The tightrope walker

Islamabad’s vulnerability increases if it does not listen to US President’s warning, or if it listens too much

Written by Ayesha Siddiqa | Updated: January 5, 2018 8:24:13 am
US President Donald Trump US President Donald Trump (File)

After coming to power, this is the loudest that US President Donald Trump may have shouted at Pakistan, but it all seems to have little effect. In fact, if anything, the import of Trump’s tweet seems to drown in the din of public outrage. The ruling classes and the public in general, especially in mainland Pakistan, have nothing but scorn for America cutting off the Coalition Support Fund to the country. The amount of US $255 million is not huge, particularly at a time when Islamabad is not really dependent upon US largesse.

Given that in Pakistan the age of nuanced debate on radicalism and terrorism has been submerged under narratives of successful military counter-insurgency operations (COIN), the popular narrative is that the US is needlessly blaming Pakistan for controlling the situation in Afghanistan when Washington itself is seen as unable to perform, despite its 46-nation strong military coalition. Furthermore, it comes at a time when it is no longer a unipolar world and most of Trump’s threats have backfired. From the recent vote on Jerusalem to his dealings with North Korea, Pakistan is not the odd one out in considering Trump as more of a joke than a serious world leader.

Clearly, the US President is ill advised in thinking that threats make a difference. Had he read the recent history of American foreign policy in the Middle East, in particular, he may have understood that sanctions never work in the absence of counter-narratives in states that get threatened and pulled up for lack of action. Eventually, it is American willingness to work with authoritarian personalities or institutions that is equally responsible for creating an environment where no one is left to raise a voice. It is primarily the military and the religious right which will benefit from Trump’s tweets as no one can be seen as even trying to engage in a nuanced conversation regarding the present state of Pakistan-US relations.

The current government, which in any case, is at its weakest, cannot be seen as going soft on Washington. In fact, some wonder why the US President has sought recourse in such an unpopular tactic when it has several means of dialogue with those that matter. After all, there is hardly a senior Pakistani diplomat, general or politician who does not have family members in the US or Europe which means that there is room for silent diplomacy. Such threats are only likely to weaken the political regime further, which in itself raises concern amongst a few that pushing the “do more” button could influence regime change in Pakistan as it happened in the past. Hence, senior journalist Muhammad Ziauddin warned the political government through his tweet of “taking the (American) warning seriously and not let Sheikh Rashids and Shireen Mazaris formulate our foreign policy”. Both these half-serious politicians are not only associated with Imran Khan’s party but also known for their closeness with the military establishment.

Therefore, Ziauddin’s advice to the government is to avoid the political minefield being laid for it by those that are likely to booby-trap them through their mantra of Islamabad’s need to come out clean on its nationalism and protect the country’s honour. While the foreign minister, Khawaja Asif, has called on the US to review the 16 years of war against terrorism fought in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s help, there is need for a serious internal review on the matter and dialogue with Washington away from the gaze of a biased media. It can certainly not afford to get tripped as it did at the time of the infamous Dawn Leaks a few months ago.

More importantly, Ziauddin’s warning highlights a parallel narrative built in the past couple of years regarding the civil government and the political leadership’s collusion with extremist elements in the country. In fact, this was the argument presented by a senior retired general and a few others involved in a Track-II dialogue with the US security community. The argument was that it was not the military but the political players who are responsible for the continued presence of extremist elements in the country. Although the focus of Trump’s anger appears to be the Haqqani Network, which he believes has a partnership of sorts with Pakistan, the conversation tends to become more complex with the continued presence of people like Hafiz Saeed and his JuD.

For the government, it is like walking a tightrope, Islamabad’s vulnerability increases if it does not listen to the warning or listens too much. The JuD has already started to paint the restrictions being placed on its charity receiving funds as a cave-in to American pressure, which it is not. There is a parallel process of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering that seems to have inspired the action rather than anything else. However, any restrictions placed on JuD or its charity, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) for whatever reason, would help in continuing the dialogue between the US and Pakistan. The military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, also tried to bring down the temperature by claiming that the two countries continue to remain friends. Such initiatives are important but no replacement for taking the sting out of the JuD network that has continued with its propaganda, saying that the civilian government is out to destroy a peaceful welfare organisation. Under the circumstances, the best option is to engage in a serious debate in Parliament and take it into confidence regarding the pros and cons of any policy but also formulate a robust policy regarding the future of all militant outfits.

Trump, who is a man of many tweets and little engagement, seems farthest away from comprehending the reality that his policy pronouncements on social media tend to draw him further way from his desired goals. The act of threatening Pakistan and Iran at the same time is not likely to impress either, but will shift the initiative away from the US to other global players. Pakistan is one of the states that America has lost to China. Moreover, with its eye on acquiring the role of a regional player or a strategic Islamic state, threats will not matter a lot. This is a time for strategic re-think on both sides.

The writer is a research associate at SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute

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