The compulsive tweeter
US President Donald Trump has raised the art of tweeting to a major channel for not so much policy announcements as shaking up the world as we know it. In his latest and first of the new year offerings, he has denounced Pakistan as giving nothing but lies and deceit back to the US despite receiving $ 33 billion in aid since 9/11. Not unexpectedly, the strong and undiplomatic language (a characteristic of Trump the compulsive tweeter) has set off a fresh war of words between Islamabad and Washington. The turn in relations between Pakistan and the US from uneasy allies to increasingly strained ties barely describable as friends started in August 2017 with Trump’s announcement of a new approach to the long running Afghan war. This approach in essence relied on military means to convince the Afghan Taliban they could not achieve victory on the battlefield and would therefore be better served by returning to the negotiating table to hammer out a political settlement. In tandem with this more muscular approach, Trump reversed his campaign thinking about withdrawing altogether from Afghanistan and instead hinted at boosting the US troops presence in that country. In addition, in the August 2017 policy announcement and in a series of bristling statements by civilian and military spokesmen of the US administration since then, Pakistan had, in the inimitable words of US Vice President Mike Spence, ‘been put on notice’. These statements elicited a tough response from ISPR chief Major General Asif Ghafoor, in which he coined the new phrase ‘no more’ in answer to Washington’s refrain over the years to ‘do more’. If anything, ‘no more’ seems to have acquired the status of the new leit motif of Pakistan’s response to US calls for acting against the safe havens Washington says the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network enjoy on Pakistani soil. Pakistan, especially since Operation Zarb-e-Azb, asserts that it has in fact acted without discrimination against terrorists in clearing FATA and is resentful of its financial and human sacrifices in the war on terror going unrecognised and unappreciated. It also disputes the figure of $ 33 billion in aid, pointing out that $ 15 billion was recompense under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) for expenditures incurred in the war on terror. If the ISPR statement represented the first drops of rain, what Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has said and what seems in the offing after high level cabinet and national security committee meetings is a flood of even tougher responses. The US ambassador too has been told of Pakistan’s resentment of Trump’s tweet in no uncertain terms.
While our anger is understandable and to a certain extent justified because of the rude, unprecedented, undiplomatic language used by the most powerful compulsive tweeter in the world today, both civilian and military wisdom advises a cool and cautious approach. This is because Pakistan (and the world) today are dealing with a US president who has proved unstable and unpredictable and therefore perhaps not to be taken lightly. His track record in just one year in office has upset allies and long standing friends because of his boorish demeanour, so much so that NATO (over funding and attitude to Russia), the EU (over trade, the Iran nuclear deal, etc) and the world at large (over the retreat from the climate change treaty) are puzzled how to deal with him. To be fair, the US does have a case vis-à-vis its relationship with Pakistan. Despite the claim that our military and counterterrorism operations are without discrimination, we have yet to convincingly win the argument that there is no presence of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network on our soil. This may not be an operational presence, but the suspicion lingers that these are rear base areas these groups retreat to from the fighting in Afghanistan in order to rest, regroup, plan and then return to the battlefield inside our neighbouring country. The US was annoyed when after rescuing an American-Canadian couple, we refused access to the US to a captured kidnapper, exacerbating thereby Washington’s suspicions of our collusion with the Haqqanis. National pride, self-respect and dignity are of course to be upheld, but this must not be done in a manner that may trigger a complete cut off of US aid (not CSF) and close the door in our face to the international financial institutions we may have to turn to to meet our external financing deficit. Pragmatism and recognition of the dangerous nature of the present president of a superpower should inform a measured response, not anger. And efforts to restart negotiations between the warring parties in Afghanistan must be redoubled to bring peace without and within.