The Debate

Trump Vs. Pakistan

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The Debate

Trump Vs. Pakistan

A look at what the new American president’s approach might be toward Islamabad.

Trump Vs. Pakistan
Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

What will President Trump’s foreign policy be like, and how will it affect Pakistan? His inauguration speech broadly pointed to an anti-globalization, anti-internationalism, and strongly nationalistic stance, but gives no policy clues. For that, we need the help of more tangible evidence that should include but not be limited to the executive orders he has issued during the first week of his presidency.

Trump 101

Four general impressions of Trump jump out of these executive orders. First, he is abysmally ignorant about how the world works and has a tendency to ignore or deny what he does not know. Second, he is a man whose formative influences in foreign affairs are based on long entrenched prejudices and biases — as evidenced by his talk of the trade deals he has allegedly always known were ripoffs. Third, he is someone who will remain wedded to his base for reasons of politics as much as for holding sway over adulating millions to validate his superego, which is typical of a strongman psyche. And lastly, he is a complex personality, thick-skinned on criticism of his policies and thin-skinned on personal slights. That makes him a poor politician and a bad diplomat.

But we need to go beyond these impressions and look at more evidence to make any informed guesses about his foreign policy, which these executive orders touch only tangentially. The evidence would be, on one hand, Trump’s long-lasting campaign rhetoric, of which the inauguration speech was the finale, his tweets, personal background and business career; and on the other what his secretaries of state and defense have said at their confirmation hearings. Their remarks are so much at odds with Trump’s own statements that we are tempted to presume they would not have so spoken if they believed this would not be reflected in policy.

In all likelihood, Trump’s primary focus will be on domestic issues like the economy, jobs and security; and in foreign policy on hybrid issues – foreign policy issues with high domestic impact – like trade, immigration, terrorism (including the nuclear threat), the Iran nuclear deal, and relations with Israel. Policies on these issues will have his imprimatur, whereas the rest of the foreign policy including geopolitics or strategic issues is likely to have institutional flavor. The executive orders issued in the first week came in this hybrid category. There will be an overall Trump effect on the whole spectrum of foreign policy, though we are still unsure about how that will play out.

As a candidate Trump’s views on many issues were erratic, incoherent, and contradictory. Basically, he said what people wanted to hear. So what does this tell us about him? He is a man of expediency and opportunism, and that might suggest a realist foreign policy. If one puts his campaign rhetoric along with his character traits, his long-held public views, and business career, one gets a snapshot of a man who would look at foreign policy in a transactional way. That means he may prefer a foreign policy without an overarching design or a vision, which will be too constricting for him. He would like to have a flexible negotiating hand.

He is unlikely to be interventionist, internationalist or expansionist. Nor will he be isolationist. He is not going to ignite any new wars. He may not like to get into “foreign entanglements” or to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” unless of course it is Islamic State (ISIS).

The existing alliance system will largely remain intact, but he might like to add, if necessary, short-term alliance arrangements spurred on by the need of the moment. The underlying feeling may well be that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. To his mind, given the competitive world we live in, this may be the right approach. Fixed unchanging alliances belong to a world that is no more. America has been overcommitted and it needs to lighten the load of leadership, the benefits of which are now dubious. America, he feels, can deal with the world on its own, and on its own terms. If not, he claims he can make it stronger so that it can. American exceptionalism will still be there but will have a new name: America First.

Trump and Pakistan

Now where does this leave U.S.-Pakistan relations? Basically, relations with Pakistan depend on what approach he brings to the war on terrorism and to the Afghanistan war. The Obama administration lost its way in dealing with Pakistan. The president got too invested in India both for reasons of legacy and his focus on building India as a balancer to China. And that gave India a big voice in U.S.-Pakistan relations to Pakistan’s disadvantage.

Obama was also in a hurry to leave some semblance of stability in the Afghanistan war as he left office. That led him to put too much pressure on Pakistan, egged on no doubt by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well. So relations with Pakistan came under strain as Pakistan felt squeezed on three sides. For better or worse Pakistan decided it would not give in under pressure.

Trump will have no such political baggage and will be assisted by a secretary of defense who by all accounts seems to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable military leader with good understanding of history of wars and conflicts. I am sure the new administration will have a fresh look at the Afghanistan war as well as at broader American interests in South Asia. Obama’s pivot to Asia and the need to build up India as a balancer against China had created an imbalance in the U.S. approach to the region.

The fact is that the lengthening strategic shadow of China is not the only challenge that the United States faces there. There is of course the unresolved conflict in Afghanistan, but also the looming threat of ISIS, continued militancy in Pakistan (both homegrown and Afghanistan-based), revolutionary Iran, and an assertive Russia. Pakistan is a factor in all this.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has served some important interests of the two countries for over six decades and may continue to do so at least for the foreseeable future. Despite frequent breakdowns, the relationship has survived because both sides have felt a compelling need for each other and keep coming back.

Pakistan has continued to provide valuable cooperation in intelligence-gathering related to transnational terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS or lone wolves. And this cooperation is very much needed and should continue. So sanctioning Pakistan is not an option — at least, that is what Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted in his remarks during his confirmation hearing. He warned that putting conditions on U.S. security assistance to Pakistan has not always produced the desired results.

Will a continuation of the Obama policy of neither carrots nor sticks work? Washington needs to try something new, but it will not be easy to think up good policy. U.S. engagement with the region has revolved around two organizing ideas – China and the war on terrorism, of which the Afghanistan war is a part. For one, Washington needs India, and, for the other, it needs Pakistan. But Pakistan and India don’t get along, nor do Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is seen as destabilizing India and not helping stabilize Afghanistan. On top of that, its surrogates like the Haqqani Network are attacking American soldiers. And at the strategic level, Pakistan is seen as part of the Pakistan-China axis. That makes the relationship with Pakistan very complex. These irreconcilables have to be somehow reconciled.

There is thus a limit to how much pressure Washington can put on Pakistan. By Washington’s own worst fears, Pakistan is where terrorism and the nuclear threat converge. If there is unbearable pressure on Pakistan, forcing it to go after all militant groups at once, groups such as the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban-Pakistan could be destabilized as these groups have the capacity to hit back.  It may be a stable country now, but the consequences of instability given its nuclear assets and the risk of their falling into the hands of radicals will be horrendous. The challenge is how to avoid that scenario while also avoiding a clean break in the relationship that would be capitalized on by China.

Admittedly, Pakistan’s should not harbor the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban. But Pakistan is not going to expel them, if only for fear of a blowback. Pakistan will need to know what comes next principally in terms of relations with Afghanistan and India. To say that Pakistan is obsessed with India and the so-called “strategic depth” that is determining its Afghan policy is to minimize Pakistani concerns.

There is a long bitter history of Pakistan-Afghan relations, which go back centuries. They have a 2,400 kilometer long border which Afghanistan does not recognize, instead harboring irredentist claims. Each may be providing sanctuaries to terrorists and insurgents operating against the other now, but for a long time they have harbored dissidents from either side. The two countries have attacked each other’s diplomatic missions and have at times broken off diplomatic ties. As for India, Pakistan feels that by giving a big space to India, Washington has created an Afghanistan that is not consistent with its security interests.

These are the challenges that President Trump will face in Pakistan. The main challenge would be to focus on formulating a policy on Pakistan for its own sake, where Washington has not only important interests but also serious issues, as part of a South Asia policy that has come to rest too much on the centrality of India.

U.S. relations with India are important and should grow and expand but must not be the sole determinant of U.S. policies in the region. Washington should have a more holistic engagement with the region and may have to end up working with China to influence Pakistan’s policies and help stabilize Afghanistan.

Touqir Hussain, a former ambassador of Pakistan and diplomatic adviser to the prime minister, teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University.