On Jan. 1, 2018, President Donald Trump’s first tweet of the year said, "The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!"
If one did not know any better, one would perhaps call this tweet just a fluke or a president being hung over from a New Year’s Eve party. But it was anything but any of those. It was indeed posted by Trump deliberately with full focus on Pakistan as America pivots its attention to foreign policy in the new year after achieving a big win at the end of 2017 with the Tax Reform Bill being approved by Senate and signed into law. Thematically, the presidential tweet was indeed the continuum of his Afghanistan stabilizing initiative he launched in the Fall of 2017, involving Pakistan and India.
The first presidential tweet of 2018 was simply a sign of America’s growing frustration with Pakistan – an old ally and friend who has not been able to fully and reliably deliver in the war against terrorism in the post-9/11 era, or a friend who, in its estimation, breached the trust and is viewed with suspicion because he hid the chief architect of 9/11 terrorist, Osama-bin-Laden, in its midst while receiving money from America to catch him.
Historically, though, from 1947 (creation of Pakistan) to 1991, United States had a close and cozy relationship with (capitalistic) Pakistan as a counter-weight to (socialistic) India and its supporter the Soviet Union, an adversary in the Cold War. This closeness was quite evident from the nature of the economic and military assistance United States extended to Pakistan in the armed conflict with India in 1971, which ultimately dismembered Pakistan and created Bangladesh. This period was also marked by Pakistan helping United States with the 1972 China initiative by President Richard Nixon, Soviet monitoring, and anti-Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to mention a few.
This warmth in relationship between the United States and Pakistan, however, began to recede in the 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and capitalistic market reforms in the Indian economy (liberalization) that opened doors for increased economic cooperation between the U.S. and India. At this time, suddenly, India became a major business partner of the United States in high-technology with infusion of American investment. Also, the post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin struck a more conciliatory and friendly tone towards the United States which reduced threat from Russia. These developments resulted in making Pakistan less relevant to American strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Coincidentally, the 1990s were also the time when U.S.-Pakistan relations came under severe stress due to direct actions of Pakistan. Most controversial of these were Pakistan’s effort to go nuclear with the development of the atomic bomb that America was vehemently opposed to. The United States did not condone these actions as it considered nuclear proliferation to be a destabilizing force in the region. But Pakistan pressed on and exploded its first nuclear device in 1998 under the leadership of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This attracted serious wrath of the United States, which imposed economic and military sanctions against Pakistan under the leadership of President Bill Clinton.
The fate of U.S.-Pakistan relations, however, took a positive turn in 2001 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing, when America sought Pakistan cooperation’s in launching military action against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and neighboring areas. Pakistan initially objected but was ultimately pressured by President George W. Bush to join the fight. In exchange, America rewarded Pakistan with significant economic and military aid. But this anti-terrorism U.S.-Pakistan alliance was not supported by all Pakistani citizens as has become evident from several acts of domestic terroristic violence by Pakistan-based Taliban killing thousands of innocent Pakistanis.
The phrase the they (Pakistan) have given us nothing but lies and deceit in the presidential tweet is perhaps the soul of U.S. sentiment towards Pakistan and summarizes the relationship since 2001. It essentially conveys that Pakistan has not been a trustworthy ally in the fight against terrorism. But objectively looking, the foundation on which the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is built could not have led to a different outcome. First, Pakistan did not have wide public support to join America’s anti-terrorism fight. And second, from the beginning, the relations have been “transactional” rather than being born out of any shared core political principles or philosophical convictions which can sustain it on permanent basis.
In conclusion, the U.S. faces a major dilemma with Pakistan as it looks to the future. Pakistan is a nuclear armed nation, and has had political instability with alternate cycles of military dictatorships and weak democratic governments. Besides, it is a military-dominated country and does not have strong institutions of democratic civilian rule, which is not able to control or eliminate terroristic organizations within its boundaries.
Given these realities, Pakistan is likely to remain a major challenge for President Donald Trump. Adding to the American anxiety are also Iran and North Korea, who are developing their own nuclear capabilities. Under these circumstances, the United States cannot afford to disengage from nuclear Pakistan. Instead, President Trump must be innovative to capitalize on Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage and significant intelligentsia to develop and strengthen institutions of Pakistani democracy. The rest will likely take care of itself.
Chandra K. Mittal