Why was US President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018 about the US relationship with Pakistan? The tweet confirmed the strategic importance of Pakistan, a nation of 210 million people that straddles key waterways at the junction of West Asia, Central Asia and East Asia.
The tone of Trump’s tweet was aggressive considering that Pakistan has long been considered a close US ally. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” Trump tweeted on 1 January.
He also raged against Pakistan’s supposed harbouring of Islamist terrorists. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more,” he wrote.
This encouraged Pakistan’s foes to pounce. The country’s relations with neighbouring nations are not cordial, with the notable exception of China, a long-time ally and Islamabad’s main trading partner.
It soon became clear that Trump’s tweet was more than an idle threat. Last Thursday, the US State Department announced that the US was freezing most military aid to Pakistan. It declined to specify the exact amount of the funds that would be cut, but the suspension could freeze up to $1.3 billion in aid.
Trump’s posturing and the cuts that came in its wake would be comical if they did not heighten the risk of regional instability. While the tweet did not hint at possible military action against Pakistan – Washington has too much at stake in the country for that – yet the dangers are there. Washington has long used Pakistan as a jumping-off point for strikes against Islamist militants in Afghanistan and other countries in Islamabad’s neighbourhood, for example.
Some see Trump’s tweet as an attempt to drive a wedge between the militant Islamist groups and their Pakistani protectors. But even as the tweet continued to excite Trump enthusiasts in India and the US, more responsible members of the US administration were conjuring up strategies of how to limit the damage.
The economic troubles of Pakistan seem all too likely to escalate in 2018. The story in 2018 may be that Washington’s sanctions will bite the country harder, and Trump will not be too troubled if Pakistan grumbles. The US also appears to be more poised to strengthen its ties to India, Pakistan’s rival and diplomatic foe.
In this febrile atmosphere, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif vented his rage to the US newspaper the Wall Street Journal last Friday, explaining that Washington had turned Islamabad into a “whipping boy” to distract attention from its own failures in the war in Afghanistan.
He implied that Washington’s move in cutting aid could end up “torching cooperation between the US and Pakistan” on issues like sharing intelligence. “We do not have any alliance” with the US, Asif said. “This is not how allies behave.”
Pakistan is the Muslim world’s second-most populous nation after Indonesia and its only nuclear state, and previous US administrations have consistently turned a blind eye to Islamabad’s sheltering of Islamist militants.
Pakistan’s alleged harbouring of terrorists has long been a matter of contention between the US and the South Asian nation, however, and Trump’s decision to freeze huge amounts of aid to Pakistan is driven by a grievance that was also held by the Obama administration that Pakistan is aiding powerful anti-US militant Islamist organisations in Afghanistan.
Trump may have to eat his words, however. Even if Washington enforces the sanctions against Pakistan strictly enough to endanger the country’s economy, this is unlikely to change Pakistan’s calculation on nuclear weapons.
The good news for now is that Islamabad seems to view its nuclear capability as a deterrent and not a tool for aggression. The powers that be in Pakistan seem to believe that Washington will never militarily attack the country.
Policy-makers in Pakistan might also believe that the economic sanctions will have limited consequences. And the US has limited human intelligence inside such a gargantuan and labyrinthine nation as Pakistan.
Yet, Pakistan may be heading for a bleaker economic outlook as a result of Trump’s tweet, and this must also not be viewed in isolation. The New York Times on 29 December noted that the Trump administration was going to withhold $255 million in foreign military financing more generally, so Pakistan may be just the beginning of a broader campaign.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly