Donald Trump took oath as the 45th US president on January 20, 2017 after defeating Hillary Clinton by quite a thin margin. Trump received attention during his election campaign when he started to reveal his shocking policies .
From his announcement to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to the executive order whereby Trump imposed a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim countries, the new US president is fulfilling his electoral promises. If we had even an iota of doubt that Trump will not act on his election politicking, then we have surely misread him.
Since a Republican president is in the White House – and given the security affairs of South Asia – the future of Pak-US relations may dramatically transform. The trust deficit and lack of coordination will remain strong. A simple phone conversation between Donald Trump and Nawaz Sharif created a fuss between the top leadership and administration from both sides instead of highlighting concerns about a collective resolve and the way forward.
What next? Trump called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few weeks earlier and discussed multiple issues including security and economic cooperation. He invited Modi to visit the US later this year. President Trump’s desire to meet the Indian PM shows that, under his administration, relations between India and the US are likely to grow. Trump has been parsing India as an important strategic partner and a true friend in Asia. President Trump once famously said, “I am a big fan of Hindu [sic]. I am a big fan of India”.
Trump’s inclination towards India might affect already deteriorated Pak-US relations. On the contrary, India is going to be the greatest beneficiary of the Trump administration. First, India will be in a position to counterbalance the rise of China in the region. Second, it will use its leverage on the US against Pakistan regarding cross-border terrorism to spread the Indian narrative that Pakistan perpetuates terrorist activities in South Asia and the world. India will also try to ensure that Pakistan is isolated on the international level – a claim that is frequently made by Modi. Third, India is likely to get the US inadvertent encouragement regarding its role in the development of Afghanistan. Fourth, India’s desire to become a member of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) and its position at various international forums will be far stronger than before.
On the other hand, Donald Trump’s policy towards Pakistan may remain uncertain and unpredictable. Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards Muslims may leave its impact on Pakistan as well since there has been continuous and growing mistrust between both countries regarding counterterrorism policies and actions. He is unlikely to support aid without imposing strict conditions.
In his tweet following the Abbottabad operation, Donald Trump had said, “When will Pakistan apologise to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for six years?” This indicates that he may continue with the ‘do more’ mantra. However, we can’t randomly predict the fate of Pak-US relations unless we find the answers to a few questions. At what level are Indo-US ties likely to increase under Trump administration? What role will the Trump administration play in improving Indo-Pak relations? What will be the nature of US-China relations under Donald Trump? How important is the role of Pakistan in the peaceful settlement of the Afghanistan crisis? What would Trump’s approach be in dealing with all the problems confronting South Asia?
All these factors will influence relations between Pakistan and the US in the near future. However, India remains a critical factor that might impact ties between both countries. Likewise, India will be playing the Trump card against Pakistan to dominate the strategic balance in the region as it has been concerned about the growing strategic partnership between China and Pakistan. Even if the US finds India a natural ally and true friend, President Trump can’t ignore the importance of Pakistan for various reasons. First, peace in South Asia is associated with peace in Pakistan. Second, Afghanistan’s peaceful settlement depends on Kabul’s relations with Islamabad. Third, Pakistan and its historical rival, India, are nuclear states and the Trump administration has to adopt a balanced relationship with both countries to ensure regional peace and stability.
The new US government must not forget the sacrifices of the Pakistani people and forces in the war against terror. The country has been suffering socially and economically as a consequence of this war. Pakistan has suffered the most since 9/11 and it is fighting the world’s largest inland war against terrorism. According to a report, ‘Body count: causality figures after 10 years of war on terror’ – written by Physicians for Social Responsibility in collaboration with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear war and Physicians for Global Survival – , more than 81,860 causalities have been reported in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013, out of which 48,504 were civilians. Another study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) on US drone strikes in Pakistan states that there were 474 to 884 civilian causalities, including 174 children since 2004.
Pakistan has to review and reconstruct its policies towards the US and prepare itself to start a constructive and positive engagement with the country under the new administration. Pakistan has to maintain a balanced relationship with China and the US – which will be a challenging task due to CPEC.
Pakistan, at present, cannot afford any hostile activity on its borders which could potentially impact CPEC. The country has to adopt a proactive policy against Indian conspiracies that might exacerbate bilateral relations in future. Pakistan should also amplify its narrative in the world community.
It seems clear that Donald Trump plans to adopt an ‘India first’ policy in Asia. But he can’t afford to cut off relations with Pakistan. The US has vast interests in the region. These include keeping an eye on Tehran regarding its nuclear policy and the peace settlement in Afghanistan – which is only possible through Pakistan’s active participation to bring the Taliban on the negotiation table.
All these factors are important and cannot be overlooked by the US as it gets closer to India. Engaging all the regional states equally would therefore be the best option to safeguard US interest and pursue its political, economic and strategic goals. Meanwhile, we must never forget that Trump has a remarkable potential to surprise.
The writer is a research scholar in