The President isn’t satisfied with Pakistan’s level of support for the War on Terror. In particular, he wants that country to stop tolerating safe zones for the Afghani Taliban, and to be more aggressive toward Pakistani Islamic groups. And after a year of trying to get them to do what he wants, he’s going to cut off military aid. This will not go well.
The basic mistake Trump’s national security team have made is to assume that someone is in charge in Pakistan. There are actually several power centers in that country that have competing and even conflicting priorities. Among the weaker power centers is the elected government, which has no effective control over the armed forces or the intelligence services. And the army and intelligence services each have competing power centers that correspond to the personal preserves of senior officers.
It is breathtakingly foolish for Trump to expect Pakistan to become an accessory to a policy that explicitly treats Islam as the enemy.
Thus, there are senior officers who have a stake in maintaining a strong partnership with the United States, because since the 1950s the US has been the principal source of military hardware and advanced training. These people really want Pakistan to collaborate with the US war effort in Afghanistan. By cutting off aid, Trump is cutting his best Pakistani allies off at the knees.
There are other senior officers who are strong Islamists, actually sympathetic to the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban. They want those Islamist groups to be dependent on Pakistan—and they want a Taliban victory in Afghanistan because that would install a government there that would be a client of Pakistan. These officers will block or blunt every effort to wipe out the Islamists along the Afghani-Pakistani border. By cutting off aid, Trump is actually helping this faction.
Two fundamental realities underlie this chaotic scene. The first is that Pakistan is fundamentally and self-consciously Islamic, and under the control of Sunni Muslims who discriminate against Shi’a Muslims as well as Hindus and Christians. Pakistan is heavily dependent on subsidies from the conservative Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia. It is breathtakingly foolish for Trump to expect Pakistan to become an accessory to a policy that explicitly treats Islam as the enemy.
The second fundamental reality is that all Pakistani foreign policy is ultimately about India. Pakistan defines itself in opposition to India, it developed nuclear weapons in response to India’s development of such weapons, it sought an alliance with the US in the 1950s to counter India, it developed strong ties to China to counter India. Everything is about India. When Trump cuts aid to Pakistan while warming ties with the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister of India, Pakistanis will perceive hostility to their most basic interests. The fact that India has even been active in Afghanistan, opposing the Taliban, will be seen by Pakistanis as encirclement, aided and abetted by the US.
Here are some predictable consequences of cutting off military aid to Pakistan. First, the only secure lines of logistical supply for our forces in Afghanistan will be, at best, slowed; at worst, blocked entirely. What are the alternatives? The former Soviet Central Asian republics (all still under the hegemony of Vladimir Putin), or the Islamic Republic of Iran. So Trump will need Putin even more.
Second, Pakistan will increasingly turn to China for aid and diplomatic support. The US will have lost whatever slim leverage it had in Pakistan.
Third, Pakistan will come increasingly under the control of the pro-Taliban Islamists in the security forces. It will more and more function as the kind of secure base for Islamists that Trump intended to prevent. Ultimately, that control will come to include a firm grip on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Thus there is an increasing risk that Pakistan could provide Islamist terrorist groups with access to nuclear weapons.
Fundamentally, Pakistan has very little in common with the United States. US policy since the 1950s has had some success in leveraging that minimal common ground to keep Pakistan more or less on our side. Trump has just given up that leverage.