Home Lightbox Trump’s ‘Covfefeing’ on Pakistan

Trump’s ‘Covfefeing’ on Pakistan

by Ejaz Haider

Drew Angerer—Getty Images North America—AFP

A comprehensive policy incorporating all of Islamabad’s options is required to respond to the U.S. president

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools…” Thus spake @realDonaldTrump on the first morning of 2018.

@KhawajaMAsif, the certified twitter handle of Pakistan’s foreign minister, shot back with “We will respond to President Trump’s tweet shortly inshallah…Will let the world know the truth.. difference between facts & fiction.”

Pakistan’s Minister for Defense, Khurram Dastgir-Khan, using the official twitter handle @PakMnstrDefence, took it a few notches above: “Pak as anti-terror ally has given free to US: land & air communication, military bases & intel cooperation that decimated Al Qaeda over last 16yrs, but they have given us nothing but invective & mistrust. They overlook cross-border safe havens of terrorists who murder Pakistanis.”

Until the time of writing this, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hadn’t officially responded to the tweet. Normally, MoFA comes up with an interim statement referring to a final statement which is issued after a sensitive matter has been taken up and deliberated upon by the Cabinet Committee on National Security, the mechanism that reconciles inputs from Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

So, how should one look at this tweet by a President of the United States who is widely known to ‘covfefe’ first thing every morning, while still in his PJs and before settling down to watching Fox and Friends?

This, as the U.S. media have reported since the White House was afflicted with Trump, is not an easy question to answer. Given the general assessment of the man’s personality, thin-skinned, delusional, egotistical, mercurial and not particularly versed in the art of dealing with complexity, unless it relates to dodging taxes, it is not always easy to sift the grain of policy from the chaff of bullshit. A good example of that are his tweets apropos of North Korea.

Going by that example, we know that there’s a difference between his Twitter bluster and the limits and limitations of actual policy. Is that the case here too?

Possibly. Equally, starting with his team’s Afghanistan policy review, his speech at Fort Myer, subsequent statements by his secretaries of State and Defense, as also a recent speech by his Veep to the troops in Afghanistan, one can see a clear motif even if we were to disregard the crude, rude and uncouth aspects of his New Year’s morning’s tweet: we have given billions to Pakistan; Pakistan has given us nothing in return; Pakistan is deceitful; the U.S. has to do something about it.

Corollary: if Pakistan hadn’t been putting a spoke in the wheels of U.S.’ Afghanistan policy, that country by now would be up and running and Trump could have converted the Bagram airbase into a Trump theme park.

That this is utter baloney is obvious to anyone who knows Afghanistan and has followed, even if in fits and starts, the U.S. policy in that country. But that is not the correct starting point for Pakistan to deal with the situation, as the surly eminences adorning evening Pakistani talk shows will insist we should do. Consider.

Foreign and security policies are not formulated on the basis of facts. They are a function of capabilities. In other words, responses are not worked out because state X has wronged state Y for A, B, C reasons. Y has to take stock of what it can do realistically in response to what X has done, can further do or is planning to.

To make this assertion idiot-proof, let me put it this way: the way to deal with the U.S. is not about beating one’s chest or getting angry and frothing from the mouth or misleading the people by scoring marks on the patriotism scale. It is about sitting down, listing what the U.S. can do, might do or will do and then juxtaposing those points with how realistically Pakistan can react to those possibilities and what steps, if any, it can take proactively to force the U.S. into rethinking its Trump approach.

Take the narrative of USD 33 billion that keeps propping up. There are two aspects of it: one, this figure is wrong and deliberately fails to mention the monies disbursed to Pakistan under the head of Coalition Support Fund. The CSF disbursement was repayment to Pakistan for the money Pakistan spent from its own budget for military operations in support of the American war on terror.

Two, the monies the U.S. gave to Pakistan under other heads, development, narcotics, infrastructure et cetera, were given because U.S. policymakers determined, through their assessment, that such disbursements were in the U.S. interests. Put another way, if the U.S. had determined that giving that aid to Pakistan did not and would not advance U.S. interests, Washington would not have done so.

It’s the same as the U.S. funds going to NATO or to the U.N. In March last year, in a similar fit of curmudgeonly pique, Trump, after meeting with German chancellor, Angela Merkel, tweeted: “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, reminded Trump that his “comments misrepresent the way NATO functions,” adding: “The President keeps saying that we need to be paid by the Europeans for the fact that we have troops in Europe or provide defense there. But that’s not how it works.” Indeed!

One eminent Pakistani economist who has consistently written about this is Dr. Ishrat Husain, a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Husain was part of a Study Group at the Center for Global Development, a leading U.S. think tank, which assessed U.S. aid to Pakistan. Here’s the crux: “…the integration of development, diplomacy and defense has muddled the development mission and left the program without a clear, focused mandate. The Kerry-Lugar legislation lists no fewer than 11 different objectives of U.S. policy. As a result, the aid decisions are too often politicized and subject to short-term pressures. Overall, the program ends up trying to do too much, too quickly.”

In an op-ed for Express Tribune, written as far back as May 19, 2011, Dr. Husain gave figures on actual disbursements and argued that “When Secretary Clinton visits Pakistan we should thank her for the hard work the U.S. administration did in getting the Kerry-Lugar legislation approved, but indicate that Pakistan would like to unilaterally withdraw from receiving assistance under it. Our strategic dialogue should continue to explore other avenues of cooperation.”

The argument that “economic assistance from developed to developing countries has always been loaded with political and foreign policy overtones of donors” is also a recurring theme in the writings of another eminent Pakistani economist, Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque, a former deputy chairman of Planning Commission.

In August 2017, analyzing Trump’s Fort Myer speech, I had listed the steps the Trump administration can take if things go south: stopping CSF/other monies (nothing much there); withdrawing the major non-NATO ally status (already symbolic in a shambolic relationship); expanding drone attacks, especially in settled areas; possible ground ingress; sanctioning individuals and entities (that would mean restricted travel, freezing of assets and even arrests on foreign soils); withdrawing support from international financial institutions etc.

As should be obvious, while some are oblique measures, others can constitute direct attacks on Pakistan’s sovereignty. This is precisely what needs to be countered because some of these coercive measures can be undertaken unilaterally. The job of the government, currently in disarray because of domestic politics, is to work out a comprehensive policy, listing Pakistan’s options.

That is essentially an exercise in cold calculation, not ill-informed noise on TV channels.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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