x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Politicking on both sides hurts US-Pakistan ties

US plans to cut $800 million (Dh2.9bn) from military aid to Pakistan constitute a grave blow to bilateral relations. But the US will still pay almost $2bn toward Pakistan's military budget, which should remind us all that the two governments still need each other.

American politicians are fond of chastising anybody who spends taxpayer money irresponsibly. When voters' cash is wasted during an election season, the recriminations can be swift - and irrational.

There are plenty of reasons for a rupture in US-Pakistani relations, just no new ones. Yet on the surface, Washington and Islamabad have reached a new low. The Obama administration confirmed reports that up to a third of the $2.7 billion (Dh9.9 billion) in annual military aid is in question. Pakistan's army spokesman, General Athar Abbas, responded that the funding cuts would have "no significant effect" on his country's counter-terrorism push. We can do it ourselves, he seemed to say.

And yet make no mistake. Regardless of the rhetoric, the United States and Pakistan are allies out of necessity.

Both sides have reason to feel cheated. Islamabad resents the US military presence on its soil. And the country's military men have come under the microscope for the US commando raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The United States, meanwhile, can rightly argue that billions of its dollars have been squandered in failed efforts to tackle Pakistan-based militancy. Senior US officials' claim that the ISI sanctioned the killing of the journalist Saleem Shahzad, no doubt inflaming tensions further.

But as both sides also know, they are battling many of the same problems: a complex alliance of the Taliban, an amorphous Al Qaeda and a virulent ideology that seeks to destabilise both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As the South Asia analyst George Perkovich told the Associated Press this week, the latest spat signals "the end of happy talk". But talking will continue, as will the cheque writing. Even with an $800 million cut, about $1.9 billion in US military aid is still slated.

The bigger question is how to cut through the political grandstanding and find solutions that are mutually beneficial. US funding to Pakistan has for years been misdirected, narrowly channelled to the military when money aimed at humanitarian operations could be better spent.

There is no doubt that, as US politicians march into election season, Pakistan-bashing will continue. After the discovery of bin Laden near Abbottabad, Pakistan is an especially easy target. Equally, Pakistani politicians - Imran Khan in particular - are drumming up anti-American sentiment. Each side would be better served by admitting common interests, rather than pretending the opposite.