US-Pakistan relations under Trump

By: Shahid M Amin: 

DONALD Trump mostly acts like the proverbial bull in a china shop. He wants to act strong without understanding the complexities of issues. During the Presidential campaign, he kept making outrageous comments on sensitive subjects that reflected his deep prejudices and misconceived conclusions. Trump ranted against Latinos, blacks, Chinese, and even women. He painted Muslims as potential terrorists and threatened to ban their entry in USA. While liberal opinion in USA rejected Trump’s extremist views, he was applauded by white supremacists that evidently constitute a majority in the country.
During the campaign, Trump also expressed concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, fearing that they might fall into wrong hands. He received support from American voters of Indian origin who liked his tough anti-terrorist, anti-Muslim views and pro-business policies. More than once, Trump promised to be “the best friend in the White House India ever had.” Some pro-India US Congressmen have been advocating that Washington should declare Pakistan as a ‘terrorist state’ and place it under severe sanctions. Islamabad should take serious notice of a report published in February 2017 by a leading think tank consisting of military figures, experts and former government officials (including ex-Pakistani envoy to USA Hussain Haqqani), which urged President Trump to carry out a ‘harsher review of ties’ with Pakistan. It has advised Trump to adopt tougher measures towards Islamabad, with the caveat “don’t abandon it, but stop treating it as an ally”.
The report is entitled “A new US approach to Pakistan: enforcing aid conditions without cutting ties”. It wants US engagement with Pakistan to be based on “a realistic appraisal of Pakistan’s policies, aspirations and worldview. The US must stop chasing the mirage of securing change in Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving it additional aid or military equipment. It must be acknowledged that Pakistan is unlikely to change its current policies through inducements alone.” The report lists measures such as tying military aid and reimbursements to specific counter-terrorism goals and working more with the civilian leadership in Pakistan.
However, some top-ranking officials in the Trump administration have expressed more balanced views towards Pakistan. In a telephone conversation on February 9 with General Bajwa, the Pakistan army chief, US Defence Secretary General Mattis commended the sacrifices of the people and armed forces of Pakistan. He appreciated Pakistan Army’s role in battling scourge of terrorism. Both reaffirmed their countries’ commitment towards the common goal of peace and stability in the region, and agreed on continued engagement at multiple levels. Gen Mattis served for several years in Afghanistan and is familiar with our area.
Last month, during his confirmation hearing in the Senate, he said Pakistan had suffered badly from terrorism and he praised Pakistani army for its counter-insurgency efforts. He had stressed need for building mutual trust and evolving an ‘effective partnership.’ He would ‘incentivize’ Pakistan’s cooperation so that it denies sanctuary to extremist forces. In a similar strain, General Nicholson, the US military commander in Afghanistan, told a hearing in the US Senate on February 9 that there was a need for a ‘holistic review of America’s complex relationship with Pakistan’, which would be his priority in discussions with his superiors. Finally, it is notable that the Trump administration did not include Pakistan among the seven Muslim countries whose nationals were banned entry in the USA.
This relatively conciliatory stance is due to Washington’s need to seek Pakistan’s cooperation for a settlement in Afghanistan, and keeping open the transit route for military supplies to that country. In fact, any rational analysis by experts in US govt departments would bring conclusion that Pakistan cannot be ignored because of its key geostrategic location, its nuclear capability, its close ties with China and its role, for better or for worse, in war against terror, particularly in Afghanistan.
Note should also be taken of President-elect Trump’s telephone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which indicated that Trump had good personal associations with Pakistanis over a period of time. He had called Pakistanis as ‘one of the most intelligent, exceptional and fantastic people’. Trump had assured Sharif of his help in finding solution of outstanding problems. While Islamabad’s ill-advised decision to make this conversation public did not go well with Trump, his liking for Pakistani people can be seen as something quite positive. It is possible that Islamabad’s recent decision to detain Hafiz Saeed, dubbed as a terrorist by the US and the UN, was done to forestall any negative step by the Trump administration. But this step was overdue due to our international obligations. The fact of the matter is that Pakistan’s reputation has been hurt due to allegations by several countries that outlawed groups like those of Hafiz Saeed were using sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch terrorist operations in other countries. A positive message is also going out from the current naval exercise being conducted by Pakistan in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Karachi, in which more than 35 countries are taking part, including navies of 12 countries: Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, UK and USA, while envoys from 31 countries will observe the exercise. The purpose of this multinational exercise is to strengthen naval capacity against piracy and terrorism. The fact that so many countries have joined Pakistan in naval exercise debunks Indian claims of having isolated Pakistan due to its alleged involvement with terrorism.
It is still early days in Trump’s presidency and it would be prudent to wait before drawing conclusions. But the old saying holds good, namely, governments come and go but interests are permanent. Pakistan has its own importance which is likely to grow with the expected implementation of CPEC. It will not be in US national interest to ignore or alienate Pakistan. However, we must also come to terms with the reality that the US strategic ties with India will continue to grow due to its global interests. Nor should we forget another reality viz. Pakistan must eradicate the curse of terrorism for its own survival as well as for improving ties with neighbours and other countries.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.