Trump Topples South Asia Apple Cart

As could be expected, US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is suspending aid to Pakistan has set off a firestorm in South Asia, with Pakistani officials indignantly defending themselves and their Indian counterparts – Pakistan’s bitter rivals – jubilant.

Although the suspension is also likely to hasten Pakistan’s already-growing flirtation with China, irritated US officials twice before have suspended aid to Islamabad and then picked up with them again – once just two months after US Navy Seals took out Osama in Laden in a residential compound almost within sight of a major Pakistani military installation, raising deep suspicions that the Pakistanis were hiding the notorious terrorist. Also, in 2015, US$300 million of the Pentagon’s Coalition Support Funds were made conditional on Pakistan acting against the Haqqani network terrorist group in Afghanistan – allegedly a client of Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI.

This time, given Trump’s natural belligerence, it has the air of permanence, however. In a style characteristically shorn of nuance, Trump ripped into Pakistan in his first tweet of the new year – at 4:30 am – saying the US “has foolishly given Pakistan more than US$33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. Pakistan give[s] safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Shortly after his twitter cannonball, the administration announced suspension of most of its security assistance to Pakistan, approximately US$1.15 billion. The current suspension will remain in effect until Pakistan takes "decisive action" against the Taliban and Haqqani network, militant groups blamed for stoking violence in Afghanistan and prolonging a protracted conflict threatening regional security. Pakistan has also been placed on a "watch list" of countries seen as failing to protect religious freedom.

The action will have a mostly symbolic effect in the near term but as The Washington Post highlighted, "it is certain to accelerate a downward trajectory in a fragile anti-terror allegiance forged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

Expectedly, Trump's missive had immediate reverberations in Pakistan. Political groups thronged Islamabad's streets brandishing and burning "Dump Trump" placards. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi went into a huddle with his senior ministers and military chiefs to frame a response to Washington's sudden announcements. The US Ambassador in Pakistan was called over to explain the tweet.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif retaliated by alleging that Trump's measures against his country showed that he was "talking in the language of India" and that the US is making Islamabad a “scapegoat” for its own failure in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Office said it had spent US$120 billion over the past 15 years seeking to stamp out terrorism and that the US’s "arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats."

Meanwhile India celebrated Trump's tweet and his public show of derision for Pakistan. The two South Asian neighbors have a troubled history and a trust deficit made worse by allegations of Pakistan's deceit in harboring terrorist groups while pretending to be an ally in the war on terror.

"The Trump administration's decision has abundantly vindicated India's far as the role of Pakistan is concerned in perpetrating terrorism," Jitendra Singh, a Minister of State in India's Prime Minister's Office told the media.

Jiten Shah, a foreign policy analysts, said Trump’s action ensures that the international community will no longer be fooled by what he described as Pakistan’s lies and falsehoods.

"It also bolsters India's claim that Pakistan is directly involved in perpetuating terrorism,” Shah said. “Even though America hasn't directly condemned the terrorist organizations responsible for attacking India, it is still a step towards condemnation of Islamabad's involvement in nefarious activities."

Some analysts say the feud has the potential to trigger a breakdown in US-Pakistani ties that could also jeopardize cooperation on intelligence, nuclear safety and the war in Afghanistan. But despite Trump's bruising language and security aid slashes, others feel such measures are likely to have little real impact on a country immune to such shocks. Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said Trump's blistering rhetoric and US cabinet-level threats aren’t enough.

"President Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a crucial part, can be most effectively countered in Pakistan,” Sibal wrote in Economic Times. “China uses Pakistan to weaken India's resistance to its hegemonic aspirations. China uses Pakistan to weaken India's resistance to its hegemonic aspirations. Strengthening India's capacity to counter China's disruptive ambitions also requires much stronger US action against Pakistan than has been announced so far."

Thus the lingering fear in Washington – as well as Delhi – is that the US's move would push Pakistan into a tighter embrace with China, its “all-weather' friend.” Islamabad has increasingly turned for economic support to its northern neighbor, which is investing tens of billions in transportation links and power generation as it extends its strategic footprint across Asia.

The two have also signed a new development deal worth US$62 billion for infrastructure and energy projects although, as Asia Sentinel has reported, China has exacted onerous loan terms that have left Pakistan billions in debt and with most of the benefit of infrastructure projects accruing to China.

Many feel that Trump's anti-Pakistan initiatives will not have a significantly bruising effect on the latter due to entrenched US interests. Former Senator Larry Pressler in his bestselling book, "Neighbors in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent", talks about the invisible “Octopus” syndrome in this context.

Pressler writes that ``The tentacles of the ‘Octopus’ comprise all the secretive law firms and lobbying firms that raise campaign money and work on behalf of arms manufacturers, equipment suppliers, bankers, and others who have financial interest in Pakistan. These agents will very quietly go to work behind the scenes and keep the aid flowing to Pakistan through slightly different channels."

New Delhi's position may have been strengthened with Trump's consistent stance in taking a tougher line against Pakistan. But given his mercurial nature and famous policy flipflops, the question to ask is: Will Trump carry through on his threat to Pakistan? India isn't holding its breath for this one.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and editor and a long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel