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Lead: US President Donald Trump has gone ballistic with his tweets since New Year’s Day/Photo: UNI

Too much should not be read into the US president’s rudeness towards Pakistan. It is unlikely to create much impact as it is friends with the Chinese and does not exactly live on US foreign aid

~By Seema Guha

Pakistan has been on notice ever since US President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan and South Asia policy last August. His latest salvo on New Year’s Day was typical. There was no mincing of words. It was forthright and demeaning to Pakistan’s national pride.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing in return but lies & deceit, thinking our leaders as fools,” the president tweeted. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

However, apart from blocking the $225 million paid to the army, no other measures have so far been announced. Trump is likely to do so soon. Unless the full range of measures is laid out, it is difficult to judge what impact it will have on Pakistan-Afghanistan ties and the larger South Asian neighbourhood.

Withholding funds paid to the Pakistan Army for its help in fighting the war on terror in Afghanistan will not make much of a difference. The US has been doing this for some time now. In 2016, during the second term of President Barack Obama, the Pentagon withheld $300 million. Last July, Trump refused to disburse $350 million. Pakistan does not exactly live on foreign aid and stopping payments to the army is not a game-changer which will make the GHQ in Rawalpindi mend its ways.

Perhaps a decade ago, if the US had stopped the flow of funds to Pakistan, it could have created a crisis. But not anymore. Pakistan has become the centre of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative and has been pledged over $50 billion for the project by China. Beijing hopes to transform Central Asia, including Pak­istan, into a thriving economic hub which will promote its economic and strategic power. So Pakistan will not sink because of lack of funds. The Saudis, too, have deep pockets and can pour in money whenever the need arises.

Having said that, the fact remains that the US continues to wield massive influence on the world. Pakistan’s engagements with the World Bank and its Financial Action Task Force, as well as with the IMF and debt markets, can all suffer. If the US wishes to act tough, Pakistan can be hit hard. But the fact remains that Trump will finally need Pakistan’s co-operation if it wishes to stabilise Afghanistan.

US President Donald Trump may or may not know this, but his senior officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the US army know this. Pakistan also knows it. It will bide its time and wait for things to cool down. But much depends on what Trump finally announces. So far, it is only a tweet.

Speculation is rife over the options before Trump to make the Pakistan Army deliver more. There has been talk of sanctions, not against Pakistan as a whole, but individuals from the army and the ISI or those elements that are hand-in-glove with the Afghan Taliban or other extremist organisations designated as terror outfits by the US. To make it more effective, this would have to go through the UN Security Council. Here, it will be vetoed by China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend. Chinese foreign office spokesman Geng Shuang has already said: “Pakistan has made enormous efforts and sacrifices for the fight against terrorism and has made very outstanding contributions to the global cause of counter terrorism. The international community should acknowledge that.” Russia is also likely to act against any US move in the UNSC because of the bitter ties with America (though not with Trump).

The other option could be unilateral military action to take out targets inimical to US interests inside Pakistan. Obama did that in 2011 when US Special Forces carried out a spectacular operation and killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. This could well happen again. The world will come to know only after such an operation is successfully completed.

Trump’s Twitter tirade

It is unprecedented for a US president to conduct his foreign policy through tweets but the times, they are a-changin’

Relations between the US and Pakistan have deteriorated ever since the new American administration took over. President Donald Trump didn’t help matters this week when he used a Twitter tirade the way a Texas barbecue chef uses charcoal lighter fluid. He said: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

Given Trump’s attitude towards nations with a majority Muslim population, his rhetoric is hardly shocking, but few global leaders communicate policy by Twitter, a medium not known for its nuanced presentation of information.

Box picture: US troops conduct a patrol in Baylough, Afghanistan/Photo: Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army
Box picture: US troops conduct a patrol in Baylough, Afghanistan/Photo: Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi then called a meeting of his National Security Committee which issued a statement noting “deep disappointment… (recent remarks) were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation”. Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif added that Trump was trying to blame Pakistan for the US’ failure to win the war in Afghanistan and “that is the only reason he is flinging accusations at Pakistan”.

Another way of looking at this outburst is that Trump is capable of thinking that the enemy of his friend is also his enemy. So, his praise for PM Narendra Modi in November at the APEC summit must be considered part of his perception of the region’s issues.

The Pakistani leadership was quick to claim that some of the money cited was actually reimbursement for costs incurred for participating in the US-led “war on terror” and supporting US operations in Afghanistan.

And in what is a further deterioration of ties, the US suspended security assistance to Pakistan over what it sees as failure by the government to adequately clamp down on terror groups within its borders, the State Department announ­ced on January 4. “We will not be delivering military equipment or transfer security related funds to Pakistan unless it is required by law,” State Department spokes­woman Heather Nauert told reporters. The value of the assistance suspended is over $1.15 billion. The amount being withheld includes $255 million in foreign military funding from the 2016 fiscal year which had not yet been dispersed and which the administration previously announced it would be withholding, as well as $900 million in coalition support funds from the same year and other unspent money from previous fiscal years.

Coming to his tweet, there is no historical precedent of an American president communicating what amounts to “made up on the fly” US policy via social networking. In December, Vice-President Mike Pence secretly travelled to the largest US military base in Afghanistan to announce: “Trump has put Pakistan on notice.” This was shortly after a Pakistani court ended Hafiz Saeed’s detention in Lahore. Saeed had a leading role to play in the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 that left 166 people dead. This release outraged India and the White House condemned it.

Lt Gen HR McMaster, who served in Afghanistan, leads Trump’s National Security Council (NSC). He has been critical of how Pakistan meddled in Afghan affairs. Additionally, Lisa Curtis, the NSC’s senior director for South and Central Asia, brought critical views about Pakistan from her previous work at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Not surprisingly, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Wash­ington, tweeted support for Trump’s tweet, saying it was “a promising message to Afghans who have suffered at the hands of terrorists based in Pakistan for far too long”. In contrast, Pakistan maintains that it has continued a military operation to push out terrorists from its territory.

For a change, Trump appears to have not got his core intelligence from Fox News. Their website reported his tweet and added: “The US has long accused Istanbul of allowing militants to operate relatively freely in Pakistan’s border regions to carry out operations in neighbouring Afghanistan.”

Only Fox News could confuse Islamabad and Istanbul. Istanbul has a waterfront.

—Kenneth Tiven in Washington

In India, Trump’s tweet was greeted with whoops of delight by the establishment and television channels, coming as it did after the debacle over the visit of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav’s mother and wife to Islamabad. The war of words and renewed firing across the LoC in recent weeks, which killed soldiers and an army officer, made Indians jubilant. “The Trump administration’s decision has abundantly vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as the role of Pakistan is concerned in perpetrating terrorism because at the end of the day, a terrorist is a terrorist… terror is terror and does not spare any single nation, any single country, any single region,” said Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Many hardliners in the Indian establishment believe this is the time to hit Pakistan. They say the Indian Army, which is facing an uprising in Kashmir, should cross the border, go deep into Pakistani territory and destroy terror camps there. But this is easier said than done. The Pakistan Army may look the other way in case of any unilateral action by the US, considering the superior firepower of the American army, but it will not allow the Indian Army to do the same. There have been surgical strikes across the border, but confined to areas near the LoC. A major operation similar to that of the US Special Forces is not sustainable without an armed conflict. The rest of the world will not allow two nuclear-armed nations to go to war over this. “India’s diplomacy has worked well. No, this is not the time to get aggressive. Instead, India needs to concentrate on continuing its diplomacy, and at the same time, hit back when Pakistan is killing our soldiers. That is being done. There is no need to up the ante because of a tweet from the US president,” said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

Pakistan, of course, is smarting at the humiliation. Its incessant talk about India and Afghanistan’s role in terror attacks inside Pakistan have found few takers. Pakistan’s army is worried that the growing warmth between India and the US could give Delhi an unfair advantage in Afghanistan, where Rawalpindi has long tried to maintain strategic depth. Some Pakistanis, including ambassador Husain Haqqani, now at the Hudson Institute in the US, tweeted over Pakistani quibbling over the aid from Washington: “So, somehow taking $28 (or $22 or $16 or less) billion for unfulfilled promises of tackling terrorism is somehow better than taking $33 billion? How about understanding others don’t owe us & promises must be kept to maintain international credibility? #Pakistan.”

Though Pakistanis as a nation are angry with Trump’s rude tweet, many feel that it is time the army stopped playing games and allowed the civilian authorities to do their work. Pakistan, at the moment, is in an unenviable position with a weak government in power, and elections are due at the end of the year. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, now removed from office, while criticisng Trump, added: “I have always said that we should look at ourselves often and ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously. But every time I have said this, the comment has not been taken seriously and sometimes it has been termed as ‘Dawn Leaks’ and at other times as other conspiracy theories.”

Sharif has long battled the army and worked for good relations with India. Dawn Leaks refers to a story in Pakistan’s leading English newspaper that the civilian government had, during a high-level security meeting in 2016, said that Pakistan was being isolated internationally unless action against certain militant groups was taken. The army ensured that a close aide of the then prime minister, suspected of leaking the news, was sacked.

The fact remains that unless the Pakistan army loses its stranglehold over politicians, nothing much can change there with or without Trump’s threats.

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