The contours of Pakistan-US relations in the Trump era are beginning to take shape with the announcement of the US president’s new Afghan policy. His praise for India and harsh words for Pakistan, particularly the accusation that we are providing safe havens to terrorist organisations, indicate that the US is going to take a tough line with Pakistan without any of the sugarcoating of his predecessors. From Khawaja Asif’s statement that Pakistan should not be made a ‘scapegoat’ for the American failures in Afghanistan to the Foreign Office expressing disappointment and pointing out the tremendous losses faced by Pakistan in our fight against terrorism to Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa telling the US ambassador that Pakistan wants trust and acknowledgement of its sacrifices more than any kind of financial assistance, the response from Pakistan has been measured and calm – but firm. While it is becoming clear that the US is planning on changing its approach to Pakistan, we do not yet know what form that will take. The Trump administration itself has sent out rather mixed signals. US National Security Council spokesperson Michael Anton made the implied threats in Trump’s speech explicit when he said the president had put Pakistan “on notice”. Anton went as far as to say that the US reserves the right not just to impose sanctions on militant groups like the Haqqani Network but any Pakistani officials who may be tied to these groups. At the same time, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a more conciliatory tone. While emphasising that sanctions may be on the table and that Pakistan could lose its special status as a major non-Nato ally, Tillerson at least recognised the price Pakistan has paid for fighting the war on militancy.
It will take some time to find out if the US intends to follow through on its threats but its words alone have the power to seriously affect relations between the two countries. In Pakistan, the reaction to the Trump speech from the political class has been one of anger. We are less inclined than ever to view the US as an honest broker for peace in the region, especially given how Trump pointedly and deliberately followed criticism of Pakistan with supportive words for India. Once the US sends more troops to Afghanistan, we can also expect a corresponding increase in drone attacks and other covert operations. The US is still open to the possibility that it will need to eventually negotiate with the Taliban and knows that Pakistan is needed for that so a complete break in ties is unlikely. But it has undoubtedly decided to take a more confrontational line with Pakistan, making it more difficult for us to work with the Afghan government and sowing doubt about US intentions. Analysts have conjectured that Pakistan may be left with no options but to side with China in a wider global struggle while Indian lines up with Washington. However, government spokespersons have strongly affirmed they will continue the process of continuing talking to Washington. One thing is clear, though: the US is making one last push to try and win what is essentially an unwinnable war and in doing so it seems ready to push aside allies if it thinks that will help its effort.