This post was originally published by The Hill.
The recent suspension of U.S. security and military assistance to Pakistan may be the Trump administration’s most popular foreign policy action yet.
Routing the Haqqanis, a brutal terrorist group that targets U.S. forces and Afghan targets in Afghanistan, allegedly from safe havens in Pakistan, is the administration’s main demand on Pakistan. Convinced that Pakistan did not deliver, Washington pulled the cord.
No one should expect Pakistan, a proud country with strident nationalism of its own, to submit to a U.S. president who has so publicly shamed it. Indeed, Trump’s public move to cut off aid feeds one of Pakistan’s most popular narratives—that of American betrayal. Pakistanis believe that America uses their country with ruthless expediency, abandoning support when it does not serve U.S. interests.
I have heard firsthand from Pakistani citizens about this when researching my newly released book, “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State.” As a student whom I interviewed in 2013 in Lahore put it, “We (Pakistanis) are America’s slaves.”
As proof of why the U.S. cannot be trusted, Pakistanis point to Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the U.S. tasked Pakistan with creating mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Tragic spillovers followed, with Afghan refugees and returning jihadists seeping into Pakistan by the thousands.
These jihadists later morphed into the Pakistan Taliban, which attacked Pakistan itself—killing tens of thousands of their own countrymen and women. This owes, in large part, to the poor decisions of the Pakistani state.
But the Pakistan Taliban claimed it was fighting the Pakistani state’s alliance with the U.S. in the war on terror. In the view of many Pakistanis, there is a line to be drawn between American interference in the region and Pakistan’s own problems.
According to an official history textbook in Pakistan: “Pakistan supported America in (the) Afghan war, but as a consequence Pakistan itself is facing terrorism.”
U.S. administrations do not typically acknowledge how their “ghost wars” of the 1980s implicate them in the region’s troubles, but they acknowledge Pakistani lives lost to terror and the long history of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. But Trump does not.
No surprise, then, that Pakistani citizens are bristling right now. Anti-Americanism in Pakistan is nothing new. Yet, the views of the man and woman on the street in Pakistan on America do change over time. Sentiments sour when Pakistanis perceive America as violating national sovereignty and as being unfair to the country.
Anti-Americanism reached a high in 2012, after three events made 2011 a singularly bad year for U.S.-Pakistan relations: the Osama bin Laden raid; a NATO attack that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers; and the killing by an American CIA contractor of three Pakistani men.
Pakistani politicians have also seized on Trump’s words to reinforce the narrative of American betrayal. The foreign minister called the U.S. “neither an ally nor a friend.” Opposition party leader Imran Khan called for Pakistan to “delink from the U.S.”
Islamists and fundamentalists have taken to the streets and burned American flags. Pakistan faces contentious elections this year. The incumbent PML-N party, Pakistan’s largest, has weakened after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister last year.
Anti-Americanism is not only a problem for cooperation between the U.S. and the Pakistani state; it also feeds into extremism in the country. Religious fundamentalists and militant groups use anti-American propaganda to generate support.
The problem the Americans are obsessed with, the Haqqani group, baffles Pakistani citizens: Never having seen these militants, never having been attacked by them and given that their own state denies the existence of safe havens, they do not know what to make of the U.S. claims of militant sanctuaries.
Pakistan’s military has been conducting operations against the Pakistan Taliban, but has let the Haqqanis (and anti-India militant groups) largely off the hook. A distrust of America is precisely one of the reasons why elements in Pakistan’s security establishment will argue that they need militant “assets” that provide Pakistan with “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. That distrust has just been reinforced.
Yet some of Pakistan’s democratically elected leaders (for all their corruption and incompetence) have shown that they understand that supporting certain militant groups has become a liability, at least because the practice isolates them internationally.
America can help, by making them and Pakistani citizens understand how fluidly militants can shift allegiances, thus posing an existential threat to the Pakistani state.
Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a press conference on Jan. 3, urging Pakistan to put its “house in order.” Sharif rose to power as a protégé of the fundamentalist military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, but seems to have evolved on the issue — at least outwardly, and likely in service to political opportunism.
In 2016, Sharif’s government clashed with the military establishment when news leaked that he had pressured them to end the security agencies’ support of anti-India and anti-Afghan militant groups. The imbroglio weakened Sharif, and just a few months later, he was ousted from power on corruption charges.
America’s leverage is limited when it comes to the tug of war between Pakistan’s military and its civilian government. And it can ill afford an uncooperative Pakistani military, which currently holds the strings of the country’s security policy.
Yet, America has preferred to work with Pakistan’s powerful military over the years and decades, and has greatly strengthened it. To move beyond the status quo, that must end. In that sense, cutting off security aid, which does undermine the military, makes sense, but it must be followed up with actions aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s democratic government.
America must delink civilian and security assistance to Pakistan going forward and should maintain civilian aid to the country. Research shows that unconditional civilian aid significantly improves Pakistanis’ attitudes toward America.
Engagement with the Pakistani public is necessary if we expect any sincere cooperation from the country in the future. Patience will also be required: Realigning Pakistan’s incentives will be a long-term task, and one that only Pakistan’s civilians can lead.