncompromising in their public statements, leaks have multiplied detailing Pakistan’s involvement in nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and murdering journalists.
But the U.S. took a new tack in its lovers’ quarrel with Pakistan: suspending nearly $800 million in military aid to the country. Barely more than a third of the total aid the U.S. grants Pakistan each year, the suspended aid includes reimbursements for the deployment of troops along the border with Afghanistan — troops that have helped to spark a new confrontation with the Afghan government.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has either suspended or threatened to suspend aid to Pakistan. In 1993, Washington cut off Islamabad over its nuclear program — not lifting the sanctions until after the September 11 attacks. In late 2007, when then-President Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution and declared martial law, the U.S. again threatened to cut Pakistan off (thankfully, Musharraf eventually relented). On an almost routine basis, the U.S. makes various threats to cut off either high-level contact with the Pakistani government or certain aid packages in response to various misdeeds in Islamabad.
One would be forgiven for wondering why Pakistan would even notice this most recent aid cut. And almost on cue, the Pakistani military threw up its hands, declaring it didn’t need American money. The lovers’ quarrel continues.
The real question facing U.S. policymakers is what they hope to accomplish by cutting off a portion of aid to Pakistan. It isn’t a big enough reduction to have some sort of effect on Pakistan’s policies; it is also too big for the Pakistani government to ignore. It is the worst of both worlds, designed to antagonize but not coerce — the very definition of a futile gesture.
While this has inspired some pundits to wring their hands at Pakistan’s “humiliation,” that misses the point a bit. Pakistan shouldn’t be humiliated that the U.S. waited until 2011 to suspend a minority of its aid package; rather, Pakistan should be humiliated by its own dreadful behavior.
To put this into perspective, compare Pakistan’s behavior in the last 20 years with Iran’s. While Iran has steadily pursued its nuclear weapons program in contravention of all global norms on proliferation, Pakistan set up a global black market in nuclear technology, selling so much of it to North Korea that the latter wrote Abdul Qadeer Khan a love letter about it. Pakistan declined to arrest Khan or allow U.S. officials access to his home during his house arrest to ascertain how badly he had violated Pakistan’s legal commitments to safeguard nuclear weapons.
Iran sponsors international terrorism in the form of support to some Palestinian terror groups, as well as groups like Hezbollah and the insurgents in Iraq (there is less direct evidence of its deliberately supplying weapons to the insurgents in Afghanistan). In contrast, Pakistan chose in 1994 to sponsor the Taliban, the U.S.’s enemy in Afghanistan, and continued openly supporting the terror group until threatened in the days immediately following the September 11 attacks. While Iran chose to support the U.S. offensive against the Taliban, as early as 2008 the CIA was detailing Pakistan’s close cooperation with the Afghan insurgency.
Let’s not even mention Pakistan’s absolutely shameful sponsorship of anti-Indian terrorism over Kashmir.
So we have a bit of a contradiction, then. Iran, as a sponsor of international terrorism and a blatant violator of international nuclear proliferation norms, is a pariah that suffers under sanctions and political and diplomatic isolation. But Pakistan, as a sponsor of international terrorism and, some would argue, an even worse violator of international nuclear proliferation norms, is a guarded ally of the U.S. and maintains consistent diplomatic and economic relations with most of the world. What could possibly explain this disparity?
In a word: Afghanistan. The U.S. government suffers from a depressing lack of imagination when it comes to its South Asia policy, and part of that is the prioritization Afghanistan receives. The U.S. has been willing to overlook Pakistan’s sponsorship of an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and more than a thousand U.S. troops in a way it hasn’t been willing to overlook Iran’s sponsorship of the part of the insurgency in Iraq.
Maybe that’s because the fight in Afghanistan — dealing if only indirectly with the people who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 — matters so much that even grave affronts must be ignored. Maybe it’s because the U.S. still smarts over the Iran hostage crisis (though that same year, 1979, Pakistani students overran the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, burning it to the ground and killing two).
Whatever the reason, this aid suspension to Pakistan will probably do little to change the fundamental political questions driving their decisions. Pakistan still fears India and won’t relent in its quest to keep Afghanistan as a strategic fallback. It still sponsors the most vicious and brutal groups of the Afghan insurgency. And it still declines to address the grinding insurgency in its own Northwest, and the social and political ties those insurgent groups have to its own officials, in any real way.
So we can probably expect the exact same result we’ve had every other time the U.S. reacts to some Pakistani outrage by fiddling with the margins of its relationship: absolutely nothing. And the curious hypocrisy of treating one adversarial country, Iran, like an enemy, while a neighboring adversarial country, Pakistan, is embraced, however haltingly, as an ally, will remain unresolved. Rinse, and repeat.