Trump in his inauguration speech declared that “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones” with such words he has given hopes to Pakistani strategists, that his arrival has ushered in a new era in Pakistani-US relations. The new Presidential website announces: “The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.” He may be thinking of Russia but for Pakistan this fits just as aptly.
Trump’s views on Pakistan in the past
Before his election, Trump had for the past couple of years always expressed his annoyance and dismay with Pakistan. In 2012 he tweeted when will Pakistan apologize to us for providing sanctuary to Osama.
When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some “ally.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2012
Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. When our tremendous Navy SEALS took out Osama bin Laden, they did… (cont) http://t.co/s6u5o8Co
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2011
Unfortunately, Pakistani’s by making a mountain out of a molehill, and publicising the exact details of the call, meant that hopes of better relations died a still born death.
Yet such were the state of relations of Pakistan with Obama and the Democrats that after Trump’s election in November, a short lived fantasy of better relations with the US gained a foothold in Pakistan.
This was reinforced after Trump’s call to ‘terrific’ Nawaz Sharif about ‘fantastic’ Pakistanis. Unfortunately, Pakistani’s by making a mountain out of a molehill, and publicising the exact details of the call, meant that hopes of better relations died a still born death.
The domestic wrath that ensued in the US meant Trump’s transition team was put on the defensive and they issued their own less flowery version of the call. The Pakistani government was roundly condemned by US and international press for the flagrant manner in which they issued a transcript of telephone conversation. The Trump transition team went on to impose a timeout on the Nawaz team.
Late December, rumors abounded that Tariq Fatemi, special advisor to the Prime minister on Foreign Affairs, spent nine days in Washington DC trying to mend fences and trying to get an invitation for the Prime Minister for the inauguration. Well the inauguration has come and gone and we know that the Prime Minister at his own cost – or rather – I should say at the cost of the Pakistani people spent the time in the beautiful village of Davos, admiring the scenery and spending time with other no doubt important people.
The rocky start aside, how do things look from here onwards?
Our relationship with the US will largely be determined by its relationship with three other countries in the region: India, Afghanistan and China. On the Indian front there is no question that the US-Indo strategic partnership will continue. This relationship is fast becoming the all-party consensus that Israel holds in the USA. Trump during his campaigns promised that he would be the ‘best friend India has.’
Nominations to different positions in the administration have already included a number of Indians including Nikki Haley for the UN, Dr Seema Verma for Medicare Admin, and there is talk of Ashley Tellis another Indian, joining as US ambassador for India. In addition, Trump’s cabinet nominees, if approved, create a cabinet that is full of Chinese hardliners, who will call for even stronger ties with India as a counterweight to China.
The only potential discord between India and US currently, could be on the issue of H1b visas, which many Indians avail and Trump has said he would restrict so that jobs are given domestically. The second is the increasing amount of high-tech equipment for the defense industry that was being made in India may be brought back – once again to bolster President Trump’s efforts to increase US employment.
Is Michael Flynn, NSA good news for Pakistan?
For Pakistan, Trump’s designation of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser is not good news. He has virulent anti-Muslim views. He is on record saying that the US has an existential threat from “a diseased component” of Islam. “There’s something going on in the Muslim world…Why do we have heightened security at our airports? It’s not because the Catholic Church is falling apart.”
Michael Fynn has already had meetings in December with key officials from India. Indian newspapers have reported that he had a one hour meeting with Indian NSA, Ajit Doval in Washington, where both exchanged views on global issues and the region. At the same time, Tariq Fatemi was unable to get a single appointment with the transition team despite waiting for nine days.
“Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority.”
Another fact which in theory does not bode well for Pakistanis is the emphasis that the Trump administration has put from the onset is on Islamic terrorism. The new presidential website announces: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority.” This potentially may lead to a run in with the Pakistani military over the ‘sanctuaries’ being given to Afghan Taliban and their relationship with the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai has already asked the Trump administration to tackle terror camps in Pakistan and no doubt Ashraf Ghani and Narendra Modi have also made phone calls to that tune.
So is there are light at the end of the tunnel?
Given Trump’s stated preference that he does not want the country to get involved in other country’s affairs and be responsible for providing security to the world. Well there is a sliver of hope and it is based on more than the recent statement that was made by Pakistan’s Ambassador to US, Jalil Abbas Jillani, that over a social dinner, President Trump met him and said he was looking forward to ‘improved bilateral ties with Pakistan.’
The foreign policy remit as given by Trump states that in order to defeat ISIS and other radical Islamic groups, it will pursue joint and coalition military operations when necessary. This suggests with General Mattis in charge the US could have a potentially closer relationship with the Pakistani military to defeat terrorism in the region. Particularly, if the Pakistani army is able to show to the US that they are a better partner to deal with the emerging threat of ISIS in the region then the weak Afghan army.
General Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, who has spent time in Afghanistan, has a good understanding of the players and issues in the region. During his senate confirmation he said the US needed to stay engaged with Pakistan and Pakistan should be incentivised to cooperate on dealing with terrorism.
Help from improving relations with Russia
In addition, if the US improves relations with Russia, it may feel that it also has a role in stabilising this region. Positive discussions were held during the Trilateral meeting China, Russia and Pakistan over Afghanistan. Inclusion of Iran and Afghanistan in the future meetings as stated, and removal of sanctions on international lists may help to break ice between Kabul and the Taliban.
But the fact of the matter is even if Pakistan gets a short term reprieve because the army is needed for removing ISIS, this is not a strategic relationship with the US. Pakistani strategists need to think about the country’s direction and future. However, right now, we can thank the Lord that President Trump has not yet sent in the Navy Seals to take Dr Shakil Afridi out of Pakistan, within 24 hours of becoming President as he promised on the campaign trail.
The writer is an analyst and Director of Governance & Policy Advisors. Her email address is: email@example.com and tweets @MinhasNajma This piece was first published in The Nation. It has been reprinted with permission.