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Pakistan Defends Anti-Terrorism Record After U.S. Cuts Aid

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Demonstrators take part in a protest against U.S. aid cuts, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday.

Pakistan reacted defensively on Friday to an announcement that the White House would suspend most security assistance to its military.

The suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid is meant to pressure Pakistan into taking action against militant groups.

It followed days of tensions that began with a New Year's Day tweet by President Trump accusing Pakistan of "deceit" for taking billions of dollars in aid while sheltering terrorists the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.

The U.S. accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists from the Haqqani network, a charge Islamabad denies, and of maintaining relations with the Afghan Taliban.

Still, Pakistani officials appeared to tone down the initial emotional reaction.

"We are in difficult times," Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, tells NPR. "Efforts are still underway to find common ground and identify steps that can be taken jointly."

A statement issued Friday by the foreign ministry said Pakistan "helped decimate Al-Qaeda and fight other groups" that exploited lawless border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goal posts are counterproductive in addressing common threats," the statement said. It urged "mutual respect and trust along with patience and persistence."

Those remarks were in stark contrast to the stronger previous responses by Pakistani officials.

"The past teaches us to be careful in trusting the U.S.," Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted Wednesday in Urdu. "Thousands of our civilians, soldiers, generals, brigadiers and young lieutenants became victims of the war initiated by you."

However, on Friday, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Aizaz Chaudhry said in a statement: "We are engaged with the U.S. Administration on this issue and await further details."

"It, however, needs to be appreciated that Pakistan has fought the war against terrorism largely from its own resources which has cost over $120 billion in 15 years," he said.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday that the U.S. aid cutoff includes equipment and funds to Pakistan's military as well as reimbursements for expenses accumulated by Pakistan in fighting militants.

The timing of the announcement and extent of the suspension seemed to take Pakistani officials by surprise. "It was not that expected, but we live with it," says Faisal, the foreign ministry spokesman.

A Pakistani military spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Seeking to smooth tensions with the U.S. does not mean Pakistan will bend to public browbeating, says Zahid Hussain, an author and columnist for the English daily Dawn.

"It has made Pakistan more defiant," Hussain tells NPR. "You can't make a country cooperate by arm-twisting."

Analysts say Pakistani officials view Trump's administration as erratic. The undiplomatic New Year's tweet, the barrage of public criticism and open praise of India's role in Afghanistan may result in a Pakistani response that continues the very policy it stands accused of, they warn.

They specifically refer to Trump's remarks on India during his August speech outlining his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.

"We appreciate India's important contributions to stability in Afghanistan," Trump said. "We want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development."

"What's really complicated the relationship in the last few years is the growing intimacy between the United States and India," says Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based columnist on political affairs for Pakistan's The News International and co-host of a podcast on political affairs called How to Pakistan.

"Pakistan cannot, will not, absolutely will never accept Indian dominance in this region," he said. "Even if Donald Trump tweets that Pakistan is an unfaithful and disloyal ally. It doesn't matter. Pakistan's national security posture is defined by how it perceives itself with respect to India."

Analysts say Pakistan believes the Taliban will reflect Pakistan's interests in any upcoming negotiated settlement in Afghanistan – and push back on India's growing influence there.

"Pakistan is definitely feeling very vulnerable," says Ammara Durrani, a sociologist and writer on Pakistani politics. "As Afghanistan's next-door neighbor, Pakistan has the biggest stake in whatever the outcome in Afghanistan will be."

Complicating every discussion on Pakistan's role in Afghanistan is the dramatic rise in the region of an Islamic State affiliate, seemingly beyond the control of regional players. It has battled American, Afghan and Taliban forces. It has relentlessly attacked Kabul, Afghanistan, targeting Shiites and security forces and killing hundreds last year. The group has also targeted Pakistan, although far less frequently than Afghanistan.

The Pakistani foreign ministry statement alluded to those concerns in its Friday statement: "Emergence of new and more deadly groups such as [ISIS] in Afghanistan calls for enhancing international cooperation."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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