x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

How Trump set the stage for more gripping drama in the US-Pakistan relationship

Even in a turning world, there remains an unchanging logic to the US-Pakistan relationship, one that preferences retort and repartee, writes Rashmee Roshan Lall

Protesters in Lahore burn posters of Donald Trump earlier this year. K.M. Chaudary / AP
Protesters in Lahore burn posters of Donald Trump earlier this year. K.M. Chaudary / AP

Donald Trump’s first tweet of the year bashed Pakistani perfidy and had Indians cheering his perspicacity but it should really only be read for what it is: a snarling America First salute to 2018 and meaningless beyond a few weeks. Only the naïve would expect Mr Trump’s tweet – and Pakistan’s response of injured innocence – to have lasting policy impact.

The truest thing about the US-Pakistan relationship is that it is fairly resilient. It has survived the vicissitudes of changing political fashions and administrations for more than six decades, multiple “gotcha” expressions of American disgust at Pakistan’s alleged duplicity and retaliatory non-cooperative episodes on the part of Islamabad.

The relationship has overcome, albeit settling into a lower key, 2011, one of its very worst periods. That tumultuous year ended with Pakistan suspending its support for the US-led campaign in landlocked Afghanistan by closing road routes and airspace, which supplied nearly half of all the Nato coalition forces in the country. Islamabad’s uncompromising response to airstrikes that killed at least 25 Pakistani soldiers along the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan made it difficult for Washington to feed its diplomatic missions and military forward operating bases. The US apologised and normal business resumed.

In February that same year, Pakistan had already curtailed intelligence cooperation with the US for slightly different reasons, albeit built to the same template of exaggerated horror at American distrust and high-handedness. Then in May 2011, a US secret operation on Osama bin Laden’s last redoubt concluded its 10-year search for the 9/11 mastermind in Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistani capital and within a couple of kilometres of the Pakistan Military Academy. That the raid was conducted without Pakistan’s help, and notably, without informing its government and security services, appeared to underline the nature of America’s constant relationship with its long-time ally: no trust; no need to verify; no sweat. Pakistan’s veteran ambassador to the US, Maleeha Lodhi, said at the time: “This is as close as you can get to a rupture (in the relationship).”

But it didn’t rupture. Not really. In fact, the US-Pakistan equation has consistently defied the gravitational pull of events both grim and gory on either side.

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In 2013, another strained period in US-Pakistan relations, an authoritative expert published a book that seemed to say it all. The book, by Daniel S Markey, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, was titled No Exit From Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship With Pakistan.

Five years on, it remains a pretty snappy assessment on the surface even though the ground rules of the relationship have changed. For, in the 21st century, the original intention of US president Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles seems hideously outmoded. It was Dulles who privileged Pakistan rather than Soviet-leaning, officially-non-aligned India. Back in the early 1950s, Pakistan was part of Dulles’s sweeping view of Cold War security architecture. But today, Pakistan is no longer part of America’s cherished defensive “Northern tier” – along with Turkey, Iran and Iraq – and a bulwark against Soviet plans to take over Middle Eastern oilfields.

As for Pakistan, its situation is very different, even from 2013. It is no longer so physically and emotionally needy. Chinese investment – billions of dollars poured into the massive economic corridor project launched by Xi Jinping in 2015 – has taken care of that. Islamabad no longer seems particularly anxious to secure Washington’s approval, choosing instead to be a great deal more brazen about its depressing lack of political and governance successes.

But even in a turning world, there remains an unchanging logic to the US-Pakistan relationship. Not too long ago, Mr Trump committed more troops to Afghanistan, and for the long haul, an unspecified period extending far into the distant future. That means years of requiring road or rail access to Afghanistan through Pakistan, rather than through troubled Central Asia or through hostile Iran. And for all the yuan in the world, Pakistan’s generals still seem to like the thought of US$225 million of free money, a gift so to speak, from the American people, in the immortal words of the premier US aid agency. Despite Mr Trump’s insults, Pakistan’s foreign ministry publicly called for “mutual respect and trust along with patience and persistence” in order to address “common threats”.

Mr Trump’s tweet has set the stage for a gripping drama, full of posturing, retort and repartee. American security assistance may, as has happened before, serve as a useful prop. And Pakistan’s election this summer may be the next act of this farce with lots of good lines against the US.

As theatre professionals say, what is the purpose of drama but catharsis?