By Aijaz Zaka Syed
16 January 2018
Donald Trump’s midnight brainstorm on Twitter accusing Pakistan of 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 armchair warriors on the other side of the border.
Finally, Uncle Sam seems to see what has been apparent all along to everyone in India, that the Pakistanis have been taking Americans for a grand ride with their continuing support to the Taliban and assorted militant groups, which has been obvious to everyone except the Yanks themselves.
Every time Kashmiri militants struck or Indian and Pakistani forces clashed, media warriors would fume about why the Americans continued to arm and finance the enemy, while professing love for all things Indian.
No wonder Trump’s Twitter soliloquy in the true King Lear tradition blasting his predecessors for pampering Pakistan for 15 years came as 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 the Americans and others in the neighbourhood expected the Pakistanis to fall over themselves to grovel at Trump’s feet, begging for mercy and billions of dollars in aid, they must have been sorely disappointed.
Far from trembling at the thought of being divested of Uncle Sam’s largesse, the Pakistanis seem to remain remarkably unruffled in the face of America’s tough love and tougher talk. It is as though the generals in Rawalpindi were daring the Yanks to bring it on.
But why? For explanation, look to Pakistan’s geography, rather than history. First, no matter what Indians may like to think of their pesky neighbor, Pakistan is no pushover. It is not a banana republic but a nuclear power with the sixth-largest army in the world.
Hobbling from crisis to crisis and surviving three major wars with a behemoth like India seems to have only steeled their resolve and never-say-die spirit. For all the instability, poverty, corruption and 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 depend on their colonial masters for protection. Not surprisingly, Pakistanis have treated these threats with the contempt they deserve.
Besides, if you were to look at it from Pakistan’s perspective, it is not America but Pakistan that has received “nothing but lies and deceit.” Beginning from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s to the Western invasion of 2002, Pakistan has repeatedly been used by the US for its power games. Contrary to popular perception in the West, 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 more than 50,000 Pakistani soldiers, the largest number any country has suffered fighting “terror.” Its once vibrant economy and infrastructure lie in ruins. Law and order 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 70s and 80s.
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 nonalignment, fit in nicely with the US project to check China, India also offers an untapped market of a billion people for US products and investments. Which is what really matters for businessman Trump?
As former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar argues, the fact that China has heavily invested itself in Pakistan and the traditional friends are now closer than ever also might have something to do with the US-Pakistan split. Beijing has $62 billion in investments riding on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and is prepared to pour in more if needed.
Days before Trump’s rant, Pakistan’s Central Bank announced that the neighbours would now use the Chinese currency Yuan, instead of US dollars, for bilateral trade. It is a shift of epic proportions and yet another sign of the balance of global power tilting eastwards. Bhadrakumar sees this as the real trigger behind the American ire.
However, if an ungrateful US thinks that 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, warns 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 beached 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 blessed 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.
The US cannot use the Central Asian routes because Russia’s Putin would 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 around.
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.”
“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, the US is stuck with Pakistan as long as it is stuck in Afghanistan. Instead of blaming Pakistan for its woes, the only option before the US is to address the sources of the Afghan conflict and return the country to its people before it meets the fate of the Soviet Union.
— Aijaz Zaka Syed is an independent journalist and former newspaper editor.