WASHINGTON — The Trump administration notified Congress on Wednesday that it was putting $255 million in military assistance to Pakistan into the equivalent of an escrow account that Islamabad can only access if it does more to crack down on internal terror networks launching attacks on neighboring Afghanistan.
The dueling messages sent to Pakistan — promising aid but attaching strings if the country’s counterterror efforts fall short — are part of an increasingly confrontational turn in an alliance that has long been strained.
The United States has provided Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid since 2002. But the annual funding has declined in recent years as Washington became increasingly disenchanted with Pakistan’s quiet support for the Haqqani network and the Taliban, whose attacks have been responsible for the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan.
Still, American officials have long recognized that Pakistan has tried to crack down on terror groups, and plays an important role in facilitating supply shipments to the United States military in Afghanistan.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Mr. Trump said.
He added: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
State Department officials said that Mr. Trump’s promised changes would bring explicit conditions on military aid. Once Pakistan more aggressively pursues the Taliban and Haqqani network, the aid will be released — a determination to be made by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, officials said.
Last week, Mr. Tillerson suggested that the United States’ patience with Pakistan was nearing a breaking point.
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“We’re going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area,” Mr. Tillerson said.
Critics of American aid to Pakistan said the administration was still not being tough enough.
“I would have preferred that the money just disappeared,” said C. Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University. “But if they’re going to do this, they should have said Pakistan can’t buy strategic weapons that could be used to attack India, such as F-16s.”
The $255 million in military assistance was the largest portion of $1.1 billion in aid authorized by Congress in 2016 that also included money for counternarcotics operations and health initiatives. If the State Department had failed to notify Congress in the next few weeks of its intention to spend the money, it would have been returned to the United States Treasury.
Rather than lose such a carrot, Trump administration officials said they wanted to use the money as incentive for Pakistan to change its behavior. By effectively putting the funds into escrow, the Trump administration also allows its own ongoing review of its policy toward Pakistan to continue unaffected by aid concerns, officials said Wednesday.
The Obama administration tried to use the sale of eight new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan in the same way to persuade Pakistan’s government to better police its border with Afghanistan. Congressional strings on the deal made it less attractive to Pakistan.
In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said at a town-hall meeting in Islamabad: “You know, it’s like the old story: You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
Mr. Trump’s explicit call for India to become more engaged in Afghanistan demonstrated that Washington’s long history balancing the two South Asian rivals has tipped in India’s favor, which has deeply alarmed Islamabad.
But the Trump administration can ill afford to ignore Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal, which has served as a source for nuclear materials sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya.