Has Trump Put Pakistan On Notice?
What to make of President Donald Trump’s latest tweet on Pakistan? Just another outburst stemming from arbitrary information? A well-thought out policy statement? A routine early morning tweet with no tangible action to follow? No need for frayed nerves if the last bit is true. There will be a significant fallout if he does follow through his threat of putting Pakistan on notice. The regional calculus doesn’t allow for any aggression on part of the US. Pakistan enjoys more leverage but would rather prefer a status-quo on its dysfunctional relationship with the frenemy.
First, a little backstory on the latest tweet. Trump doesn’t tweet often about Pakistan or Afghanistan for that matter. The last major tweet was in October, when a joint Pakistan-US operation secured the release of an American-Canadian family, held captive by the Taliban for almost five years.
Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2017
Between that and the latest ultimatum, Trump remained silent on Pakistan. The latest tweet might have been the outcome of a recent New York Times story about Americans planning to suspend aid to Pakistan. The $33 billion reference and the fifteen years between 2002 and 2017 match the contents of the story. Trump does read the Times — even if you call it hate-reading — and often responds swiftly to stories published in it.
Still, it will be foolish to brush off the latest tweet as another angry rant. US has been following a new policy for Afghanistan since last August, which calls for an indefinite stay of the American troops and beefed up operations against the Taliban. Hot pursuit of the militants inside Pakistani territory is also on the table. US defense and state secretaries recently visited Islamabad and engaged in what could be described as tense exchanges with the Pakistani leadership. Trump’s latest tweet can also be corroborated by the remarks made by Mike Pence while addressing troops in Afghanistan last December.
President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the President said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.
Connect the dots and one can see a pattern emerging in the Pakistan-US relationship. The Haqqani network remains at the center of conflict, which successive American governments have failed to eliminate. The powerful Pakistani military once extended significant support for the group as well as for other outfits. A spate of attacks in Pakistan, including the 2014 massacre of school children in Peshawar, triggered a shift in the policy. The military has weeded out the militants from the once lawless tribal areas. Still, US thinks it hasn’t severed links with the Haqqani network and needs to do more.
Pakistan has long hedged its bets on the Afghan Taliban as a bulwark against the expanding Indian influence in the region. Afghanistan has an elected government that doesn’t view this favorably. The same government also supports elements involved in terrorism inside Pakistan. The inimical relationship between the two — and the continued presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan — means things will not get better anytime soon.
As for the $33 billion reference, Pakistan counters by highlighting the $123 billion in financial losses incurred in the war on terror. Thousands of Pakistanis also lost their lives during the last fifteen years. While these losses can’t entirely be blamed on US, as there were many skeletons in the closet, the public perception in Pakistan suggests otherwise.
China has seen the broken relationship between the two as an opportunity. It has emerged as a key player in the region, building a massive trade route in Pakistan and engaging with all the players involved. Thousands of Chinese nationals are flocking to Pakistan to work on infrastructure projects. Russia, which once viewed Pakistan as a rival, has also started approaching the powerful military, inking hardware deals and participating in joint drills. The budding romance is peculiar since Moscow still enjoys a strategic partnership with New Delhi. Russia is also allegedly arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps Trump can start by asking tough questions from Vladimir Putin.
This much is clear: Aggression can’t solve the Afghan problem. The last sixteen years provide ample proof. While Trump and his generals-heavy cabinet might opt for a military solution, it would be a better option to tackle the rising threat of Islamic State, which has displaced the Taliban in many regions of Afghanistan. While Russia is still testing the waters, China appears to be in the region for the long run. To avoid any quagmire, all parties concerned need to engage in a no-holds-barred discussion. Angry tweets will do more harm than good.