Last week was a new low for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, beginning with a stormy tweet message from the U.S. president and culminating in cutting off U.S. security assistance to Islamabad. This included $255 million in Foreign Military Financing and about $900 million in the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). In response, Pakistan’s foreign minister declared that the United States is a “friend who always betrays.”
Historically, Washington has provided Pakistan three types of assistance: military, economic and the CSF funds. The CSF, seen by Pakistan as reimbursement for operations conducted by its troops inside Pakistan, has served as a slush fund that Islamabad uses to farm terrorism.
Make no mistake, Trump is neither wrong nor is he the first U.S. president to criticize Pakistan for its deceit and cut off American assistance.
The U.S. military assistance to Pakistan first started in 1954 under President Dwight Eisenhower and lasted for almost 11 years, in which Washington provided nearly $2.5 billion in economic aid and roughly $700 million in military aid.
However, in 1965, following an arms embargo imposed on Pakistan, President Lyndon Johnson ended U.S. military aid to Pakistan after the outbreak of the first India-Pakistan war. For the next 16 years, until 1982, Pakistan received minimal support from the United States.
Between 1977-1979, the Carter administration stopped all economic assistance to Islamabad after Pakistan began its secret uranium enrichment program. At the time, Pakistan’s prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously stated that Pakistan would build a nuclear bomb even if its people had to “eat grass.”
However, Washington resumed its support in 1982 under the Reagan administration after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. For the next nine years, Pakistan received roughly $5 billion for military and developmental purposes.
But, in 1990, the U.S. again stopped its support because of Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Until 2001, America’s carrot-and-stick approach alternated between providing Islamabad negligible assistance and imposing strict sanctions on its nuclear program.
However, that changed in 2001 after the U.S. entered Afghanistan and renewed its support to Pakistan in 2002. Since then, Pakistan has received over $33 billion in U.S. military and civilian assistance, including nearly $21 billion (an estimated $4.5 billion in FMF and nearly $15 billion in CSF funds) in military support.
Nonetheless, the last six decades of U.S. support has neither helped cultivate an ally in Pakistan nor has it meaningfully changed Pakistan’s behavior. Although Pakistan has weathered previous U.S. aid cuts, each past episode in the bilateral relationship has driven the partnership more toward an irreparable trust deficit.
The first event that created a Pakistani distrust of the United States was in 1962 during the Indo-Sino border conflict when the Kennedy administration decided to provide India with military assistance. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president at the time, felt the U.S. had stabbed Pakistan in the back.
Since then, the relationship has transformed to a one best described as “transactional.” This has made it tough for Washington to establish a quid-pro-quo relationship with Pakistan with regards to its assistance. In truth, Pakistan has never really trusted the United States.
The urgent question is: What does it portend for the future of this tempestuous partnership?
Washington is likely to take additional punitive actions against Islamabad, including stripping Pakistan of its non-NATO ally status, sanctioning specific Pakistani army and intelligence personnel with ties to terror groups and targeting Pakistani banks and financial institutions that are used as laundering schemes.
More likely is an increase in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A full breakdown in bilateral ties seems unlikely at the moment, but it could well steer in that direction if Washington also sanctions Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, and begins to handle the ISI the way Washington now deals with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
However, the immediate concern is whether U.S. measures could prompt Pakistan to retaliate by shutting down the U.S. access to Pakistan’s land routes, ports and airspace. Since 2001, Washington has relied on Pakistan’s air and ground routes to transport lethal and nonlethal supplies to support its Afghan war efforts.
Pakistan has been paid between $1,500 to $1,800 for each cargo truck traveling from Pakistan’s Karachi port to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has compensated Pakistan fabulously in return for Pakistani airspace, both in CSF funds and in military assistance.
Another retaliatory measure Pakistan could take is to refuse, or limit, visa services to the U.S. diplomats, intelligence and civilian persons, or selectively expel them from Pakistan.
However, in the absence of cheaper, shorter and acceptable alternative routes, U.S. dependence on Pakistani supply lines has provided Islamabad an important leverage.
The more expensive alternative to Pakistani routes is the Northern Distribution Network, a patchwork of overland, rail and sea routes established in 2008, which crosses through the Central Asian republics and Russia and links Afghanistan with the Baltic and Caspian ports.
However, while Washington has previously used this one-way transit route, the ongoing U.S.-Russia tensions have made American access to this route somewhat complicated.
Between the Pakistani and the Central Asian supply lines, two other routes could serve as possible alternatives, potentially providing Washington other options instead of depending on Pakistan.
The first is the strategic Iranian Chabahar port, a regional transit and transport corridor between Iran, India and Afghanistan. The port, which circumvents Pakistan, has opened direct trade routes between India and Afghanistan.
India, which operates two berths in the seaport, has already used the port to send its first wheat shipment to Afghanistan in October. However, given the U.S.-Iran discord, the United States could potentially use the services of Indian companies as contractors to resupply nonlethal cargo through Chabahar into Afghanistan.
Using Chabahar would not only prove cheaper and reduce delivery time, but it could potentially open a two-way cargo flow from Afghanistan. Additionally, the Zaranj-Delaram highway, or Route 606, connecting Afghanistan’s southern Nimroz province to the Iranian border, would facilitate direct cargo deliveries to Kabul and across Afghanistan.
The partnership could also solidify the growing U.S.-India ties after Trump called on India to take a larger role in Afghanistan’s development.
The second alternative is to adopt a spider web of supply lines approach. This would entail using U.S. freight contractors to supply nonlethal cargoes such as fuel, food, construction material and equipment through commercial shipments via land routes in Central Asia, mainly Uzbekistan.
At the same time, the United States can use the services of military contractors to transport lethal goods and personnel by air through various U.S. installations in the Persian Gulf, including the Al Udeid Air Base and the As Sayliyah Army Base in Qatar, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, and the Naval base in Bahrain.
To be sure, Pakistan’s supply routes are a potential choke point for America’s war efforts in Afghanistan. Under current conditions, Sun Tzu’s saying that “the line between disorder and order lies in logistics” rings true. The Afghan war has become a war of logistics.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts for a military to supply to a 17-year-old war, but the current scale of U.S. operations in Afghanistan has shrunk by nearly 10-fold since 2012.
In the end, Chabahar’s easy accessibility could potentially help overcome Washington’s dependence on Pakistani supply routes and should be seriously explored.
Javid Ahmad is a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid