The dawn of the New Year, 2018, seems to have given Pakistanis a fresh reminder of an old adage: adversity never comes alone but in tandem with misfortune. For Islamabad, external adversity has come in loud and jarring. In his maiden tweet of the New Year, Donald Trump fired from the hip, accusing Pakistan that it has “given us nothing but lies & deceit.” Piling insult upon this gratuitous injury, the US President blasted Pakistan for giving “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
That Trump’s bluster was not just rhetoric was brought into sharper focus when the White House followed up the tweet less than 24 hours later, with a terse announcement that the US was suspending $255 million in military assistance to Pakistan. This is in addition to the more than $300 million Coalition Support Funds withheld from disbursement to Pakistan because Islamabad had not lived up to Washington’s expectations.
There’s obviously a pattern to the rapidly roiling relationship between the two countries since Trump moved into the White House a year ago. Last August, while unveiling his administration’s National Security Strategy, Trump had hectored that Pakistan was “obligated” to help America “because it receives massive payments.” He reiterated that punchline in his New Year tweet by saying the US “has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.”
Trump’s taunt of Pakistan being an ungrateful ally has angered Pakistanis, prompting them to remind the US President and others in his team that what the US is obliged to pay is not charity but reimbursement for services rendered by Pakistan in America’s ‘war on terror.’
Trump’s tirade against Pakistan being callous and deceitful was preceded, right through 2017, by what Pakistani pundits saw as calculated slurs against their country by his principal factotums. Visiting Bagram, the US military base in Afghanistan, on December 22, Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence, hectored that his boss had “put Pakistan on notice.” Pence’s outburst seemed to be in line with a Pentagon report to the US Congress, on December 17, that said Washington would take “unilateral steps” in areas of divergence with Pakistan. Pakistanis interpreted the phrase ‘unilateral steps’ as a threat of armed incursion into Pakistani territory like the one that took out Osama bin Laden in 2011. In response, a Pakistani military command spokesman was quick to remind Washington that any military adventure into the country’s territory would invite a firm response. Pakistani pundits were also up in arms letting Trump know that Pakistan was no push-over banana republic at his mercy.
Trump’s unrestrained vocabulary on Twitter has not been allowed to go unrefuted by Islamabad either. The country’s National Security Council (NSC) met within hours of Trump’s irascible tweet after which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif put on a brave face and said that his government had already told Trump that his infuriating demand for Pakistan to ‘do more’ held “no importance” to Pakistan. This determination to heed no more to Trump’s constant barrage of ‘do more’ and stand tough now seems to be the refrain of Pakistani leaders — in government and in the opposition’s ranks.
Trump’s bullying is apparently forcing the Pakistani leadership to re-evaluate and revisit the whole gamut of Pakistan’s relationship with the US, especially in the context of the war on terror, in which Pakistan has been a key element.The theme increasingly being focused on and articulated in an impassioned manner by Islamabad is that Trump wants to scapegoat Pakistan for its own appalling failures in Afghanistan where it has little to show on the positive side after spending 17 years and half-a-trillion dollars on a war that is going nowhere.
The latest bottomline on a badly-tangled Islamabad-Washington relationship was articulated by Khawaja Asif at the end of a lengthy NSC sitting. Asif said Pakistan had never got anything good out of its relationship with the US and will not be a party with Washington in any war or military adventure.
But another ally closer home, Saudi Arabia — with whom Pakistan has had a long history of ‘brotherly’ relations — also seems to be getting short on patience and perseverance, especially in the context of Pakistan’s domestic politics. Home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has had a place of near-reverence in the hearts of not only layman Pakistanis but more so in the hearts of their leaders, both in civvies and in military garb. Saudi royals are known to have mentored Pakistani leaders of whatever stripes and persuasions. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was a favourite Saudi acolyte. Gen. Musharraf likewise helped himself generously to Saudi largesse. He was given millions of dollars by the late King Abdullah to buy expensive properties in London and Dubai.
But none seemed closer to the royalty than Nawaz Sharif. His skin was saved by them when Musharraf, following a successful military coup in 1999, wanted to hang him. They took Nawaz in and sheltered him in plush exile in Saudi Arabia for nearly ten years. Sharif is now a disgraced leader, disqualified by Pakistan’s apex court from holding any political office because of his massive corruption and money laundering. But Pakistani pundits suspect the Saudis of trying to bail him out once again by cutting a deal with the powerful military — their clout with GHQ being formidable. Credence to this lingering suspicion of Saudis poking their noses into Pakistan’s domestic affairs is available from the fact that Nawaz and his younger sibling Shahbaz were quickly summoned to Riyadh on New Year’s Eve. There will soon be more to this story.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat