ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is being further pushed into China’s embrace as a consequence of the U.S. State Department’s plan to cut military aid to Islamabad, analysts agree.
The U.S. decision came days after President Donald Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet that accused Pakistan of playing U.S. leaders for “fools,” reiterating longstanding allegations that Pakistan gives safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.
“If the U.S. policy is to further isolate Washington from the mainstream world, then they are going the right way about it,” said Brian Cloughley, an author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad. “Pakistan will go even further into the Chinese embrace — and very much on China’s terms, of course.”
Claude Rakisits, an expert on Pakistan and senior fellow at Georgetown University, believes that “given that the civilian government seems to be putting all its economic, political and strategic eggs in the Chinese basket, this will strengthen its hand vis-a-vis the military because it will be able to argue that the China card is the sure one to play.”
It is actually through the prism of China, not terrorism, that analyst and former Pakistan Air Force pilot Kaiser Tufail believes Washington is acting. Regionally, “the U.S. sees hindrances in securing a permanent presence in Afghanistan so as to be a counterweight to the growing Chinese influence in the region,” he said.
The “U.S. wants Pakistan to oppose all political forces in Afghanistan which desire an ouster of U.S. troops from their country. These elements have been conveniently labeled as terrorists by USA, and Pakistan is being wrongly accused of supporting them,” Tufail said.
Essentially, Washington wants Islamabad to support U.S.-backed Afghan groups that do its bidding, and America’s frustration has boiled over into halting military aid, he noted.
A Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs news release issued Friday said Islamabad was “engaged with the US Administration on the issue of security cooperation.”
“Pakistan has fought the war against terrorism largely from its own resources, which has cost over $120 billion in 15 years,” the release said, adding that the country is “determined to continue to do all it takes to secure the lives of our citizens and broader stability in the region.”
How will the cuts impact Pakistan’s military?
Despite the historically rocky bilateral relationship, Rakisits believes Pakistan’s military will not welcome “diminished military ties with the U.S. because it has gained a lot out of that relationship over the years.”
Cloughley, however, doubts the fiscal cuts will make much difference, “equipment-wise or even in operating costs,” though he acknowledges there is “not a hope, given the present climate” of Pakistan’s AH-1Z helicopter gunships being delivered, nor of any corvettes.
Even if the cuts impact Pakistan’s plan to acquire the Turkish T129 helicopter gunship, which uses American engines, Cloughley doesn’t think the military will be overly concerned. “They’ll find an alternative,” he said.
For better or for worse, that alternative is China, according to Tufail.
And if Pakistan fills the gap with China, Rakisits said, Islamabad’s “eventual over-reliance on China in the years to come will diminish Pakistan’s foreign policy options.”
Tufail said the cuts will likely impact the military’s development programs, which could have serious consequences. An increase in terrorism in Baluchistan or a flare-up on the Line of Control in Kashmir could force Pakistan’s military to undertake “some realistic risk assessment and analysis of state capacity that would be under economic strain.”
“For Pakistan to retain full operational capacity of its front-line assets like the F-16s and anti-tank helicopters, which are of U.S. origin, rhetoric will have to eventually take a back seat. This is already evident from the Pakistan National Security Committee’s consensus on ‘not acting in haste,’ and ‘wanting to play a constructive role in the region,’ ” he said.
How did Pakistan respond?
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman did not respond to Defense News’ requests for comment regarding the cut in military aid, but the ministry’s news release did discuss counterterrorism efforts.
“We believe that Pakistan-US cooperation in fighting terrorism has directly served US national security interests as well as the larger interests of international community,” the ministry said, adding that joint efforts and Pakistan’s own counterterrorism operations “helped decimate Al-Qaeda and fight other groups who took advantage of ungoverned spaces.”
The ministry went on to list failures on the Afghan side of the border.
“Our efforts towards peace are awaiting reciprocal actions from the Afghan side in terms of clearance of vast stretches of ungoverned spaces on the Afghan side, bilateral border management, repatriation of Afghan Refugees, controlling poppy cultivation, drug trafficking and initiating Afghan-led and owned political reconciliation in Afghanistan.
“Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats.”
Rakisits said Pakistan ”completely misread Trump, believing that little would change in the relationship. Washington called their bluff.”
For Cloughley, however, Pakistan has at least one card to play: It could retaliate by shutting down the Karachi-Torkham supply route used by the U.S. to transport materiel to and from Afghanistan.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.