Yes, we can say it’s all very funny – until the bombs begin to drop. The new year began with the president of the United States apparently having a meltdown on Twitter.
Some pointed out it was a full moon night as an explanation for the bizarre spectacle. Who knows? No explanation of Trump’s howl was proffered at the White House press conference the following day.
It’s tempting to write off the threat tweeted our way as mere bluster, all bark and no bite. The authorities in Pakistan surely did the right thing in giving a measured response.
The White House spokesperson did talk of “specific action” against Pakistan to be announced “within days”.
Placed in context, the episode comes at the end of an important timeline. In August, Trump gave a harshly worded speech in which he talked of “safe havens for terrorist organisations” in Pakistan and warned of consequences, and also invited India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan, a hot-button issue with Pakistan.
A few days later, the news outlet Politico broke the news that the US is considering sanctions against specific individuals in the Pakistani government with “links to designated terrorists and terrorist entities”. The next day the spokesman of the US National Security Council declared that Trump had “put Pakistan on notice” regarding the question of terrorist safe havens and actions against them. Those actions included sanctions on people within the Pakistani government “who are tied to these kinds of groups, you know, in ways that they shouldn’t be”.
Pakistan called a Cabinet meeting, promptly summoned the US ambassador, and denounced the pressure being applied by Washington. In a detailed response, Islamabad asked the US to start “focusing on core issues of eliminating safe havens inside Afghanistan, border management, return of refugees and reinvigorating the peace process for a political settlement in Afghanistan” in addition to rejecting a wider role for India, and attempts to blame Pakistan for the quagmire the US finds itself in Afghanistan.
A seeming lull in this battle of words ensued, but the thing to note is that the sentiments expressed against Pakistan had wider ownership than the seemingly impulsive tweets by Trump. This wider ownership was seen again when General Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, visited Pakistan in early December. Even though the public messaging from that meeting was relatively muted, it was fairly clear that attempts to clear the air and bring the two sides onto the same page had failed.
Later that same month, vice president Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Kabul to shore up morale among the troops, and while assuring them that the US “will see this through”, once again repeated that the president has “put Pakistan on notice” over the question of safe havens for terrorist groups. The official Pakistani response was equally sharp, reminding the vice president that Pakistan does not accept such notices, and there will be “no more do more”.
A few days later the New York Times delivered another scoop, with anonymous sources saying that the US plans to block $255 million in “aid” to Pakistan. Authorities there promptly confirmed the decision and the amount, adding that the money was from the Foreign Military Financing programme, which assists countries in procuring defence equipment.
In short, matters have been deteriorating for a while now, and this goes beyond the mercurial impulses of a social-media president. The debate in Pakistan has been understandably heated, with people asking what this means and how much US aid actually matters for Pakistan.
Let’s leave aside the numbers for a moment; the actual amount given in “aid” is disputed. The first question to ask is what might happen, and the next question to ask is what it would mean. In terms of what options the US might be considering, we have heard three specific actions: unilateral incursions into Pakistan territory by US forces to take out targets they identify as hostile, halting aid flows, and sanctioning senior government (most likely including military) officials whom the US considers to have terrorist links.
The military route is unlikely for the moment, though the direction in which things are going suggests anything is possible as time passes. A sustained rupture in relations with the US has meaning for Pakistan beyond just aid. The relationship governs many other engagements that Pakistan has with multilateral creditors like the IMF, World Bank and the increasingly important Financial Action Task Force, as well as private debt markets where Pakistan floats its bonds. The government is currently considering another approach to the debt markets before March, and sometime in 2018, if a sharp reversal in the deteriorating balance of payments does not come about, an approach to the IMF could become necessary.
Still, these are not reasons to be fearful of American bombast. But it is worth bearing in mind that the sudden and accelerating rupture in ties is coming at a time when the political and economic situations are both fragile. There must be no bowing before the bluster we see coming out of the White House these days, but it is better to keep our reactions measured and deliberate. Most importantly, it is more crucial than ever before to not promote instability in our own country for short-term political objectives.