Marking a significant policy shift from ‘do more’ to ‘no more’, President Donald Trump has hinted at curtailing US ‘aid’ to Pakistan in his first tweet of 2018. He accused Pakistan of lying and deceiving the US in return for receiving more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years. He also alleged that Pakistan ‘give safe haven to terrorists’ sought by US forces in Afghanistan. In fact, Trump’s recent tweet seems mere a continuation of his last year’s speech on South Asian policy, in which he said: “We have been paying Pakistan billions of billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” Moreover, this tweet also somehow confirms last week’s The New York Times report stating: “The Trump administration is strongly considering to withhold $255 million in aid that it had delayed sending to Islamabad” on account of Pakistan’s perceived failure to crack down more effectively on terror groups.
‘Soft power’ is currently a popular term in the international relations. A country’s soft power is its ability to influence other countries through economic and cultural means rather than through coercion. The US is best known for using economic aid as a crucial tool of its soft power in the world. Last month, we just saw the US resorting to this very tool in the UN General Assembly to deter other countries from supporting an anti-Israel resolution. Noticeably, President Trump’s ‘New Year’s resolution’ is simply the embodiment of his last year’s Afghan strategy, which aimed at achieving ‘a successful outcome’ in Afghanistan by ‘integrating all instruments of American power- diplomatic, economic, and military’. So, the US is now all set to employ its potent foreign aid tool against Pakistan to achieve desired objectives in Afghanistan.
Last month, during his unannounced visit to Afghanistan, US Vice President Mike Pence said that President Donald Trump had put Pakistan on notice for providing safe haven to Taliban and other terror organizations in its soil. Similarly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in an article titled “I Am Proud of Our Diplomacy” recently published in The New York Times, has just maintained that Pakistan “must demonstrate it desire to partner with US” by “combating terrorist groups on its soil”. Moreover, in August last year, President Trump also accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to “agents of chaos, violence” after declaring AfPak region a hub of US-designated foreign terrorist organizations. Indeed, these recent statements made by President Trump and important members of his administration are likely to shape the contours of the foreseeable US policy in the AfPak region. So, we can also conveniently predict the future trajectory of Pak-US bilateral relations.
Currently, the US is deliberately overplaying the significance of the military and economic assistance it has been providing to Pakistan. At the same time, it is also exaggerating the amount of this aid. According to statistics compiled by US authorities, the US has sanctioned $33.4 billion to Pakistan during the last 15 years. However, 44% of this amount is mere the reimbursements from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) that is technically not aid but service payments for providing logistical and operational support to the US-led military operations in Afghanistan. Washington’s economic assistance to Islamabad has significantly reduced since 2014, as it came down to $1.6 billion per annum from the average of $2.3 billion between 2002 and 2013. Most of the US economic assistance was off the Budget as it didn’t benefit the finance ministry. A major chunk of this amount either directly transferred to individuals or reverted back to the US through third-party contracts. On the other hand, the statistics of Pakistan’s finance ministry shows that Pakistan has sustained $123 billion losses on account of war against terror since 2001.
At present, there is considerable trust deficit between Pakistan and the US. This mutual mistrust has also somehow become the most dominant characteristic of Pak-US relations. Although both countries have established close strategic, military and economic relations for a long time, yet they couldn’t ever foster trustable and reliable bilateral relations. In fact, a number of post 9/11 political developments in Afghanistan have been instrumental in giving rise to current mistrust between the two countries.
Unusually, Pakistan’s initial response to Trump’s latest anti-Pakistan diatribe was rather satisfactory. Immediately reacting to Trump’s anti-Pakistan tweet, Pakistan’s Foreign Office summoned US Ambassador David Hale and lodged its protest against President Trump’s un-called for tweet which accused Pakistan of ‘lies and deceit’. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has also said that he would ‘let the world know the truth’ after vowing to respond to Trump’s tweet shortly. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has also summoned a meeting of National Security Committee for Wednesday primarily to devise a strategy to respond to Trump’s recent anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Indeed, Pakistan seriously needs to evolve a comprehensive and proactive diplomatic strategy to counter Trump’s unfounded and malicious propaganda against it. He is currently portraying Pakistan a rogue country in line with North Korea. Therefore, Pakistan should project its positive image in the world by highlighting its distinguished counter-terror credentials. The world community must also know that Pakistan is the worst victim of terror rather than a planner or supporter of terrorism.
Pakistan should also thoughtfully devise a strategy to constructively engage the US. Pakistan can certainly not afford an unnecessary confrontation with the sole super power in the world. Pak-US relations are currently passing through a hard and unpredictable phase. Both countries have conflicting and divergent Interests in the region. Similarly, it is not an easy task to deal with an anti-Pakistan American like Donald Trump. Therefore, there is only a dim hope that Pak-US bilateral relations would improve in the near future. So, at this point in time, the primary focus of Pakistan’s foreign policy should be on not letting its troubled relations with the US further deteriorate rather than trying to instantly and unrealistically improve them. Besides this, Pakistan should also focus on improving the dilapidated state of its economy as we as the internal security. A harmonious civil-military relationship is also desirable. At this stage, we can hardly afford a political turmoil in the country.
The US also needs to revisit its current AfPak policy. It shouldn’t ignore Pakistan’s genuine interests in Afghanistan. Certainly, India’s rising influence in Afghanistan is absolutely unacceptable to Pakistan. Pakistan is an important geo-strategic reality in the region. There can’t be a durable peace in Afghanistan without an active support and collaboration of Pakistan. The US should review its Afghan strategy as it has failed in Afghanistan despite fighting the most expensive and longest war in its history. Undoubtedly, it is the sovereign right of the US to not to ‘foolishly’ give billions of dollars to its ‘unreliable’ ally like Pakistan. However, at the same time, it should also be a little bit worried about the hefty trillions of dollars that have been spent in the so-called war against terror in Afghanistan purposelessly. Indeed, this penny-wise-and-pound-foolish attitude of Trump administration must be a matter of serious concern for the American taxpayers.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.