Pakistan Analysis: US aid withdrawal unlikely to elicit security policy reversal from Islamabad; risk to US, Western nationals elevated during periods of tension between countries
• On January 4, the US announced the suspension of financial aid worth approximately 2 billion USD to Pakistan, pending “decisive action” against anti-US militant groups, with Islamabad announcing the suspension of security and intelligence cooperation in response.
• The US aid freeze is unlikely to evoke the desired policy reversal from Islamabad with respect to its policy on militant groups involved in the conflict in Afghanistan.
• Washington may remain reluctant to pursue additional punitive measures due to the risks associated with retaliatory Pakistani measures on US military interests in Afghanistan.
• Despite its growing defense cooperation with China, Islamabad will seek to retain military ties with the US due to technological superiority.
• Political parties are liable to exploit the considerable anti-US sentiment to mobilize the public as part of their respective campaigns for 2018, while Pakistan-based militants may seek to target US installations in symbolic retaliation.
• We advise against all nonessential travel to Pakistan given the heightened threat of militant attacks, criminality, kidnappings and sectarian tensions throughout the country.
• On January 1, US President Donald Trump issued a statement on social-media threatening to cut financial aid to Pakistan for allegedly harboring anti-US militants within its territory and for lying to the US about its counter-militancy efforts.
• Washington officially announced a suspension of financial aid worth 2 billion USD to Pakistan on January 4, pending “decisive action” against anti-US militant groups, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which it alleged targets US personnel in Afghanistan.
• On the same day, the US reportedly placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, with Islamabad alleging that the move was “politically motivated”.
• In response to the developments, Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan indicated on January 9 that Pakistan had suspended military and intelligence cooperation with the US in the wake of President Trump’s allegations and the subsequent US measures.
• President Trump’s harsh rhetoric with respect to Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” have triggered a wave of anti-US sentiment in the country. Several political parties have also issued statements critical of Washington’s stance; most notable among them is opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan who has traditionally expressed his opposition to US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
• On January 19, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry closed the Islamabad bureau of a US government-linked Pashto-language media outlet after Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, accused it of airing programs “against the interest of Pakistan” and of “portraying it as (a) hub of terrorism and (a) safe haven for militant groups”.
• At least 43 people were killed in an overnight attack claimed by the Taliban group on a UK-based luxury hotel in Kabul on January 20, prompting the White House to call on Islamabad to conduct the immediate arrest or expulsion of Taliban leaders based in Pakistan.
• According to Pakistani officials, two Haqqani network militants were killed in a suspected US drone strike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan on January 24.
Assessments & Forecast:
US aid freeze unlikely to elicit desired policy reversal from Islamabad with respect to conflict in Afghanistan
- The aid freeze is notable as it is the first concrete, coercive measure adopted by the Trump administration towards Pakistan over its alleged implication in the conflict in Afghanistan. Occurring in the wake of President Trump’s unveiling of a visibly more aggressive Afghan strategy in August 2017, the measures appear aimed at securing enhanced counter-militancy cooperation from Islamabad against anti-US groups in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated annual uptick in their operations during the annual spring offensive.
- Such cooperation, as Washington expects, would largely encompass intelligence regarding the whereabouts of senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, that Pakistani intelligence allegedly harbors on its soil. Islamabad has maintained that the actual levels of involvement of the Haqqani network in the Afghan conflict are minimal. However, US officials’ estimate that the Haqqani network has a membership of over 10,000 and are one of the most operationally-sophisticated militant groups in Afghanistan, highlighting their concerns about the group’s key role in the conflict.
- Nevertheless, the latest measures from Washington are unlikely to achieve the intended response from Islamabad. Such punitive financial cuts are not entirely new in US-Pakistan relations, with one of the most recent examples occurring in the immediate aftermath the unilateral US raid in 2011 targeting the hideout of deceased al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Osama bin-Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Washington’s frequent resort to the threat of aid withdrawals to shape desired policy behavior has enabled Islamabad to take appropriate measures to weather the negative impact of these measures.
- More importantly, Islamabad’s long-term ties to the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated groups continue to remain a core component of its national security strategy. This is unlikely to shift significantly under external pressure or inducements from the US. Islamabad perceives close relations with such groups as securing itself vital strategic depth in Afghanistan and as a bulwark against the perceived growing influence of regional rival India in the country.
- Policymakers in Islamabad also work under the assumption that the factors that sustain the insurgency in Afghanistan may not be completely quelled simply through militarily eliminating the Taliban, given the general inadequacy of the Afghan government’s security policy. As such, and in the event of a future US withdrawal from the region, Islamabad may perceive itself as being the most vulnerable in terms of long-term militant blowback from the region. Another factor shaping Islamabad’s reluctance to capitulate entirely to US demands could be concerns that any overt assistance to the US war effort in Afghanistan could have severe domestic repercussions, including widespread public backlash as well as a potential uptick in Islamist militant attacks within Pakistan’s territory.
Potential security costs of enforcing additional punitive measures may decrease prospect of escalation
- Given Islamabad’s apparent intransigence on the issue, Washington has a range of measures it can choose to initiate in order to escalate diplomatic pressure. These measures include the revocation of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, which could deny it preferential treatment on military hardware sale deals or influencing international financial institutions to suspend lending to Islamabad. Another angle that may be considered is to conduct, expand, and even regularize drone strike operations in and outside of Pakistan’s restive FATA, particularly in neighboring Balochistan Province where top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, known as the Quetta Shura, are believed to be residing.
- However, such measures run the risk of triggering retaliatory measures from Islamabad that could damage the overall US effort in Afghanistan. Pakistan could enforce a closure of the US ground and aerial supply routes through the country that sustain US troops in landlocked Afghanistan. This may include closing off US access to military bases in Pakistan that have been used for logistical operations. Such a move would considerably increase operational costs for the US and hamper efforts to combat the currently resurgent Taliban. Washington would likely have no choice but to seek alternative routes, most of which run through Central Asian countries that are largely under the Russian sphere of influence. Current US tensions with Russia over a number of issues could dampen the appeal of such alternative supply routes.
- Despite the elevated tensions, both countries remain appreciative of the mutual benefits of ties to the overall regional counter-militancy effort, as illustrated by continued low-key meetings between US and Pakistan administration officials. While Pakistan has largely benefited from friendly ties through the procurement of military hardware, Washington understands the role played by Pakistani intelligence in its efforts to dismantle AQ networks in the region. This explains both countries’ seeming unwillingness to resort to further escalation tactics, at least for the time being.
- FORECAST: Tensions are unlikely to dissipate over the coming months, and any rhetoric from Washington over the issue is likely to trigger similarly sharp verbal responses from the administration in Islamabad. This is likely as authorities would seek to project strong leadership in the face of external pressure, particularly due to the upcoming general elections in Pakistan this year and the potential for opposition politicians to raise the issue.
Despite growing defense cooperation with Beijing, Islamabad likely to remain keen on retaining security ties with US
- One of the factors that may have emboldened Islamabad to challenge the US is Beijing’s continued verbal assertions of support throughout the crisis. China proclaims itself as Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” and has continued to shield the Muslim country from international censure with respect to its perceived inadequate counter-militancy efforts. Additionally, a suspension of financial aid from the US may not be as impactful as Washington intends it to be, as Islamabad has a diverse list of countries, including China, Turkey, and several Western European countries, with which it has maintained defense relations. China’s attempts to establish a naval base in Jiwani in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province may also be perceived in Islamabad as early efforts to establish growing security cooperation between both countries over the long term.
- Nonetheless, Islamabad will remain reluctant to completely detach itself from all military cooperation with Washington. Currently, much of US defense sales to Pakistan focus on the F-16 fighter jets, a key component of Pakistan’s aerial defense capabilities. Additionally, Washington-supplied attack helicopters, such as the AH-1Z Viper, considerably enhance Pakistan’s counter-militancy operations in the harsh mountainous terrain of the country’s northwestern tribal areas that are known to be militant safe havens. Thus, any potential suspension of US assistance with regards to maintenance of the fleet would negatively impact anti-militancy operations. This, coupled with Beijing’s current inability to match or surpass the performance criterion of far superior US-made aircraft, is likely to push Islamabad to maintain its defense ties to the US.
Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan may spur militant activity, political protests by parties seeking to boost respective election campaigns
- FORECAST: Political groups in Pakistan are increasingly liable to utilize the issue to portray the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government as ineffective in safeguarding Pakistani interests and seek to mobilize large numbers to boost their respective election campaigns. Apart from mainstream political groups, Islamist organizations such as Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Council for the Defense of Pakistan) led by Hafiz Saeed, and newer parties such as the Tehreek E Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are likely to spearhead these protests, in order to increase their relevance during the election year. Given the existing hostility within the Islamic demographic against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, these protests are liable to draw turnouts in the thousands. They may particularly target US diplomatic installations in major cities, and bear the risk of violent escalation due to the heightened sensitivities over the issue.
- A considerable section of Pakistan’s Muslim community, especially those that subscribe to a hardline Islamist ideology, continues to harbor sympathetic views with the Afghan Taliban, which is seen as fighting a corrupt and inefficient Afghan government backed by the US. FORECAST: Taliban-sympathetic militant groups in Pakistan are likely to continue to capitalize on public suspicions of the US’ motives and the West in general. This may take the form of attacks using local sympathizers on Western NGOs, particularly health workers involved in immunization campaigns that are considered a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim populations. During periods of particularly tense Pakistan-US relations in the immediate term, the risk to US nationals of Western interests by extension is elevated. The potential for attacks remains greater in major cities in the outlying provinces, such as Quetta in Balochistan and Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have a notably strong presence.
- We advise against all nonessential travel to Pakistan given the heightened threat of militant attacks, criminality, kidnappings and sectarian tensions throughout the country.
- US nationals operating or residing in Pakistan are advised to remain cognizant of the increased anti-US sentiment in the country at present and to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings over the issue, given the potential for unrest.
- We further advise to US nationals in the country to maintain a low profile due to the potential for targeted attacks, while avoiding engaging in discussions with locals over the sensitive issue.