Last Friday, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.”
The tweet appeared following the dramatic rescue—by the Pakistani military—of an American-Canadian family held hostage for five years by the Haqqani Network terrorist group. In India, where people watch US-Pakistan ties more closely than the average American, debate immediately erupted about whether the United States had made a U-turn less than two months after announcing a tough policy on Pakistan-based terror. (Rahul Gandhi even quipped on Twitter that “President Trump needs another hug” from Modi, suggesting that praise for Pakistan somehow put New Delhi on the outside.)
In truth, the tweet contains no big message on US policy toward Pakistan. While the October 13 tweet of praise strikes a different note from the August 21 frank message on terrorism, the tweet addressed a specific event rather than a broad policy. The bigger picture still shows that ties between Washington and Islamabad have frayed badly as Pakistan’s reluctance to tackle all types of terrorist groups over the years has created mounting frustration in the US. What’s more, as further news emerges about the hostage rescue, it already appears that coercion from Washington led to the rescue, suggesting a different kind of interaction than the word “cooperation” suggests. Lastly, President Trump has an impulsive thumb on the Twitter keyboard, with one result a series of often conflicting 140-character comments on policy issues. So for those in India looking for strategic direction from the tweet: Don’t.
It’s true, obviously, that the August policy speech laying out a “new” US approach to South Asia contained strong words for Pakistan. Trump bluntly stated that the United States “could no longer be silent” about terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. In the same breath, he laid out the stakes: “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Once Pakistan provided assistance rescuing hostages from the notorious Haqqani Network, should Trump have castigated the country for cooperation? Of course not. The praise-tweet for the specific rescue action actually fits coherently with the administration’s approach to Pakistan as laid out in August by noting a positive action that the US sought in the first place. Hardly a U-turn.
The rescue, however, doesn’t in and of itself do much to change the larger picture, painted over many years, of a major problem with a country reluctant to go after all terrorists operating from Pakistani territory. This problem of selective counterterrorism has bedeviled the US-Pakistan relationship, has undermined efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, and of course the continued open activities of designated terrorist groups in Pakistan who target India remains an outrage. Over on Capitol Hill, US lawmakers have crafted increasingly stricter conditions on security assistance to Pakistan, such as one requiring sufficient action against the Haqqani Network in order to access around one-third of the Coalition Support Funds (CSF).
This summer’s forfeiture of some $50 million in CSF replayed exactly what took place last summer to the tune of $300 million. Add to that stronger Congressional scrutiny of weapons sales to Pakistan—see what Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Corker said last year on F-16s, in which he opposed US taxpayer support to underwrite the sale of the planes due to concerns about terrorist groups in that country —and you can see the background landscape shaping US-Pakistan ties. None of these concerns have changed.
It’s also worth noting, as details emerge about the hostage rescue, that things now appear to have unfolded a little differently from the portrayal offered by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations press release. The New York Times has reported by contrast that the United States had Navy SEALs at the ready if Pakistani forces had not acted upon the request and information from Washington. Would Pakistan have rescued if not coerced? Who knows. But it does not read like a simple story of help offered when needed.
Finally, for anyone paying any attention at all, it cannot be news that President Trump shoots from the hip on Twitter, and his tweets can and sometimes do contradict declared US policy. Just look at his tweets on North Korea. While the secretary of state spoke about trying to work through diplomatic channels, Trump tweeted that trying to negotiate was “wasting” his time. Days later Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the press that a diplomatic resolution was the president’s first choice—and that the tweets were a way to “motivate action” rather than a statement of policy.
Taking this all together, we’ve got a tweet focused on a limited action set against the continued backdrop of volatility in the US-Pakistan relationship. We’ve got emerging news that looks more like Pakistan was privately coerced into rescuing the hostages rather than seizing the moment to do so, and we have a Tweeter-in-chief comfortable with dissonant messages. Look around: there’s no U-turn here. There’s no larger message at all.
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