When Trump Tweets, Pakistan’s Generals May Listen

Sure, the president is unpredictable. Could that help him succeed where his predecessors fell short?


Protesters shouting anti-American slogans in Karachi, Pakistan, Jan. 2.
Protesters shouting anti-American slogans in Karachi, Pakistan, Jan. 2. PHOTO: REHAN KHAN/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

Can Donald Trump do what his two immediate predecessors failed to achieve—wean Pakistan off its habit of supporting terrorist groups that kill American troops in Afghanistan and destabilize the region?

The president’s first tweet of 2018 summed up the problem: “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!”

Since then the administration has suspended security assistance to Pakistan, including coalition-support funding, the term for reimbursements for counterterrorism operations that account for nearly half of U.S. aid disbursed to the country since 2002.

Among a section of Pakistan experts, Mr. Trump’s tweet has invoked hand-wringing. Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, described the administration’s approach as an example of “how not to engage with Pakistan.” Mr. Olson recommends forceful private diplomacy instead.

It’s too soon to say if Mr. Trump will manage to curb the Pakistani army’s support for the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, responsible between them for most of the roughly 2,300 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001. But although skepticism may be warranted, outright dismissal is not. By introducing an element of unpredictability to U.S. policy, Mr. Trump could force the generals who effectively run Pakistan to recalculate the costs of thwarting the world’s most powerful nation. 

At this point, U.S. frustration with Pakistan’s so-called double game—accepting aid from Washington to fight some terrorists while surreptitiously aiding others—is hardly new. In 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously called the Haqqani network “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” A few months earlier, U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a safe house a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

The idea of Pakistan’s two-timing army has even entered popular culture. Fans of the television show “Homeland” will recall Central Intelligence Agency agent Carrie Mathison battling the duplicitous ISI in season four.

Nonetheless, beyond public admonitions and the periodic suspension of some aid, the U.S. has found itself unable to do much. Those who oppose rocking the Pakistan boat constantly remind us that Islamabad controls the most viable supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and that the rise of China, Pakistan’s so-called iron brother, gives Islamabad an alternative to the U.S.

Some pundits warn that if the U.S. pushes too far, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, that Islamabad could resume proliferating to countries such as Iran, and that too much pressure could tip the nation of over 200 million Muslims deeper into instability.

These arguments are not entirely unreasonable. But for the most part they are either exaggerated or misguided.

With the shrinking of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to roughly 11,000 troops—from a peak of 100,000 in 2011—Pakistan’s chokehold on supply routes has lost much of its bite.

Nor should we exaggerate China’s importance. By pouring billions of dollars into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an ambitious sprawl of infrastructure and energy projects, Beijing may indeed modernize its ally’s highways and power plants. But it cannot substitute for U.S. influence over international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, or over the global financial system more broadly.

Nor are the children of Pakistan’s elites lining up to study at Peking University rather than Harvard. China may have mastered pouring asphalt, but when it comes to modernizing minds, Pakistan, like much of the world, still turns to America.

Moreover, as Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the German Marshall Fund, pointed out on Twitter , “Pakistan’s value to China is partly as a counterbalance to India.” A Pakistan irreparably at odds with the U.S. is less valuable to Beijing. 

To his credit, Mr. Trump appears not to buy Pakistan’s strategy of negotiating with a gun to its own head. As long as Pakistan’s generals believe that the U.S. is more worried than they are about Pakistan’s stability, they have license to act irresponsibly.

Under Mr. Trump, serious U.S. pressure—sanctions against key ISI officers, expanding drone strikes from the Pakistan border with Afghanistan to the rest of the country, nudging the IMF to take a less lenient view of Pakistani loan repayments—suddenly appears plausible, even likely.

The president’s penchant for Twitter means that Pakistan risks allowing the idea that it is a foe of America to seep even deeper into the public consciousness. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 7 in 10 Americans already had an unfavorable view of Pakistan.

For the U.S., then, Mr. Trump’s unconventional manner may be an asset. “The trick is for the Pakistanis to think the president is crazy,” says Daniel Markey, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. “As long as he’s not actually crazy.”

Appeared in the January 12, 2018, print edition.

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