Throughout the US war in Afghanistan, times of struggle have often led US officials to blame Pakistan. While President Trump’s Afghan policy speech stopped short of blaming Pakistan outright for the war’s woes, he did say that a “strategy for how do deal with Pakistan” was a vital part of the war.
Trump said Pakistan “often gives safe harbor to agents of chaos of violence,” and that this is “worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states.” He added that the US “will no longer be silent” about Pakistan’s safe harbors.
At the same time, Trump declared Pakistan a “valued partner” against common enemies, and praised Pakistan’s contributions to the conflict so far. He did, however, complain the US is paying Pakistan “billions and billions of dollars.”
That claim isn’t actually true. The US owed Pakistan $900 million for services rendered in 2016, but the US paid only a fraction of that, withholding the rest because Defense Secretary James Mattis said they “hadn’t done enough,” though also because the Pentagon spent much of the money owed to Pakistan on other programs.
Either way, Trump insisted the Pakistan partnership couldn’t survive if they kept giving safe haven to militants. He further demanded Pakistan “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.”
The US relationship with Pakistan is a lot more complicated than Trump’s comments would suggest. Pakistan’s intelligence services have historical ties to Islamist factions, including the Taliban, but by no means does this mean the Pakistani government as a whole is pro-Pakistan.
Moreover, the “safe havens” argument is misleading, as the terrorist groups in question largely are not being granted a safe haven by any part of Pakistan’s government. Rather, the groups have practical control over certain areas within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and have endured irrespective of Pakistani offensives against those areas.
The trouble with FATA strongly mirrors the problems the Afghan military also has with both ISIS and the Taliban. Many times Afghan offensives are launched, large death tolls claimed, and victory declared, only for the same groups to reemerge as soon as the fighting ends. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, their military has fared little better.
What this will mean in practice isn’t clear, as President Trump is making his specific plans secret. In committing to an escalation in Afghanistan, however, he likely is also laying the groundwork for more tensions with Pakistan.