Like other US leaders before him, President Donald Trump has concluded that Pakistan is a Janus-faced ally. The country’s security services receive US assistance, while they provide sanctuary to the Taliban and other terrorist organisations at war with the US and its allies, including India.
Mr Trump is right in one respect. America is not getting value for the money (some $33bn since the 9/11 terror attacks on the US, according to the US president) it provides to a country whose military and intelligence services, the ISI, have manipulated religious fanatics partly to keep a hand in the great game playing out next door in Afghanistan.
The decision taken last week to suspend $2bn in security assistance is therefore understandable. Moreover, this money has helped to empower parts of the state — the armed forces and ISI — that have enfeebled civilian institutions and civil society. If the suspension can be used as leverage to persuade them to take a firmer line against the Taliban and to support rather than weaken the government, it could prove a worthwhile gamble.
It is far from certain, however, that this will be the outcome. The ISI was involved in the creation of the Taliban at the outset. Its operatives perceive the group as an asset, which gives them strategic depth. They will let go reluctantly, if at all.
The substantial risks of blowback persuaded Mr Trump’s predecessors to be more cautious about sanctioning such a complex, unpredictable and potentially dangerous ally. The first is to US troops who rely for supplies on Pakistani co-operation. Mr Trump chose last year to double down on a failing military strategy in Afghanistan. Should Islamabad retaliate against the aid suspension by closing land and air routes, as they did once before in 2011, it would jeopardise the lives of American soldiers. Of the alternative supply routes, one is through Iran and therefore off limits to the US. The other requires co-operation from Russia, which is playing its own double games in the region. It is to be hoped that the Trump administration has a plan B that takes all this into account.
Another consequence of souring relations between Washington and Islamabad is that these strengthen fast-growing ties between Islamabad and Beijing. The Chinese are promising to invest $60bn into Pakistan as part of their one belt one road initiative to extend Beijing’s influence across Asia and beyond.
US officials appear surprisingly at ease with this. After all, the Chinese are no more tolerant of radical Islam, and have no interest in seeing Pakistan overrun by it. If Beijing can navigate the duplicity of the Pakistani state more effectively, it would help to ease the burden on America.
Yet, were the current dispute between the US and Pakistan to evolve into long-term hostility, it would pose a very real threat. This is a country with more than 100 nuclear warheads. Its civilian government is chronically weak, and the state is threatened by its own homegrown, radical Islamists — another reason why the security forces have been reluctant to provoke a more direct conflict with them.
The case for reducing aid to Pakistan has long been clear. Ideally, it will prompt Islamabad to earn back the US assistance it has lost. But Pakistan’s internal weaknesses, the terrorists it harbours and its nuclear arsenal make for an explosive mix. Sanctions do not make a policy in and of themselves. Washington also needs to figure out how to lower the odds of Pakistan becoming a failed state.