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Why Trump cut millions in military aid to Pakistan

It’s all part of a broader strategy to have Pakistan help defeat regional militants — but it’s unclear if the strategy is working.

Pakistani troops during an August 24 counterterrorism exercise.
Pakistani troops during an August 24 counterterrorism exercise.
Donat Sorokin\TASS via Getty Images

The Trump administration just announced it has cut $300 million in military aid to Pakistan, increasing pressure on the country to crack down on militant groups that have complicated the ongoing US war in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon noted the decrease in military financial assistance to its South Asian ally in a Saturday statement, although the move had been planned since January. Still, it means the Trump administration has now withheld around $800 million in aid to Pakistan this year — and it’s possible more cuts will happen, if Islamabad doesn’t start doing what Washington wants.

This latest move appears to be in line with President Donald Trump’s strategy for the region and his stated desire to cut US foreign aid in general. While announcing a modest increase in troops to Afghanistan last year, Trump also outlined his South Asia strategy, which included getting Islamabad to help the US combat militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That was ambitious, since Pakistan for years has served as a safe haven for militant groups — like the Afghan Taliban — that have fought and killed US troops.

But since 2002, the US has given Pakistan over $14 billion in aid to combat terrorism and insurgents in the region. That money is meant to reimburse Pakistan for its ongoing efforts to defeat militant groups, and it forms part of the $33 billion in total help that the US has given Pakistan over the same time period.

But on January 1, Trump tweeted about his frustration with Pakistan and decried the US decision to continue giving them aid. Later that month — and off Twitter — he announced initial aid cuts to the country in order to apply pressure to Islamabad.

“The suspension of security assistance to Pakistan was announced in January 2018,” Navy Cdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesperson, told me. “This is not a new decision or a new announcement, but acknowledgment of a July request to reprogram funds before they expire.” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis decided to withhold the $300 million even though he could’ve sent it to Pakistan if he saw Islamabad seriously going after militants.

Pakistan, of course, isn’t happy about the decision.

“This $300 million was neither any aid nor assistance,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, said on Sunday. “This is the money which Pakistan has already spent through its own resources and [the US] was to reimburse it to us.”

Experts tell me that Trump’s strategy — cutting aid to Pakistan so that Islamabad will get serious about fighting the counterinsurgency — doesn’t seem to be working.

“There have been absolutely no signs that Pakistan has reduced support for or limited the actions of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan since those sanctions,” David Sedney, formerly a top Pentagon official focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told me when the cuts started earlier this year. “Arms, money, fighters, and explosives continue to stream into Afghanistan from Pakistan, right under the noses of the Pakistani military.”

Still, there’s some merit to Trump’s approach, Sedney added. “This administration has been reasonably good about insisting on actions and not just settling for Pakistani promises,” he said.

The decision to cut aid to Pakistan comes at a very sensitive time

Why announce the cuts now? It probably has something to do with the timing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s visit to Pakistan this week.

They plan to meet with Qureshi, the foreign minister, to discuss Trump’s South Asia strategy and the Afghanistan war in particular. And announcing the aid decision ahead of their talks was likely a way to put pressure on Pakistan, experts told me. And they don’t expect that US officials will be happy with the meeting’s outcome.

“Pakistan is unlikely to cave to US demands because Islamabad either does not have a clear idea of what will satisfy the United States and win back trust or believes the demands to be a moving target,” Sameer Lalwani, a Pakistan expert at the Stimson Center think tank, told me.

Still, both US and Pakistani officials have a lot to talk about.

In July, Pakistan voted in a new prime minister: cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan. Khan is reportedly backed by the powerful Pakistani military, and he has been critical of both the Taliban and Western involvement in Pakistan’s affairs. Pompeo and Dunford will surely want to know how best to work with Pakistan’s new government.

The meeting also comes during an uptick in violence in the war in Afghanistan, where America has fought for around 17 years. The US now has about 14,000 troops there to support Afghan forces defending the country from the Taliban and other militants.

The Taliban has increased its attacks on the country and US troops in recent months, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. On Monday, a sixth US service member was killed in Afghanistan in an apparent insider attack.

The US wants a peace deal with the Taliban to end the war, but that’s unlikely to happen without Pakistan’s acceptance due to its support for the militant groups. Pompeo and Dunford likely will try to turn the financial pressure into an incentive on that point.

“Aid cuts could potentially soften Pakistan up to be more helpful in a negotiated settlement process in Afghanistan, but much will depend on how … the US takes the lead, and also applies pressure on Kabul,” says Lalwani.

But improving relations with Pakistan also involves one other major factor, he added: “[It also depends] on how convincing the US can be that the cuts and downturn in relations could be reversed.”

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