The screws, they tighten on Pakistan’s military establishment

Washington is negotiating by other methods

So the Obama administration has announced that it has suspended $800m in aid to the Pakistani military establishment, amounting to around a third of the annual outlay. This is a bold departure from the traditional throw-more-money-at-the-problem approach that has not quite worked for the United States, Pakistan or other countries affected by the depredations of the military-jihadi complex. It does not yet, however, amount to a decision to cut Pakistan loose. (As I advocated in a recent WSJ op-ed).

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, is right when he says a “pause” is not quite the same as “aid cut-off.” In recent weeks, Washington has ratcheted up the pressure on the Pakistani military establishment. (See this post). Cutting off military aid marks a further turning of the knob, albeit a much bigger one. Why? To make the Pakistani military more amenable to doing what Washington wants it to, and what since even before Osama bin Laden’s killing, General Ashfaq Kayani was refusing to do. What might these be? Taking down al-Qaeda linked taliban groups that Pakistan shelters on its soil, permitting US counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan and ensuring that Pakistan’s Afghan proxies do not disrupt a settlement in Kabul.

These are limited objectives. It is premature to conclude that the Obama administration has decided to break with its ally (the Pakistani military establishment), or even to make the rebalancing of civil-military relations a policy goal.

Even so, Washington’s move will have the effect of strengthening the civilian, anti-military political establishment, not least because the country’s elite will see that the all-powerful generals do not have the US behind them. This can galvanise greater opposition to the army although an open revolt is nowhere on the cards. It is unfortunate that at a time when the military establishment is at its weakest, the main political parties are fighting internecine battles. Given the ISI’s history of manipulating the country’s political parties, the eruption of conflict among Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif, Muttahida Quami Movement and Awami National Party might not be a mere coincidence.

As the US reduces its troop levels in Afghanistan and its dependence of Pakistan to provide supply routes, it becomes less beholden to the Pakistani military establishment. Unless Pakistan manages get China and Saudi Arabia to intervene on its behalf, the Obama administration can continue to mount pressure on General Kayani & Co.

The risk now is of the military establishment attempting out-of-the-box solutions to get out of the box.