WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD - U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan, suggesting he would be in favor of cutting all aid to Islamabad over the government’s refusal to take more decisive action against terrorism.
The president tweeted late Friday that ending U.S. assistance to Pakistan would be a “Good Idea,” in response to a tweet from U.S. Senator Rand Paul.
“I’m introducing a bill to end aid to Pakistan in the coming days,” Paul said in his Tweet. “My bill will take the money that would have gone to Pakistan and put it in an infrastructure fund to build roads and bridges here at home.”
The suggestion of cutting all funding to Pakistan, a long-time ally with a history of uneasy relations with the U.S., runs counter to the message White House officials were putting out earlier in the day.
“I just want to be clear that it’s been suspended. Nothing has been reappropriated,” a senior administration official said of the $1.9 billion in aid. “We’re hopeful that we can lift the suspension and the aid will be able to go forward.”
'A matter of frustration'
But the official also warned, that the Pakistani government had pushed President Trump’s patience past its limits.
“He’s monitoring Pakistan and how Pakistan has responded to our requests," the official said. "It was a matter of frustration. The kinds of information that were coming to him were not satisfying."
“There has been ample time for Pakistan to show that it is taking our requests seriously,” the official added, calling the U.S. requests “very clear.” “Unfortunately,we have not seen the type of meaningful action we are seeking.”
The Trump administration announced its decision to suspend the aid Thursday, saying it would remain frozen until Islamabad takes "decisive action" against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The funding freeze affects $1 billion for military equipment and another $900 million in payments to defray the cost of counterterrorism operations, officials said Friday.
“There has been ample time for Pakistan to show that it is taking our requests seriously,” a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.
“We have made very clear what our expectations are,” the official said. “Unfortunately, we have not seen the type of meaningful action we are seeking.”
Pakistan: US move undermines cooperation
But Pakistan’s military dismissed the U.S. action as a meaningless deterrent that would serve only to undermine security cooperation and regional peace efforts.
“Pakistan never fought for money but for peace,” army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor told VOA.
Ghafoor also denied U.S. allegations that Pakistan was giving either the Taliban or the Haqqanis any sort of safe haven from which they can attack U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Military-led counterterrorism operations, Ghafoor said, have targeted terrorists “indiscriminately,” including the Haqqani network at a “heavy cost of blood and treasure.” He insisted there are no more “organized” terrorist sanctuaries inside Pakistan.
“Casting doubts on our will is not good to our common objective of moving toward enduring peace and stability. Pakistan shall continue its sincere efforts in [the] best interest of Pakistan and peace,” the army spokesman said.
In a separate statement Friday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry criticized the U.S. for “arbitrary deadlines” and “unilateral pronouncements.” It asserted that Islamabad has fought the anti-terrorism war “largely” from its own financial resources.
“Emergence of new and more deadly groups such as Daesh in Afghanistan call for enhancing international cooperation,” the Pakistani statement said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
And the ministry called U.S. pressure “counterproductive in addressing common threats.”
The war of words between the two allies was triggered Monday, when U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to slash funding for Pakistan, accusing it on Twitter of providing a haven to terrorists and playing U.S. leaders for “fools.”
In his Twitter comments, Trump said Washington has received “nothing but lies and deceits” in return for giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in the last 15 years.
Pakistani officials say they have received $14 billion and that Washington still owes the country $9 billion.
Both the U.S. action and Trump’s remarks have upset many in Pakistan.
A leading opposition politician, Imran Khan, on Friday demanded the government categorically refuse to accept any future U.S. assistance in the wake of Trump’s remarks.
“Despite Pakistan clearing up North Waziristan, still half of Afghanistan is in Taliban hands. So, who is responsible for this?” Khan asked. “To make Pakistan the scapegoat of a failed strategy in Afghanistan is not just a travesty of justice, it is deeply insulting and humiliating.”
Despite the tough talk, some U.S. officials are hopeful Washington and Islamabad can resolve their differences.
“We are still working with Pakistan and we will restore the aid if we see decisive movements against the terrorists, who are as much of a threat against Pakistan as they are against us,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Friday.
Senior U.S. officials also said some of the suspended funding could be made available on a case-by-case basis in order to protect U.S. national security interests.
A senior U.S. official warned, however, that the government in Islamabad had pushed President Trump’s patience past its limits.
“He’s monitoring Pakistan and how Pakistan has responded to our requests,” the official said. “It was a matter of frustration. The kinds of information that were coming to him were not satisfying.”
Pakistan’s reluctance to undertake counterterrorism operations, specifically in the Waziristan region, has been a major irritant in relations with the U.S., which sees the area as a training ground for Taliban and Haqqani militants.
U.S. officials say such safe havens remain intact, allowing the Taliban and Haqqani to conduct attacks in Afghanistan, such as a May 31, 2017 bombing that ripped through Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, killing more than 150 people.
Still, the Trump administration’s hard line with Pakistan is not without risk.
“For all the talk of how the U.S. may finally be taking its pressure to a new level to get the results it wants, pushing harder could backfire in a big way,” cautioned Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
“If Pakistan feels sufficiently provoked by tough U.S. measures, it could retaliate in ways that damage U.S. interests in South Asia,” Kugelman said. “The most likely scenario is that Pakistan could shut down NATO supply routes on its soil, which would make America’s difficult war effort in Afghanistan all the more challenging.”
The Pentagon sought Friday to downplay such concerns, but Trump administration officials admit that is a risk, and say there have been some preliminary talks with other allies in the region about providing lethal aid to coalition forces.
“I’m not saying it would be impossible, but it would not be easy,” the senior administration official said.
The U.S. has been forced to find alternate supply routes before.
In 2011, Pakistan shut down U.S. supply routes through its territory and airspace for months after U.S. airstrikes that mistakenly hit and killed 24 Pakistani border forces.
“We haven’t exactly entered uncharted territory in U.S.-Pakistan relations,” Kugelman said, noting both countries have found ways to forge ahead in the past. “There’s a good chance that if the screws start to tighten on Pakistan, then Pakistan may be compelled to take some modest measures to appease the U.S. in the short term.”
For now, though, it’s the frustration that has come to the fore.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, in an interview with the local Geo News television, said the U.S. was “now neither a friend nor ally but a friend who always betrays.” He went on to say that Islamabad will have to review its ties to Washington and to strengthen relations with key regional patterns, including China, Iran and Russia.
VOA's Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.