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Pakistan counter-strike on Trump threatens US anti-terror efforts in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s decision to suspend security cooperation with the United States in retaliation for the Trump administration’s freeze on aid is likely to significantly hinder U.S. counterterrorism efforts across the region, including the expansion of the CIA drone program, in addition to complicating military operations in Afghanistan.

Islamabad, meanwhile, is also already looking to enhance relations with regional powers like Russia and China to fill the aid gap.

On Tuesday, Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said that Islamabad suspended defense and intelligence cooperation with the United States after Washington froze almost $1 billion in security aid.

The move comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s now infamous January 1 tweet in which he blasted Pakistan for giving the U.S. nothing but deceit despite the U.S. giving Islamabad $33 billion in aid over the past 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump wrote.

In the wake of the U.S. president’s tweet, China immediately stepped forward and voiced its support for Pakistan while Russia vowed to boost bilateral ties.

US-Pakistan counter-terror efforts

The move to cut off all intelligence cooperation with Washington will adversely impact U.S. hopes to escalate counterterror efforts in the region, Wilson Center South Asia Program Deputy Director Michael Kugelman told The Defense Post.

“This would constrain U.S. counterterrorism activities in a big way, and it would also complicate U.S. efforts to wage its drone war in Pakistan – a war that Trump Administration officials have indicated they may wish to expand,” Kugelman said.

Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Director of Research, Michael O’Hanlon, warned that neither side should want this row to become a showdown to the finish given what is at stake.

“There’s too much to do on the common counterterrorism agenda, even if Islamabad is as much foe as friend on that subject,” O’Hanlon told the Defense Post.

Pakistan, O’Hanlon added, still has incentives to preserve some degree of a workable relationship with Washington and the aid issue should not be a major problem given it had already become a pittance.

U.S. Army War College Professor of National Security Affairs, Dr. M. Chris Mason, made clear that Trump’s decision to suspend aid is neither a new strategy nor a new hardline on Pakistan.

“This is a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy of graduated response to Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban and terrorist groups in Pakistan like Lashkar-i-Taiba,” Mason told The Defense Post. “The Obama administration reduced aid to Pakistan by 65 percent over eight years.”

Supply routes to Afghanistan

Some fear, in addition to suspending intelligence cooperation, Islamabad may close transport lines that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan, thereby undermining the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban and ISIS.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning told reporters that despite $900 million of security aid being suspended the United States did not see any signs that Pakistan was going to cut off NATO supply routes into Afghanistan.

“If Pakistan were to pull the plug on these supply lines, the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, already so difficult, would get even more challenging – and fast,” Kugelman said.

The Wilson Center scholar cast doubt, however, on the prospect that Pakistan would do this simply over the aid freeze. The last time Islamabad cut off these routes, he noted, was in 2011 after the U.S. staged the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound and accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani border troops.

Mason explained that the land routes running through Pakistan into Afghanistan are less critical than before because there are far fewer troops on the ground and more supplies are coming in from the north. Besides, he added, the odds were slim because shutting down these lines would hurt Pakistan as well.

“I think the majority of what’s coming overland now is gasoline for the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], but it [Pakistan] receives so much revenue from the transit ‘fees’ for each truck that this [cutting supply routes] seems unlikely,” Mason said.

Pakistan’s pivot to Russia and China

Pakistan’s defense chief on Tuesday also said Islamabad signed a defense cooperation agreement and is conducting joint military exercises with Russia, a sign that the Pakistanis are already looking for alternatives to U.S. assistance.

In addition, Pakistan’s central bank recently announced that it will be replacing the U.S. dollar with the Yuan for bilateral trade and investment with China.

Kugelman said Pakistan will lean hard on Beijing to cover the gap of an aid freeze while it can also look to Saudi Arabia and one of its newest arms partners, Russia. However, he added, although Pakistan can weather an aid freeze it will not be easy, preferable, or ideal.

“Pakistan does depend on some types of high-end weaponry from the U.S. that it can’t easily get from other markets,” Kugelman pointed out. “And for the Pakistani army, there’s a prestige factor associated with bringing in advanced weaponry from the world’s most powerful military. And that can’t easily be addressed simply by turning to China.”

Mason noted that despite considerable speculation over Beijing filling Pakistan’s military aid vacuum, China’s support has so far been largely rhetorical apart from the JF-17 program.

“The JF-17 program, of course, is ‘aid that comes with a string,’ in that about half of the aircraft comes from China,” he said.

Pakistan made its “Faustian bargain” with China long ago, Mason explained, in the form of the Gwadar Port which will essentially be a de facto Chinese economic colony on the Pakistani coast not unlike Calcutta or Singapore once were for the British Empire.

But Russia, he added, represents the “wild card” in the equation given that – after some 60 years of animosity – Moscow is now courting Pakistan as well.

“As part of this rapprochement, Russia has provided attack helicopters to Pakistan, the two countries have conducted joint training, and they are now in discussions to sell the Su-35 fighter to the Pakistani Air Force – proof of Palmerston’s adage that countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests,” Mason concluded.

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