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Donald Trump’s threats will mean little to Pakistan

Even if Donald Trump cuts aid to Islamabad, it’s quite possible that Pakistan could carry on reasonably comfortably without it. US leverage over Pakistan has diminished over the years

columns Updated: Sep 03, 2017 07:18 IST
Supporters of Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of around 40 religious and political parties, protest against US President Donald Trump, Karachi, August 25, 2017
Supporters of Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of around 40 religious and political parties, protest against US President Donald Trump, Karachi, August 25, 2017(AFP)

Donald Trump’s stinging criticism of Pakistan, rebuking the country for providing safe havens to terrorists and demanding immediate change, has, understandably, gladdened hearts in New Delhi, but what are the chances this American president will succeed where his predecessors repeatedly tried and failed to change Pakistani policies perceived to be of national interest? Not bright, is the best one can say.

For a start, this won’t be the first time America has threatened to cut aid to Pakistan. In fact, there are at least two occasions in the past when it actually did but that failed to alter Islamabad’s behaviour.

American aid first picked up in the mid-1950s, after Pakistan joined US-led military alliances, touching $3 billion in 1963 and then fell to virtually zero in 1980, in the wake of American concerns about Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programme. However, Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions did not change and this was, therefore, the first time an aid cut didn’t work.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed everything and US aid was restored. It was virtually one billion right through the ’80s. But in the 1990s, after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and George Bush the elder’s refusal to certify Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons, American aid collapsed. But, again, Pakistani behaviour was unaffected.

Once again, 9/11 altered everything. Since then Pakistan has received more than $30 billion. But are things likely to be different this time?

No and for one simple reason. America’s Afghanistan involvement reinforces US dependence on Pakistan for its supply lines. As American troop levels in Afghanistan surge Pakistan’s leverage over Washington will simultaneously grow. In these circumstances it’s hard to see Trump cut US aid.

However, for argument’s sake, let’s suppose Trump is determined to act. In that event how much will a reduction in US aid affect Pakistan? Last year remittances from Pakistani expatriate workers totalled $19.8 billion. In comparison, the well-informed Congressional Research Service estimates that US aid amounted to $1.098 billion.

No wonder Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, responded dismissively to the possibility that Trump could cut financial support. “We are not looking for any material or financial assistance from the USA,” he said. Indeed, it’s quite possible his country could carry on comfortably without it.

The same is also increasingly true of the arms and weaponry Pakistan acquires from America. No doubt the United States has supplied F16 fighter planes, P3 Orion aircraft and AH-IF Cobra helicopters but, increasingly, a preponderant proportion of Pakistani arms are Chinese made. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute believes that nearly 70% of its military supplies between 2012 and 2016 came from China. Once again, US leverage has diminished.

America, of course, has enormous kinetic power which it could unleash. Washington could directly target jihadi bases by using its drones or, even, some repeat of the strategy to take out Osama bin Laden. But this would infuriate the Pakistani army and inflame public opinion. That’s why it’s unlikely to happen while US involvement in Afghanistan is dependent upon Pakistani supply-lines.

Finally, Trump had nothing specific to say about Pakistani terror groups, like the Lashkar and Jaish, which target India. At best, they were covered generically. If he is serious about reforming this prodigal ally we should also question his silence on this front.

The views expressed are personal