The Trump administration is sending a clear message to Pakistan — crack down on terrorism or lose hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. Last year, the U.S. withheld $255 million. Now it's putting more on hold until Pakistan denies safe haven to extremists who are undermining neighboring Afghanistan. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump started the year by blasting Pakistan for its, quote, "lies and deceit." Following up on that tweet, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced today that the U.S. is withholding security assistance to Pakistan.
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HEATHER NAUERT: Until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network — we consider them to be destabilizing the region and also targeting U.S. personnel — the United States will suspend that kind of security assistance to Pakistan.
KELEMEN: She wouldn't give a dollar figure, and says Pakistan could still receive the aid. Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution warns this approach could backfire.
MADIHA AFZAL: My sense is that this will be unlikely to work because Pakistan has been bracing for a reduction in or cutting off security assistance since the Trump administration has come into power. And the public shaming has sort of increased anti-Americanism both in the civilian population as well as sort of in the rhetoric from the state.
KELEMEN: She fears that Pakistan's military could respond by doubling down on its support for the Haqqani network and other extremist groups. Afzal, author of the book "Pakistan Under Siege," would like to see the U.S. do more to support the civilian government to give it more of an incentive.
AFZAL: Pakistan has sort of this narrative of betrayal by the U.S. and abandonment by the U.S. And the current rhetoric that's coming out of the administration is only feeding into that narrative.KELEMEN: But this is a relationship that has been troubled for decades, whether it was about Pakistan's nuclear weapons program or, more recently, its selective fight against terrorism, as Alyssa Ayres puts it. She's with the Council on Foreign Relations.
ALYSSA AYRES: We've been down this road before many times with Pakistan, specifically on the question of how they handle terrorism selectively. So, you know, we're back in another cycle. We've tried positive incentives. Now it looks like we're trying to, you know, ratchet more disincentives here.
KELEMEN: She welcomed other news today that the State Department has added Pakistan to a watch list for violating religious freedoms. Ayres says there's always a danger of pushing too hard, but the Trump administration has many things to consider when it comes to Pakistan.
AYRES: What do we seek from our allies? What is in our national security interests? How can we succeed in supporting Afghanistan's stability and transformation if there are terrorist groups receiving sanctuary in Pakistani territory that keep that conflict alive?
KELEMEN: The State Department says this administration is more blunt than in the past and has made it clear what it wants Pakistan to do. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The State Department.