In late July, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the cricket superstar turned politician, will make his first visit to the United States to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss regional issues such as the on-going Afghanistan peace process. This will be the first opportunity for the two leaders to meet face to face amidst an increasingly tense relationship between both countries.
In a November 2018 interview on Fox News Sunday, sparked by critical comments made by the former JSOC commander Admiral William McRaven, the US president meandered his way through loosely connected thoughts before landing on Pakistan as a target of his derision, claiming he ended military assistance to this South Asian ally “because they don’t do anything for us, they don’t do a damn thing for us.” On the following day, Trump double downed on these comments, tweeting “We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That’s ENDING.” This reflected comments he made in a New Year’s Day tweet last year: “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 & deceits, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” The Trump Administration subsequently suspended most of its nearly $2 billion security assistance payments to Pakistan given its failure to cooperate fully with US counterterrorism priorities.
The response from Pakistan was predictably one of anger and outrage. In January 2018, Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told the commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, during a telephone call that the “entire Pakistani nation felt betrayed” over Trump’s tweet. Prime Minister Khan responded to the President’s disparaging November 2018 comments on Fox News by tweeting, “Trump’s false assertions add insult to the injury Pak has suffered in US WoT in terms of lives lost & destabilised & economic costs. He needs to be informed abt historical facts. Pak has suffered enough fighting US’s war. Now we will do what is best for our people & our interests.”
The hot and cold nature of the US bilateral relationship with Pakistan is not new. It has traditionally fluctuated with the saliency of US interests in South Asia, peaking during the containment strategy of the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the advent of the War on Terror. As US interests declined, the US government sought disengagement. With the Trump administration moving to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, it appears that relations with Pakistan are again falling into a shallow patch. However, with the rise of China as an economic and political power and its strengthening relations with Pakistan, there are serious concerns about the US government’s future ability to project its influence with what has been a key security ally in South Asia over the past half century.
Practically every single conversation I had in Islamabad during recent visits circled back to Trump in some way, as Pakistanis were eager for my explanation of his antipathy towards Pakistan. Some were angry over Trump’s “rude behavior.” While others were outright dismissive, stressing that the US “needs to leave the region” as its influence in South Asia is “over.” Many also were frustrated by the incongruencies and inconsistencies in US policy, often premised on the understanding that Trump’s tweets represent official government positions. Though some Pakistani diplomats I spoke with questioned the actual influence of Trump in establishing long-term policy, especially with the often-contradictory positions emanating from the current US administration. Even the December 2018 letter from Trump to Prime Minister Khan requesting Pakistani support for negotiations with the Taliban was treated with suspicion. Many Pakistani officials argued that its role in facilitating the peace process in Afghanistan is simply meant to provide the US government with a scapegoat in case of a failed outcome.
While meeting at his office at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, the former Pakistani Foreign Secretary and Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US from 2017-2018, told me that Trump’s “anti-Pakistan” rhetoric has “vitiated the environment” and strengthened the hand of individuals within Pakistan who push the view that the US “is friendly with Pakistan only to the extent of its own interests and does not care about our interests.” This “vicious cycle of public humiliation,” as summed up by Pakistani scholar Dr. Huma Baqai, undercuts day-to-day diplomacy on more technical and concrete issues. Adding to this problem is the “decapitation” of State Department leadership, according to the former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London Barbara Stephenson, with many senior leadership positions remaining unfilled. Ambassador Chaudhry discussed the underlying need to resume “structured dialogue,” as its absence was creating more difficulties. He pointed out that many of the problems between the two countries existed during the Obama years as well. However, the two governments maintained effective lines of diplomatic communication that allowed them to clarify and address each other’s concerns rather than resorting to public rebukes on Twitter, which are “humiliating for Pakistan” and do not “leave a good feeling.”
For Pakistan, it is not just Trump’s rhetoric and behavior affecting US influence abroad and pushing Pakistan further into the arms of China. Rather, the United States’ tilt towards India over the last two decades is arguably the greater concern for the Pakistani elite, an issue that pre-dates Trump’s presidency.
The United States began to cultivate stronger relations with India in the early 2000s after lifting economic sanctions put into place after India’s May 1998 nuclear test. With its growing economy, India was seen to be a potential economic and strategic partner to help bring stability to the region and, more importantly, balance against China. The White House’s 2002 National Security Doctrine stated, “[India and the US] are the two largest democracies committed to political freedoms protected by representative government. India is moving towards greater economic freedom as well. We have a common interest in the free flow of trade through the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean. Finally, we have a common interest in fighting terrorism and creating a strategically stable Asia.” This position culminated in the 2006 US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, allowing the transfer of nuclear energy technology and strengthening a broad-based strategic and economic relationship between the two countries. US trade with India almost tripled between 2000 and 2007 with India currently the United States’ 9th largest trading partner.
At this time, according to former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher, the US government was seeking to “de-hyphenate” the India-Pakistan relationship, a move not matched by either South Asian country who continued to frame strategic relationships through this enduring rivalry. Pakistan watched these warming relations unfold across its eastern border as it struggled to deal with the violent aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, while being pushed by US officials to “do more” against terrorist groups operating within its borders. Pakistani officials believe they are being “squeezed” on a single issue — terrorism — and balk at the criticism that they haven’t “done enough,” as 80,000 Pakistanis have been killed as a result of the War on Terror. Many diplomats and government officials, both American and Pakistani, stress that the US-Pakistan relationship must expand beyond security to include a wider range of issues, mirroring US-India relations.
Trump, who has had strong business interests in India, moved his administration’s policies and rhetoric even more in line with India. During his 2016 campaign, he stated of India to an Indian-American audience, “There won’t be any relationship more important to us.” Trump even released a campaign ad in which he proclaimed in stilted Hindi, “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar (This time, a Trump government),” copying an electoral motto of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In May 2018, reflecting the growing importance of India as a counterweight to China, the Pentagon re-named the US Pacific Command, the US Indo-Pacific Command. Later that year, the US government also granted India an exception to economic sanctions on Iran, allowing them to continue to purchase Iran’s oil. Though, in recent months, the US-India trade relationship has run into a rough patch as the Trump administration rescinded India’s preferential access to US markets in response to Modi’s protectionist economic policies.
A former member of the Nawaz Sharif government with whom I spoke (and who requested anonymity) acknowledged that this tilt is quite logical from the US perspective as India is a larger country with a larger economy to serve as a market for US goods. Pakistan, however, still sees this tightening relationship as problematic and clashing with its own security interests, interests which are shaped by the long-standing rivalry with its eastern neighbor over the lingering territorial dispute over Kashmir. This concern with India was made more urgent due to recent clashes across the Line of Control in Kashmir in response to Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Pulwama attack against Indian security forces.
Pakistan particularly is concerned with the US inviting India to play a greater role in Afghanistan. In August 2017, Trump announced as part of his administration’s new South Asian strategy, right after criticizing Pakistan for serving as a terrorist safe haven, “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.” India’s presence in Afghanistan serves as an “irritant” for Pakistan which has worked to maintain strategic depth against Indian influence in its western neighbor through supporting pro-Pakistan Pashtun forces, such as the Taliban in the 1990s at a time when India was aligned with the Northern Alliance. Many Pakistani officials point to the presence of four Indian consulates in Afghanistan to serve only a few thousands Indian nationals as evidence of their duplicity. Ambassador Chaudhry stated, “Clearly when India was given a larger role in Afghanistan, then Pakistanis felt that our security interests were not being looked after and India would naturally want to use this opportunity for a double squeeze on Pakistan, to destabilize Pakistan…Now with this tilt in favor of India, [the United States] is not viewed as a neutral arbiter of conflict in South Asia.”
Pakistan understands its relationship with China as a key balance against the perceived US and India bloc, diminishing the influence of the United States for Pakistan. Pakistan has historically relied on China when the US disengages from South Asia and “abandons” the country (from the perspective of many Pakistanis), as Pakistan seeks the support of an “all-weather ally” against India. China and Pakistan have maintained this close relationship over the past 70 years. Pakistan was one of the first nations to recognize the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, and China provided critical support to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Pakistan’s relationship with China has continued to grow as a result of strategic security issues such as China’s concern with terrorism in the region, economic investments, and mutual antipathy towards India. In 2016 as the US government was scaling down its mission in Afghanistan with a subsequent decline in military and economic assistance, China for the first time became Pakistan’s primary supplier of military hardware, signaling a long-term commitment to Chinese military systems. Pakistan is also the largest recipient of Chinese military supplies, receiving 35% of China’s total arms exports. Chinese diplomats have dubbed Pakistan “China’s Israel” in recognition of its unwavering support for its neighboring country. In deference to its more powerful neighbor, Imran Khan even shirked questions in an interview about China’s on-going crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in its western Xinjiang Province, stating that he “didn’t know much” about it.
“Why would Pakistan budge now that the second biggest economy in the world, China, is standing by us,” Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani journalist, argued at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Pakistan Policy Symposium in October 2018. “The US has lost its leverage. Only China is investing in Pakistan.” China is poised to make a $46 billion investment in Pakistan with the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connecting Western China with the Gwadar Port on Pakistan’s Arabian coast in the largely rural Balochistan province. While speaking with Gul over tea at his home in Islamabad, he told me that the increasing problems with the United States “convinced Pakistan that our relationship with the United States will remain transitory, particularly after its tilt toward India. India has been elevated in the view of the establishment here. So, we needed a shoulder, Pakistan needed a shoulder, and that shoulder is China.” He continued, “And everybody is sort of convinced that Trump may not be there two years down the lane. But the US establishment is there and is aligned with India. That is seen as a threat or as a challenge to handle. This is what is I think defining our policy responses as well.”
Despite the enthusiasm with which many Pakistanis view China and CPEC, some recognize the limitations and dangers of the strengthening relationship with China, pointing to the fact that China was seeking simply to enhance their own economic interests. Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, expressed fear that the deeper Pakistan falls into the Chinese camp, the greater the threat to Pakistani democracy, calling this the “dark side” of the Chinese relationship. He in particular pointed to the position of the military being strengthened as China’s predominant concern is maintaining stability rather than protecting democratic institutions or political rights. He further warned of the potential for Pakistan becoming a “client state” as it increasingly relies on China to balance against India. Moreover, there are concerns that CPEC projects are inflaming the on-going Baloch insurgency, leading to such attacks as the November 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army. The concern for security has led to the deployment of a 15,000-person military force to protect Chinese workers, infrastructure, and convoys carrying goods through the province. One political leader in the region, the present Khan of Kalat Mir Suleman Dawood, dubbed CPEC a “Chinese military project.”
The problems within the US-Pakistan relationship pre-date the Trump administration. However, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have made interactions between the two countries more difficult and have been taken seemingly without full consideration of the growing China-Pakistan relationship. Despite this, policymakers within the US government still understand the importance of Pakistan to on-going political negotiations with the Taliban.
Yet, with the shifting political order in South Asia, the US government must recognize the limitations of its influence abroad and adjust its strategy accordingly. When the US needed to re-engage Pakistan for strategic reasons in the past, it traditionally has dangled the promise of reinstituting US military and economic assistance as leverage for gaining cooperation. This was an attractive proposal given the Pakistan army’s reliance on US military systems and technology. With the increased military relationship with China and the Pakistani government’s desire to grow their economy through Chinese investments, this tactic of the United States may prove to be a futile effort in gaining future cooperation from Pakistan should it need to strategically re-engage in South Asia.
As Trump moves to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, there remain a number of outstanding questions about the impact of this action. If Afghanistan descends once again into violence following the prompt withdrawal of US troops without first creating a sustainable security framework, the upshot could be a growing threat to US national security or strategic interests in the region. Without the support of Pakistan, as US policymakers have recognized in the past, it will be difficult to re-engage in order to confront these threats. A number of Pakistanis I spoke with did see room for future engagement with the US and the need to reject the notion of a zero-sum game between US and China. However, if Trump maintains his aggressive posturing toward Pakistan, they acknowledged that this may prove difficult to achieve. Unless there is a clear shift in the US approach sensitive to the shifting political landscape of South Asia, a working US-Pakistan relationship may well be a long-term casualty of the Trump administration.