The U.S. decision last week to suspend military aid to Pakistan is not only defensible but justified. It’s also unlikely to affect Pakistan’s covert aid to Islamist militants unless it’s accompanied by a more comprehensive and determined strategy.
Simply withholding aid, as both of President Donald Trump’s predecessors did at one time or another, won’t necessarily change the calculus of Pakistan’s generals. They view their militant proxies as a crucial means of exerting influence over neighboring Afghanistan and ensuring it doesn’t grow too close to arch-rival India. The only way to force real change is to make it too painful for the military to continue on its present course, while presenting Pakistan’s citizens and civilian leaders with a better alternative.
That will require focused diplomacy. The administration wisely said it’s only suspending aid for the moment, to give Pakistan an opportunity to reconsider its position. But it’s likely that further and more painful measures will be required.
The U.S. could begin by formally re-examining Pakistan’s status as a “major non-NATO ally” — revoking it would be mostly symbolic, but also highly embarrassing. It could impose travel sanctions on Pakistani generals and spies linked to militant groups. It could end all sales of strategic weapons systems to Pakistan. It could conduct unilateral drone strikes on militant leaders deeper within Pakistan itself. Eventually, it could threaten to name Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. Each step should be succeeded by another pause, in hopes that Pakistan’s generals have a change of heart.
Lasting change, however, will come only when the Pakistani people themselves demand an end to support for militants. So the U.S. should also look to provide more targeted funding to groups that have the potential to reshape Pakistani society — those focused on anti-corruption efforts, for example, or religious tolerance. The International Monetary Fund should be encouraged to tie aid to economic and (especially) tax reforms; not until more Pakistani citizens pay taxes will they really question how much of the national budget is commandeered by the military.
There should also be room to work with China — Pakistan’s most “reliable” ally — to alter Pakistani calculations. After all, a true breach in U.S.-Pakistan relations isn’t in Beijing’s interests either, given its desire for stability within both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long accused the U.S. of being a fickle ally. In fact, since Sept. 11, the U.S. has if anything been too forgiving, slashing aid and then restoring it without evidence of real reform. Trump isn’t wrong to demand better cooperation and accountability from Pakistan. He could show his seriousness by doing more than closing America’s wallet.
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