The U.S.-Pakistan Relationship Is on Life Support

An army soldier stands guard on a road, after twin bomb attack occurred at a court, in Mardan, Pakistan

There is genuine anger and apprehension.

In the days since President Trump came down hard on Pakistan in his speech outlining America’s new Afghanistan strategy, the reaction in Islamabad—and elsewhere across the country—has been predictably angry and defiant.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee, a group of top government and military officials, rejected Trump’s allegations—ones also made by many American leaders before him—that Pakistan provides sanctuaries to terrorists that destabilize Afghanistan and attack American troops. “To scapegoat Pakistan will not help in stabilizing Afghanistan,” the committee declared in a sharply worded statement. In a fiery interview with CNN, political opposition leader Imran Khan excoriated Trump for blaming Pakistan for U.S. struggles in Afghanistan and proclaimed that Trump’s criticism was “hurtful” and “humiliating” to all Pakistanis. Most recently, on August 30, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution lambasting Trump’s accusations as “hostile” and “threatening.”

Pakistan’s anger is now affecting high-level diplomacy. Islamabad asked Alice Wells, a top South Asia official at the State Department, to indefinitely postpone a planned visit to Pakistan.  Pakistan’s foreign minister, who had been scheduled to visit Washington, will now be going to China, Russia and Turkey instead—three countries with close or newly growing ties with Pakistan. Speaking to Parliament on August 30, Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif called on the government to suspend all high-level bilateral visits with Washington.

Meanwhile, anti-American protests, all peaceful, have broken out across the country. From demonstrations in the remote tribal areas to a sit-in outside the U.S. consulate in the city of Lahore, people are expressing their anger toward Trump’s criticism and America’s policies more broadly.

On one level, Pakistan’s apoplectic reaction to Trump’s speech isn’t anything new. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is fraught with mistrust and ill will. Most recently, in 2011 and 2012, the relationship was plunged into deep crisis thanks to a rapid-fire succession of events—including a CIA operative killing two Pakistani men on a busy city street in Lahore, U.S. Special Forces entering Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden, and NATO aircraft accidentally killing two dozen Pakistani border troops. Back then, the rhetoric in both capitals was much angrier than it is now.

Additionally, in a nation as anti-American as Pakistan (in the pre-Trump era, as many as 92 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of U.S. leadership), top leaders are obliged to issue strong, public rebukes to sharp rhetoric like Trump’s. If you simply laugh or shrug off tough talk from the U.S. president, you risk becoming a political liability. So there’s a playing-to-the-gallery dimension inherent in the Pakistani response.

All this said, by no means is the Pakistani political class displaying manufactured sentiment. Far from it. There is genuine anger and apprehension, and for three major reasons that go beyond the simple fact that a U.S. president has put their country down in a big and threatening way—cause for anyone on the receiving end of such rhetoric, in any context, to be incensed.

First, Pakistani officialdom is well aware of Trump’s uncompromising, black-and-white position on terrorism: In effect, any terror group anywhere must be destroyed at all costs. Trump, more than his predecessors, is likely to order new and draconian measures meant to compel Pakistan to sever its ties to groups like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, which help Pakistan in a big way by keeping India—Pakistan’s bitter foe—at bay in Afghanistan. These possible measures could include expanding drone strikes into areas of the country, like Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, where militant leaders are harbored but have rarely been hit by drones; placing sanctions and travel bans on Pakistani officials with known ties to terror; launching broader air strikes on terrorist facilities; and even designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror if it fails to undertake a series of counterterrorism measures within a certain space of time. Trump administration officials have specifically singled out the first two measures as real possibilities.

Second, Pakistani leaders understand the increasingly anti-Pakistan mood in Washington. Such sentiment is apparent in the White House, at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and even within the community of think-tank analysts. The mood toward Pakistan may be friendlier at the State Department and USAID, but the influence of these agencies in shaping foreign policy, not to mention Pakistan policy, has taken a major hit. For all the unpopularity of Trump’s policies in Washington, the White House’s tougher line on Pakistan is likely to garner glowing bipartisan approval.

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