Donald Trump is a businessman who thinks in terms of nickel-and-dime. From the health insurance bill at home to the leadership at the UN, to him it’s all about balancing the ledger.
During his campaign, he had vowed to pursue the “America First” foreign policy, claiming that nations and even allies have ripped off the US. He had insisted that once he took charge as president, people, states and regions would have to pay for things America has done for them. He proclaimed he is a deal-maker, even though he is more of a deal-breaker. Whatever the way one likes to see him, he has definitely shaken up the old order.
Trump’s “getting nothing but lies and deceit” tweet in the first few hours of the new year indicates his administration’s priorities and what is in store for Pakistan. His outburst may be undiplomatic but it stems from the growing US anger and frustration against Pakistan from times before Trump was elected.
A quick look at the background should explain his raging tweet about Pakistan.
By the end of its term, the George W. Bush administration had figured out that the Pakistani government under Pervez Musharraf was double-dealing. By the end of its term, the Barack Obama administration had concluded that the US might be “fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country”. It was the unilateral Operation Neptune Spear conducted by the US in Abbottabad that seized all suspicions that Pakistan was less of an ally and more a frenemy.
Still, stakes remained high. The US engagement with Pakistan dwindled, the handsome monetary and military assistance slipped down, and the trust diminished.
Multiple power centres in and around Washington — from the White House to Capitol Hill, from Langley to Pentagon — all became weary of Pakistan’s commitment to the war against terror. In 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee that the notorious Haqqani Network was a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani security service. Terms like Quetta Shura and Peshawar Shura became more known and the American pressure on Pakistan to combat and eliminate militant groups mounted. “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan,” General Stanley McChrystal reported to then President Barack Obama.
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Resultantly, more and more US lawmakers piled up amendments in the Congress and aggressively pursued White House to declare Pakistan “not an ally”, and block any and all aid. A few of them wrote letters urging the US to disengage with the Pakistani leadership until it takes action against those “syndicates of terror”. Some vocal Congress members froze millions of dollars in Foreign Military Financing and put a hold on the delivery of a number of used Navy cutter vessels. The Congress also rejected Pakistan’s request to purchase eight F-16 fighter jets. When it did allow the sale, it took away the subsidy. The deal was dead.
Before the Trump administration settled in, a number of experts and thinkers prepared a detailed proposal, urging the new setup to review the policy towards Pakistan. They proposed to more effectively contain, and eventually eliminate, the terrorist threats that continue to emanate from the country.
Titled, A new U.S. approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid conditions without cutting ties, the report argued that “to accomplish counterterrorism objectives in the region and to reverse extremist trends in Pakistani society, Pakistani authorities — specially the country’s military leaders, who control its foreign and security policies — need to take a comprehensive approach to shutting down all Islamist militant groups that operate from Pakistani territory, not just those that attack the Pakistani state.”
The document suggested to the incoming administration “to develop a framework for pragmatic engagement with Pakistan that includes normal trade ties, identifies and rewards areas of cooperation, and penalizes policies that undermine U.S. interests.”
When the Afghan strategy was announced last August, Trump specifically pointed out Pakistan as a provider of “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror”. This was the first time that a US president publicly warned that “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan,” advising that the country has “much to gain from partnering with U.S. effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” said Trump.
A number of Congressional members have called it a “breakthrough” and vowed to offer laws to strengthen it. “I’m introducing a bill to end aid to Pakistan in the coming days. My bill will take the money that would have gone to Pakistan and put it in an infrastructure fund to build roads and bridges here at home,” Republican Senator Rand Paul announced in one of his twitter message.
Trump’s rhetoric carries a pleasant domestic appeal. However, the appeal has no real value because the “security funding or pending deliveries are frozen, but not cancelled or reprogrammed at this time,” according to state functionaries.
The White House and the Department of Defense are determined to work with Pakistan if their expectations are met. “We would restore the aid if we see decisive movements against the terrorists who are as much a threat against Pakistan as they are against us,” the Pentagon maintains.
The sustained accusations and suspension of funds may be a repetitive cycle, but its notable that the Trump team is not willing to try and test and fail by the end of its term. And to break off from the old order, they may impose strict sanctions, designate the country as a state sponsor of terror, terminate loan or bailout financial packages through international lenders, and simultaneously expand the drone programme.
The frustration that has passed on from previous administrations’ indecisions and compromises over the Pakistan policy is reflected in Trump’s strategy and subsequently his tweet. Therefore, his tweet cannot be seen in isolation.
Another significant factor that needs to be fully comprehended is that the new administration under Trump is not just a new government with old convictions. It’s a transition from an old traditionalist approach held by persons that engaged with Afghanistan in the 1980s and grudgingly maintained a friendly view of Pakistan. The new ranks of army personnel, advisors and experts, diplomats and policymakers that witnessed carnage as mid-career officials in the last 16 years are now in senior positions. The new cabal of familiar faces is largely unattached to the historical denouement and is willing to engender the newest playbook.
As one expert, requesting not to be named, comments,“ the tolerance in the past was higher and period of deception shorter”. The age of deception for the new setup spans 16 years and its patience has thinned out. Trump’s tweet represents that remarkable change which has taken place across board.