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Opinion

March 25, 2017

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Pakistan in the Trump era

They saw it coming – some of them even put their money on it – yet they were apparently unprepared for Trump entering the White House. Why? The answer to this complex question can define the state of Pak-US affairs in the days ahead.

Veteran diplomat and renowned author Henry Kissinger admitted: “No one knows much about his [Trump’s] foreign policy”. But with regards to India and Pakistan, Trump had shown most of his cards during the campaign trail. For Pakistan’s arch-rival, Trump had publically said “The Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House” and “You have to get India involved...they have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check... I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with it (Pakistan).”

Trump had also promised that he would order Pakistan to release Dr Shakil Afridi in two minutes: “I would tell them [to] let him out and I’m sure they would let him out.” Trump showed his willingness to help resolve the decades-old Kashmir issue, saying: “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honour and I will personally do it.”

Hardly anybody was shocked when Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi concluded his visit to the US without meeting any senior official of the new administration. Fatemi said the trip was made “to meet influential Republicans before they are nominated as this process ensures lasting relationship”.

Meanwhile, Trump went for one of his most controversial diplomatic offensives by halting – through an executive order – travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, only to issue another but equally controversial executive order by just removing Iraq from the list of pariahs.

Pakistan remained an “amazing country” though. Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief of Staff, hinted that the president’s executive orders could be extended to include Pakistan as well. “You can point to other countries that have similar problems like Pakistan and others – perhaps we need to take it further,” Priebus warned. The remarks led to political point-scoring in Pakistan.

A few months ago, 40,000 Pakistanis were deported from Saudi Arabia and now the kingdom is mulling the possibility of deporting five million illegal immigrants. The government of Kuwait has only recently removed visa curbs on Pakistani labourers after having them banned for six years on undisclosed grounds. This leaves Islamabad ambivalent on Trump’s visa policy.

In a dramatic development, Pakistan detained Hafiz Saeed – who was accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attack – earlier this year. India closely watched the development. India knows that it may have found its best friend in the White House. But peace in Afghanistan will remain a top priority for the US. Even though Trump believes that cutting aid to countries like Pakistan will improve the ground situation in Afghanistan, his team disagrees. General John Nicholson, who leads the US and international forces in Afghanistan, has called for a “review” of the relationship with Pakistan. Laying out his strategy, General Nicholson said: “Our complex relationship with Pakistan is best assessed through a holistic review.”

US sanctions have mostly proved to be counterproductive as Russia and Iran have strengthened their economies under their impact. Though the US has sharply cut both military and economic aid to Pakistan in recent years, history shows that Pakistan has also developed its nuclear programme under strict sanctions.

For Pakistan, the foundation stone of such bridges can be laid in a number of ways. Former US ambassador Jalil Abbas Jilani, who attended Trump’s inauguration, has maintained that the new administration should review the sale of F-16 to Pakistan. Last year, the US Congress refused to release the funds that were needed to sell the F-16s to Pakistan at a reduced price. This forced the Obama administration to cancel the offer.

Pakistan has also started building bridges with some of the arch-rivals of the US, including China, and found a new love for Russia. China has made inroads into Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) while Russia has extended his arms through proposed North-South gas pipeline project. Both countries have one thing in common: they do not want to see Daesh wreak havoc in their backyard. If the US opts for the stick approach, Pakistan may be further inclined towards “relatively more reliable” partners.

Appointing an Af-Pak envoy who knows the history of the region can be another positive step. Never before has the region felt the dire need for an envoy as now when both Pakistan and Afghanistan are blaming each other for the bombings in their cities. Many in the US believe Pakistan will not deal a decisive blow to the Haqqani Network and militants allegedly directed towards India. Yet, diplomatic observers are convinced that if peace in South Asia is assured, many issues can be resolved. The more time spent on formulating a clear strategy, the more space the US may have to give to both Russia and China. Russia has already hosted a conference on Afghanistan, featuring China, India, Pakistan and Iran.

Another starting point could be the appointment of Pakistani Americans in the Trump administration. Even though a few will be reluctant to take ambassadorial posts in Pakistan unless given a free hand, they may prefer a post in the promised land where Indian Americans are already given leverage over them. Ajit Pai will be the third senior-level Indian American in Trump’s administration, followed by Nikki Haley – who has been nominated US ambassador to UN – and Seema Verma – the new head of Medicare and Medicaid.

Diplomatic observers believe that Pakistan can reciprocate by freeing Dr Shakil Afridi. Fatemi has already given hints in the context. “We will handle this issue within the parameters of our legal system, but at the same time we don’t want it to become an irritant with anyone,” Fatemi said in an interview.

Despite facing major setbacks in the past, Pakistan can, yet again, try to encourage the Taliban to engage in peace talks as it may help Trump achieve a major foreign policy objective. As Pakistan’s new ambassador to the US Aizaz Chaudhry takes charge of his office, he brings with him the necessary experience and the full support of the prime minister. However, his success in building bridges will depend on a large number of actions taken in Pakistan. Meanwhile, a formal meeting of Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi with her US counterpart Nikki Haley can pave the way for a better understanding between both administrations.

If both countries take a holistic review of the situation, they may reach the conclusion of holding a Nawaz-Trump summit during the UNGA. For Trump – who is known to swim against the tide – Asif Zardari has a piece of advice: “[Do] what [President] Obama never did – Obama never had proper interaction with any Pakistani chief executive.”

The writer is a senior journalist associated with Geo News

Email: [email protected]

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