Issue Briefs

Trump’s Complicated Pakistan Problem

Trump’s Complicated Pakistan Problem

Fazle Chowdhury

January 18, 2018


The Trump administration has recently announced that it will eliminate almost all security aid to Pakistan, cutting the already delayed $255m military aid which Pakistan has been anticipating for the better part of 2017 – citing that the country has “failed to deal with terrorist networks operating on its soil”.

The U.S. Pakistan relationship

From its inception the US-Pakistan relationship was based on convenience. Going way back, the United States was amongst the first nations to establish diplomatic relations with the new state of Pakistan in 1947, mainly because of the Pro-American and Pro-Capitalist Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that governed Punjab, Pakistan’s most prosperous province.

Having gained independence from Britain and the horrors of the bloody partition from India, it was natural for Pakistan to ally itself with the United States, as its rival India would side with the Soviet Union. The United States for its part found strategic partners in Pakistan’s military dictators. This began with General Ayub Khan who in return for U.S. military aid allowed the first spy missions to the Soviet Union to originate from Pakistan. This resulted in the 1960 U-2 incident and the subsequent capture of U.S. pilot Gary Powers.

Ally against communism

The United States made General Yahya Khan (Ayub’s successor) a full partner in its strategy to create a bulwark against Communism when the Indian government backed East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) after it declared Independence in 1971. Fearing that Soviet backed-India would become the de facto major power in the subcontinent, The U.S. secretly encouraged the shipment of military equipment from Iran then ruled by the Shah’s into Pakistan. But that effort failed. Pakistan lost.

The loss of East Pakistan and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh remains an open wound in the psyche of the Pakistan military. Despite that, the bond with Washington was strengthened. In return for past U.S. support, the Pakistani military quietly authorized the creation of the secret channel which led to the 1972 Nixon visit to China, (Pakistan’s close ally), the first critical step in the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China.

First cracks

The US-Pakistan relationship began to show its cracks with the vociferous but charismatic, Oxford-educated, non-military backed, democratically elected Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was Bhutto’s warming up to Soviet Union and his obsession with developing nuclear weapons that scarred his relationship with the United States. Therefore, when the Pakistan military, under the leadership of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, staged a coup against Bhutto, Washington tacitly signaled its approval.

Against the Soviets in Afghanistan

When the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States had a reason to work with General Zia-ul-Haq through “Operation Cyclone” with the objective of making Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Covert aid was funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia and UAE to Afghanistan. But the execution and the cash distribution related to the operation were implemented by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Arming, training and funding of both moderate and radical factions of the Mujahedeen, (many of them were Afghan refugees, others came from tribes of Pakistan’s rural northern provinces with centuries old Afghan tribal links), the covert operation worked as intended.

After 1986, the tide turned towards the Mujahedeen groups. However, at the same time Al-Qaeda arrived on the scene, and so did Osama Bin laden. They built partnerships with many of the Afghan militant groups, with the help of Saudi Intelligence and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  The Afghan Mujahedeen, with critical assistance from the ISI which provided shelters at the northern, western and southern borders of Pakistan, started winning against the Soviet Army. Eventually, this led to Russia’s defeat and its final withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989.

Unstable Afghanistan

However, the victorious Mujahedeen groups could not manage Afghanistan after their victory against the Soviets. Their constant infighting left a brutal legacy of violence and new destruction in provincial Afghan towns and cities, and eventually Kabul itself.

With the Soviet Union out of the way, the United States lost interest in state-building or any reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) reaped the rewards of its past role as an intermediary, forming strategic relationships with Mujahedeen groups which ended up being used as assets manipulated by the Pakistani intelligence services.

Support for the Taliban

With the support of the ISI, the Afghan Taliban managed to win its fight against the Mujahedeen Warlords. Afghanistan now was a client state of Pakistan. With the Taliban victory and its western borders now secure, Pakistan’s military could concentrate on the eastern front, in its contest with India over the province of Kashmir. They did this by using some of the United States funding that had been provided for the Afghan war effort but was diverted by ISI to assist radical extremist and violent groups battling the Indian Army.

Pakistan’s U-turn

After 9/11 Pakistan was suddenly forced to change course regarding Afghanistan. The United States told Pakistan that it had to side with America in its effort to remove from power the Afghan Taliban, an organization the Pakistan military and intelligence services had groomed for nearly half a decade, or face dire consequences.

General Pervez Musharaf sided with Washington. He needed the United States to legitimize his recent coup against the democratically elected government of Nawaz Sharif. He also wanted to have an end to the UN and U.S. imposed sanctions against Pakistan on account of its new status as a nuclear-armed state. Besides, Musharaf badly needed economic assistance to revive Pakistan’s economy.

In return for all this, Pakistan would assist the United States military and NATO through intelligence and logistics cooperation in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. However, Pakistan behaved duplicitously. Some Generals believed that Islamabad needed to provide a safe haven for its asset, the Taliban, in Pakistan’s northern, western and southern borders.

Through the Coalition Support Fund, the United States paid approximately $8.6 billion (it initially promised $18 billion) to the Pakistan military for its assistance in the war effort in Afghanistan and for the use of two of its airports in Shamsi Airfield and Dalabandin, in Pakistani Baluchistan. Pakistan was promised $1.5 billion annually from 2001 onwards but in the very first year that did not happen.

The Decline

In order to strengthen the relationship, in 2009 Washington, via the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar Bill, proposed $1.5 billion in U.S. annual assistance to Pakistan. But the aid was not delivered because of the significant differences between the Obama administration’s policy of U.S. drone use in Pakistan air space and Pakistan’s policy on Indian Administered Kashmir. Besides, the proposed aid package laid additional conditions for further economic assistance. The Pakistani military had to pledge that it would not interfere with Pakistan’s elected civilian governments.

Pakistani military unhappy with Washington

This enraged the Pakistan’s military who until that moment had been able to control much of Pakistan’s defense and foreign policies in partnership with the elected civilian government. All of a sudden it seemed that the United States was actively working against their interests.

The already damaged bilateral relationship took a turn for the worst when a secret operation conducted in Pakistan by U.S. Navy Seals in the city of Abbottabad led to the finding of Osama bin Laden’s secret hiding place and his killing on May 2, 2011. Bin-Laden’s secret Abbottabad home was in close proximity to a Pakistani military academy, adding to suspicions that perhaps the Pakistani military had known all along not just about his whereabouts, but perhaps had even assisted him in some fashion.

Further deterioration

Six years on, the US-Pakistan relationship has deteriorated even further. Pakistan has slowly drifted towards China to seek the benefits of military and economic aid that can be delivered by Beijing. China is already funding several Pakistan infrastructure projects. Given this strategic shift, with Trump taking a confrontational tone to Pakistan, there is little hope that this US administration will be able to normalize this complex bilateral relationship in the near term.

But if it is not Pakistan, which country can take the role of battling the militants in Afghanistan, while seeking a workable political solution? Russia, China, or India could possibly contribute. But they all lack the historical connections with Afghanistan that only Pakistan can bring.

Pakistan complicated role in Afghanistan

For a U.S. military with significant military engagements in Iraq from 2003 onwards, Afghanistan was no longer a high priority. However, by 2008 a resurgent Taliban was making gains. Even with a fresh deployment of 48,500 troops the U.S. military was unable to stop their advances in several provinces.

In December 2009, President Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 100,000. However, while Afghanistan saw a surge in violence, so did Pakistan. Initially, the Pakistani military, through its strong connections with key Pashtun tribal elders, was successful in preventing direct attacks against the U.S. and NATO forces.

However, from 2007 onwards this became very difficult. Suddenly factions of fighters were splitting from the main umbrella groups that formed the Taliban. They revolted against tribal elders, sometimes even assassinating them. These factions were now forming alliances with other groups to take on even the Pakistani Army and the Pakistan state.

One of the reasons this happened was because in 2002 the Pakistan military, under pressure from the U.S. government, conducted incursions into South Waziristan and neighboring tribal areas to combat foreign militants fleeing from the war in Afghanistan into the neighboring tribal areas of Pakistan. After some fighting, the Pakistani military came to a settlement with key tribal elders so that they would refrain from attacking U.S. and NATO forces.

The Bajaur incident

However, in 2006 a U.S. missile strike in Bajaur which accidentally killed school children in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas made things much worse. This highly publicized accident was noted by Pakistan military analysts as a watershed event which contributed to the rise of tribal militancy, resulting in the formation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups.

Difficult path forward

This makes the current circumstances extremely complicated for the present Pakistani civilian government already rocked by the resignation of its own Prime-Minister due to the Panama papers revelations.

The Haqqani network, unlike other assets used in the past by the Pakistani intelligence services, is by far a more organized. It is heavily armed, well-funded, large in numbers and it commands huge support among tribes from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Right now there is concern that, just as the Pakistani military has seen some of its own assets turn into militant groups and turn against them, this may happen again with the well-armed Haqqani network.

Maybe the Pakistani military still believes that it may need all the assets it sustained in order to handle what will be left by U.S. and NATO forces after they eventually leave Afghanistan. This scenario would be no different from when the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving to the Pakistan military the hard task of cleaning up the mess.


FazleChowdhuryFazle Chowdhury is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is a Management Consultant and founder of FazC – a Public Speaking firm specializing in Conflict Economics. Mr. Chowdhury‘s experiences include monitoring terrorism finance, developing effective financially strategic battle plans to strengthen Client organization’s incidents and Consulting with the US Department of Defense. His previous professional engagements include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Azerbaijan, Booz Allen Hamilton, IBM, and Price Waterhouse Coopers. Mr.Chowdhury received his Master of Science in Organization Management from Northeastern University and has also completed the Executive Program & Stewardship in Management from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Education.

 The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.