- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Trump administration on Thursday suspended nearly all bilateral security aid to Pakistan and called out the Islamabad government over its record on religious freedom, sending an already troubled relationship to a new low in a clash over how to conduct the war against terrorists.

In a sign of mounting U.S. frustration over Pakistan’s record in confronting terrorist networks operating in the South Asian nation, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the halt in aid will remain in place until Islamabad “takes decisive action” against the Taliban and other jihadist groups.

Pakistan, which claims its military has already engaged in a costly internal crackdown on terrorists over the past three years, appeared poised on Thursday to respond to the Trump administration’s move by cutting key American supply routes that run through the nation to U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan, a step it has taken before in the face of friction with Washington.

Ms. Nauert did not specify how much U.S. assistance would be halted, saying only that details were still being worked out. Her announcement Thursday followed a statement earlier in the week by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that the U.S. government was already withholding $255 million in aid because of Pakistan’s supposed unreliability as a counterterrorism partner.

The aid announcement coincided with the State Department’s decision to place Pakistan on a special U.S. “watch list” of nations accused of committing “severe violations of religious freedom.” The move came in a congressionally mandated survey on the state of religious freedom around the world.

The United States has given more than $30 billion in aid to Islamabad since 2001, with much of the money tied to military training and Pakistani purchases of U.S.-made weaponry. The relationship has been tumultuous though, highlighted by the U.S. special forces mission in 2011 that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a hideout inside Pakistan.

While relations had strengthened again in recent years, as the Pakistani government launched military operations against jihadists in the country, things deteriorated over the summer amid complaints from U.S. officials that the Pakistanis weren’t doing enough to go after a group known as the Haqqani network, which is accused of targeting American forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump fueled the feud with a New Year’s Day tweet saying Pakistan has repaid the U.S. for its aid over the last 15 years with “lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” the president tweeted.

There were reports that more than $1 billion dollars in U.S. aid earmarked for Pakistan could be halted.

The new action targets payments of so-called Coalition Support Funds that the U.S. pays to Pakistan to reimburse it for its counterterrorism operations, The Associated Press reported. Those funds are typically paid later in the year, and already require U.S. certification, so the immediate impact of Thursday’s announcement was not immediately clear.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, tweeted Thursday that he is introducing a bill to end aid to Pakistan and put the funds in an infrastructure fund “to build roads and bridges here at home.”

But some U.S. analysts warn that a downgrading of U.S. assistance may drive Islamabad toward a military alliance with China, which is reportedly planning to construct its second overseas military base in Pakistan.

The Pakistani embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Pakistani officials issued veiled threats at Washington earlier in the week.

According to the satellite television network Khyber News, Islamabad’s U.N. Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi said Wednesday that her nation has “contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counter terrorism operation anywhere in the world.”

“We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated,” she said.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif also lamented Wednesday that “history teaches us not to blindly trust the U.S.”

“You carried out 57,800 attacks on Afghanistan from our bases, your forces were supplied arms and explosives through our soil, thousands of our civilians and soldiers became victims of the war initiated by you,” Mr. Asif tweeted, according to the leading English-language Pakistan newspaper Dawn.

In its religious freedom report, the State Department also said it was also redesignating 10 other “countries of particular concern” for having either engaged in or tolerated egregious violations of religious freedom as proscribed by Washington’s International Religious Freedom Act: North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Eritrea, Myanmar, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

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