The Trump administration is strongly considering whether to withhold $255 million in aid that it had delayed sending to Islamabad, according to American officials, New York Times reported on Saturday.
The decision comes months after Pakistan forces freed a Canadian-American family held captive by militants in Afghanistan for over five years. In the operation, the army allegedly also captured one of the abductors.
US saw it as a potential windfall: He was a member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, and a potential source of valuable information about at least one other American hostage.
The Americans demanded access to the man, but Pakistani officials rejected those requests, the latest disagreement in the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the countries.
The administration’s internal debate over whether to deny Pakistan the money is a test of whether President Trump will deliver on his threat to punish Islamabad for failing to cooperate on counter-terrorism operations. Relations between the United States and Pakistan, long vital for both, have chilled steadily since the president declared over the summer that Pakistan “gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror”.
US, which has provided Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid since 2002, said in August it was withholding the $255 million until Islamabad did more to crack down on internal terrorist groups. Senior administration officials met this month to decide what to do about the money, and American officials said a final decision could be made in the coming weeks.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive discussions, did not detail what conditions Pakistan would have to meet to receive the aid. It was not clear how the US found out about the militant’s arrest, but an American drone had been monitoring the kidnappers as they moved deeper into Pakistan.
The Trump administration has foreshadowed a cutoff in recent days with harsher language. Last week, in announcing his national security strategy, Trump again singled out Pakistan for criticism. “We make massive payments every year to Pakistan,” he said. “They have to help.”
Vice President Mike Pence reinforced that message in a visit to Afghanistan just before Christmas, telling cheering American troops that “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice.” The reaction of his audience was notable, analysts said, since the Pentagon has historically been one of Pakistan’s defenders in Washington because of its longstanding ties to the Pakistani military.
Responding to Trump’s demands, in his recent press briefing DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor had said that it was time for US and Afghanistan to ‘do more’.
In July, the Pentagon said it would withhold $50 million in military reimbursements for Pakistan because the country had not taken “sufficient action” against the Haqqani network.
A State Department official said Pakistan’s actions will ultimately determine the course of “security assistance in the future.” The official said conversations with Pakistan are continuing and declined to provide further comment.
The Pakistani government did not respond to a message seeking comment.
After Coleman, Boyle and their children were freed, the Pakistani military made no mention of the captured Haqqani operative. Instead, the military released a statement saying the operation’s “success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment towards fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy.”
Trump said it was “a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan.”
American officials are eager to learn what the militant knows about Kevin King, an American university professor who was kidnapped along with Timothy Weeks, an Australian citizen, in August 2016. King is believed to be alive but ill and American officials are hopeful that he and Weeks might be released.
Another American, Paul Overby, vanished in 2014 in Afghanistan. Overby was trying to interview the leader of the Haqqani network when he disappeared.
Gen Joseph L Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees Pakistan and Afghanistan, declined to provide any details on the Haqqani operative who was seized other than to say he was “probably pretty important” and that any militants involved in hostage-taking were “significant.”
General Votel would not say whether the Trump administration is considering withholding aid from Pakistan to prod Islamabad to improve its counter-terrorism cooperation.