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U.S. decision to withhold military aid to Pakistan could backfire

Experts say the decision to hold back $800 million won't necessarily force Pakistan to clamp down on militancy. The move could instead reinforce a growing sentiment within Pakistan that the country needs to reduce its dependence on the United States.

July 12, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Soldiers and police secure the scene of explosions at a military ammunition depot in Sihala, near Islamabad, Pakistan.
Soldiers and police secure the scene of explosions at a military ammunition… (T. Mughal / European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Washington's decision to hold back $800 million in military aid to Pakistan probably won't prod Islamabad into clamping down on militancy, and instead could imperil a fragile alliance at a time when the United States needs Pakistan's cooperation in securing a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan, experts said Monday.

The decision to suspend the funding, more than a third of the $2 billion in yearly aid to Pakistan's military, comes amid growing frustration in Washington over Islamabad's refusal to pursue Afghan Taliban militants who launch attacks on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan from strongholds in Pakistan.

The U.S. recently shared intelligence with Islamabad on the locations of Afghan Taliban bomb-making factories in Pakistan's tribal belt. But officials in Washington suspect that elements within the Pakistani security establishment tipped off the insurgents, who fled the locations well before Pakistani soldiers arrived.

Withholding the aid, White House Chief of Staff William Daley told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, was necessary because Pakistani officials "have taken some steps that have given us reason to pause on some of the aid" earmarked for the country's military. Included in the amount held back is $300 million meant to reimburse Pakistan for battling militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

However, the decision probably will diminish rather than bolster Washington's influence over Pakistan's military, and lessen Islamabad's incentive to cooperate with the U.S. in the battle against militants, experts in Pakistan said.

Moreover, the move could reinforce a growing sentiment in Pakistan that the country needs to reduce its dependence on the U.S. for both military and economic aid and become more self-reliant, even if it means enduring more economic turmoil.

"There is a growing chorus of voices in Pakistan that this American alliance is not a good thing for the country," said Ayaz Amir, a political commentator and lawmaker. "There are a whole lot of Pakistanis who would say good riddance; we will manage on our own. We have been talking about self-dependence and breaking our begging bowls, and this would be a fine beginning."

Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan were already plagued by deep, mutual mistrust when the secret U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani military city of Abbottabad in May sank the partnership to a new low.

Pakistani leaders called the operation a clear breach of their country's sovereignty, and saw Washington's decision to not inform Islamabad in advance as an illustration of the lack of trust the U.S. has in Pakistan as an ally. For the U.S., the presence of Bin Laden in Abbottabad for five years renewed long-held suspicions that Pakistan's intelligence community, or elements within it, knew that the Al Qaeda leader was there and failed to act. Those suspicions and Bin Laden's death emboldened congressional critics of U.S. spending in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Since the raid, Pakistan has taken steps to regain Washington's trust by allowing CIA agents to visit Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad to look for further intelligence about Al Qaeda, and permitting the U.S. to question his wives, who were taken into the custody of Pakistani authorities.

But Washington was deeply troubled by Pakistan's failure to act on the intelligence it supplied about the Taliban bomb-making factories in the tribal belt, as well as Islamabad's refusal to approve visas for U.S. military trainers who were supposed to work with Pakistani paramilitary troops in the country's volatile northwest.

Though it appeared that the decision to suspend aid was aimed at increasing Washington's leverage over Pakistan, it could backfire, Amir said. The U.S. is looking to Pakistan to play a pivotal role in Afghanistan, particularly in helping bring Afghan Taliban leaders to the negotiating table. The U.S. is beginning its troop drawdown in Afghanistan this year, and it plans to complete its transfer of security duties to Afghan troops by the end of 2014.

"But at a time when the endgame in Afghanistan has started, the U.S. should be increasing its ability to influence the actors, rather than allowing anger or peevishness against the Pakistani military to dominate its thinking," Amir said. "This decision will create a greater bunker mentality in the minds of the Pakistani military."

If the U.S. envisions future cutbacks in aid to Pakistan, it also could push Islamabad closer to regional allies such as China, said Javed Hussain, a security analyst and retired Pakistani brigadier.

"It would call for a lot of belt-tightening, but it also would draw Pakistan nearer to China and push it further away from the U.S.," Hussain said. "And that's not what should happen.... The U.S. needs to be more patient. People here feel that America is bullying Pakistan.

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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