On Wednesday, President Obama met the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, to discuss relations between the two countries. The meeting came at a time when there is sharp criticism for both the U.S. providing Pakistan with more than $1.6 billion in aid, and the ongoing drone campaign in the region. It is the latter issue that Prime Minister Sharif has been especially critical of. However, those expecting any major development on either of these issues will likely be disappointed. The U.S. is in a position where it would be more beneficial in the short term to continue aid, while Pakistan is almost dependent on it.
The U.S.' military and economic aid has long been the subject of controversy. Politicians like Senator Rand Paul have pushed for cutting all aid to Pakistan, claiming that the country is not a true ally. More alarming, there have been numerous accusations that the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's main intelligence agency, is secretly providing support to insurgent groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
The claims that Pakistan is potentially working with the insurgency behind the U.S. back are still up for debate; most of the accusations are still based off of hearsay and secondary sources rather than any concrete evidence. Still, it can't be denied that relations between the two countries have become increasingly strained within the past couple years. Tensions have flared up due to incidents such as the closing of the Khyber Pass supply route in 2010, the U.S.' raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbotabad in 2011, and especially the continuous drone strikes in Pakistan. U.S. drone strikes are so hated in Pakistan that the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan gained a significant amount of local support and international attention for his demands to halt all the drone strikes.
However, in the background of this tension the United States and Pakistan still cooperate (if begrudgingly) in efforts against the Taliban. The Paksitani military has been waging an counterinsurgency campaign against entrenched Taliban forces in the northwestern frontier of their country. There have been successes, such as the expulsion of Taliban forces from Swat valley and Southern Waziristan in 2009. Yet this has come at a cost of nearly 49,000 Pakistani deaths and further strain on Pakistan's already weak economy.
The U.S.' financial aid package of $1.6 billion in military support alone makes up nearly one-quarter of the Pakistani Armed Forces' budget. The loss of funding would be a significant blow to the government's ability to fight the Taliban and to maintain internal security in an already troubled nation. This could lead to a situation where extremists are able to expand an even stronger foothold in the country and not only jeopardize the lives of Pakistani civilians, but also those of Afghanis and NATO personnel. It could also have further impact on travel through the Khyber Pass, making the withdrawal from Afghanistan costlier and potentially having a negative impact on that country's economy. In a worst case scenario, the violence and instability could escalate to a point where the security of Paksitan's nuclear weapons are threatened.
With these factors in mind, the chances are highly unlikely that President Obama or Prime Minister Sharif will give any ultimatums concerning drone strikes or aid to Pakistan in the immediate future. However, that doesn't rule out the possibility of future talks changing U.S.-Pakstani relations in a more substantial way. Depending on how the withdrawal from Afghanistan plays out next year and how it affects the Taliban and regional stability, either side may find themselves in a stronger position to negotiate. The U.S. could push for a stronger presence in Pakistan and for the government to be much more proactive in counterinsurgency. Alternatively, Pakistan could pressure the U.S. to either decrease the frequency of drone attacks or include Pakistani officials in the decision making process for the strikes. Until that time, all we can really look forward to in the region is the status quo.