WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's decision to suspend $800 million in aid to the Pakistan's military signals a tougher U.S. line with a critical but sometimes unreliable partner in the fight against terrorism.
President Obama's chief of staff, William Daley, said in a broadcast interview Sunday that the estranged relationship between the United States and Pakistan must be made "to work over time," but until it does, "we'll hold back some of the money that the American taxpayers are committed to give" to the country's powerful military forces.
The suspension of U.S. aid, first reported by the New York Times, followed a statement last week by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Pakistan's security services may have sanctioned the killing of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, who wrote about infiltration of the military by extremists. His battered body was found in June.
The allegation was rejected by Pakistan's powerful military establishment, including the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, which has historic ties to the Taliban and other militant groups and which many Western analysts regard as a state within a state.
George Perkovich, an expert on Pakistan with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Mullen's comments and the suspension of aid represent "the end of happy talk," where the U.S. tries to paper over differences between the two nations.
Daley, interviewed on ABC's "This Week," suggested the decision to suspend military aid resulted from the increasing estrangement between the U.S. and Pakistan. "Obviously there's still a lot of pain that the political system in Pakistan is feeling by virtue of the raid that we did to get Osama bin Laden," Daley said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday during a trip to Afghanistan that the U.S. would continue to press Pakistan in the fight against extremists, including al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"We have to continue to emphasize with the Pakistanis that in the end it's in their interest to be able to go after these targets as well," Panetta said. "And in the discussions I've had with them, I have to say that, you know, they're giving us cooperation in going after some of these targets. We've got to continue to push them to do that. That's key."
The U.S. has long been unhappy with Pakistan's evident lack of enthusiasm for carrying the fight against terrorists to its tribal areas, as well as its covert support for the Taliban and anti-Indian extremist groups.
But tensions increased in January, when CIA security contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis who he said were trying to rob him. Tensions spiked in May, when U.S. forces killed bin Laden during a covert raid on a home in Abbottabad, the location of Pakistan's military academy.
The $800 million in suspended aid represents 40 percent of the $2 billion in U.S. military aid to Pakistan, and according to the Times includes money for counterterrorism operations.
The report said some of the money represented equipment that can't be set up for training because Pakistan won't give visas to the trainers. About $300 million was intended to reimburse Pakistan for the cost of deploying 100,000 troops along the Afghan border, the newspaper said.
A senior U.S. official confirmed that the suspension came in response to the Pakistani army's decision to significantly reduce the number of visas for U.S. military trainers.
Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas declined to comment on the suspension. He pointed to comments by Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who last month said U.S. military aid should be diverted to civilian projects.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political and defense analyst, said the U.S. decision to suspend aid is an attempt to increase pressure on Pakistan, but he believes it could hurt both sides.
Rivzi said the move could make it harder for the U.S. to push the Taliban into peace talks, in preparation for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, he said, the Pakistani military relies on U.S. aid in its fight against militant groups.
"This kind of public denunciation needs to stop, and they need to talk," Rivzi said. "They shouldn't go to the brink because both will suffer."
But Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, said the loss of aid would have no effect on military operations. "In the past, we have not been dependent on any external support for these operations, and they will continue," Abbas said.