With President Donald Trump in control of the levers of power in Washington, the question uppermost in the minds of Pakistanis is: How will the change of guard at the White House affect the course of US-Pak relations? Will the ties between the two countries improve or take a nosedive as is generally feared?
President Trump’s inauguration speech was in line with his fiery campaign rhetoric. His basic agenda is anti-globalization, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim, while Fortress America iseems to be his broad objective. The executive orders he has issued during the first week of his presidency provide ample evidence of the direction of his policy.
Trump has his own peculiar world view based on ignorance of the intricacies of foreign policy, long held social and political prejudices and Islamophobia. Not surprisingly, for important cabinet posts he has picked well known hardliners, racists and ultra conservatives who consider all immigrants, especially Muslims, an unacceptable burden on American society. Vice President Pence and his secretaries of state and defense brazenly mouthed their venom against refugees at their confirmation hearings. Although his executive order banning the entry of citizens from selected Muslim countries has been overturned, that is not the end of the story. There are bound to be more such orders reflecting the narrow Trump mindset on a whole range of domestic and foreign issues.
Sensing the delicacy of the situation, Pakistan is taking special care not to say or do anything that may offend the new incumbent in Washington. Thus, last week, the Foreign Office, playing soft on the Trump administration’s visa ban on seven Muslim countries, said it was America’s right to decide who could enter their country but, at the same time, expressed concern that the move could become a propaganda tool in the hands of extremists. A Foreign Office spokesman, while hoping that Pakistan-US longstanding and cooperative relations will further strengthen in the coming days, pointedly underlined Pakistan’s numerous sacrifices in the war on terror.
However, the fact cannot be ignored that Pak-US relations have been on a rocky ride recently. According to experts, Pakistan should be prepared for tough times ahead in its ties with the US. For, while announcing the visa ban on people from seven Muslim majority countries, Trump’s spokesmen said that Pakistani and Afghan visa applicants would face extreme vetting and that visa denial could be extended to Pakistan. Islamabad’s decision last week to ban Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) can be seen as a prudent move to pre-empt any harsh measure against Pakistan by the hawks in Washington.
Basically, future US ties with Pakistan depend on what approach Donald Trump brings to the war on terror and Afghanistan. Towards the end of its tenure, the Obama administration openly tilted in favour of New Delhi as part of its policy to build India as a balance to China. This factor will also remain dominant in Trump’s foreign policy calculations. Trump’s view on the strategic balance in the region and his confrontationist line on China could pose problems to Pakistan in normalizing its relations with Washington.
In the given situation, Pakistan will need to use its strategic location to its best advantage in the new game of diplomacy. The lengthening shadow of China, the unresolved conflict in Afghanistan, the looming threat of ISIS, continued militancy in the region and an assertive Russia are challenges which the US cannot meet without the support and cooperation of Pakistan.
Despite occasional hiccups, U.S.-Pakistan relations have served both countries well for over the past several decades and may continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Pakistan has continued to provide valuable cooperation in intelligence-gathering related to transnational terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS or lone wolves. During the transitional period the Trump administration will be in need of this cooperation in greater measure. That is the reason why Defense Secretary James Mattis ruled out the option of sanctions against Pakistan during his confirmation hearing. He noted that putting conditions on U.S. security assistance to Pakistan has not always produced the desired results.
But it must be remembered that America’s strategic interests revolve round China and the war on terror. In this context, Pakistan is seen as a problem as the Haqqani Network militants keep attacking American soldiers in Afghanistan. Additionally, Pakistan is seen as part of the Pakistan-China axis. To reconcile these irreconcilables in US-Pak relations will call for diplomatic dexterity as well as patience and a high level of bargaining skill.
But, the initiative lies with Washington. It remains to be seen what policy Trump will formulate in dealing with Pakistan in a region where Washington has long term strategic interests. In any case, Trump cannot overlook the fact that Pakistan has the potential to make a positive contribution to the emerging regional order through projects like CPEC and outreach to Central Asia.