- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 2, 2018

U.S.-Pakistani relations entered the new year on a rocky note Tuesday as officials in Islamabad reacted angrily to the news that the Trump administration will block millions in American foreign aid to Islamabad over concerns that the South Asian nation was not doing enough to combat extremist jihadi groups based inside the country.

The bilateral relations have faced multiple crises over the years over U.S. charges Pakistan was not doing enough to curb Islamist terrorism fueling the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan complains Washington does not appreciate its efforts or the strains the global war on terror have placed on the country. But President Trump’s harsh criticism in a New Year’s Day tweet added fresh fuel to the quarrel and sparked angry streets protests in Pakistan.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced the plan to withhold $225 million in foreign assistance to Pakistan during a press briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York. During the briefing, Mrs. Haley accused Islamabad of playing “a double game for years” with Washington over its selective support of certain Pakistani-based terror groups.

“They work with us at times, and they also harbor the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan,” she said. ” … That game is not acceptable to this administration. We expect far more cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against terrorism.”

In his Jan. 1 tweet, Mr. Trump said the U.S. had “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid and had gotten nothing in return but “lies & deceit,” saying Pakistan gives “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. pressure campaign sparked massive protests across Pakistan, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale was summoned by the Foreign Ministry to explain the president tweet.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert characterized Mr. Hale’s visit with Pakistani officials as “a professional meeting, in tone,” adding the decision to withhold foreign aid to Islamabad had been in the works long before Mr. Trump’s tweet.

Pakistan’s top military and national security leaders called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, to publicly condemn the U.S. actions.

The administration’s renewed focus on curbing extremist groups such as the Taliban, al Qaeda and Islamic State in South Asia “had been useful in creating a better understanding of each other’s perspectives on the best way forward to achieve durable peace and stability,” across the region, council members said in a statement Monday.

But the White House’s recent comments “were completely incomprehensible … [and] struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation” council members said.

“Despite all unwarranted allegations, Pakistan cannot act in haste and will remain committed to playing a constructive role” to American and NATO-led counterterrorism operations in South Asia, “not just for the sake of its own people, but also for the peace and security of the region and international community,” Pakistani officials added.

In Washington, White House and State Department officials said the criticisms fully reflect major tenets of Mr. Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan and the war against terror groups in the region.

“The president outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia earlier this past year … and said that Pakistan is not fulfilling its obligations,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at Tuesday’s White House briefing. “We know that Pakistan can do more to fight terrorism and we want them to step up and do that.”

Previous administrations have faulted Pakistan’s ambiguous policies toward certain jihadi groups which have found a haven in the country, while continuing to train, finance and support other groups viewed by Islamabad as assets to expanding its influence in the region.

Groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the extremist organization responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the Haqqani Network which Washington says is directly responsible for repeated attacks on U.S. and local forces in Afghanistan, have reportedly been financed and supported by elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) as part of Pakistan’s long-running military and security rivalry with India.

Islamabad has repeatedly rejected the charges, going so far as to even deny the existence of the Haqqani Network or its affiliates inside Pakistan. But the Trump White House has taken an increasingly unyielding line toward Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, taking square aim at Islamabad’s ties to extremist groups.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Mr. Trump said during an August speech unveiling his new South Asia strategy.

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