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OPINION

Trump’s threats to Pakistan may ring hollow

By ISHAAN THAROOR | The Washington Post | Published: January 8, 2018

President Donald Trump began 2018 with a salvo against Pakistan, raging against Islamabad’s “lies and deceit” after years of allegedly abetting terror groups and allowing militant havens in the country. Later in the week, the Trump administration moved to block an estimated $2 billion in military aid earmarked for Pakistan. Trump framed his action as yet another dramatic rupture with the past; it seemed the work, yet again, of a presidency motivated by a profound desire to constantly poke its predecessors in the eye.

“The Trump administration’s move came after what a senior State Department official called ‘numerous conversations’ with the Pakistanis over several months, along with visits by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis,” my Washington Post colleagues Shaiq Hussain and Annie Gowen reported. “The United States has repeatedly pressed the Pakistanis to do something about Taliban and Haqqani network militants operating inside Pakistan who launch attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan, officials said.”

Unlike many of the president’s other stances on foreign affairs, though, Trump’s exasperation with Pakistan is widely shared in Washington’s establishment policy circles.

U.S. lawmakers and diplomats, not to mention previous presidents, have long grumbled about the “two-faced” role played by the Pakistanis. Even while collaborating with the United States on counterterrorism, elements of the Pakistani military — a domineering institution that casts a long shadow over the state — were known to have cultivated, shielded and even at times directed a constellation of Islamist militant groups operating on either side of Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and India.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has also played a key role in enabling American military operations against the Taliban. But the awkwardness of this marriage of convenience has been on display plenty of times. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama pointed to the terrorist “safe havens” in Pakistan as part of the need to ramp up American troop levels in Afghanistan. Two years later, al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed in a housing compound just a four-hour drive from the Pakistani capital.

“Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard,” Obama had warned the Pakistanis. His own administration withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of promised assistance to Islamabad because of Pakistan’s inability (or unwillingness) to crack down on the notorious Haqqani network, as well as another militant group that targets India.

That’s why, despite their strident tone, it’s unclear whether Trump’s tweets signal a real shift in U.S. policy. Nor is it obvious why social-media threats would lead to a genuine change of heart in Islamabad, where a weak civilian government must contend with the military as well as widespread anti-American sentiment.

In response to Trump, Pakistan’s foreign minister described the United States as the “friend who always betrays.” His ministry put out a more politely worded statement. “Working toward enduring peace requires mutual respect and trust along with patience and persistence,” it read. “Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goal posts are counterproductive in addressing common threats.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi lamented Washington’s seeming lack of appreciation for Pakistani contributions. “Today, we are fighting terrorists. So if somebody says we are harboring terrorists, there is no greater fallacy,” Abbasi said. “We have engaged U.S. at every level from President Trump down.”

Imran Khan, a celebrity cricketer turned leading opposition figure, took a tougher line, arguing that it was “time for Pakistan to delink from the U.S.” and end cooperation with the American war on terror, which includes a loathed clandestine drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas — a frequent subject of Khan’s nationalist diatribes.

Pakistani officials are “going to become much more forceful in terms of their rhetoric towards the United States, especially because there’s an election coming up, probably in May,” said Shamila Chaudhary of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner. “They’re going to double down on their kind of anti-U.S. sentiment, and they’re going to focus on their relationship with China.”

Such fraught geopolitics are another reason Trump’s threats may ring hollow. China is promising significant new investment in Pakistan as part of its own long-term economic project in Central and South Asia, which raises questions about the strength of American influence in Islamabad. In Afghanistan, a host of other regional powers — including Russia, China, Iran and India — are all increasingly influential players in what has turned into a new “great game” for the 21st century. American troops may have been fighting battles there for more than 16 years, but Trump is hardly in a position to call all the shots.

“While Trump can tweet whatever he wants about Pakistan or Iran, the professionals on his staff know the truth: U.S. policy in Afghanistan requires a port with road or rail access to Afghanistan,” wrote Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University. “This administration — like each one before — has cast its lot with Pakistan. And this administration will confront the same failures as its predecessors. Logistics will beat strategy every time.”

That means creating alternative routes of access through former Soviet states in Central Asia or even Iran, two scenarios that remain rather unlikely. In the meantime, the White House has to handle Pakistan, which is beset by both political dysfunction and economic turmoil, more carefully than it seems to be doing.

“Pakistan’s internal weaknesses, the terrorists it harbors and its nuclear arsenal make for an explosive mix. Sanctions do not make a policy in and of themselves,” noted an editorial in Financial Times. “Washington also needs to figure out how to lower the odds of Pakistan becoming a failed state.”

Short of Trump conjuring up a totally different set of Pakistan-related tweets, though, it doesn’t seem the White House has done much serious thinking on that front.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

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