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Despite tension, US-Pakistan defence ties unlikely to end

U.S. President Donald J. Trump began 2018 with a tweet accusing Pakistan of duplicity with regards to the ongoing – and over 16-year-long – U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.[1] Trump reiterated how the U.S. provided Pakistan with $33 billion U.S. in funding since 2002-2003, accused Pakistan of acting against U.S. interests and then concluded with, “No more!” On January 04, the U.S. announced that it will freeze the originally planned flow of all financial security aid to Pakistan – reportedly up to $1.1 billion – unless Pakistan ceases its support to the so-called Haqqani-network, which the U.S. alleges is responsible for orchestrating and organizing attacks in Afghanistan using Pakistani territory.[2] This follows an earlier decision in 2018 by the U.S. to freeze a transfer of $255 million in funding to Pakistan (totalling a potential freeze of $1.3 billion).[3] However, the U.S. emphasized that it only froze the transfer, it did not scrap the aid program – “Pakistan has the ability to get this money back in the future, but they have to take decisive action,” said Heather Nauert, the spokeswoman of the U.S. State Department.[4]

The U.S. had hinted to taking this course towards the end of 2017. By that point, the U.S. had spent $13.9 billion under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF)[5] (which Pakistan sees as a reimbursement for its campaigns in its Tribal Areas) and $14.1 billion in non-security aid, such USAID programs.[6] The current crisis started in late 2017 with Trump releasing his National Security Strategy, regarding which he stated, “We have made clear to Pakistan that while we desire continued partnership, we must see decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory. And we make massive payments every year to Pakistan. They have to help.”[7] However, following an exchange of bluster from both sides, the U.S. and Pakistan proceeded to resolve the issue. In October, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Pakistan while Pakistan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, visited the U.S.[8] In November, the U.S. Congress approved $700 million in CSF to Pakistan, of which $350 million was conditional to certification from the Secretary of Defence of Pakistan acting against Haqqani et. al.[9]

On its surface, Trump’s statement seemed to have quickly pivoted from the track laid at the end of 2017. It was also met with severe criticism in Pakistan from both within and outside Pakistan’s government. On January 04, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif stated, “United States is not our friend, its behaviour towards Pakistan is neither that of friend nor an ally.”[10] In the opposition, the Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan released this official statement: “It is time for Pakistan to delink from the US especially after the new National Security Strategy announced by Trump in December 2017…”[11]

Based on the furor, which appears to exist in both Pakistan and the U.S., one might imagine that U.S. and Pakistani defence relations will halt. However, Trump’s statement, while harsh and undiplomatic in its wording, reflected the substance of U.S. foreign policy with regards to Pakistan since the administration of President Barack Obama. Imran Khan and the PTI had rightly identified the outcome of the underlying policies – i.e. “…which [the U.S. National Security Strategy] again targets Pakistan while emphasizing the need to give India an increasing strategic role in Afghanistan and the region…” – but the U.S.’ policies of downplaying Pakistan’s concerns regarding India, supporting India’s stature (e.g. backing India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime: MTCR) and having Pakistan focus its national security priorities to counterinsurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) on its western flank has been in motion prior to Trump. Even the latter aspect – i.e. conditioning U.S. security funding transfers to Pakistan to COIN/CT – has been evident prior to Trump assuming office.

One need only refer to 2016 when the U.S. Congress prohibited the use of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) support to subsidize Pakistan’s purchase of eight new-built Lockheed Martin F-16 Block-52+ fighters as an example (the justification for the block on FMF was that Pakistan was ‘not doing enough’ against the “Haqqani-network”).[12] In fact, the lead-up to the process Congress debating the prospective sale, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, connected the F-16 purchase to Pakistan’s CT and COIN efforts. He confirmed this in April 2017 to Bol Narratives, stating, “These F-16s had to be purchased on shared funding. Operation Zarb-e-Azb remains our war, but the Americans had been asking for a North Waziristan operation for years … American funding for F-16s would have been a win-win situation.”[13] Prior to this Congress blocked the transfer of ex-U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP)-class frigates to the Pakistan Navy (following the successful sale of the ex-USS McInerney, now PNS Alamgir) in 2014. Pakistan sought these ships in its capacity as a Major non-NATO Ally (MNNA), which – on paper – entitled it to procuring surplus/used U.S. arms stocks at low-cost (basically the cost of refurbishing and delivering the equipment). This block occurred in an effort by Congress to condition military assistance to Pakistan.[14] Thus, this issue of the U.S. conditioning military assistance to Pakistan with specific – and U.S.-mandated – objectives is not a recent occurrence or a result of Trump, nor should it be a surprise to Pakistan’s leaders, be it those in the government or the armed forces.

With the U.S. speaking against Pakistan, attention is now on Pakistan’s response. In the aftermath of Trump’s statement, Pakistan’s National Security Council – a committee headed by the Prime Minister, but also including the armed forces leadership – issued the following statement:

“The Committee reached a consensus that despite all unwarranted allegations Pakistan cannot act in haste and will remain committed to playing a constructive role towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, not just for the sake of its own people, but also for the peace and security of the region and international community.”[15]

This statement was released on January 02, prior to the U.S. announcing that it will freeze military aid to Pakistan. On January 03, Maj. Gen. Asim Ghafoor, the head of the public relations branch of the Pakistan Army, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), reiterated that the U.S. and Pakistan were “allies.”[16] Neither statement indicates an intent or willingness to antagonize the U.S. Granted, these statements were made prior to the U.S. announcing the freeze on $1.3 billion in funding. However, in the lead-up to the decision to freeze funding, American officials were concerned that Pakistan could decisively act and retaliate the freeze by closing the ground-lines-of-communication (GLOC) and air-lines of communication (AIRLOC) – i.e. ground and air-routes, respectively –  the U.S. relies upon to sustain its military presence in Afghanistan[17] Pakistan had temporarily blocked these supply routes following Operation Neptune Spear (i.e. America’s Abbottabad operation of 2011).[18] In the lead-up to the aid-freeze announcement, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, said he did not anticipate of Pakistan closing the GLOCs and AIRLOCs, stating, “we have had no indication of anything like that.”[19]

This – i.e. Pakistan not closing the GLOC/AIRLOCs – would be seen as a surprising and significant factor if it comes to pass seeing how outwardly hostile the U.S. has been to Pakistan. However, despite the severity of Trump’s statement and the perception of the U.S. reprimanding Pakistan, Mattis’ statement regarding the GLOC/AIRLOC betrays the potential reality of the current situation. Despite the bluster on the surface, it does not appear that the reality of U.S.-Pakistani defence ties is going to change. In fact, besides not anticipating enmity from Pakistan (over the GLOCs), the U.S. itself has indicated that the aid freeze was of expanding the scope of tying the aid to meeting U.S. objectives. For example, Dawn reports that the “freeze” would still enable the flow funds on a “condition and issue-based approach” – i.e. for specific actions or programs the U.S. wants Pakistan to achieve.[20] Yes, that is a change in that the U.S. will exercise sharper scrutiny before releasing said funding – basically, Pakistan’s surest bet to accessing that funding would be to ask the U.S. exactly what it wants, and then execute that exact task.

With the aforementioned in mind, the remaining questions are whether (1) the U.S. will also proceed to strip Pakistan of its status as a MNNA, which – at least in recent years – has not amounted to many gains for Pakistan in the way of procuring surplus U.S. equipment and (2) if Pakistan will respond in a truly antagonistic manner, such as closing the GLOC and, if the PTI had its wish, the removal of “excessive US diplomatic, non-diplomatic and intelligence personnel” from Pakistan.[21] However, despite Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s tough statements (e.g. “United States is not our friend”), it is unclear if Pakistan will resort to closing the GLOCs and AIRLOCs. Granted, Pakistan should, in theory, have leverage in this matter considering that the U.S. cannot – at least assuredly – rely on Russia to make the northern alternate route available, like it had in 2011. Moreover, Trump – by going public with the animosity – has stirred the public opinion in Pakistan against the U.S., and that too close to the next federal election in Pakistan. With these stakes in place, it would be surprising if the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defence fail to offer Pakistan – i.e. through backchannels – an assurance of releasing some funding so as to guarantee that geo-strategic opposition does not occur. No amount of bluster towards Pakistan will change the reality of Pakistan being essential to achieving stability for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Overall, it is difficult to foresee Pakistan taking decisive steps against the U.S. In fact, since 2010, this issue might be the third instance of U.S.-Pakistani relations coming to an apparent halt. The first and second occurred in 2011, first in May due to the Abbottabad operation and the second in November as a result of the U.S. killing 40 Pakistani soldiers in Salala. While Pakistan did temporarily close the GLOC and AIRLOC, 2011 did not mark an end to relations or stir active enmity. Even if Pakistan did close the GLOC and AIRLOC, what is to stop the U.S. from reverting to assurances and, like it had before, Pakistan accepting them? In fact, this would – like it was in 2011 – be the exit strategy to current tensions, and with Mattis expressing his confidence in the continuity of GLOC/AIRLOC access, it might already be in place.

Granted, there is a perception that the U.S.’ actions today could lead to Pakistan ‘pivoting’ to support China and Russia. Irrespective of how one views the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)’s potential (or not) to support Pakistan’s long-term economic prosperity, the fact remains, China is investing $50-60 billion in Pakistan (albeit through direct loans to the government and loans to the private sector). Likewise, Russia is also viewing Pakistan as a potential market for its natural gas and oil exports, having a $10 billion gas deal with Pakistan on the table.[22] However, Pakistan already has a strong tangible with China through its bilateral defence relationship, arguably a sensitive area in its own right, but that has not resulted in the Pakistani political and military leadership from truly pivoting away from the U.S. such that they would consciously threaten U.S. interests in Afghanistan (by closing the GLOCs and AIRLOCs with no deference to aid or CSF compensation). Clearly, the economic and political tangibles from China have not been enough for Pakistan to turn away from the U.S. In fact, Reuters recently reported that the Pakistani government is planning to seize charities linked to Hafiz Saeed, a cleric whom the U.S. designated as a terrorist.[23] Despite statements from Pakistan about U.S. pressure not being a factor,[24] the outcome of the action clearly would not upset the U.S.

It appears as though the U.S. is now affirming that the only dimension of its defence ties with Pakistan is – and will remain being – that of COIN/CT. Unlike India, which has been elevated into a strategic ally that can join the MTCR, Wassenaar Arrangement and, if not for China, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) with U.S. support, Pakistan’s status is one of having a specific objective, to directly assist the U.S. in its campaign in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan maintains that its COIN/CT has been relevant to U.S. interests, with the ISPR stating, “[The] effects of these operations cannot be visible immediately … Only time will show how effective these operations were [in stabilizing the region].”[25] Currently, it is too early to suggest the exact outcome the U.S. is seeking, or the effort Pakistan is willing to provide. However, it is unlikely that the aid freeze or the animosity within Pakistan will result in substantive change to the bilateral relationship today.

[1] Donald J. Trump. Twitter. 02 January 2017. URL:

[2] Mark Landler and Gardiner Harris. “Trump, Citing Pakistan as a ‘Safe Haven’ for Terrorists, Freezes Aid.” The New York Times. 04 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Coalition Support Fund (CSF) to Pakistan 2001-2016. Security Assistance Monitor:

[6] USAID.

[7] Anwar Iqbal. “Pakistan ‘obliged’ to help US, says Trump.” Dawn News. 20 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 01 January 2018).

[8] Anwar Iqbal. “US, Pakistan re-engage in diplomatic, defence talks.” Dawn News. 23 October 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[9] Anwar Iqbal. “US Congress authorises $700 million for reimbursing Pakistan.” Dawn News. 11 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[10] “Khawaja Asif says Pakistan should reassess its ties with US.” The News International. 04 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[11] Imran Khan. Twitter. 04 January 2017. URL:

[12] Faisal Mahmood. “U.S. Congress to Pakistan: Pay for your own F-16s.” Newsweek. 02 May 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 January 2018).

[13] Amir Zia. Interview with Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman. Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 02 January 2018).

[14] Christopher P. Cavas. “US Frigates Approved for Transfer – Finally.” Defense News. 19 December 2014. URL: (Last Accessed: 03 January 2018).

[15] “NSC Disappointed Over US Leadership’s Statements; Reaffirms Pakistan’s Commitment To Playing Constructive Role For Regional Peace.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 02 January 2018. URL:

[16] “In case of US action, Pakistan is ready: DG ISPR.” The Express Tribune. 03 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[17] Lanlder and Harris. New York Times. January 2018.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Aaron Mehta and Matthew Pennington. “US suspends security assistance to Pakistan.” The Associated Press via Defense News. 04 January 2018. URL:

[20] Anwar Iqbal. “America suspends entire security aid to Pakistan.” Dawn News. 05 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 05 January 2018).

[21] Imran Khan. Twitter. 04 January 2017. URL:

[22] Zafar Bhutta. “Pakistan, Russia poised to sign $10b gas pipeline deals this week.” The Express Tribune. 19 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[23] Asif Shahzad. “Exclusive: Pakistan plans takeover of charities run by Islamist figure U.S. has targeted.” 01 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[24] “Pak acting against JuD, Hafiz Saeed under Raddul Fasaad, not US pressure: defence minister.” Dawn News. 03 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

[25] “Response to any US aggression will be in line with public’s expectations: DG ISPR.” Geo News. 04 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 January 2018).

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  • by mazhar
    Posted January 5, 2018 9:01 pm 0Likes

    US just stopped all military help to Pak, let’s wait for vipers to go through this hurdle. I am pretty sure, these choppers will be blocked. But we are always, like in the past, optimist that aid will keep coming. We have to come out of this mind set as a nation, otherwise we will stuck on playing role as a “Punj Hazari” and “Dus Hazari” sardaar for US interests. US demands will never stop, they will keep putting more pressure on us cuz this time, US need to CONTAIN China. Like they did against USSR.

  • by Bilal Khan
    Posted January 6, 2018 11:33 pm 0Likes

    Indeed, Pakistan’s security leadership still sees the US as an ally and partner. Even with this episode of tension, the NSC has not pivoted from this perspective and the ISPR chief has been trying to emphasize that aspect of it (e.g. we’re still “allies”).

    Granted, there are a bunch of anchors – e.g. a bulk of the PAF fleet being American (incl. the TPS-77 radar on land), the US eating a trade deficit with Pakistan, meaning our sellers rely on their buyers, etc. However, even if a complete pivot were to take a decade, you at least have to seed the program and then gradually move towards it, and as you near your objective you become more openly antagonistic. Pakistan has no such vision.

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