Editor’s Note: Arsla Jawaid is an Islamabad, Pakistan-based fellow at Concord Consulting, where she focuses on mechanisms for preventing violent extremism and counterterrorism. She has published articles in Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and The Diplomat. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018 has renewed tension between the United States and Pakistan. It read, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Aside from the fact that Trump’s tweet is factually incorrect – Pakistan has received less aid than stated – his words also isolated a critical ally in the war on terror. Without Pakistan by its side, the United States will struggle to find a clear endgame in Afghanistan and a viable partner in South Asia.
That said, Trump’s tweets are just the latest installment in a series of diplomatic setbacks since last summer, when the White House unveiled its Afghanistan policy, which singled out Pakistan for providing “safe havens for terrorist organizations” and asked it to do more to target militants and demonstrate its commitment to peace and security.
What followed were a series of canceled diplomatic visits, demands from the US secretary of defense that Pakistan “redouble” its efforts against Islamist militants, and, most recently, the Trump administration’s first national security strategy, in which the President reminded Pakistan that it is obliged to help the United States because it receives “massive payments.”
In response to Trump’s latest tweet, Pakistan Minister for Defense Khurram Dastgir Khan tweeted from his official account: “Pak as anti-terror ally has given free to US: land & air communication, military bases & intel cooperation that decimated Al Qaeda over last 16yrs, but they have given us nothing but invective & mistrust. They overlook cross-border safe havens of terrorists who murder Pakistanis.”
And the minister is not wrong. Pakistan has made huge sacrifices on behalf of the United States.
Facts matter. As does math. Trump’s claim of “33 billion dollars in aid” is based on a number provided by the Congressional Research Service, which documents allocated aid – but not actual dispersed funds. This figure is a sum of $19 billion in security and economic aid and an additional $14.59 billion from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), which reimburses US allies for logistical and military support.
However, since 2001, according to USAID, the US has only given Pakistan $14.79 billion in civilian and military aid, and funds from the CSF have periodically been revised, delayed or blocked. Not all of the allocated funds have been disbursed, due to concerns regarding Pakistan’s efforts to target Islamist militant groups, such as the Haqqani network, aligned with the Afghan Taliban and responsible for launching attacks in Afghanistan.
As US officials question Pakistan’s commitment, Pakistani officials claim that Pakistan has done more than enough in confronting terrorism within its borders. The Haqqanis, among other militant groups, have been targeted in military operations conducted in the tribal areas for Pakistan’s own national security interest.
A country susceptible to growing extremism, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has shown illustrative successes. In August 2017, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa stated that due to various military operations, the most recent being Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad – launched in February 2017 to eliminate residual terrorism and consolidate the gains made from previous operations – there were no longer “safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan.”
And in October 2017, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, invited American authorities to visit Pakistan and said, “If they find any activity [of Haqqanis] in the targeted areas, our troops along with the US would destroy them once and for all.”
Furthermore, in 2017, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Major Gen. Asif Ghafoor, released figures stating that intelligence agencies had foiled 477 terrorist plots within the country.
And the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), which measures the impact of terrorism around the world, also shows a marked decline in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan since 2014, in part attributable to military operations targeting militants in tribal areas. While all terrorism has not been eliminated, Pakistan has made major strides for a country once considered a Taliban safe haven.
But it’s also worth noting that much of the US aid that has been received ignores the economic and human cost of war on Pakistan. Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance estimates that since the country became a frontline ally to the United States, its economy has suffered close to a $123.1 billion loss. This number factors in loss of life, economic opportunity and damaged infrastructure. On civilian casualties alone, a 2015 report issued by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War places the number at 48,504 death between 2003-2015. Speaking with CNN in August 2017, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political leaders, Imran Khan, places the number even higher at 70,000 casualties.
And it is wrong to assume that Washington would disburse aid to nations of no strategic significance or political value if they don’t further American strategic objectives. Any aid to Pakistan has helped fulfill American interests not only in its war in Afghanistan, but in South Asia at large. Pakistan is a key player in combating terrorism and establishing a democratic regime in Afghanistan. After all, it is in Pakistan’s interest to have a western neighbor that is economically and politically stable.
Which is to say neither Pakistan nor the United States can afford to act solely based on rhetoric. While Twitter makes for great political posturing, international politics is a game that requires realistic analysis of state capacity, calculated risk assessments and diplomatic overtures.
In Pakistan, at least for now, it seems that cooler heads will prevail. While attempting to take the high road, on Tuesday, Pakistan’s National Security Committee reached the consensus that the state “cannot act in haste” and would remain committed to playing a constructive role in the region.
And the country’s fiery foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, has already publicly offered to hire a US-based audit firm “on our expenses” to verify the $33 billion aid figure and “let the world know who is lying & deceiving.”
That is not to say that Pakistan’s political elite or the general population will remain silent and let the President belittle their nation indefinitely. With 2018 likely to usher in new elections, Pakistanis are deeply united on not tolerating further American pressure or rhetorical attack.