It’s an old tactic for an old war, but it shows the focus and emotions are fresh for the Trump administration. By suspending hundreds of millions of dollars of security aid to Pakistan, the White House is striking the first geopolitical blow of its renewed war in Afghanistan. And it’s a familiar – and not entirely unfair – message: if the war isn’t going well, Pakistan is to blame.
Afghanistan is experiencing its worst security crisis in perhaps more than a decade, with ISIS moving into its least stable areas. In the past week, Afghan officials reported that three French nationals were among a group of ISIS fighters killed by an airstrike.
US officials declined to comment on whether French nationals had managed to join ISIS’s new redoubt, but ISIS are finding it easier to get a foothold in the country, partly because NATO allies are so utterly exhausted with trying to “win” in Afghanistan.
But you can’t begin to win in Afghanistan unless youshave the assistance of Pakistan. Pressure on Pakistan is a keystone of something quite rare: an actual set of policy goals and objectives laid out by the Trump administration, specifically over how to “win” in Afghanistan.
It’s been tried before: the Obama administration pushed Islamabad into military operations in its tribal border regions to crack down on the Pakistani Taliban, but also the Afghan Taliban and other militants the group sometimes shelters in its midst. The Obama White House offered billions worth of aid in an attempt to sway Pakistan’s hand, and threatened – often in the pages of the New York Times – to reduce the funding if they didn’t see results. Towards the end, they too froze some aid.
But the Trump administration is – rhetorically at least – protesting louder, freezing all aid not mandated by law, the State Department said Thursday. It’s unclear exactly how much that effects, but here’s what could happen now:
- 1. Pakistani officials dig in, taking the broader view that the Trump administration is a short-lived outlier in the global community, and deciding that they don’t need to launch a massive and costly military operation in the tribal areas that will bring reprisals to their populated cities. They decide to live without the money, for now, cut off the land supply route into Afghanistan that the American operations there depend upon, and wait it out. Security in Afghanistan continues to worsen, and eventually the US tries to restore aid and relations to get Pakistan on side again.
- 2. Pakistan launches some short-lived and tokenistic operations against the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which has been behind a lot of the more sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan. The US beings to pay the aid money again, and the Pakistani military elite – who run a lot of the country and economy – keep seeing the millions they depend upon. Not a huge amount changes, but the point is made, likely to the sacrifice of Pakistani lives.
- 3. There’s a fudge: Pakistan keeps letting the US use the land route to resupply its 14,000 troops in Afghanistan (that’s a very expensive 42,000 meals that would otherwise have to be flown daily into a landlocked country). The US slowly allows some “exceptions” to the aid ban to increase, and essentially most of the money keeps coming. But Trump has made his rhetorical point.
Many of the key decision makers around Trump have personal history in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis served there, as did National Security Advisor HR McMaster. Chief of Staff John Kelly’s son – a Marine – died there.
The move to censure Pakistan may not be a new tactic for Washington, but it is steeped in these men’s mutual shared past, and suggests a renewed focus on America’s longest – and ongoing – war.