IT was coming for a long time; yet, we had remained in a state of deep denial. President Trump’s tweet may be humiliating and obnoxious, but should we be surprised by the US action? What the self-proclaimed “stable genius” declared in the crudest way possible has been stated in a more nuanced manner by other US officials many times in the past.
Now a faulty relationship is about to break even if a complete rupture may not be imminent. It is, indeed, reprehensible to be ‘put on notice’ by an old ally. But no less disgusting is our jilted lover syndrome. Our response to Trump’s tweet and the subsequent suspension of US military assistance has been perplexing.
While crying hoarse over the ‘betrayal’ and recalling our sacrifices, many in the government and opposition have declared in the same breath that ‘it is not our war’. They need to make up their minds. Our own tweeting foreign minister is trying to match the irrationality of Trump with his bombastic retorts which make no sense.
Not to be left behind is our ubiquitous ISPR spokesman who laments the “misunderstanding with a friend”. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry dumps its angst on Afghanistan. It is not just about articulation; these incoherent and often contradictory statements reflect a state of utter disarray in our own policymaking process.
The Trump administration now seeks to extend the Afghan war well inside Pakistan.
It is so obvious that there is not even clarity about the challenges, leave aside dealing with them rationally. Indeed, a critical alliance is at stake, but there is no point in getting hysterical. It is not the first time we are witnessing a low in our relations with Washington, though such a show of hostility by the US administration is unprecedented.
We had seen Pakistan-US ties hitting their lowest ebb in 2011 following the air strike on the Salala border post that killed more than a dozen army soldiers and officers. But we handled the crisis more deftly without compromising our national security interests. The incident drove Pakistan to close down the supply lines to the coalition forces in Afghanistan. They were reopened after the US apologised for its action.
That also resulted in a recalibration of relations between the two allies — morphing from being a strategic alliance to more of a transactional arrangement. Both civil and military aid from the US had already been drying up during the fag end of the second Obama term — a clear manifestation of the growing distrust though there was still some convergence of interests between the two countries in ending the Afghan war.
Now the residual transactional relationship too has come under strain after Trump’s latest punitive move. The aid is now directly linked to Pakistan more actively supplementing the US war in Afghanistan. More precisely, the Trump administration now seeks to extend the Afghan war well inside Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, the Trump administration’s policy towards Pakistan is driven mainly by its own growing frustration over the American failure to defeat the Afghan Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. There are other geopolitical factors too determining the new American hard-line approach.
But it also reflects, to some extent, our diplomatic failure to effectively push our narrative in Washington. There is hardly any Pakistani lobby in the Congress. While there is some criticism on the crude way Trump has handled the issue, Pakistan’s position has no takers in Washington despite this country’s contribution to fighting terrorism.
It may not be entirely our fault but we could see it coming. In fact, there was already a clear warning when Trump announced his administration’s South Asia policy last year. His new national security strategy left no ambiguity about the US administration turning the screws on Islamabad. In fact, Trump had used much harsher language while presenting the controversial strategy accusing Pakistan of not ‘delivering what it was being paid for’.
It is apparent that the suspension of the US military assistance and the Coalition Support Fund is only the first step and that some other measures are likely to follow. American officials have already laid on the table the conditions for Pakistan if the aid is to be revived; these include taking action against the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network allegedly operating from Pakistani soil.
It has been hard for Pakistan to satisfy the American demand so far and it is not likely to happen. So there is certainly a need for reviewing our options, but that must not be driven by the suspension of US aid. It is time to rationally think where our interests converge and where they diverge.
We must not hesitate to take action against any militant group if it is using our territory for cross-border terrorist attacks. This is in our own security interest. The stability of Afghanistan is important for us and we must cooperate with the international community in combating terrorism. But surely, we must not fight any other country’s battle just for the sake of financial assistance. Pakistan has survived the 1990s when it was the most sanctioned country with all US aid having been stopped, and it can do so now as well.
What is most dangerous, however, is the revival of the retrogressive discourse that fighting terrorism and militancy is America’s war. Nothing could be more nonsensical. Thousands of our soldiers have not been killed fighting for the American cause; they gave their lives fighting the terrorists responsible for the death of thousands of Pakistanis. Pakistan faced an existential threat with our northwest tribal regions and part of KP once being under the control of the Pakistani Taliban. We have to continue fighting them irrespective of our future relationship with the US.
Relations between nations are based on mutual interest and respect. Interstate relations are not static and there is no such thing as permanent friendship as many in Pakistan tend to believe. There is certainly a need for resetting this faltering alignment keeping in view our own national security interests. But it must not be used to reverse our commitment to fight terrorism that threatens our own security much more.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2018