Last weekend news outlets, starting with The New York Times, reported that President Obama has decided to suspend $800 million in military aid to Pakistan, just about 40 percent of the total aid ($2 billion) targeted to the country's armed forces.
This decision is the result of both long- and short-term events. As discussed previously in our conversation on Afghanistan, it is very clear that Pakistan has been long playing a double game with the U.S. In short, Pakistan’s military cooperates just enough on terrorism and other international security issues to ensure that it continues to receive exorbitant levels of aid. Here and there it rounds up, at times even kills, bad guys. But this effort has been half-hearted at best. And at worst, which is quite routine, Pakistan has been sheltering and aiding the Taliban and al-Qaeda, making life difficult, if not downright dangerous, for the Karzai government, Afghan citizens, and U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan. The U.S., in response, constantly declares it wants to see better results from Pakistan. But in private, the American officials must feel like they're being fleeced.
Of course, recently, there has been a separate string of incendiary events. The raid on the bin Laden compound, which led to OBL's death, stoked anger among Pakistanis who claimed their country's sovereignty had been violated. But in turn, as details surfaced of OBL's extended stay in Abbottabad, a loud chorus of Americans, including elected officials in Washington, have voiced outrage at Pakistani authorities. Specifically, they find it impossible that OBL could have lived five years near Pakistan's finest military academy without someone in the state knowing this and providing protection for him. With this in mind, many Americans want Washington's relationship with Pakistan reevaluated and U.S. military aid completely withdrawn.
Strikingly, even the U.S. military has lobbed criticism at Pakistan. Agreeing with most Americans, military officials have admitted that the Pakistani state likely, in some shape and form, aided OBL. And just last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly declared that the U.S. believes that the ISI, Pakistan's spy agency, was directly involved in the assassination of Syed Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani investigative journalist who was doing important work exploring the intricate web of radicalism and extremism in Pakistan's navy.
Now, some so-called Pakistani experts are arguing that the halt in military aid is a bad move. They claim that it reduces America's leverage over Pakistan, risks alienating Pakistan's military, and could prompt Islamabad to find other external donors, such as China, which has already been cultivating stronger military ties with Pakistan. Perhaps, but I don't find these arguments convincing.
Indeed, in my view, Obama’s decision is a welcome move. And it's something I suggested on this blog a few months ago. Here, let's spell out the logic in support of suspending aid in more detail.
Back in April, I saw the status quo in Afghanistan as unsustainable in the near and long-term. Things needed to change. I wrote: "Pakistan is the key. Pakistan can contribute far, far more than it has, and it must do so. Think of it this way: In a best case scenario, even if Kabul is able to get some kind of a deal done with the Taliban, the country will not be internally safe or stable as long as the group has an open sanctuary in Pakistan where the hardcore members can roam free and cause havoc inside of Afghanistan. This must change."
This description fits today. Nothing has changed, not that I, and I'm sure the readers, expected much to change in three months. Nevertheless, it's time for the U.S. to begin using more of its tools to get Pakistan to clean up its act--on terrorism, on Afghanistan, and regarding its extremist, obtrusive military. Simply asking, and probably pleading, Pakistan to do more apparently is not good enough. Failing to put sufficient pressure on Pakistan--a problem that has plagued both the Obama and Bush administrations--has only increased the humanitarian burdens, created more international security dangers, and placed more Americans troops in harm's way.
It's circumstances precisely like these when aid should be pulled, when the other side isn’t living up to its end of the bargain. If some portion of the aid wasn't halted, at least temporarily, then the U.S. is pursuing dumb and wasteful policies.
Suspending military aid can can act a wake-up call for Pakistan. It sends a clear, unequivocal signal that Washington is frustrated and wants to see changes in Pakistan's effort and behavior. After all, it's willing to disturb and possibly imperil relations with a needed ally, hitting Pakistan right in the wallet, to make its point.
Sure, Pakistan can run to China, but that really doesn't help the country solve its issues, particularly the rot in its institutions. Instead, it just keeps the aid flowing. Importantly, China’s not interested in what happens internally in Pakistan, as that’s the standard position it takes in world politics. So for instance, Pakistan can't rely on China if al-Qaeda and Taliban militants put an increasing number of civilians and officials in their crosshairs. And the Pakistani government will find little support from Beijing in helping it to assert authority over the often-uncontrollable military.
In the end, I suspect that the normal flow of military aid to Pakistan will resume in the not too distant future. The U.S. simply needs Pakistan too much to let the entire relationship turn too ugly, let alone completely fall apart. And I also think that Team Obama is reluctant to hand Pakistan to China, which is something that could have adverse international geostrategic repercussions for the U.S. for decades. In the meantime, before the full package of aid is reestablished, let’s hope the U.S. gets some tangible progress from Pakistan.