Trump’s Belligerence Toward Pakistan Isn’t Unreasonable

His threatening tweet might signal increased pressure on Islamabad for its support of Afghan militants.

Donald Trump
Jim Bourg / Reuters

On Tuesday, Trump administration officials joined the president to criticize Pakistan’s commitment to Afghanistan’s stability, accusing Islamabad of playing “a double game for years.”

The comments by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,  H.R. McMaster, the national-security-adviser, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokesperson, are likely to increase the pressure on Pakistan, which is still smarting over the president’s first tweet of the year:

While the topic of U.S. assistance for Pakistan may seem an odd one for Trump’s first tweet of the year, he’s long signaled his intention to get Pakistan to adhere to U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Those interests don’t always align with Pakistan’s own interests in the region. Pakistan has worked with the U.S. at times, Haley said, but it also “harbor[s] the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan.” McMaster told VOA that Pakistan “goes after terrorist and insurgent groups very selectively and uses others as an arm of their foreign policy.” While the U.S. has long urged Pakistan to do more to curb militancy in Afghanistan, it has never explicitly appeared to link aid to cooperation, as Trump did in his New Year’s day tweet. But that missive was a long time coming.

Trump criticized Islamabad’s policy toward Kabul in his Afghan strategy speech last August. He also doubled-down on the U.S. military presence in the country, accused Pakistan of sheltering “the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people,” and, perhaps worse from Pakistan’s view, called on India “to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” Then in December, while announcing his national-security strategy, the president said the U.S. wants a “continued partnership” with Pakistan, but that “we must see decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory.”  Vice President Mike Pence repeated those accusations in remarks to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Other U.S. officials and the Pentagon have also singled out Pakistan’s role.

Trump’s tweet on Monday all but guaranteed that U.S. policy toward Pakistan will remain difficult in the year ahead. As I wrote last August after his speech, clues to what that policy could look like were outlined in a policy paper published last year by Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is now director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, and Lisa Curtis, then a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who is now a deputy assistant to Trump and senior director for South and Central Asia at National Security Council. I wrote:

Among other things, the paper—A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties—argues that the U.S. should stop giving Pakistan additional aid or military equipment; that it should consider, in the long term, the option of designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism; and that it should threaten its status as a major non-NATO ally, a designation that gives Pakistan access to military spare parts and privileged access to some U.S. defense programs. All this, if Pakistan fails to halt its support for terrorists and militant groups active in Afghanistan and across the region.

The president’s tweet and remarks by his Cabinet officials suggest we may be at the start of this pressure campaign. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, historically close during the Cold War, have worsened since last year—and not just because the U.S. has grown closer to India, Pakistan’s nemesis.

Even apparent military successes have resulted in disagreements. One example: In October, Pakistani forces said they freed a Canadian-American family who were abducted in 2012 by the Haqqani network, a militant group linked to the Taliban. That operation, they said, also resulted in the capture of a militant linked to the network. U.S. authorities, The New York Times reported last week, sought access to the militant, but Pakistan rejected those requests. In response, the U.S. delayed sending $255 million in aid to Pakistan, leading to Haley’s comment that there were “clear reasons” for why money was being withheld.

Officials in Pakistan have been indignant. Khawaja Asif, the country’s foreign minister, said on Twitter that Pakistan’s coming response will let the world know the … difference between facts & fiction.” He added: “Trump quoted figure of $33billion given to PAK over last 15yrs, he can hire a US based Audit firm on our expense to verify this figure & let the world know who is lying & deceiving.” On Monday, David Hale, the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, was summoned to the foreign ministry to explain the president’s remarks. Following a three-hour meeting held by Pakistan’s National Security Committee over Trump’s tweet, the committee released a statement calling the allegations “completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between [the] two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation.”

Pakistan, for its part, maintains that it has moved against militants whenever the U.S. has provided it with relevant intelligence. But the killing by U.S. Navy SEALs of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, in a military garrison town in 2011, and the presence of other known militants on Pakistani soil has resulted in some skepticism about that assertion. Pakistan also points out it has suffered disproportionately at the hands of terrorist groups. It says it has little control over the porous border that divides its territory from Afghanistan’s, allowing militants to travel back and forth easily. It’s unclear whether this is due to Pakistan’s inability to stop the flow, or its unwillingness to do so.

What is perhaps most significant is that Pakistan views the Taliban as an ally, and is believed to provide safe haven to many of its senior leaders. The U.S., which ousted the Taliban regime during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has been trying to bring stability to the country for the past 16 years. Yet the group now controls more of Afghanistan than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion. Its fighters have continued to wage a military campaign, attacking U.S. and Afghan troops, foreign embassies, government facilities, and civilians. Any lasting political stability in Afghanistan depends on either the defeat of the Taliban—unlikely at this point—or its integration into the political process. But Pakistan’s support of the group all but ensures that it will have little incentive to join talks with the Afghan government.

Ultimately, as far as the Taliban is concerned, Washington and Islamabad have competing interests. Pakistan is not interested in being sandwiched between two unfriendly nations—Afghanistan and India. The Taliban gives Pakistan enough leverage inside Afghanistan to maintain its regional interests. It is this difference in how the Taliban is viewed—detrimental to Afghan stability versus pivotal to Pakistan’s regional interests—that underlie the misunderstanding between the U.S. and Pakistan.

“Trump is disappointed at the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan,” Asif, the foreign minister, told GEO TV, “and that is the only reason he is flinging accusations at Pakistan.”