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Why is US Cutting Aid to Pakistan?

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President Trump began the year with a tweet denouncing Pakistan, and followed up by announcing a new reduction of U.S. aid. Junaid Ahmad, director of the Center for Global Dialogue, explains the significance of Trump’s decision

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump began the year with a tweet denouncing Pakistan and threatening US aid. And now he’s following-up. Last week, the State Department announced a new reduction of US assistance to Pakistan.

HEATHER NAUERT: Today we can confirm that we are suspending national security, or excuse me, we are suspending security assistance, security assistance only, to Pakistan at this time. Until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, we consider them to be destabilizing the region and also targeting US personnel. The United States will suspend that kind of security assistance to Pakistan.

AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Junaid Ahmad, Director of the Center for Global Dialogue and Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. Junaid, welcome. Explain to us the significance of this decision by President Trump.

JUNAID AHMAD: Well, it was quite provocative being the first tweet by President Trump of the New Year. The reaction from Pakistan was both anger, in terms of the hostility embedded in the message, as well as somewhat of a heightened self-importance that this was the first thing that President Trump was thinking about as the New Year came. So, I think that the context for this is, of course, an old one. This is the bizarre relationship that has been the US-Pakistan relationship since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. That is a constant pressure on Pakistan to rein in the supposed groups associated with the Taliban and other militant groups like the Haqqani Network, that have pretty much emerged in Afghanistan a few years after the US invasion as a formidable resistance to that occupation and to the puppet regime in Kabul.

But this has been kind of the recurring theme in the statements by both Washington, as well as Kabul, that all of the difficulties the occupation faces, the regime in Kabul faces, there’s one scapegoat for all of them and that is Pakistan. Rather than face the fact that there is a genuine indigenous, large scale resistance in the country against the corruption, the incompetence, the arrogance of the occupation. It’s much easier and convenient for all of these powers to just say that, well, Pakistan is responsible for all of the problems.

AARON MATÉ: Right. So, explain what Trump is missing here because when he points out that the elements in Pakistan have given safe haven to elements in Afghanistan who the US is fighting, there is some truth to that, right? But what is he missing there?

JUNAID AHMAD: No, I mean, absolutely. It’s important to remind the listeners that the Pakistani establishment has had an old relationship with, in its previous incarnation, what was known as the Taliban, that emerged in the 1990s and took power in Kabul in 1996. That Taliban is different from what is termed the Taliban today. That Taliban was exclusively reliant on the support that it received from Pakistan in obtaining power in Kabul at that time.

The current, what we call the Taliban is a misleading term because what it really is is an umbrella group primarily based in the ethnic Pashtun parts of the country, which is, of course, the ethnic Pashtun population is 60% of the population of Afghanistan. And of course, it has a sizable portion of its ethnic tribes in Pakistan itself. So, what we are looking at today is the resistance based primarily from within the ethnic Pashtun population, but not exclusively. So, that is resisting. What some of the groups that are allied to this resistance, such as the Haqqani Network, do get in terms of, if you want to call it support from Pakistan, is shelter. That is they are able to cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan without the US, without, sorry, the Pakistanis able to do much to restrict that movement.

But in terms of the type of support they had received in the past, there’s nothing close to that. I mean, one just needs to look at the types of, you know, the attacks that they thrust upon the Kabul government, or say the Indian embassy, or the US-NATO forces. The weapons they’re using, the IEDs and this type of stuff. I mean, it’s fairly unsophisticated stuff. If they were really receiving support the way that they did in the past, actually, they would be doing far more damage to the occupation forces. This is standard, classic guerrilla resistance taking place in Afghanistan. So, I think there’s truth to the extent that they may receive shelter in Pakistan, but in terms of active support from the military establishment? No, I don’t think so.

AARON MATÉ: So, what does Trump’s comments and this cutting of aid mean for US-Pakistani relations? And in a growing Pakistani relations with countries like China, where there’s a deepening relationship? I mean, Trump was not the only official to make his feelings known on Twitter.

JUNAID AHMAD: Correct.

AARON MATÉ: The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, he wrote some scathing words about Trump, which I’ll quote, “Our country witnessed the worst bloodbath. You carried out 57,800 attacks on Afghanistan from our bases. Your forces were supplied arms and explosives through our soil. Thousands of our civilians and soldiers became victims of the war initiated by you. We considered your enemy as our own. We filled Guantanamo Bay. For the past four years, we’ve been clearing the debris. We are feeling sorry as you are not happy, but we will not compromise on our prestige anymore.”

JUNAID AHMAD: Yeah. No, I think that about sums it up. I think that the way to look at what’s essentially transpired since the US invasion of Afghanistan is dictation to Pakistan as the General President Musharraf said at the time, actually wrote about in his book, that basically the choice that was offered to Pakistan is either comply and corporate, or be bombed to the stone age, as he was told by a senior functionary in Washington. So, Pakistan essentially went along, but the expectation that Pakistan would engage in full scale military assaults, which of course, it was pressured to at certain times with horrendous consequences internally within Pakistan. That is to say not only a large number of civilians killed, but millions, up to millions displaced from those areas bordering Afghanistan and areas in the country where the military had never gone into, what’s known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

So, the Foreign Minister’s absolutely right. The human toll that this War on Terror that’s been imposed on Pakistan has been massive and this is the crucial question that Pakistanis have been bewildered by. How the United States has expected to stabilize a country of about 30, 35 million, Afghanistan by essentially destabilizing, or conducting policies that were destabilizing a country of nearly 200 million, nuclear armed, that is to say Pakistan, by expanding the war essentially into Pakistan.

So, it’s been reckless from the eyes of Islamabad from the very beginning, but it’s kind of had to go along simply because of the pressure. What has changed today, as you correctly point out, Aaron, is that there’s been a strengthening of the relationship, a deepening of the ties, between China and Pakistan. And of course, much of this has been in response to the way the US has strengthened its own ties with India and downgraded its relationship with Pakistan.

So, what Pakistan has done in turn is increase the relationship that it’s had for a very, very long time with China. And that relationship is very strong right now. It’s taking the shape of both geostrategic and military, as well as economic cooperation in the form of what’s known as CPEC, the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of the larger Chinese initiative known as The Belt and Road Initiative of Eurasian integration, of interconnectivity. So, these developments are taking place. There’s the rise of China in the region. There’s of course, growing Russian independence.

And one of the other things that’s important to know when we ask the question, why after 16 years of this basically failed occupation of Afghanistan, now the longest running external US war in US history, why would the Trump administration persist in maintaining its presence there? One of the things we have to realize is that right after the US war in Afghanistan and after 9/11, the US immediately went into many of these central Asian countries to establish a military presence, which it did. That presence is now gone. All of these countries have essentially kicked the US bases out. So, Afghanistan actually remains quite critical not for Afghanistan per se, but because of the region. There’s Iran neighboring it, there’s Russia, there’s China, there’s Pakistan. So, all of these countries, in a region where the US has had, is confronting declining influence, maintaining a presence in Afghanistan is crucial to remain a strategic check on all of these powers that it deems as hostile to its interests in the region.

AARON MATÉ: Right, Junaid. So, keeping with this point about China, President Trump’s outburst about Pakistan coincided with Pence going to Afghanistan and saying that the US is going to stay in this fight, even though 16 years of that fight has been a disaster, as you point out.

JUNAID AHMAD: Yeah.

AARON MATÉ: So, I’m wondering, especially now with China playing a growing role in trying to broker something inside Afghanistan, whether Trump’s outburst against Pakistan can be seen not as an attempt to lash out at Pakistan for fueling the Afghan war, but for actually trying to work with China on maybe deescalating the Afghan war, and sidelining the US role?

JUNAID AHMAD: No, absolutely, Aaron. This is what I call, what the biggest fear, and it’s causing this kind of paranoid anxieties within the imperial establishment is kind of a Syria redux where what you had at the end of this bloody war that had ravaged the country, Syria, at the end what you had was the Turks, Turkey, which had basically facilitated US-NATO operations, the Gulf and support for all these opposition forces in Syria, at the end of the day, sitting down at the table not with any of these countries, especially the United States, but with the Russians and the Iranians, and forging some type of a deal for, hopefully, some post-war stability in that country, in Syria.

The biggest fear remains the same in Afghanistan. The only sensible solution right now is in fact for regional powers to come to the table and broker some type of diplomatic and political resolution. And the Chinese were doing that, you know, the unthinkable over the past few months, which is bringing two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, that have had incredible level of friction and tension, but the Chinese were doing it. They were bringing them to the table, trying to broker some resolution, which is the only sensible thing. I think this is what is frightening Washington so much, that in fact some type of diplomatic and political resolution will take place that will completely sideline Washington from the entire process. So, I think that this is the biggest fear, a Syria redux, taking place in Afghanistan.

AARON MATÉ: God forbid we do the sensible thing.

JUNAID AHMAD: Right.

AARON MATÉ: Junaid Ahmad, Director of the Center for Global Dialogue, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Lahore. Thanks so much.

JUNAID AHMAD: Thanks for having me.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.