The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has never been a rosy one. The alliance has generally been sold by both governments as one of convenience instead of a genuine or unbreakable diplomatic partnership. After a turbulent period in the 1990s when American sanctions were levied on Pakistan’s nuclear program, relations improved dramatically after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Yet ten years later, those bonds are quickly breaking apart, with both countries viewing each other as unreliable and selfish.
With the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a town originally designed as a collection of residencies for Pakistani military officials, American-Pakistani relations are perhaps at their frostiest since more than a decade.
Unfortunately, however strained the relationship is now, it could freeze outright in the months ahead if the United States Congress acts boldly and prematurely. Outraged over Pakistan’s on again, off again struggle against Islamic extremism, both domestically and internationally, the legislature is currently taking a second look at Washington’s extensive economic cooperation with the Pakistani government. More specifically, lawmakers and their staffs are meeting, talking about and drafting proposals that would cut off a substantial amount of American aid to Pakistan on the assumption that its military and intelligence services either knew about Osama bin Laden’s hideout or actively sheltered him from American counterterrorism efforts.
Although the United States and Pakistan cooperate in a variety of ways, the provision of foreign assistance is by far the most important tenant of Washington’s commitment to the alliance. After Afghanistan and Israel, Pakistan was the largest recipient of foreign assistance in 2010. In 2011, Pakistan jumped to the number two spot (PDF), ahead of Israel, with a total package of approximately $3 billion per year. The Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid resolution that was passed by Congress last year added another $7.5 billion to that amount over the next five years. Ironically, one of the rationales for the Kerry-Lugar money was to remind Pakistani officials of their indispensability to the United States on a number of fronts, from counterterrorism to South Asian stability.
In total, the United States Congress has allocated $20.7 billion (PDF) in foreign aid since fiscal year 2002, with more than half of that money going straight into the pockets of Pakistan’s security establishment.
While discussions are still preliminary, Congress could draw back much of this funding if the Pakistanis refuse to convince American diplomats that they had nothing to do with bin Laden’s hideout. The general mood in the halls of Congress is unmistakably tilted against Pakistan — Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin and Senate foreign ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy, the two lawmakers leading this camp, are among the most powerful in the Senate.
Pakistan’s position in Congress gets even worse when one considers the multiple ways that assistance can be decreased. The Kerry-Lugar aid could be delayed for an unspecified period of time or Congress could withhold money if Pakistan decides not to reform domestically. Reform is a broad term that encompasses a large array of issues, including the strengthening of civilian institutions, the changing of Pakistan’s tax system and the military’s retreat from civilian politics. The Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, which reimburses Islamabad for counterterrorism missions, could also be eliminated completely. This would perhaps be one of the most severe hits for the Pakistani government, due to the high operational expense of counterterrorism work, Pakistan’s already high inflation rate and its overall weak economy.
Just because the United States can cut foreign aid doesn’t mean it would be a wise policy however. For all of the heartache and stress that Pakistan has caused for the White House, the American armed forces and the intelligence community, that heartache might pale in comparison to the predicament that Islamabad’s institutional development would find itself in without American dollars.
The United States depends on Pakistan’s military for a smooth and protected route for coalition supplies traveling into Afghanistan, which is extremely vital for the counterinsurgency campaign against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Absent Pakistani protection, it is difficult to conceive those supplies making their way into Afghanistan unharmed. In fact, NATO has already witnessed how quickly its convoys can be destroyed should Pakistan cease cooperation — hundreds of fuel tankers were attacked and destroyed by militants earlier this year when Pakistan closed a key border crossing. As long as NATO is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is little the coalition can do to push Pakistan hard.
Pakistani informants, whether government employees or private citizens, have also been extraordinarily valuable to the American drone campaign in North Waziristan, where Al Qaeda, Taliban, Chechen, Uzbek and anti-Indian militants are holed up. All of that success has the potential of being washed away should Congress withhold Pakistan’s share of allocated funds.
Pakistan has been burned by the United States repeatedly over the past four decades. In the 1970s, America distanced itself from Pakistan and shifted its diplomatic resources to its larger and more powerful neighbor India. In 1990, the CIA abruptly stopped funding Pakistan after the Soviet Union was driven from Afghanistan. This was followed by a decade of sanctions against Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program. And in 2005, Pakistani officials were sidelined again when President George W. Bush signed a highly publicized nuclear technology agreement with its Indian archrival. Pakistan, meanwhile, has grown to rely on China and Russia for its nuclear technology — further undermining South Asia’s fragile nuclear balance.