The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long history of incredibly fraught relations between the U.S. and Pakistan

Pakistani security officials stand guard outside a mosque in 2015. (Jamal Tarakai/European Pressphoto Agency)

It started as a tweet.

Early Monday morning, President Trump lashed out at Pakistan, accusing the country of “lies & deceit” and of giving safe haven to terrorists. “No more!” he wrote.

By Thursday, the State Department had announced that it would withhold up to $2 billion in U.S. aid until the country takes “decisive action” against the Taliban and an aggressive offshoot of the group, the Haqqani network. As The Washington Post reported, that number includes $900 million in Coalition Support Funds designated to reimburse Pakistan for fighting militants.

“No partnership can survive a country's harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

Pakistan responded with frustration and threats of its own, prompting fears that the two countries might become embroiled in an increasingly tense tit-for-tat. That could be a big problem for the United States, which relies on Pakistan as a key ally in its war in Afghanistan. Here's a look at what this latest fight between the two countries might mean.

How much military aid does the United States give to Pakistan? What is it used for?

The United States has given Pakistan at least $20 billion in security assistance since 2002. Much of that money has been dedicated to funding Pakistan's counterterrorism activities and paying for U.S.-made hardware. However, the flow of money to the region from the United States has shrunk in recent years, and Pakistan is not nearly as reliant on U.S. assistance as it's been in the past. Pakistan has developed a close relationship with China, for example, which is investing $62 billion in infrastructure projects in the country.

The suspension of aid may have the biggest impact on Pakistan's air force, which is still very dependent on U.S. aid and supplies.

The Trump administration is considering a range of other punishments, too, including sanctions, increased drone strikes and a withdrawal of support for Pakistan at global financial institutions such as the World Bank, my colleagues reported.

Have U.S.-Pakistan relations always been this fraught?

No. In fact, the United States was one of the first countries in the world to establish diplomatic ties with Pakistan after it achieved independence in 1947. In part, that was an effort to keep Pakistan from allying with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But Pakistan quickly became an important military asset. The United States was granted permission to lease Peshawar Air Station in the 1950s to keep an eye on Moscow. Islamabad also allowed the United States to launch spy missions from its territory. And Pakistan helped President Richard M. Nixon make his first visit to China. In exchange, Washington offered millions of dollars in aid and military support.

Relations cooled in the late 1980s, after Congress adopted the Pressler Amendment, which banned military and economic aid to Pakistan unless the nation was able to prove that the money was not being used to develop a nuclear weapon. (The United States felt empowered to make this decision in large part because Pakistan had lost the strategic importance it enjoyed during the Cold War.) By 1992, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Nicholas Platt, was suggesting that Washington include Pakistan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism because of the aid it was allegedly funneling to militants in India.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shifted relations again. Just as during the Cold War, the United States needed Pakistan for its military missions. Pakistan became one of the United States' most important strategic allies in the war on terrorism, even negotiating discussions with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to see whether they would hand over Osama bin Laden. (Pakistani leaders felt they had no choice, they said, because the United States threatened to bomb them “back into the stone age” unless they complied.)  In exchange, Washington dropped all sanctions and forgave a $1 billion loan. By 2004, Pakistan was considered a neo-NATO ally and allowed to buy weapons.

However, the U.S. war with Afghanistan created some complicated politics for Pakistan. U.S. drone strikes aimed at terrorists hiding in Pakistan killed and maimed civilians. American military incursions resulted in the deaths of Pakistani soldiers. And U.S. officials publicly questioned whether Pakistan was spending U.S. military aid on fighting terrorism.

The Bush and Obama administrations expressed frustration with Pakistan, suggesting that the country had not done enough to help eradicate terrorism. In 2011, the United States suspended $800 million in military aid.

So far, Trump and his advisers have seemed inclined to take a hard-line approach toward the country. In an August speech on Afghanistan, Trump remarked: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.” Pakistani officials reacted angrily, postponing a visit from a top State Department official and canceling a big bilateral visit.

Is the Trump administration right? Is Pakistan doing enough to get rid of terrorists and safe havens? 

It's true that members of the Taliban and the Haqqani network have used Pakistan as a sort of safe haven. Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence service of maintaining influence with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, responsible for many attacks on Afghan cities.

“Through those links, Pakistan has the ability to control at least some of the tempo of the fighting in Afghanistan — and it has done little to constrain it over the past two years, the officials say,” the New York Times reports.

But Pakistani officials argue that they're doing all they can to stamp out the terrorists who shelter in their borders. They note, too, that they've been victims of terrorist attacks.

How is Pakistan responding? 

Pakistani officials reacted to the news with measured frustration. In an interview with Geo News, Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif called the United States “a friend who always betrays.” Opposition politician Imran Khan went one step further, calling on Pakistan to “immediately remove” U.S. diplomatic and intelligence personnel. In a statement, he also advocated for Pakistan to shut down U.S. access to air and ground routes.