International fame, at last! Pakistan hit international headlines because it was the subject of Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018. The country will have a small but everlasting place in history.
Trump is the man who immediately after being elected US President telephoned the then prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, to say Pakistan is “a fantastic country, fantastic place” and “amazing with tremendous opportunities.” He ended the call with the jovial request to “please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people.” How heartwarming, to be sure.
It’s pretty certain that Trump doesn’t know any Pakistanis and probably couldn’t find the place on a globe, but his attitude to the country seemed positive. And so it continued until New Year’s Day 2018 when Trump tweeted “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 and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
He meant that the Pakistan army, which has had 6,687 soldiers killed fighting terrorists since 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan, is helping terrorists based in Pakistan.
Since the US attack on Afghanistan and subsequent expansion of Islamic terrorist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Pakistan has suffered 468 suicide bombing attacks, in which 7,230 of its citizens were killed. Before 2001 there was one such attack, in 1995 by a crazy Egyptian who drove a bomb-laden lorry into the Egyptian Embassy’s gates.
When Trump tweeted his menacing message Pakistan had ended a year in which it suffered 3,001 civilian deaths from terrorism, and 676 of its soldiers were killed in fighting against terrorists, while 1,702 terrorists were killed. It was quite a year, but not as bad as 2009, at the height of the US “surge” in Afghanistan, when almost a thousand Pakistani soldiers were killed conducting operations against terrorists in their strongholds in the Tribal Areas.
In 2009 Afghanistan’s President Karzai said there was “an urgent need” for direct negotiations with the Taliban and made it clear that the US government opposed any such approach. Meanwhile, there was indeed increased movement of terrorists between the countries, made less difficult for them because his government refused to permit erection of any sort of border barrier.
Eleven years ago, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times wrote that the Afghan President “voiced strong opposition on [December 28, 2006] to Pakistan’s announcement that it would lay mines and erect fences along its border with Afghanistan. He said the moves would only hurt the people living in the region and would not stem cross-border terrorism.”
But if the Pakistan-Afghanistan border had been mined and fenced on both sides, as proposed by Pakistan, and patrolled aggressively by the armies of both countries, nobody could claim that illegal crossings would have been easy. If the Afghan army had been ordered to cooperate with their opposite numbers across the border, and if there had been coordinated surveillance and aggressive foot patrols – as wanted by the Pakistan military – then it would have been very difficult indeed for insurgents to cross in either direction. The US did not approve Pakistan’s proposal for fencing and minefields and did not supply any assistance for the project. So the barrier was not erected.
It is ironic that Trump is canceling military security aid to Pakistan, because this cash helps its security forces to combat terrorists. In January the media reported that “Pakistan has spent more than Rs 67.3 billion ($605 million) during the last one and a half years in its efforts to stop infiltration of terrorists operating in Afghanistan and securing vital installations, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, from cross-border attacks.”
But all was not quite what it seemed. Or perhaps it was, because nobody knows how foreign policy is devised in Trump Washington. Anyway : after the Trump tweet against Pakistan his Defense Secretary, General Mattis, “vowed to continue working with the Pakistan government to defeat terrorism in south Asia despite the United States stopping nearly all its financial aid to the country.” He did not, of course, ask Pakistan if it wanted to continue working with the United States on anything at all, but that’s the way overseas relations are handled in the era of Trump.
Trump was supported by Senator Rand Paul who tweeted “I’m introducing a bill to end aid to Pakistan in the coming days. My bill will take the money that would have gone to Pakistan and put it in an infrastructure fund to build roads and bridges here at home.” This was greeted by a Trump tweet saying “Good idea, Rand!” But at the same time a White House official said “I just want to be clear that it’s been suspended. Nothing has been reappropriated. We’re hopeful that we can lift the suspension and the aid will be able to go forward.” So what is the real policy?
All this leaves Pakistan with some problems. It can live without the US money, of course, although there’s no doubt it has been most useful and much appreciated, but as time goes by its air force will have difficulty in continuing to operate its F-16 aircraft because the US will probably refuse to sell it replacement parts. Its orders for US attack helicopters may also be affected. But the US is not the only source of defense equipment, and there is little doubt that China, Russia and Turkey will move to plug any gaps. And there are other factors that Washington would do well to contemplate.
One most positive effect of Trump’s insulting tweet has been to unite Pakistanis. It appears that irrespective of political leanings they have joined in strong rejection of Trump’s menacing approach. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said bluntly that the US “carried out 57,800 attacks on Afghanistan from our bases. Your forces were supplied arms and explosives through our soil. Thousands of our civilians and soldiers became victims of the war initiated by you.” And his sentiments were echoed by the prominent opposition politician, Imran Khan, who said “Despite Pakistan clearing up North Waziristan, still half of Afghanistan is in Taliban hands. So, who is responsible for this? To make Pakistan the scapegoat of a failed strategy in Afghanistan is not just a travesty of justice, it is deeply insulting and humiliating.”
Quite so. And this is probably the way ahead for Pakistan. To my certain knowledge, Pakistan has provided intelligence about potential terrorist-related activities in America (and the UK). So why should they continue such cooperation? And as the New York Times pointed out on January 5, “the US “has always relied on Pakistani air and ground routes for supplies to the troops in Afghanistan” – so why should Pakistan continue to offer such facilities?
Pakistan could cut them off in a moment, as it did from November 2011 to June 2012 after the slaughter of 24 Pakistani soldiers in hours of strikes by US attack helicopters and a C-130 gunship. It is intriguing that the then Commander of US Central Command, General James Mattis, said “the strongest takeaway from this incident is the fundamental fact that we must improve border coordination, and this requires a foundational level of trust on both sides of the border.” This is the same James Mattis who declared after the Trump tweet that “I’m not concerned, no” about any action that Pakistan might take concerning the confrontation.
Trump failed to understand that insulting North Korea’s leader would result in such strong reaction to his immature jibes. His anti-Iran diatribes are entirely counterproductive. And he’s playing the same tune again. Trump’s Pakistan policy is insultingly menacing and should be regarded with the contempt it deserves, but if it continues then Pakistan could and should make Washington pay the price.
Brian Cloughley is author of A History of the Pakistan Army.