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How Likely Is A Complete Breakdown In U.S.-Pakistan Relations?

Supporters of Pakistani religious groups rally to condemn a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump in Karachi on January 2.
Supporters of Pakistani religious groups rally to condemn a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump in Karachi on January 2.

With the dawn of the new year, bilateral relations between Pakistan and the United States are worsening after President Donald Trump accused Islamabad of giving “safe haven to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Amid Pakistani denouncements, Washington then suspended nearly $1 billion in security assistance to Islamabad until its takes "decisive action" against Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network militants operating from its territory.

The question now is whether the two countries are heading toward a complete breakdown in their fraught relations or can yet again pull back from the brink.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan-Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department, sees little chance of relations improving in the short term.

“This is a New Year's gift to the hard-liners in both countries anxious to see a divorce,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “What could really set off a downward spiral in relations is if Pakistan responds by tightening or closing U.S. air and ground access to Afghanistan.”

Islamabad has yet to announce any such measures. But Pakistani Foreign Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif said their alliance with Washington was over.

“We do not have any alliance with the United States. This is not how allies behave,” he told the Wall Street Journal on January 5.

But Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for Pakistan’s powerful military, adopted a more reconciliatory tone. He told Pakistan’s Geo News Television that the effects of Pakistan’s actions against the Haqqani network will be visible in due time.

“We are allies [with the U.S.], and a war cannot be fought with allies,” he said. “There are several occasions where Pakistan has sided with the U.S. At one time, Pakistan had the option to become the ally of Russia, but it opted to join hands with the U.S. instead.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, however, sees relations between the two countries heading for a divorce.

Now the director for South and Central Asia at Washington’s Hudson Institute think tank, Haqqani told the BBC that by accusing Pakistan publicly, Trump has demonstrated a level of candor that has never been demonstrated at such a high level.

“The American dilemma has been that Pakistan is useful to the United States, and so is the usefulness more important than the lack of strategic convergence or is the lack of strategic convergence, which results in the deaths of American personnel in Afghanistan, more significant?” he asked. “President Trump is moving in the latter direction.”

Relations between nuclear-armed Pakistan and the United States have been volatile for decades. Their Cold War alliance ended with Washington sanctioning Islamabad for nuclear proliferation in the 1990s after fostering it as a frontline ally in a decade-long guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of its neighbor, Afghanistan.

Islamabad again became a U.S. ally after terrorist attacks killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

In the words of Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan has played a double game with the United States, providing “just enough sporadic assistance in capturing members of Al-Qaeda and logistical support for our forces to give an impression of helpfulness, while at the same time harboring, training, and assisting violent extremist groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network that have killed thousands of American, Coalition, and Afghan soldiers and an even greater number of innocent Afghan civilians,” he wrote.

Khalilzad says Washington has concluded that Pakistan is unlikely to cooperate. "A step that is being debated in the United States is how to pressure Pakistan's military," he told Radio Free Afghanistan, adding that Pakistani security officials accused of aiding the Afghan insurgency could be put on a blacklist or travel ban or see their assets under U.S. control frozen.

He said Washington is also considering measures that could further squeeze the struggling Pakistani economy. Such measures, he says, can be undertaken by global financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, or rich donor countries such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, and U.S. allies in Europe.

Michael Kugleman, a South Asia specialist at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, says Islamabad’s reaction to such pressures will determine its future relations with Washington.

“If Pakistan comes out with angry statements, I think the relationship would settle into a typical uneasy status of coexistence,” he told Radio Mashaal. “If Pakistan has to retaliate with closing the NATO supply routes, that could make things worse.”

For now, Weinbaum sees Washington waiting to see whether Islamabad undertakes any tangible steps.

“A next step by the U.S. would likely be the removing of Pakistan's non-NATO alliance status, though with military sales already effectively blocked, it would mostly have symbolic meaning,” he said.

Wienbaum, however, says a U.S. declaration of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism will have deep financial and political implications for a country already struggling with its international image.

“It would make for a virtual divorce of the countries, and a difficult step given U.S. military commitments in Afghanistan,” he said.

Given that the United States killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur in special forces operations and drone strikes inside Pakistan, Marvin says he fears that unilateral U.S. military incursions into Pakistan in pursuit of Afghan insurgent leaders hiding there will have more serious consequences.

“This would turn the relationship from unfriendly to adversarial,” he noted.