By Campaign Agent Euan Stone
Any hopes that President Trump had committed to a New Year’s resolution of nuancing his diplomatic skills came crashing down within the first few hours of 2018. For a man who so petulantly tweets on impulse, it is anyone’s guess exactly what went wrong at the Trump’s New Year’s celebrations, to prompt this particular Twitter outburst.
The President tweeted: “They have given us nothing but lies and deceit.” New year, new Donald? Not exactly.
The country in question was Pakistan, and it was no less than Donald Trump’s first tweet of the year that reproached the country for providing a “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan,” whilst roundly attacking the $33 billion provided in US aid to the country over the last 15 years.
Shortly following Trump’s tweet, the US State Department proved there was serious bite to the President’s bark by announcing that the US was suspending at least $900 million in security assistance to Pakistan. The policy of crudely using aid as a carrot and stick for greater diplomatic leverage has from the outset been an ever-present aspect of Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy. It has now also become a key part of the President’s rhetoric concerning Palestine and his efforts to negotiate a Middle East peace strategy by siding unreservedly with Israel.
The US- Pakistan relationship is complicated to say the least; it has proven to be both indispensable yet troublesome to the United States in recent years. The relationship increased in importance following September 11th and the US’s ongoing commitment to the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, a country that shares over 1,500 miles of border with Pakistan. Whilst it has been a reluctant partner at times, Pakistan was nevertheless a crucial strategic component in fighting the Taliban in the region, alongside President George W. Bush.
However, relations took a dramatic hit following the Pakistani Government’s failure to inform the US of Osama bin Laden’s presence in their country, prior to President Obama orchestrating the mission to have him killed. Obama substantially cut aid to the country on a number of occasions during his premiership, and therefore this latest move by the Trump Administration must be viewed in many respects as an extension of this policy and the continued grievance of a string of American administrations.
In exchange for the military aid provided by the US, Pakistan delivers vital counter-terrorism information in the region and the US has used military bases in the country to launch drone strikes against militants. It also provides roads for access into Afghanistan that are an invaluable tool in US efforts to fight rebel groups such as the Taliban. Because of this, Pakistan unquestionably holds a substantial degree of leverage in the relationship and any threat to halt its intelligence support could be catastrophic for the US. Were such routes into Afghanistan closed off, the alternative options for access are either significantly more expensive, or geopolitically unviable, such as access via Iran.
Yet, what cannot be ignored is the fact that a succession of American Presidents have been greatly frustrated by the belief that the Pakistan Government is playing both hands in the conflict. Whilst in one respect, they are eager to continue receiving financial and military support from the US, it has been claimed that the Pakistan Government has also been careful not to fully alienate militants in the region and have even been criticised for harbouring a number of these groups in their own jurisdiction. As long as Pakistan continues to allow sanctuary on their border to the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network, and if a series of command-and-control operations remain within Pakistani territory itself, US efforts in the conflict will continue to be undermined.
The Pakistan Government has repeatedly denied all accusations of offering safe havens, but such frustration with the country is not something solely expressed by the ever-temperamental Trump. It has also been an issue raised across a number of NATO countries, with Pakistan increasingly criticised for its apparent willingness to harbour militants and undermine both the conflict in Afghanistan and the global fight against terrorism.
It was back in August that Trump first initiated a shift in policy towards Pakistan, identifying it as a fundamental part of his only keynote speech to date on Afghanistan. Using the speech to announce the deployment of 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the President also directly called out Pakistan’s links to “agents of chaos, violence, and terror” and outlined that “the next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan.”
Just last week, the situation escalated into a new and potentially extremely damaging stage for the US. In response to President Trump’s decision to cut aid, Pakistani Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan stated that the US had “chosen castigation over co-operation” and declared a “regional recalibration of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.”
Of crucial significance, Mr Khan stated, “we have opened dialogue with Russia, which traditionally we have never had, because we were firmly in the Western camp.” Mr Khan also took the opportunity to reaffirm their relationship with China, which is currently building an offshore naval base close to a strategic Pakistani port, whilst expressing its anger at the US’s ever-closer relationship with its key regional rival, India.
The very real problem now faced by the United States is reminiscent of the old strategic dimensions of the Cold War and the danger that when influence is lost in a country, the power vacuum is quickly capitalised upon by another. With an international environment of rising superpowers in the East and an increasingly aggressive Russia, Pakistan’s pivot towards China and Russia has the potential to be a drastically negative development for the US. Only this week, the director of the CIA announced that Chinese efforts to exert covert influence over the West is now just as concerning as that of Russian subversion.
The broad problem that ‘Donald Trump the Businessman’ faces in his diplomatic approach is the severe misunderstanding that countries are simply motivated by the most basic instinct of greed. As a result, he underestimates the capacity for smaller countries to stand up to his aggressive temperament and bullyboy tactics. Despite his best protestations to the contrary, so far, Trump’s tactics have only proved to isolate the US further. This was on full display at the recent UN vote on the recognition of East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, where the vast majority of countries voted against the US, defiantly ignoring Trump’s threats to cut aid.
Evidently, there is a pressing need to bolster the US strategy with Pakistan- but Trump has so far failed to present a diplomatic approach capable of achieving genuine change and improvements in cooperation. With Pakistan already announcing that “discussions” have taken place on US access to routes into Afghanistan and confirming that some intelligence sharing has already been cut, the capacity for Trump’s antagonistic public rebukes to further escalate the situation are deeply concerning.
It is clearly in neither country’s interest to continue on this road of hostility. Consequently, it is of paramount importance that President Trump embarks upon a far more nuanced foreign policy agenda in 2018 than was witnessed in his first year in office.
Few, I’d imagine, are holding out much hope.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, The White House (21st August 2017)
- U.S. aid to Pakistan shrinks amid mounting frustration over militants, Reuters (26th August 2017)
- U.S. suspends at least $900 million in security aid to Pakistan, Reuters (4th January 2018)
- Why is China building a military base in Pakistan, America’s newest enemy? Newsweek (5th January 2018)
- Trump’s sudden new fight with Pakistan, explained, Vox (8th January 2018)
- Pakistan-US ties tested but not killed by huge aid cut, Al Jazeera (12th January 2018)
- Trump threatens to cut aid to Palestinians for ‘disrespecting’ Pence, The Guardian (25th January 2018)
- Pakistan turn to Russia and China after US military aid freeze, Financial Times (28th January 2018)
- CIA chief says China ‘as big a threat to US’ as Russia, BBC News (30th January 2018)
- EU pledges €42.5 extra aid to Palestinians after Donald Trump cuts US contribution, Independent (31st January 2018)
- “UN votes resoundingly to reject Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as capital”, The Guardian (21 December 2017)