The Obama administration's decision to suspend $800 million of its $2 billion in annual security aid to Pakistan raises the question of why the United States should continue to give Pakistan any military aid at all.
The White House acted after Osama bin Laden was found living near Pakistan's leading military academy and Pakistan then expelled U.S. military trainers. Islamabad should see this as a serious warning that Washington has all but run out of patience with its double games. Both sides will pay a high price if this goes on too long.
Ending all military aid would be a serious mistake. This country tried that before with disastrous results. In the 1990s, Washington — incensed about Pakistan's illicit nuclear program and no longer worried about a post-Soviet Afghanistan — cut off nearly all support. Pakistan's military and the rest of the country are still bitter about it.
A total cutoff would destroy any hope of Islamabad's continued cooperation, as limited and cynical as it is, which is essential to defeating al-Qaida and other militants. The Pentagon needs Pakistan as a supply route for troops in Afghanistan. If there is any possibility of a political deal with the Taliban, Pakistan will have to be involved.
Ending $1.5 billion in annual civilian assistance — for energy, schools and other projects — would make even less sense. The aid needs to be better managed, but the hope is that over time it will contribute to a more stable, less suspicious Pakistan.
The administration's challenge is how to calibrate the military aid suspension to maximize leverage without pushing Islamabad even closer to the extremists or to the edge. We don't minimize the difficulty. If there is any chance of getting the Pakistanis to clean up their act, and fending off deeper cuts in Congress, this is the moment.
Of the military aid withheld, $300 million was to compensate Pakistan for deploying 100,000 troops on the Afghan border to combat terrorism. They are battling militants in the FATA region — and taking casualties — but not the Haqqani network targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. An additional $500 million worth of equipment — body armor, rifles, radios, night-vision goggles and helicopter spare parts — hasn't been delivered or is being held in Pakistan until the government grants visas to the American trainers and to 200 or more diplomats and civilians assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. After suggesting that they didn't need U.S. aid, and would rely more on China and Iran, Pakistan's power brokers may be taking the suspension more seriously. Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Inter-Services Intelligence, visited Washington recently, and a senior U.S. official said those talks made progress.
President Barack Obama has offered Pakistan a broad relationship and its best chance to chart a new path. Rather than seize this opportunity, Pakistan's leaders have stoked intolerance, anti-Americanism and an exaggerated fear of India. Perhaps most delusionally, they continue to see the fight against extremists as a favor to Washington. They are running out of time to salvage Pakistan's future.
Obama needs to keep working with Islamabad. But he is right to show that the days of unconditional American support are over.
© 2011 New York Times News Service