The Pakistani government has reacted angrily to US President Donald Trump’s first 2018 tweet, in which he lashed out at the South Asian country for taking billions of dollars in US aid in exchange for “lies and deceit.”
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!,” wrote Trump.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador to Islamabad to lodge protest against Trump’s statement. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told media that Pakistan had done enough for the US. “We have already told the US that we will not do more, so Trump’s ‘no more’ does not hold any importance,” Asif said.
Anger in Pakistan
There is an outburst on social media in the South Asian country, with many Pakistanis urging the government to break all ties with the US.
Pakistan says that Trump’s criticism is unjustified as it has done its best to help the US and the international community in their battle against Islamist groups in Afghanistan. But many political commentators, including Pakistani analysts, accuse the country’s powerful military of using a number of militant groups as “strategic assets” to keep pressure on the Afghan government and India. The Pakistani military denies these allegations.
While the administration of the former US President Barack Obama was more careful in its dealing with Pakistan, Donald Trump’s approach is quite blunt. In August last year, Trump singled out Pakistan as a major problem for the US in his Afghanistan policy speech.
With Trump’s latest tweet against Pakistan, ties between Washington and Islamabad have hit rock bottom. While the Pakistani government is hopeful the US can’t hurt Pakistan due to the fact that it has China’s backing, there is definitely a sense of unease in the country as no one underestimates the US power.
But apart from lampooning Pakistan, what can Trump realistically do to force Islamabad to comply with his administration’s demands? It is a well-established fact, acknowledged by Trump’s predecessors Obama and George W. Bush, that Pakistan’s support is vital to achieving military objectives in Afghanistan. Also, an unstable Pakistan, with a large nuclear arsenal and active militant Islamist groups in the country, could pose a huge threat to the entire region and the world. Any unilateral US attack on Pakistani soil, or even sanctions, could add fuel to the fire.
But Trump has some realistic options at his disposal.
Reduction in military aid
The Trump administration has already reduced Pakistan’s military aid. On Monday, the White House said it would continue to withhold $255 million (€211 million) in military aid for Pakistan due to its frustration with the nation’s reluctance to dismantle terrorist networks on its soil. In August last year, the administration temporarily withheld the money, which was part of a Congress-approved $1.1 billion (0.9 billion euros) aid package for Pakistan.
“The United States does not plan to spend the $255 million in FY 2016 foreign military financing for Pakistan at this time,” a National Security Council spokesman said Monday. “The President has made clear that the United States expects Pakistan to take decisive action against terrorists and militants on its soil, and that Pakistan’s actions in support of the South Asia strategy will ultimately determine the trajectory of our relationship, including future security assistance.”
The official said the Trump administration would continue to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation in security areas.
Aijaz Awan, a Pakistani defense analyst and former military official, told DW the financial reductions would force Pakistan to find new allies, such as Russia.
“The options are open for Pakistan. Russia wants to support the Taliban to keep ‘Islamic State’ (IS) at bay. Moscow is also looking to minimize US influence in southern Asia. It works for Pakistan,” Awan said.
“The US is failing in Afghanistan. Now it wants to put all blame on Pakistan for this failure,” the former military official added.
Another area where Pakistan is susceptible to US pressure is the economy. Islamabad heavily depends on global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – both under US influence – to keep its economy running, a fact that could ultimately work in Trump’s favor.
The US administration could increase financial pressure on Pakistan to achieve its political objectives.
“The US can take away Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status. Pakistan also needs financial aid and Washington has great influence over the international monetary institutions. It could ask them not to grant loans to Pakistan,” Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, told DW.
Although China is heavily investing in Pakistan’s infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its military aid to Pakistan is in no way close to what Washington has been offering for decades.
Sanctions on individuals
The Trump administration could also impose individual sanctions on some military and government officials. This could be a huge embarrassment for the country, particularly the military. While the military’s economic investments as an institution are largely domestic, the top cadre is believed to have property and bank accounts overseas, including the US.
“The US can also use the pretext of Haqqani Network and slap more sanctions on Pakistan. On the other hand Pakistan can stop NATO supplies through its territory. Around 20,000 US troops and some 50,000 US contractors are currently based in Afghanistan. It could create problems for the US,” Qazi said.
If Trump opts for this measure, it would deeply offend the Pakistani military establishment. It is, however, unlikely that the situation would escalate to that extent.
Trump’s controversial travel ban on largely Muslim nations has recently been approved by the US Supreme Court. It covers people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad, with North Koreans and certain government officials from Venezuela added to the current version. When Trump announced the ban in early 2017, many analysts were surprised at the exclusion of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan from the list.
The US can add Pakistan to the list. That would put Pakistan in a tight spot. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis live in the United States and contribute immensely to their home country’s economy.
Increased drone attacks
The drone war against militants based along the Afghan-Pakistan border was one of the cornerstones of Obama’s anti-terrorism policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Obama engaged with Pakistani authorities diplomatically, he intensified drone strikes near Pakistan’s tribal areas, and occasionally on Pakistani soil.
The drone campaign yielded some results also, with the US killing a number of high profile militant commanders, including the former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in May 2016.
On December 26, 2017, the US killed an Afghan Taliban leader in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal Kurram agency, according to media reports. Jamiuddin was believed to be linked to the Haqqani Network, a militant group that Washington accuses Islamabad of backing.
Although the Trump administration is not carrying out as many drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, it could not only restart the campaign but extend it to the mainland.
While it will be extremely tough for the US to get the UN behind such a move, the Trump administration can still unilaterally designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. The countries currently on the US State Department’s list are Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.
The US Country Reports on Terrorism also describes “terrorist safe havens” as countries that “…where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”
In a Congress-mandated report published in July 2017, the State Department listed Pakistan among the nations and regions providing “safe havens” to terrorists. It stated that militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad continued to operate, train, organize and fundraise inside the country in 2016.
The state sponsors of terrorism come under severe US sanctions and scrutiny, including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, financial restrictions including loans from the World Bank and the IMF, and economic sanctions on individuals and companies.
Security experts say this could be the last measure the US would want to take against Pakistan.
Despite the present mistrust between the two countries, US-Pakistani ties are unlikely to break down completely. History tells us that Pakistani authorities have maintained a minimum level of cooperation with Washington.
At the same time, only a one-sided assessment would put the blame of the US “failure” in Afghanistan on Pakistan. The Obama administration acknowledged Islamabad’s cooperation in a number of security areas, mainly in the defeat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
According to documents reviewed by Reuters news agency, the Pakistani government is already taking measures to address some of the US concerns. Reuters reported on Monday that Pakistan plans to seize control of charities and financial assets linked to Hafiz Saeed, who Washington designated a terrorist last year. India accuses Saeed of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 169 people. Pakistan denies Saeed’s involvement in the attacks.
But experts say the Trump administration has to take Pakistan’s reservations about the growing US-India ties into account if it is genuinely interested in resolving the militancy issue in the region. Pakistan has fought four wars against India and continues to see the rising economic and military power in its neighborhood as a threat. Islamabad is very skeptical about New Delhi’s increased role in Afghanistan.
Any measure that Trump could possibly take to force Pakistan to comply with his demands would not be successful if his administration doesn’t address Pakistan’s concerns about India.