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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Trump's ramped-up rhetoric will strain an already difficult relationship

Despite their differences, Pakistan and the US need one another

Donald Trump seems to believe that, having dangled too many carrots before Pakistan, it’s time for the US to wield the stick. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Donald Trump seems to believe that, having dangled too many carrots before Pakistan, it’s time for the US to wield the stick. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations,” US president Donald Trump announced in August last year. Two months later, in October, he seemed to have softened his attitude. “I want to thank Pakistan,” he said in October, following a raid by Pakistan’s military to rescue an American family held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan. “I believe they are starting to respect the United States again.” His appreciation did not, however, last very long. Pakistan became the target of Mr Trump’s inaugural tweet of 2018, in which he called Washington’s major non-Nato ally a purveyor of “lies and deceit” granting “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” despite having accepted $33 billion in aid from the US over the last decade and a half to do the opposite. He ended with: “No more!”

Mr Trump’s bare knuckle approach to one of the US's most sensitive relationships provoked a swift response from Pakistan’s foreign ministry, which summoned US ambassador David Hale to explain the president's comments. Prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi immediately called a cabinet meeting and top military and government officials will be discussing an appropriate response. There is little doubt a relationship which was already extremely strained is being tested to the limit. There is also little doubt, despite claims to the contrary, that the two are ultimately reliant on one another to restore peace and order and weed out militants operating on the Pakistani-Afghan border. The US, having renewed its commitment to Afghanistan, needs Pakistan’s cooperation. And while Pakistan is becoming closer to Russia and China, it is still heavily dependent on US financial aid.

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Mr Trump clearly believes that, having given away too many carrots, it’s time to wield the stick. There are those who believe that Mr Trump’s approach will yield positive results. It would be unwise to discount the possibility that Pakistan might react by moving even further away from the US and an already strained relationship might be irreparably damaged.

The US-Pakistan relationship, in the words of Husain Haqqani, Islamabad’s former ambassador to Washington, is cemented by “magnificent delusions”. Each has expectations the other cannot, or will not, fulfil and the alliance between the two is freighted with mutual resentment and distrust. The Americans believe that Pakistan, despite receiving substantial subventions from the US, has failed to meet the conditions attached to its generous aid: curbing extremism and combating terrorism. Pakistan feels resentful that its sacrifices have gone unnoticed. According to a report published by the Nobel prize-winning organisation International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, nearly 82,000 Pakistanis lost their lives in the US-led so-called "war on terror" between 2004 and 2013. As the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid observed: “America’s 9/11 has given way to Pakistan’s 24/7/365. The battlefield has been displaced.” Certainly Pakistan has an ongoing battle with terrorism on its doorstep. Yet the manner in which Mr Trump chose to express his frustration might come to be seen, in retrospect, as gravely injudicious.

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