US President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018, accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and giving “safe haven to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” may bring smiles of vindication to the Modi government, but it might be wise to hold off the bubbly and see how things unfold, especially if the past is any guide to the complex US-Pakistan relationship.
Over the weekend, the ‘New York Times’ reported that the Trump administration was “contemplating withholding” $225 million in aid meant for military training and equipment to Pakistan, if it didn’t hand over a Haqqani Network operative who kidnapped an American-Canadian couple and held them hostage for close to five years.
According to US sources, Pakistan is displaying a “non-serious attitude” to its request. The US Defence secretary needs to regularly certify to Congress that Pakistan regularly takes proper action against the Haqqani Network, a terror group which has been accused of killing an Indian diplomat, an Indian defence attaché and several Indian civilians in Afghanistan. But if Pakistan refuses to accede to the latest US demand, the US could withhold that money.
This aid cut threat, however, is not new. Nor has Pakistan failed to threaten the US in return, as it did when it blockaded all movement of US and NATO trucks for seven months from November 2011-July 2012, after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an US raid.
It was only after then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton apologized for the raid that the Pakistanis lifted the blockade.
The US administration, from Obama to Trump, have tried several times to bring their chief ally in the war against terror to heel. In 2015, it cut $300 million from the Coalition Support Fund, in 2016 that amount was increased to $350 million and in 2017, it went up to $400 million.
The proposed cut for 2018 is $350 million. The withheld amount stays in an escrow account, but Pakistan can technically claim the money within two years.
Since 2015, however, the US Defence secretary has refused to grant Pakistan a certificate of clean health, meaning, the US believes that Pakistan regularly plays a double game in its conduct in the war against terror – gets paid by the US to provide access to Afghanistan, but refuses to shut down its terror havens inside Pakistan.
The US wants Pakistan to not only shut down those terror havens, but use its influence on those terror organisations to come to the talks table with the Afghan government so that elections can be held peaceably later this year.
In addition to CSF monies, Pakistan also gets aid under Foreign Military Financing (FMF) – it received $265 million in 2015, $225 million in 2016 and another $225 million in 2017.
The money for 2017 has been approved by the US Congress, but according to the NYT report, US officials have told Pakistan that it will not release the money unless Pakistan takes strong action under Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan-Pakistan.
It is in this context that Donald Trump tweeted his first tweet of January 18:
“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!”
Trump’s New Year tweet has certainly caused a great deal of consternation inside Pakistan. Many analysts are cautioning the establishment not to react too angrily, warning of the possibility of another “Abbottabad,” a reference to the US air raid in May 2012, when Osama bin Laden was plucked out of his hide-out in full view of the Pakistan military academy barely two hours from Islamabad.
Some others, like Nasim Zehra, are crying out to teach the US a lesson:
“When PPP was in power Pakistan took an honourable position when US attacked the Salala post – heavens did not fall. Pak discontinued US access to Afghanistan via Pak. Finally US apologised for the attack.This excessively rude man Trump must apologise,” Zehra said.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is chairing a high-level National Security Council meeting this evening to listen to all sides, including the military, before Islamabad puts out an official response.
If Pakistan, already caught up in a gathering civil-military crisis for most of 2017, decides to take tough action, then the region will likely get even more troubled than it has been in recent years.
Certainly, the Afghans are thrilled. Amrullah Saleh, former Afghan national security advisor, tweeted:
Dear Pakistani Establishment: President Trump is neither Indian or Afghan nor R&AW or NDS or Northern Alliance. He is the US president & has acknowledged the truth that Pakistan is a State sponsoring terrorism. Think of a new narrative & strategy as the old one has faltered.
US President @POTUS has just acknowledged the very obvious truth which we all knew for years. It was always puzzling for us as to why US tolerates such level of deceit.
For a change, the ‘New York Times’ and Trump are on the same page. On Christmas Day, the ‘Times’ rapped Pakistan on the knuckles saying that as “terrorism claims new civilian victims and the army uses Islamist extremists to stage what has all the hallmarks of a velvet coup.”
It went on to add:
The real catastrophe in Pakistan is the cynical use of Islamist extremism by the country’s security establishment to hold democracy hostage and to foment the insecurity it needs to maintain its grip on power. Until that changes, there is scant hope Pakistan will take control of the terrorism that threatens its citizens’ lives and the stability of the region.”
On the face of it, India will be pleased that the world’s most powerful country, the US, is coming down so hard on its hostile neighbour in its west. But India will be prepared for the fact that Pakistan will reach out even more to its benefactor and “iron brother” China to alleviate the economic hardship a potential US crackdown on Pakistan.
It is unclear what the US will do, but the signs have been there for some time. Trump had fired the first salvo as long ago as August 2017 when he reminded Islamabad of its “obligations” to help America “because it receives massive payments” from Washington every year.
“We have made clear to Pakistan that while we desire continued partnership, we must see decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory. And we make massive payments every year to Pakistan. They have to help,” the US president had said at the time.
Soon after in December, a Pentagon report said the US would take “unilateral steps” in areas of divergence with Pakistan. Visiting Bagram airbase in Afghanistan on December 22, US Vice-President Mike Pence said Trump had “put Pakistan on notice”.