WASHINGTON -- For months now, those who follow the tortured relationship between Pakistan and the United States have been predicting that Washington was on the verge of losing patience with its partners in Islamabad.
This weekend it finally happened.
On July 9, "The New York Times" reported that the U.S. government was suspending or canceling some $800 million in equipment and aid to the Pakistani military. That amounts to around one-third of the $2 billion in U.S. security assistance to the country scheduled for this year.
The next day the news was confirmed by White House Chief of Staff William Daley, who said that "we'll hold back some of the money the American taxpayers have committed to give" until the United States and Pakistan can overcome unspecified "difficulties" in their relationship.
The decision by the Obama administration marks a new low point in ties between the two countries.
"I think that this is the start of a real cold period in U.S.-Pakistani relations," says Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "I think that the Pakistani military has underestimated the degree to which the United States is simply sick of the excuses."
To be sure, the Pakistanis have their own complaints.
Earlier this year the scandal surrounding CIA security contractor Raymond Davis, who was arrested after shooting two men in the Pakistani city of Lahore, spurred worries among many Pakistanis about the extent of U.S. intelligence activities within the country. U.S. drone attacks on militants in Pakistan's tribal regions have triggered demonstrations protesting civilian casualties and presumed infringements on Pakistan's national sovereignty.
The Americans, meanwhile, have found themselves nurturing suspicions about the depth of Islamabad's commitment to the antiterror fight -- suspicions driven by signs that elements in the Pakistani military and security forces secretly sympathize with jihadi terrorists. The revelation that Osama bin Laden had been living for years in a house just a few hundred meters away from a leading military academy has only reinforced those doubts. More recently, according to news reports, a joint operation with Pakistani forces against militants went awry when the targets were tipped off.
People react to the death of Osama bin Laden in Times Square in New York on May 2.
Larry Pressler, an former U.S. senator who passed legislation in 1985 limiting aid to Pakistan in retaliation if the country continued to develop its nuclear weapons, welcomes the Obama administration's decision to hold back the assistance to Pakistan. The move, he says, expresses the frustration of many in Washington: "My assessment is that [the suspension of aid] may improve relations, and we should cut it even more."
Pressler says that most of the U.S. funds are used by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan's powerful spy agency, to impose "dictatorship" on the country's people. "As long as Pakistan is controlled by the ISI, we should consider it a terrorist state," he says. "There could be nothing better than cutting aid."
The Obama administration made the decision to suspend the aid after Islamabad canceled the visas for more than 100 U.S. Special Operations Forces who were scheduled to train Pakistani troops.
Some $300 million of the aid withheld was designated as reimbursement for money spent by the Pakistani Army on counterinsurgency operations. The rest was set to be handed over in the form of specialized equipment, such as military communications gear, night-vision goggles, and spare parts for helicopters.
On July 11, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas responded to the news of the withheld aid by saying that army operations would not be affected. "We have stated in the past we have conducted operations against militants in the tribal region -- and they have been successful operations -- using our own resources without taking any external support," Abbas said. "Those operations in the tribal areas will continue."
He also pledged that Pakistan would do everything in its power to keep the relationship between the two countries on track.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, wonders whether the Pakistani military is really that blase about the Americans' decision. So far, he says, Islamabad has been happy to benefit from the U.S. training programs.
"By all accounts Pakistan is taking advantage of this recent training by sending their best and their brightest officers, which is evident in the fact that a number of them have been promoted either on return or even while they were here," Nawaz says.
Sign Of Frustration
Nawaz says that, in his view, the aid suspension doesn't represent a tipping point in relations -- merely the latest culmination of a "wave of unhappiness on both sides."
U.S. policymakers had to weigh the decision to withhold aid against the possibility of a negative effect on Pakistan's participation in counterinsurgency operations against militants. Apparently, says Andrew Exum, that is a chance that Obama administration officials are willing to take.
"I think that the United States is running some tremendous risks by doing this, but they're probably risks that are overdue," Exum says. "If the United States is trying to build up a relationship built on trust with the Pakistani military, that's not happening. I think it's pretty clear that neither side trusts the other."
On the face of things, the effect on general Pakistani well-being is small. Pakistan's economy is worth around $170 billion a year. The amount of the suspended aid, says Nawaz, pales in comparison to the $10 billion-$12 billion in remittances the country receives each year from the millions of Pakistanis working overseas.
Still, some experts warn that the indications of U.S. disapproval could hurt Pakistan in its negotiations with international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which has set up an $11 billion loan package to keep the country afloat.
No Better Option?
And then there are larger strategic concerns. Earlier this year, some politicians in Islamabad responded to U.S. criticisms by vowing to seek closer ties with China, described as Pakistan's "all-weather friend."
Nawaz regards such talk as "theater," saying that China cannot hope to match the quality of the equipment and training provided by Washington.
He notes that, despite all the tough talk, the Pakistanis have so far conspicuously refrained from the sorts of measures they have used to express displeasure about U.S. policy in the past.
"Despite the cumulative effect of all these actions that I've mentioned, the Pakistanis have not resorted to cutting down the land route into Afghanistan, cutting it off. They've done that before but not this year," Nawaz says. "And even now they're not even talking about it, which means that there is a desire to keep this relationship going."