The current incumbent of the White House is not known for grace or finesse. There was none of it either, in the blunt message he delivered to Pakistan in his maiden policy address to the American people recently. Unveiling the new US strategy for South Asia, Trump seemed to go after Pakistan with vengeance in the context of Afghanistan, where the US involvement doesn’t seem to be coming to a close.
Trump, in his characteristic garrulous way, announced an additional induction of troops, raising the American military boots in Afghanistan to more than ten thousand. He has, obviously, buried his own campaign pledge of pulling out of Afghanistan. But the barbs he reserved for Pakistan—whose role in the American involvement in Afghanistan has been critical in the so-called war-on-terror—reeked of vitriol, as far as the Pakistani minds could interpret.
Trump hectored to wipe out the Taliban resistance and come out victorious in the struggle—so far a pipe dream to the Americans. It’s hard to imagine that where his two warring predecessors, George W Bush and Barack Obama, failed despite a robust overlay of military power, Trump would overwhelm the Taliban with ten thousand troops only. But rather than even half-admitting that US military effort has been lacklustre, he held Pakistan responsible for US reverses against the Taliban. Trump even accused Pakistan of giving “Safe havens to agents of chaos, violence and terror.” Reminding Pakistan of its responsibility to cut the Taliban to size and force them to sue for peace, he said: “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order and peace.”
And then came the punch line that rankled the Pakistanis of all shades and hues: Trump scorned Pakistan for milking US of billions and billions of dollars but being ungrateful to American largesse and courting, instead, the enemies of peace in Afghanistan, which clearly meant the Taliban.
Trump’s bottom line was that Pakistan will not only be held accountable for its alleged perfidy and betrayal of American trust but may also become a pariah as far as American military and economic assistance is concerned.
No doubt Trump blatantly rubbed the Pakistanis—leaders as well as men on the street—on the wrong side and they simply bristled at his tirade focused on their being disingenuous and ungrateful. A quick riposte came, not surprisingly, from the Chief of Pakistan Army, General Qamar Bajwa. The Pakistan military has been the largest recipient of US assistance since the country’s civilian leadership gambled wrongly it seems, with the benefit of the hind-sight, that Pakistan could reap a rich harvest, a real bonanza, by going out on a limb in Afghanistan.
But Bajwa reminded the American ambassador to Pakistan that Pakistan had received not aid but compensation from Washington for its pivotal role in weeding out the cancer of terrorism stalking both sides of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. He cautioned that Pakistan could do without American aid.
While the ruling political circus of Nawaz League kept a studied silence on Trump’s vituperation against Pakistan, the Opposition’s rising star, Imran Khan, gave it back to him, without malice but with the passionate determination of a Mr. Clean of Pakistani politics.
Imran, with his reputation of being as artless as Trump in articulation, reminded the Americans—who have made it a habit of raising the ante on Pakistan’s war effort in Afghanistan—that Pakistan had suffered more than 70,000 fatalities in its unrelenting crusade against terrorists, besides chalking up a denting loss of more than a hundred billion dollars to its economy as its price for siding with the Americans. But while Pakistanis felt deeply bruised by Trump accusing them of double-crossing, they were incensed by his praise for India and his suggestion to bring India deeper into Afghanistan’s end-game.
Pakistanis, by now, have become inured to the American stereotype of blaming them for their own (America’s) failures to subdue or rein in the Taliban; they have become immune to the American rant that Pakistan “should do more”.
However, the new Trump tack to make India an equal player in Afghanistan got Pakistan’s goat. How could Pakistan’s ‘mortal enemy’ be a partner in peace for Afghanistan, they mused, and fumed. Nothing could portray Trump and his erratic administration being clearly at odds and out of sync with Pakistan than letting India into Afghanistan through the back-door.
In a huff, the Pakistan government decided that the newly-minted Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, will not be visiting Washington as previously scheduled for his maiden visit there starting, before, on August 25.
Then Pakistan abruptly cancelled the visit of Alice Wells, assistant secretary of state, to Islamabad, slated for August 28. Wells also wears the hat of Acting Special Representative for Af-Pak (Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Wells had been in Islamabad earlier in August 3 and 4, on her “introductory visit” to Pakistan. Heaping scorn on insult, Islamabad also asked Washington to reschedule the visit of Lisa Curtis, White House’s senior national security official to Islamabad. Serving Trump a reminder that Pakistan wasn’t without friends in the region, Foreign Minister Asif will soon be winging his way to Ankara, Beijing and Moscow. The message from Islamabad is loud and blunt: ‘you can’t box us in’.
But is Pakistan capable of putting its act together, politically? Can Pakistan do without American assistance, economic and military? These questions agitate both gurus and laymen alike. Clear answers are in short supply.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat