YES, we can say it’s all very funny until the bombs begin to drop. The brand new year 2018 began with the president of the United States apparently having a meltdown on Twitter. Some pointed out that it was a full moon night, and not only that, it was a super moon, and that might explain the bizarre spectacle. Who knows! I have yet to hear another more cogent explanation, even though the White House spokesperson was given a chance to provide one in a press conference the following day.
One is tempted to write off the threat tweeted our way as mere bluster, all bark and no bite. The authorities in Pakistan surely did the right thing in giving a measured response.
In her press conference the day after, the White House spokesperson talked of announcing “specific action” against Pakistan “within days”. The episode comes at the end of an important timeline. In August, Trump gave a harshly worded speech in which he talked of “safe havens for terrorist organisations” in Pakistan and warned of consequences, and also invited India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, a hot-button issue with Pakistan.
The sudden and accelerating rupture in ties is coming at a time when the political and economic situations are both fragile.
A few days later, the news outlet Politico broke the news that action is being considered to apply sanctions against specific individuals in the Pakistani government whom the US considers to have links to designated terrorists and terrorist entities. The next day the spokesman of the US National Security Council said during a press conference, that the president had “put Pakistan on notice” regarding the question of terrorist safe havens and specific actions required. Those actions included sanctions on people within the Pakistani government “who are tied to these kinds of groups, you know, in ways that they shouldn’t be”.
This episode was followed by a cabinet meeting and a meeting between the army chief and the US ambassador in Pakistan, and separate statements from the government and the army rejecting the pressure being applied on Pakistan. A few days later, a detailed response was provided after a National Security Council meeting in Pakistan, attended by the top civil and military leadership. That detailed response asked the US to start “focusing on core issues of eliminating safe havens inside Afghanistan, border management, return of refugees and reinvigorating the peace process for a political settlement in Afghanistan” in addition to rejecting a wider role for India, and attempts to blame Pakistan for the quagmire the US finds itself in Afghanistan.
A seeming lull in this battle of words ensued, but the thing to note is that the sentiments expressed against Pakistan had wider ownership beyond seemingly impulsive tweets by the US president. This wider ownership was seen again when General Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, visited Pakistan in early December. Even though the public messaging from that meeting was relatively muted, it was fairly clear that attempts to clear the air and bring the two sides onto the same page had failed.
Later that same month, the US vice president made a surprise visit to Kabul to shore up morale amongst the troops, and while assuring them that the US “will see this through”, once again repeated that the president has “put Pakistan on notice” over the question of safe havens for terrorist groups. The official Pakistani response was equally sharp, reminding the vice president that Pakistan does not accept such notices, and there will be “no more do more”.
A few days later the New York Times came out with another scoop, with anonymous sources, saying that the US plans to block $255 million in “aid” to Pakistan. A few days after the infamous tweet, authorities there confirmed the decision and the amount, adding that the money was from the Foreign Military Financing programme, which assists countries in procuring defence equipment as well as military services.
In short, matters have been deteriorating for a while now, and this goes beyond the mercurial impulses that drive the president. The debate in Pakistan has been understandably heated, with a lot of people asking what this means and how much US aid actually matters for Pakistan.
Let’s leave aside the numbers for a moment; the actual amount given in “aid” is disputed. The first question to ask is what might happen, and the next question to ask is what it would mean. In terms of what options the US might be considering, we have heard three specific actions: unilateral incursions into Pakistan territory by US forces to take out targets they identify as hostile, halting aid flows, and sanctioning senior government (most likely including military) officials whom the US considers to have links with entities designated by them as terrorists.
It is unlikely that this will go the military route for the moment, though the direction in which things are going suggest anything is possible as time passes. A sustained rupture in relations with the US has meaning for Pakistan beyond just the amount received as aid. The relationship governs many other engagements that Pakistan has with multilateral creditors like the IMF, World Bank and the increasingly important Financial Action Task Force, as well as private debt markets where Pakistan goes to float bonds. The government is currently considering another approach to the debt markets before March, and sometime in 2018, if a sharp reversal in the deteriorating balance of payments does not come about, an approach to the IMF could become necessary.
Still, these are not reasons be fearful of American bombast. But it is worth bearing in mind that the sudden and accelerating rupture in ties is coming at a time when the political and economic situations are both fragile. There must be no bowing before the bluster we see coming out of the White House these days, but it is better to keep our reactions measured and deliberate. Most importantly, it is more crucial than ever before to not promote instability in our own country for short-term political objectives.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2018