Can Trump Translate His Tweet Against Pakistan Into Action?

Donald_J._Trump_at_Marriott_Marquis_NYC_September_7th_2016_04
File photo of Donald Trump. While many in India have welcomed the US president’s tough words, Trump will find he has few tools he can effectively deploy to change Pakistan’s behaviour. Image Credit: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

US President Donald Trump has triggered a war of words with Pakistan with a tweet, but his administration has also gone further, pledging to freeze $255 million in aid to that country.

‘The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,’ Trump tweeted on Monday, ‘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!’

The import of Trump’s tweet was consistent with his remarks in August, when he complained that America was ‘paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.’

However, in October, the US President had taken a very different line, thanking Pakistan for its ‘cooperation on many fronts’ after the Taliban released of a US-Canadian family held in captivity for five years.

It’s worth noting Monday’s tweet was followed by tirades against Iran and North Korea. On Wednesday morning Trump boasted on Twitter that his ‘nuclear button’ was ‘much bigger & more powerful’ than Kim Jong-Un’s, as if to confirm the North Korean leader’s wry observation that a ‘frightened dog barks louder.’

Nevertheless, on Tuesday, US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, backed up Trump’s words and confirmed that $255 million in aid would be withheld.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi held a meeting of the National Security Committee, which includes the chiefs of the three armed services. In a statement soon after, the NSC called Trump’s tweet ‘deeply disappointing’ and ‘completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts’.

Despite strong words from the NSC, the country’s foreign minister, and its ambassador to the UN, Pakistan has refrained from taking any retaliatory action, no doubt waiting to see what further actions the US actually takes.

America’s limited options

It is, of course, far from clear if Trump’s tweet was part of a concerted change in policy or simply his usual hyperbole. US officials have been looking to mend ties with Pakistan, as evidenced by the separate visits to that country in October and December by secretary of state Rex Tillerson and defense secretary Jim Mattis.

However, even if the US did choose to coerce Pakistan, it would find it has a weak hand. Christopher Clary, a South Asia expert at the University of Albany identifies some of the key limitations in a coercive strategy.

For one, Pakistan knows how to play the US: It offers America reluctant but indispensable help in hunting down Al-Qaeda targets. Pakistan also provides American UAVs a permissive air defence environment that allows them to reconnoitre or attack targets from Pakistani airspace.

Two, Pakistan is critical to US military logistics in land-locked Afghanistan. America’s poisonous relationship with Iran rules out the possibility of developing an alternate supply route through that country. And Russia shut down the Norther Distribution Network through Central Asia after the US opposed its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Pakistan is now the only game in town and can be expected to use that fact as leverage against the US.

Three, America has concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and will want to retain some influence over Pakistan if it enters into a a crisis or conflict with India.

Four and finally, there’s Pakistan’s chief sponsor, China, which provides it much greater ability to withstand American pressure. That loss of $255 million in aid will not sting the Pakistan of today as much as might have earlier.

Moreover, the equations between India, Pakistan, China, and the US are much more subtle than is commonly recognized. For the US, a functional relationship with Pakistan provides leverage over India. While Delhi recognizes this and is hardly pleased, it also understands that ties with the US could prompt Pakistan to moderate its behaviour, albeit to a very limited extent.

Also, while China is deeply unhappy about America’s relationship with India, it sees benefits in America’s ties to Pakistan. As scholar Andrew Small observed in August, healthy US-Pakistan ties ‘are seen by Beijing to place implicit limits on the scope of US-India relations.’

‘They also ensure that Pakistan doesn’t turn into yet another point of tension in US-China relations or act as an impediment to Sino-Pakistani security ties,’ according to Small.

If Trump attempts to coerce Pakistan, he’s likely to find South Asia is yet another region in which there are severe limits to American power.

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