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January 12, 2018

The end of the affair?


January 12, 2018

Donald Trump’s ‘midnight brainstorm’ on Twitter, which called Pakistan out for having had an endless party with the US aid of $33 billion and giving nothing in return except “lies and deceit”, has come as a pleasant surprise to pundits and armchair warriors on the other side of the border.

Ah! Finally, Uncle Sam seems to see what has been apparent all along to everyone in India. That Pakistan has been taking America for a ride through its support for the Taliban and assorted militant groups, has ostensibly been obvious to everyone except the Yanks themselves. Whenever the Kashmiri militants struck or the Indian and Pakistani forces clashed along the border, India’s media warriors would fume for the zillionth time. Why, oh why, did the Americans, while professing their love for all things Indian, continue to arm and finance the enemy?

This is why Trump’s Twitter soliloquy in the true mad King Lear tradition, declaring all his predecessors ‘fools’ for apparently pampering Pakistan for 15 years, came as the veritable music to the likes of Arnab Goswami and his many imitators. The US has stopped all aid to Pakistan, dealing a devastating blow to an old ally. The decision affects about $1.3 billion worth of annual aid.

However, if Americans and others in the neighbourhood expected Pakistanis to cower in their pants, grovel at Trump’s feet and beg for mercy and millions of dollars in aid, they must have been sorely disappointed. Far from trembling at the thought of being divested of Uncle Sam’s largesse and protection, the Pakistanis seem to remain remarkably cool and nonchalant in the face of America’s tough love and even tougher talk. It is almost as though they are daring the Yanks to bring it on.

But why? For an explanation, look towards Pakistan’s geography rather than its history. First, no matter what we Indians may like to think of the neighbour, Pakistan is no pushover. It is not a banana republic but a nuclear power with the sixth-largest standing army in the world.

Perpetually hobbling from crisis to crisis and surviving three major wars with a behemoth like India seems to have only strengthened their resolve and never-say-die spirit. For all the instability, poverty, the corruption of their politicians and the accusations of fomenting terror, Pakistanis remain fiercely proud and patriotic.

This is not a country that you can order about like one of those client states of the empire that remain dependent on their colonial masters for protection. Pakistanis have treated Trump’s threats with the contempt they deserve.

Besides, if you were to look at it from Pakistan’s perspective, it is not the US but Pakistan that has received “nothing but lies and deceit”, repeatedly getting the short end of the stick in the bargain. Beginning from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s to the Western invasion of 2002, Pakistan has repeatedly been used by the US and its allies as the hired gun in their power games.

Contrary to popular perceptions in the West and in India, Pakistanis believe they have suffered enough and done more than their fair share for Washington’s endless wars. To play the devil’s advocate, this conflict has claimed the lives of more than 50,000 Pakistani soldiers – the largest number of human losses that any country has suffered fighting ‘terror’. Its once vibrant economy and infrastructure lie in ruins. The law and order situation is a mess with numerous militant groups, including those wanted by India, having a field day. And we are not even talking about the staggering cost of hosting three million Afghan refugees since the 1970s and 1980s.

No wonder many Pakistanis bristle at the American gripe of ‘not doing enough’ and complain of being used and dumped by the West in favour of India. Not only does Delhi, once the champion of non-alignment, fit in nicely with the US project to check the rise of China as a global power, India holds out the promise of a massive new market of a billion-plus people for American products and investments – which is what really matters for businessman Trump.

As former Indian diplomat and a rare pragmatist M K Bhadrakumar argues, the fact that China has heavily invested itself in Pakistan and the traditional friends are closer than ever also may have something to do with the US-Pakistan split. Beijing has as many as $62 billion in investments riding on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and is prepared to pour in more if needed.

Days before Trump’s Twitter rebuke, Pakistan’s Central Bank announced that the neighbours would now be using the Chinese currency yuan, instead of US dollars, in bilateral trade. This is a shift of epic proportions and may be yet another sign of the balance of global power weighing eastwards. Bhadrakumar sees this announcement as the real reason behind the American ire.

However, if an ungrateful US thinks it is now in a position to dump Pakistan, it needs to think again. As Richard G Olson, who served as the US ambassador to Pakistan from 2012 to 2015 and as the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan until last year, argues in The New York Times in a brutally honest assessment: “Pakistan has greater leverage over us (Washington) than many imagine. Without Pakistani cooperation, our army in Afghanistan risks becoming a bleached whale!”

As long as the US remains involved in Afghanistan – it is not going anywhere anytime soon and this has nothing to do with ‘fighting terror’ or promoting democracy in the region. Afghanistan is now home to numerous US military bases that the Pentagon needs to keep Russia, China and Iran in check – it will be woefully dependent on Pakistan for transit and supply routes to its troops and bases. It cannot use the Central Asian routes because Russia’s Putin will not allow it. The other alternative of using Iran’s new Chabahar Port, built with India’s support, is also out of the question for obvious reasons. That leaves only Pakistan.

As Olson puts it: “The Pakistani generals were never convinced that they had to choose between their relationship with the US and their relationship with the Taliban. The generals knew that as long as the US maintained an army in Afghanistan, it was more dependent on Pakistan than Pakistan was on it”.

Bhadrakumar agrees with the US diplomat: “Make no mistake; the Pakistani military will not be browbeaten. If push comes to shove, Pakistan does have the capability to make it difficult for the US and Nato forces to make even a withdrawal of troops out of Afghanistan in orderly fashion”.

So Trump or no Trump, it seems the US is stuck with Pakistan as long as it is stuck in Afghanistan. Instead of blaming Pakistan for its woes in Afghanistan, the only option before the US is to address the sources of the Afghan conflict and turn the country over to its people before it meets the fate that befell the Soviet Union.

Pakistan also needs to do some much-needed soul-searching. Instead of being forever indebted to the US or any other imperial power for its subsistence, Pakistanis have the option to strive for self-reliance. It is the only path to true independence and deliverance from the yoke of tyranny. That is what Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, would have suggested: “Aye tair-e-lahoti us rizq say maut acchi/ jis rizq say aati ho parvaz mein kotaahi” (O ethereal bird! It is better to starve to death/ Than to live on a prey that clogs thy wings in flight.)

I am sure Jinnah would have agreed.

The writer is an independent writer and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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