Aid cuts will be counterproductive

US legislators will be debating bills aimed at ending non-defence aid to Pakistan. Earlier this week, the US House of Representatives joined the Senate to end US economic aid to Pakistan. It is not difficult to conclude that Pak-US relations have never been so ruptured as they are today.

The Americans wish to punish Pakistan due to the latter’s apparent refusal to go after those groups that threaten Washington’s interests in Afghanistan. Sadly, this is also reflective of US administration’s desperation when it comes to answering tough questions from its own lawmakers over whether or not it has any kind of strategy to exit the Afghan quagmire.

Pakistan, it seems, is an easy scapegoat for US failures in Afghanistan. During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing the number two at the State Department hinted that the White House could resume the military assistance that was suspended following the now infamous presidential tweet; conditional upon Pakistan proving that the juice is worth the squeeze. Yet this apparent flip-flopping of the carrot-and-stick approach is indicative of graver concerns that ought to be shared by regional players, if not the international community at large. For during the same session, the administration was at a loss as how to answer the most fundamental of questions pertaining to the Afghan conflict; that is not only the longest in US history but also the most expensive with the price tag for this current year alone expected to come in at more than $45 billion. These include not having any concrete idea as to how many fighters the Taliban have or, indeed, ISIS.

While Washington’s policymakers are aware of Pakistan’s strategic anxieties regarding India’s role in Afghanistan, they are not too pushed to do anything about it. This is why the cost of losing aid is not so high for Islamabad. And recent moves are hardly going to affect a policy change within this country. Especially given that Chinese economic support is growing and the Russians have already embarked on defence cooperation with us. Furthermore, over the past decade overseas Pakistanis have been sending huge remittances that partially take care of the foreign exchange needs of the government. Therefore, aid cuts will not severely impact the country.

Having said that, Pakistan needs to weigh in on the indirect effects that a breakdown in bilateral relations will bring. Meaning, we have to engage with international finance institutions while keeping in mind that isolation of any kind is not in the country’s national interest. This is the time for Pakistan’s military to re-assess our security policy and empower the Foreign Office so that diplomacy and political initiatives drive the future relationship. The country has to think beyond groups such as the Haqqani Network for future Afghanistan scenarios.

It should be clear to the US that Pakistan will remain central to any version of an Afghan endgame. Russia, Iran and China are key stakeholders for long-term peace in Afghanistan. Amid the rapidly changing power-relations in the region, cornering Pakistan will be unwise for the US. This drive to ‘punish’ this country will only harm its strategic interests. Better sense must prevail on both sides.  *

Published in Daily Times, February 8th 2018.