WASHINGTON — The United States announced Thursday it was suspending security assistance to Pakistan for failing to take “decisive action” against Taliban militants targeting US personnel in neighboring Afghanistan.
The State Department’s declaration signaled growing frustration over Pakistan’s cooperation in fighting terrorist networks, but it was not immediately clear how much money and materiel was being withheld. The vague details suggested the primary goal was to substantiate President Donald Trump’s surprising New Year’s Day tweet that accused Pakistan of playing US leaders for “fools.”
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the restrictions covered security assistance above and beyond the $255 million for Pakistani purchases of American military equipment that the administration held up in August.
Nauert said details were still being worked out on the additional funds, and referred questions to the Defense Department. Earlier Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the policy on military aid was “still being formulated.”
Nauert made clear the $255 million was still blocked. The new action targets payments of so-called Coalition Support Funds that the US pays to Pakistan to reimburse it for its counterterrorism operations. Those funds are typically paid later in the year, and already require U certification, so the effect of Thursday’s announcement was unclear.
On Monday, Trump said the US had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years and had gotten nothing in return but “lies & deceit.” He reiterated longstanding allegations that Pakistan gives “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
Trump unveiled in August a South Asia strategy aimed at ending the stalemate in the US war in Afghanistan, now entering its 17th year. Nauert said that despite sustained high-level engagement with Pakistan’s government, “the Taliban and Haqqani network continue to find sanctuary inside Pakistan as they plot to destabilize Afghanistan and attack US and allied personnel.”
She told reporters that until Pakistan takes “decisive action” against those groups, security assistance was suspended.
Civilian development and economic assistance to Pakistan is not affected.
Also Thursday, the State Department accused Pakistan of severe violations of religious freedom. It announced that it was placing Pakistan on a special watch list, pursuant to 2016 legislation. The step does not carry any serious consequences.
Pakistan’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
But on Tuesday, Pakistan called Trump’s tweet “completely incomprehensible” and at odds with recent “trust-building” visits by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis. It accused the US of scapegoating Pakistan for its own failure to bring peace to Afghanistan.
The haphazard nature of Thursday’s announcement suggested it had been hastily arranged rather than developed through a traditional policy process. Even after members of Congress had been notified of an impending aid suspension, White House and State Department officials were still hammering out details for who would announce it and when.
As recently as October, Trump credited US-Pakistani cooperation for winning the release of an American woman, her Canadian husband and their children who had been held by Haqqani militants for five years.
US assistance to Pakistan, which rose sharply after the 9/11 attacks, has been declining since 2011 when American commandos killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, straining relations. Pakistan has increasingly turned for economic support to northern neighbor China, which is investing tens of billions in transportation links and power generation as it extends its strategic footprint across Asia.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia program, said suspension of US security assistance to Pakistan would not torpedo relations but it was a significant step backward. He said Pakistan could fall back on Saudi Arabia and China for military supplies, but it still depends on the US for certain types of high-end equipment.
“There are considerable risks for the US because Pakistan could retaliate in ways that would be very problematic for US regional interests,” he said, such as curtailing intelligence cooperation and US supply lines into Afghanistan.
“No matter what, the relationship is in a bad spot right now.”