The Trump Administration’s seemingly arbitrary suspension of US military aid to Pakistan has sparked a fair amount of debate and primed a potential shift in US-Pakistani relations. Although Pakistan’s shortcomings over the years likely justify the Trump Administration’s decision, no emerging public policy issue appears to be motivating Donald Trump’s decision. Upon learning about the US-Pakistani relationship, Trump may well have simply been motivated by Pakistan’s apparent lack of honesty and loyalty to the US. From the perspective of Pakistani officials, who have embraced policies the US finds counterproductive for years, the US is arbitrarily singling out and punishing Pakistan. From the perspective of US officials, the US is recalibrating a faulty policy, which is an important message lost due to Trump’s public admonishment of Pakistan for its “lies & deceit.
The US-Pakistan relationship is both complex and dysfunctional while it is one born out of necessity. The United States relies on Pakistan to contain terrorist fighters within Afghanistan and Pakistan. More importantly, cooperation guarantees the US has access to supply lines that facilitate US operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Pakistan is also a nuclear power perpetually on the verge of war with its nuclear rival India. US ties with Pakistan help the US maintain a balanced relationship with both revivals. Rational or not, US suspension of aid to Pakistan places the US on the side of India and, therefore, against Pakistan. It is a precarious situation, because it exasperates Pakistan’s insecurity, which raises the likelihood of Pakistan responding to Indian transgressions with greater aggression.
With that in mind, Pakistan feels pressured to lean further toward China, which is a rival of the US and India. Pakistan has, of course, already been drifting toward China while the US has been strengthening ties with India. As such, Trump’s decisions will likely escalate this shift in relations, which could intensify tensions between Pakistan and India, thereby raising the potential for a major conflict between the three Asian Giants. Recognizing tension between the US and China, Pakistan will likely try to cozy up to China in order to entice renewed US commitment to Pakistan. Given the US and China are vying for influence over Asia, it is tempting for the US to reinstate military aid simply to appease Pakistani officials, but the Trump Administration has also created an opportunity that must be explored.
Pakistan claims it does not need US aid, which it might not, but Pakistan does need the US to help secure it from terrorism and India. Due to proximity, Islamic terrorism is a far more pressing issue for Pakistan than the US. For its part, China has a compelling interest to prevent a war between Pakistan and India, thus China will be hesitant to be drawn into any conflict involving Pakistan or India. With the rising potential for armed conflict between North Korea and the US, which could involve nuclear weapons, China cannot risk military entanglement and escalation. In other words, Pakistan cannot rely on China to protect it from India. The threat of Islamic terrorism may not motivate Pakistan to improve relations with the US, but the threat of war with India might. Pakistan has a compelling interest to prevent the US from developing stronger ties with India than with Pakistan.
Consequently, there is a potential for a reset of US and Pakistani relations. The patronage relationship between the US and Pakistan may not be working out, but the two can still partner in limited, well-defined ways. Pakistan is a fledgling democracy to a large degree, thus Pakistani officials must carefully appease the Pakistani People, who are angry at the US over issues like the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and the powerful Pakistani military. The Pakistani military wants US aid, yet it does not want to weaken itself and its leverage over foreign powers by fighting terrorist groups that do not necessarily threaten it. Pakistan’s elected officials cannot pressure the military to act inline with US wishes against military interests and public perception. With the proper approach, the Trump Administration can rebuild a US-Pakistani relationship that is limited, yet more honest and less dysfunctional.
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