Understanding the United States’ Complex Relationship with Pakistan

Written by: Alex El Ghaoui

The United States’ complex, dramatic, and unpredictable relationship with Pakistan took yet another turn on February 14th, 2018 as it announced it will seek to place Pakistan on a list of countries that are not doing enough to combat terrorist financing. The list, created and managed by the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental organization founded by G7 countries in 1989, holds significant weight in international diplomacy, trade, and security. Being placed on the list can hinder a country’s access to international markets, IMF and World Bank loans, as well as military hardware sales. The United States’ recent decision has sent alarm bells ringing in Islamabad, where there is fear of increasing isolation in South East Asia and dependence on American loans to fund its military. In response, Pakistan has quietly placed sanctions on the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, an Islamic militant organization based in the country’s northwestern, semi-autonomous Federal Administered Tribal Areas. Elements of Pakistan’s security establishment, mainly the revered Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence-Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, have been accused by many, including the United States, of aiding and harboring the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. Why would Pakistan, a significant benefactor of American aid and a major non-NATO ally, help an organization whom the United States considers a terrorist group? Why would the United States, having already publicly accused Pakistan of harboring and financing a terrorist organization, continue its diplomatic relationship with the country?

The basis of the United States and Pakistan’s relationship is security, military aid, and intelligence coordination. Like Saudi Arabia, another major benefactor of U.S. aid, Pakistan does not share the same cultural, political, and gender values as the United States. However, this has not stopped both countries from engaging in massive arm deals as the United States views Pakistan as a powerful player in the region. Since 2002, the United States has provided Pakistan with more than $33 billion in military aid. In 2015 alone, the State Department approved a $952 million military sale of AH-1Z attack helicopters, Hellfire missiles, and positioning and targeting air-defense systems. Until January of this year, the United States and Pakistan had extensive intelligence sharing and cooperation systems. Recent developments have led to the suspension of intelligence coordination efforts and the cooling of diplomatic relations between both countries as the United States has increasingly put pressure on Pakistan to end its murky relationship with terrorist groups.

Pakistan views the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant organization as an asset in its fight against India in the ever-so volatile Kashmir region and securing its interest in Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders aim to preserve its security state in country and expand its influence abroad. Due to its conglomeration of vastly different ethnicities, Pakistani security services, according to Mark Katz of the Middle East Policy Council, “have increasingly emphasized Pakistan’s Islamic identity to keep its remaining disparate ethnic groups together.” Essentially, Pakistan wants to secede the Muslim Kashmir region and make sure Afghanistan remains an Islamic state. An adherence to conservative Islam is what keeps Pakistani’s ethnicities from conflicting. And preserving that adherence, both in Pakistan and throughout that region, is one of the main goals of its security services.

Evidence points to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) funding, training, and harboring of Lashkar-e-Taiba militants in preparation for terrorist attacks in India and in the Kashmir. According to Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a former French investigating magistrate in charge of counterterrorism operations, “Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps were run by the army and ISI, including soldiers on detachment serving as instructors, and military helicopters dropping off supplies.” Many terrorist attacks against Indian targets in the region point to Lashkar-e-Taiba involvement with the aid of ISI agents. In 2008, US officials concluded that elements of the Pakistani security apparatus, mainly ISI, aided Lashkar-e-Taiba in their July 2008 bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Until recently, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and ISI had a productive intelligence sharing system, coordinating drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Several incidents, including the unannounced Navy SEAL raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in 2011 and the arrest of the CIA’s Islamabad station chief- also in 2011, have significantly damaged the CIA-ISI relationship. Almost three weeks before the United States’ placing of Pakistan on the terrorism finance list, the Pakistani defense minister, Khurram Dastgir, stated that the security and intelligence cooperation between the two countries was almost nonexistent.

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, President Donald Trump has been more open about the United States’ suspicions of Pakistani financing and training of terrorist groups in Afghanistan and India. On January 4, 2018, President Donald Trump publicly accused-unsurprisingly on Twitter- Pakistan of being a terrorist haven. He stated, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last fifteen years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorist we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”. However, President Donald Trump’s public rant has caused worry in the Pentagon who still sees Pakistan as a vital asset in the War on Terror. Many generals were especially worried about a potential retaliation from Pakistan such as denying access to supply routes frequently used by the United States military to transport troops, weapons, and goods to Afghanistan. Pakistan has also allowed U.S. Air Force sorties in Afghanistan from their airbases near the border.

Recent trends suggest an imminent end to the United States’ security relationship with Pakistan. In the last decade, Pakistan’s prioritizing of its murky relationships with terrorist groups to pursue its interest in the Kashmir and Afghanistan has forced the United States to rightly suspend aid and rethink its relationship with the country. While a major ally of the United States defense industry, Pakistan has double crossed the United States one too many times. A suspension of aid, a placing on the terrorism finance list, and continuation of diplomatic pressure is the right strategy for the United States. One can only hope that Pakistani’s civilian government responds to these pressures and enacts change on its secretive security establishments.