Even by the standard of their tumultuous relationship, the growing feud between the United States and Pakistan is unusually serious, with the potential to trigger a breakdown in ties that could threaten cooperation on intelligence, nuclear safety and America’s war in Afghanistan.
Tensions flared this week after President Donald Trump lashed out in his first tweet of the new year, saying Pakistan had repaid U.S. assistance with “nothing but lies & deceit,” a claim that Pakistani leaders labeled as “completely incomprehensible.”
The Trump administration, led by senior officials known for taking a hard line on Pakistan, has been considering a range of punitive measures to force Islamabad to eliminate safe havens used by militants blamed for stoking violence in Afghanistan. The United States has withheld $255 million in military aid since last year.
Experts say that Trump’s penchant for public shaming and Pakistani leaders’ need to demonstrate their strength ahead of elections this year have increased the potential for an explosive cycle of retaliation.
Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the overt recriminations made it harder for the two countries to set aside their differences and, at least publicly, espouse a desire to focus on shared interests in Afghanistan.
“That constructive ambiguity is a buffer against a divorce that neither wants but both threaten all the time,” he said.
The latest flare-up accelerates a downward trajectory in a fragile anti-terror allegiance forged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While Pakistan has at times figured as a valued counterterrorism partner, helping to detain key 9/11 suspects and enabling American drone strikes, it has also been one of the most problematic for U.S. policymakers.
Successive American administrations have used a range of tactics, including private pressure and billions of dollars in military and civilian aid, to induce Pakistan to take more decisive action against terrorists within its borders.
American officials believe Pakistan has allowed the Taliban’s reclusive leadership, along with members of the Haqqani network, an aggressive Taliban offshoot, to shelter within its borders, fueling a war that has claimed over 2,000 American lives and consumed massive U.S. resources over 16 years.
Pakistani leaders deny those claims, saying that militants in Afghanistan launch cross-border attacks of their own and chiding the United States for failing to recognize their efforts to curb militant groups. They blame poor governance and corruption in Afghanistan for a conflict that prompted Trump to authorize additional U.S. troops.
“We don’t think you can explain away the whole Afghanistan imbroglio just by putting blame on Pakistan,” Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, said in a recent interview.
Trump administration officials, vowing to get results where previous administrations failed, are considering additional measures, including cutting aid and withdrawing Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
On Thursday, the State Department announced it had placed Pakistan on a “watch list” of countries seen as failing to protect religious freedom, a modest step that nevertheless symbolizes waning U.S. patience.
The United States could also consider imposing sanctions, increasing the tempo of drone strikes outside of tribal areas or withholding backing for Pakistan at global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Deliberations on Pakistan are led by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who appears to share the concerns of other senior officers who served in Afghanistan.
Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, has argued that the United States should pressure Pakistan to curtail arms exports into Afghanistan, expel Taliban leaders and seize their assets.
It’s not yet clear how much time the Trump administration will give Pakistan before moving to impose new measures. Pakistani authorities so far have shaken off the threats.
Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, a Pakistani military spokesman, told the Geo news channel on Wednesday that while Pakistan still considers the United States an ally, “no amount of coercion can dictate us how to continue.”
Pakistan’s increasingly close ties with China – including a new development deal worth more than $62 billion for infrastructure and energy projects – might help soften the blow of any new punitive measures from the United States.
“Trusted, friendly countries will support us at this critical time,” said Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar-based former Army brigadier who is now a defense analyst.
Experts warned that additional U.S. measures might prompt Pakistan to take retaliatory action of its own, possibly including closing road routes and airspace the United States relies on to support its campaign in landlocked Afghanistan.
In 2011, Pakistan suspended access to those routes after U.S. aircraft killed more than two dozen Pakistani military personnel along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later apologized for the incident.
It was one of a series of crises during a turbulent year in which Pakistan curtailed intelligence cooperation following the arrest of a CIA contractor and the secret U.S. raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
According to Sameer Lalwani, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, Pakistan might also suspend cooperation on safe-against terrorism.”
The comments followed an angry tweet from President Donald Trump on Monday that the United States had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the past 15 years.
“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted.
Pakistan civilian and military chiefs on Tuesday rejected “incomprehensible” U.S. comments and summoned American Ambassador David Hale to explain Trump’s tweet.
Pakistani U.N. Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi said in a statement that her country’s fight against terrorism was not based on any consideration of aid but on national interests and principles.
“We have contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counter terrorism operation anywhere in the world,” Lodhi said. “We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated.”
Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.
The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.
In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.
STATE DEPT: PAKISTAN NEEDS TO EARN AID
At the State Department on Tuesday, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pakistan knew what it needed to do, including taking action against the Haqqani network and other militants.
Pakistan needs to “earn, essentially, the money that we have provided in the past in foreign military assistance,” she said.
Islamabad bristles at the suggestion it is not doing enough to fight militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.
The committee, in a statement issued by the prime minister’s office, did not name Trump but spoke of “deep disappointment” at a slew of critical comments from U.S. officials over the past few months.
“Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation,” it said.