After putting Pakistan on notice earlier this week, US President Donald Trump walked the talk as his administration suspended all security assistance to Pakistan, beginning from Friday, until Islamabad acts against terror groups.
This comes days after Trump accused Pakistan of providing “safe haven” to terrorists and feeding the US nothing but “lies and deceit”. The suspension of aid money would mean Pakistan will lose out on more than $1.15 billion which it has been receiving over the years. The payment will remain frozen until at least the end of the year.
“Today, we can confirm that we are suspending national security — or, excuse me — we are suspending security assistance only to Pakistan at this time,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters.
Despite sustained pressure by the Trump administration on Pakistan, Nauert said, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network continue to find sanctuary inside the country.
“Until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against terror groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network — we consider them to be destabilising the region and also targeting US personnel — the US will suspend that kind of security assistance to Pakistan,” Nauert said.
Prominent among the suspended amount includes USD 255 million in Foreign Military Funding (FMF) for the fiscal year 2016 as mandated by the Congress.
In addition, the Department of Defense has suspended the entire USD 900 million of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan for the fiscal year 2017.
“It has been more than four months since the president’s speech, and despite a sustained high-level engagement by this administration with the government of Pakistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network continue to find sanctuary inside Pakistan as they plot to destabilise Afghanistan and also attack US and allied personnel,” Nauert said.
“Pakistan has greatly suffered from terrorism, and the security services have been effective in combating the groups that target Pakistani interests, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban. We have now worked closely with Pakistan against these groups,” she said.
“Now, just as we have made Pakistan’s enemies our own, we need Pakistan to deny safe haven to or lawfully detain those terrorists and militants who threaten US interests,” she added.
This would also mean the US would stop delivery of military equipment, but Washington maintained they would make exemptions on a case-by-case basis. The US also hoped to renew its bilateral security relationship when Pakistan is willing to aggressively counter the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
“So we will not be delivering military equipment or transfer security-related funds to Pakistan unless it is required by law. I think that part answers your questions. There may be some exemptions that are made on a case-by-case basis, if they’re determined to be critical to national security interests,” Nauert told reporters.
Nauert said that the US had a series of discussions with Pakistan about terrorism, and had asked the country the need to take more decisive action against terror groups. This is something that should not come as a surprise to Pakistan, she said. “Because the President, Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis have all had conversations with Pakistani officials, alerting them to our concerns that Pakistan has not done enough to detain, to take care of – and when I say take care of, I mean round up – terrorist and militant groups operating from within Pakistan,” the State Department spokesperson said.
While Pakistan at times has figured as a valued counterterrorism partner, helping to detain key 9/11 suspects and enabling U.S. drone strikes, it also has been one of the most problematic for American policymakers.
U.S. officials believe Pakistan has allowed the Taliban's reclusive leadership, along with members of the Haqqani network, an aggressive Taliban offshoot, to shelter within its borders, fueling a war that has claimed over 2,000 American lives and consumed massive U.S. resources over 16 years.
Pakistani leaders deny those claims, saying that militants in Afghanistan launch cross-border attacks of their own and chiding the United States for failing to recognize their efforts to curb militant groups. They attribute poor governance and corruption in Afghanistan for a conflict that prompted Trump to authorize additional U.S. troops.
"We don't think you can explain away the whole Afghanistan imbroglio just by putting blame on Pakistan," Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, said in a recent interview.
Thursday's announcement follows months of deliberations, led by senior Trump administration officials known for taking a hard line on Pakistan, about a range of punitive measures, including cutting aid and potentially withdrawing Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally.
"They know exactly what it is we've asked of them," a State Department official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "This is one step to indicate we cannot do business as usual."
The United States has provided Pakistan with more than $20 billion in security assistance and military reimbursements since fiscal 2002, much of that going to U.S.-manufactured hardware and funding for Pakistan's counterterrorism activities. But aid flows have subsided in recent years, suggesting that this week's decision - which eventually could result in Pakistan losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars - is unlikely to have the impact it once would have.
Speaking before Thursday's announcement, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistani military spokesman, told the Geo news channel that while Pakistan still considers the United States an ally, "no amount of coercion can dictate us how to continue."
Pakistan's increasingly close ties with China - including a new development deal worth more than $62 billion for infrastructure and energy projects - might help soften the blow of censure from the United States.
"Trusted, friendly countries will support us at this critical time," said Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar-based former Army brigadier who is now a defense analyst.
Discussions about Pakistan are led by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who appears to share the concerns of other senior officers who served in Afghanistan, and Lisa Curtis, a Pakistan expert who has argued that the United States should pressure Pakistan to curtail arms exports into Afghanistan, expel Taliban leaders and seize their assets.
If Pakistan does not act against militants, the Trump administration could also consider imposing sanctions, increasing the tempo of drone strikes outside of tribal areas or withholding backing for Pakistan at global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Experts have warned that additional U.S. measures might prompt Pakistan to take retaliatory action of its own, possibly including closing road routes and airspace the United States relies on to support its campaign in landlocked Afghanistan.
In 2011, Pakistan suspended access to those routes after U.S. aircraft killed more than two dozen Pakistani military personnel along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later apologized for the incident.
It was one in a series of crises during a turbulent year in which Pakistan curtailed intelligence cooperation following the arrest of a CIA contractor and the secret U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
According to Sameer Lalwani, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, Pakistan might also suspend cooperation on safeguarding its nuclear program or sharing intelligence regarding militants in Pakistan or the Pakistani diaspora in the West.
"They have a lot of arrows in their quiver as well," Lalwani said. "The worry is if we start going in this tit-for-tat cycle."
The nationalist instinct that characterized the response to Trump's tweet may grow stronger as Pakistani politicians react to the suspension of aid and position themselves ahead of elections expected this summer.
U.S. officials noted that the aid suspension could be reversed if they assess Pakistan has taken sufficient action, for example detaining militants. "Our hope is that Pakistan will understand our seriousnessness," the official said. "That they appreciate the valued of this relationship . . . and look at what additional they can do to address our requests."
Laurel Miller, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who was a top State Department official until last year, cautioned that the desire to squeeze Pakistan, while understandable, might backfire.
"A punitive and shaming approach is unlikely to elicit greater cooperation from the Pakistanis because experience shows that when cornered their inclination is to dig in rather than to find some new accommodation," she said.