Pakistan made it to President Trump’s first batch of tweets for the year 2018. His tweet indicated a likelihood of deteriorating Pakistan-US ties. Following the tweet, US officially announced its decision to suspend some security related assistance to Pakistan till decisive action is taken against the alleged ‘safe havens’. In the same time frame Pakistan was also placed under a US ‘Special Watch List’ for violations of religious freedom during the preceding year.
The White House has not released an official statement or engaged in any Q&A’s regarding US policy towards Pakistan yet.
The State Department issued cautiously calibrated statements and initially refrained from providing in depth answers to the various questions regarding the recent measures. According to a Reuters article they were taken by surprise and were busy crafting a policy to suit the tweet.
The 2nd January press conference held by the State Department seemed focused on dispelling some of the rumors that had emerged in a span of 24 hours. During this briefing the spokesperson initially provided inadequate information and stated that the president was referring to the suspension of the amount dedicated for FMF FY2016—which was already revealed in August last year.
Answers attained more clarity during the press briefing held on the 4th of January. Essentially, it was three days later that the State Department presented a clear position that not only is the FMF amount from FY 2016 being withheld—in line with the decision announced in August 2017 but also current security related assistance and arrears would be withheld unless exemptions are made on a case to case basis if determined to be critical to US national security interests. Answering a question on the hasty US move; the spokesperson also discussed the series of high level talks between Pakistan and US following Trumps South Asia Strategy that were ongoing and need4ed resolution.
Information on the total amount has not been released officially, but various speculative figures have emerged.
Another special briefing was held on the 4th of January to give details on the US policy towards Pakistan. During this briefing, it was stated that the US would not deliver military equipment or transfer security-related funds to Pakistan unless required by law. The current suspension in regards to the Foreign Military Funding—sanctioned by the state department- encapsulates amounts of FY16 and other pending amounts. It was also noted that the current decisions do not apply to FY2017. On the other hand, the CSF amount- that falls under the purview of DoD- is related to FY2017, as no pending reimbursements stand.
Questions were also raised regarding the sudden outburst of the president, some pointed out to the unpreparedness of the state department in terms of providing exact details on the nature and amounts of security assistance.The spokesperson deflected such notions and while lending support to the ‘official narrative’, stated that the US considers Pakistan an important partner and would continue holding ‘private conversations’.
When asked if such measures have ever produced desired results for the US; the spokesperson decided to not make historical comparisons, acknowledging Pakistan’s displeasure with US rhetoric and placing faith in Pakistan’s economic potential, he stated that “What matters, to the Pakistanis is the symbolism of doing this, that it represents a deterioration of our relationship, something that they care about a great deal. And so as I said… we’re hoping that this is an incentive— that they don’t want to see this relationship deteriorate any further and that they’re going to commit to working with us to try to find a way to put it on more solid footing.”
The US Secretary of Defense also presented his stance during recent press conferences. He avoided sharing his opinions on the efficacy of the current measures against Pakistan and stated that Pakistan has lost more troops in total than all of NATO and coalition combined in the fight against terrorism. The areas of disagreement are being worked out and ‘that specific individual things US is doing are best handled in private”. General Mattis has maintained a consistent stance on ‘carrying discussions to find common grounds’. He has often highlighted the issue of ‘fundamental differences in interests’. This was also his ending note during his visit to Pakistan in December, which many believe led to the current ‘deadlock’. The US flux in narratives may be seen in this light—aimed at creating some sort of movement.
Pakistan-US ties under the new administration are yet to consolidate their contours. The US stances regarding Pakistan- over the past year- have remained influx. There appears to be an advocacy for coercing Pakistan while on the other hand several voices find such a logic futile and even averse to counter terror efforts. The tweet and the ensuing events led to diverging policy preferences towards Pakistan. Nonetheless, the past year reveals cautious slow paced attempts to ramp up pressure on Pakistan- either in narratives or actions—the President also prefers an adventurous outlook. However, the question of ‘how to deal with Pakistan’ still has space for more opinions. The US-Pakistan relationship is ‘work in progress’ and its future depends on how the current US leadership handles the South Asian region and Afghanistan.