Opinion

Trump's Crude Hostility Is Pushing Pakistan Toward America's Foes: China, Russia - Even Iran

The Trump vs Imran Khan Twitter war was an opening volley in a far more dangerous conflict. As America cuts aid, Pakistan is finding new strategic sugar daddies whose ambitions are antithetical to U.S. interests in the region

Labourers, who set up the venue, sit by a billboard displaying a photo of Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, at a pre-election rally. Karachi, Pakistan, July 22, 2018
\ AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

The tweets attacking Pakistan came thick and fast from the White House: "We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That’s ENDING!"

President Trump doubled down in an TV interview later that day: "...We're supporting Pakistan, we're giving them $1.3 billion a year - which we don't give them anymore, by the way. I ended it because they don't do anything for us, they don't do a damn thing for us."

It didn't take long for Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan to unleash a barrage of tweeted rebuttals against U.S. President Donald Trump. In his tweets, Khan rubbished Trump’s assertions that Pakistan does "nothing" for the U.S., pointing out the injuries that "Pakistan has suffered in the US War on Terror in terms of lives lost and economic costs."

Khan’s tweets were followed by Pakistan's Army Chief issuing a statement via the military spokesperson, pointing out that Pakistan has done more for peace in the region "than any other country." 

Even the Prime Minister’s most vocal political opponents quickly rallied behind Khan’s response to Trump. There was fueled by righteous indignation – but also because anti-Americanism sells across the country, and every political stakeholder wants a slice of the potential political benefits.

In the past, the Pakistani leadership has had to balance its explicitly anti-U.S. rhetoric at home with a clear policy of safeguarding shared interests with Washington. But Khan’s direct confrontation with Trump on Twitter is a clear departure from that.

There are two reasons for this abrupt shift.

The first is Khan’s own loud-mouthed and undiplomatic nature, which has seen him being compared to Trump, even before either of them was elected as the state leader. The second is the U.S. decision to cut financial aid to Pakistan, which affects the coffers of both the civil and military leadership.

With American aid increasingly shrinking, Pakistan no longer feels obliged to even pretend to toe U.S. policies.

What is important to highlight here, despite the drama, is that neither Trump nor Khan said anything that their predecessors hadn’t. President Barack Obama had repeatedly called out Pakistan for providing "safe havens" for terror groups, while previous Pakistani governments have reiterated the country’s sacrifices in the War on Terror, to deflect pointing fingers.

So despite both Trump and Khan reiterating what their respective states have long maintained, this online duel has brought the two states to a confrontation not seen in recent years.

This is because both Trump and Khan put forward their state’s positions in the most undiplomatic of manners, even if completely consistent with the populist drums that they’ve beaten at home.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, left, meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on Sept. 19, 2018, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
Untitled,AP

Khan’s completely contrasting diplomatic overtures toward other states like Saudi Arabia and China are further evidence that the Pakistani state now believes that its ties with U.S. are no longer as critical.

Islamabad also feels that its financial needs would be covered by these two states, with Saudi Arabia recently giving Pakistan a $6 billion bailout package in exchange for diplomatic support amidst the crisis triggered by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Similarly, Beijing has made its largest ever foreign investment in the shape of the economic corridor running through Pakistan, which has prompted Islamabad to put all its eggs in the China basket, even if that has meant compromising on state sovereignty. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 3, 2018
AFP

Even so, despite the transformation in regional realities a common goal – its varied interpretations for either state notwithstanding – for both U.S. and Pakistan remains unfulfilled in Afghanistan. The most critical, and yet to be answered, question regarding the Afghanistan peace process is the future of the Taliban, over which Pakistan still exercises considerable influence

Earlier this month, a key figure in this process was removed when the "Father of the Taliban" Sami-ul-Haq was found dead under mysterious circumstances at his home. Ul-Haq – who founded and ran Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania, the madrassa that has been the alma mater of various prominent jihadists in the region – had been approached by the Afghanistan government last month to mediate peace talks with the Taliban.

Since then, Taliban officials have participated in talks in Moscow, hinting at a greater role for Russia in the Afghan mediation process, which clashes with the historical U.S. position in the region. Pakistan is already signing military deals with Russia to fill the void left by its increasing differences with the U.S.

Trump’s South Asia policy, and singling out of Islamabad as the problem in the region, has played its part in bringing the trio of China, Russia and Pakistan together over a wide array of mutual interests in the region, including Afghanistan.

Pakistani cleric Hafiz Saeed, founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, and now taken off Pakistan's terror list, speaks in Lahore, Pakistan. Nov. 1, 2018
K.M. Chaudary,AP

And now as this trio seeks a formalized role for the Taliban in Afghanistan, it would allow Islamabad to pursue its duplicitous policy of nurturing specific jihadist groups who serve its strategic interests in Afghanistan and India, as long as the state can exercise its control over them to keep them away from Chinese investments.

In accordance with this strategy, Pakistan has recently taken UN designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed – a mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2018 – off its list of terrorists where he had been placed earlier this year to avoid the country being blacklisted by the terror watchdog Financial Action Task Force.  

There is another potential upside for Pakistan to distancing itself from the U.S.: Pakistan can draw closer to Iran.

Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, third from left, holds talks with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, third from right, at the foreign ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan. Aug. 31, 2018
,AP

This would be particularly true in the trade and energy realms, with projects like the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline long stalled owing to U.S. sanctions on Iran, now reimposed by Washington this month. Pakistan would still have to jockey between Tehran's increasingly open arms and major resistance by Saudi Arabia, which is providing essential cashflow right now.

With Russia and China orchestrating the Afghan peace process, jihadist groups continuing to function in the region, and Iran finding economic alternatives to ease the pressure of sanctions, the geopolitical picture in South Asia is diverging starkly from U.S. interests and policy.

And while Trump, like Obama, is absolutely right to accuse Pakistan of providing sanctuary to UN designated terrorists – Osama bin Laden, of course, being the most prominent example – the U.S. president’s continued stick without nary a carrot in sight might just have pushed Islamabad away for good.

Frustrations over that, and the backtalk spearheaded by Imran Khan, means bubbling tension only needs another trigger, tweeted or not, to plunge U.S. and Pakistan into to a full-blown crisis.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The GuardianThe IndependentForeign PolicyCourrier InternationalNew StatesmanThe Telegraph MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune