Of Tweets and Pakistan
The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been strained since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Many in the United States were indignant that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was hiding inside the borders of a supposed ally. Pakistanis were indignant that the United States conducted a SpecOps raid within their borders without asking permission. A tweet by President Trump at the start of 2018, in which the President suggested he will be cutting the United States’ security aid to Pakistan, further illustrates the tension. While Pakistan may not always be the best ally, the United States needs to maintain a productive relationship in order to sustain its strategic position in Central Asia, promote global security, and counterbalance China.
Much of the tension originates in the Tribally Administered Areas of northwest Pakistan. This region, only loosely controlled by the government in Islamabad, has served as a home base for extremist groups. The Taliban retreated from Afghanistan to this region in 2001, and has continued to harass both Afghan and Pakistani governments. Despite the urging of the United States and Afghanistan, Pakistan will not fully suppress the extremist groups in this region as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses these groups abroad against Pakistan’s competitors.
That being said, ISI is aware that these groups aren’t under their control. The Taliban has been responsible for some of the worst violence within Pakistan, prompting a response from the army, where most U.S. aid money goes. Keeping Pakistan from becoming an extremist state is crucial for regional and global security. Pakistan’s role in supporting NATO ground operations in Afghanistan is certainly valuable, but it is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that makes preventing extremists from seizing power an absolute must.
Developed in response to India’s Smiling Buddha test and confirmed in a series of six tests in 1996, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been a continuous source of tension. Despite assurances from the government, many within and outside of Pakistan worry that its weapons are not secure. These fears came to light after a 2014 attack by the Taliban in Peshawar that involved numerous officials with knowledge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Further investigations have suggested that much of Pakistan’s security infrastructure is outdated and at risk.
Pakistan does not need U.S. anger, it needs U.S. assistance. Without U.S. aid, Pakistan will run into serious problems with the extremists it currently permits in the Tribal Regions. Without funding and assistance, it will be difficult for Pakistan to marshal the resources to not only keep extremists in check, but also secure its nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands. Al-Qaeda and ISIL have already expressed interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Should even a portion of Pakistan’s arsenal fall into the wrong hands, it is not hard to imagine where the stolen warheads would end up.
Absent the United States, it is of course feasible that Pakistan can contain the extremists within its territories. To do so, it would likely seek aid from China, a regional rival to both the United States and India. China has disagreements with both Pakistan and India over the Jammu and Kashmir area (all three have conflicting territorial claims). However, China has multiple border disputes with India, whereas its specific dispute in Kashmir is relatively minor. It would make sense for China to ally with Pakistan against India as a mutual rival, presenting a unified front against the rising South Asian power. It would also be in China’s interests to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and support efforts made against extremists in Pakistan. China has its own problems with extremists in Xinjiang. Furthermore, China has already been investing in Pakistan’s infrastructure as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative.
This scenario could be considered a negative outcome for U.S. interests in the region. Pakistan provides a vital link to the NATO forces still in Afghanistan; without Pakistan it would be exceedingly difficult to supply the NATO and Afghan forces. The loss of ISI intelligence would also hinder NATO and Afghan operations significantly, and isolate the U.S.-backed Afghan government behind a wall of states not friendly to U.S. interests (Iran, Pakistan, China). Furthermore, China is already mulling building a naval base in Pakistan, which would produce additional force-projection capabilities in the region. The withdrawal of U.S. aid from Pakistan would give China an opening to expand their regional footprint at the expense of the United States.
Pakistan can be a vexing ally for the United States, but it is a valuable one. Eliminating the security aid to Pakistan would not make America safe again. It would instead run counter to the U.S. interests in the region, provide a strategic opening for rivals, and potentially imperil global nuclear security. Rather, the United States must continue to fund Pakistan’s security efforts. At the same time, Washington does need to encourage Islamabad to cease supporting non-state actors outside of Pakistan proper. Cutting off aid is not the answer and would only be counterproductive in the long term. Continuing to support Pakistan is the best option for the United States to promote regional and global security.