News analysis

Trump's decision to cut military aid to Pakistan may prove costly to both

LAHORE - A week after President Donald Trump fired a salvo of tweets against Pakistan for allegedly sheltering and supporting militant groups, Washington decided to cut nearly all security aid to the country, estimated at around US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) annually.

The United States continues to blame Pakistan for not doing enough to help defeat the Taleban in Afghanistan, despite the fact that Islamabad has been designated as a "major non-Nato ally" and given billions in aid.

For more than a decade, the US has tried to bring into play Pakistan's perceived influence over the Taleban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan to force them into giving up their militancy campaigns. However, this has not yielded any significant results so far

In fact, over the last couple of years, the security situation has worsened dramatically in Afghanistan. According to some reports, the militants now control more than 40 per cent of the country and even more dire is that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is emerging as a new threat.

For its part, Pakistan perceives US policy toward Islamabad as hostile, particularly after Washington began wooing India.

To counteract this perceived hostility - which also involves undermining New Dehli's influence in Afghanistan and elsewhere - Pakistan has not completely given up on its decades-long policy of keeping ties with some militant groups that it considers strategic assets. At the same time, Islamabad has allowed more space for a Chinese role in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.

Washington's aid cut can have a number of consequences for Pakistan. The Pakistani armed forces, one of the most dominant insitutions in the country, should be concerned about the aid cut since a large portion of it usually goes to the military for its own security policies.

The US decision also leaves Pakistan's ruling elite in a dilemma. If the aid suspension remains in place, China will be forced to help Pakistan because it cannot afford any sort of political or economic instability in the country. Beijing, afterall, has made strategic economic commitments to Islamabad.

But if Beijing fills in the economic vacuum left by Washington, Chinese aid will certainly come attached with conditions. China will expect action in Pakistan against a number of domestic insurgent groups, which Beijing considers as long-term threats to its regional economic plans. Pakistan will certainly not like to see itself put in a situation where it loses all leverage to China.

For the moment, therefore, Pakistan is unlikely to change its current regional security policy despite the costs.

It will hope for the lifting of the US aid suspension in the coming weeks, banking on the fact that the US relies heavily on Pakistan's air and ground routes for supplies to its troops in Afghanistan.

The civilian government in Islamabad has announced the suspension of all military cooperation with the US, but interestingly, the military, which controls all strategic security affairs, has not made its stance clear. Recently, however, the military said in a statement that Pakistan and the US remain allies and need to work together for regional peace.

Contrary to claims, Pakistan is unlikely to take any action to cut off the supply routes for that will further deteriorate the situation. The Americans too realise the importance of the routes, for any other alternative arrangement remains a substantial hurdle as well as costly.

By keeping the routes open as a bargaining chip, Pakistan expects the resumption of the security assistance soon. If it even makes some tactical changes to its policy, the aid suspension might go away.

The US, by isolating Islamabad, also does not stand to gain anything in the region.