International fame, at last! Pakistan hit the headlines because it was the subject of Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018. The country will have a small but everlasting place in history.
You know Trump: he’s the man who, immediately after being elected US President was reported by the BBC as having telephoned the then prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif to say Pakistan is “a fantastic country, fantastic place” and “amazing with tremendous opportunities.” He ended with the jovial request to “Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people.”
It is unlikely that Mr Trump knows any Pakistanis, but it seemed his attitude to Pakistan was positive. And so it continued until New Year’s Day 2018 when Trump tweeted “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. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
He meant that the Pakistan army, which has had 6,687 soldiers killed fighting terrorists since 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan, is helping terrorists based in Pakistan.
Since the US attack on Afghanistan, and subsequent expansion of Islamic terrorist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Pakistan has suffered 468 suicide bombing attacks, in which 7,230 of its citizens were killed. Before 2001 there was one such attack, in 1995 by a crazy Egyptian who drove a bomb-laden lorry into the Egyptian Embassy’s gates.
When Trump tweeted his message Pakistan had ended a year in which, as recorded by India’s South Asia Terrorism Portal, it suffered 3,001 civilian deaths from terrorism, and 676 of its soldiers were killed in fighting against terrorists, while 1,702 terrorists were killed. It was quite a year, but not as bad as 2009, for example, at the height of the US “surge” in Afghanistan, when almost a thousand Pakistani soldiers were killed while conducting operations against terrorists in their strongholds in the Tribal Areas.
Pakistan army soldiers fighting through Mirali town in North Waziristan in 2014. Five were killed in this anti-terrorist operation
It may be remembered that in 2009 Afghanistan’s President Karzai said there was “an urgent need” for direct negotiations with the Taliban and made it clear that the US government opposed any such approach. Meanwhile, there was indeed increased movement of terrorists between the countries, made less difficult for them because the Afghan government refused to permit erection of any sort of border barrier.
Eleven years ago, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times wrote that the Afghan President “voiced strong opposition on [December 28, 2006] to Pakistan’s announcement that it would lay mines and erect fences along its border with Afghanistan. He said the moves would only hurt the people living in the region and would not stem cross-border terrorism.”
This was nonsense, because natural or man-made barriers can dissuade or even prevent illegal movement. And when covered by observation and fire (as all armies agree they must be), they can verge on the impenetrable. It is essential to have frequent and irregular patrols by troops, surveillance on the ground and from the air (so what have all these US drones been doing?), and artillery in positions from which fire can be directed onto those attempting cross-border forays.
It can be catastrophic if an obstacle is unguarded. During the Vietnam War the Australian army planted an enormous minefield around a mountain occupied by bands of Viet Cong guerrillas but had to withdraw patrolling troops as there was an emergency elsewhere, and the predictable result was that the Viet Cong picked up all the mines — thousands of them — and over the following years used them to kill Australians.
But if minefields had been planted at appropriate places along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, on both sides, as proposed by the Pakistan government, and patrolled aggressively by the armies of both countries, nobody could claim that illegal crossings would have been easy. If the Afghan army had been ordered to cooperate with their opposite numbers across the border, and if there had been coordinated surveillance and foot patrols — as wanted by the Pakistan military — then it would have been very difficult indeed for insurgents to cross in either direction. The US did not approve Pakistan’s proposal for fencing and minefields and did not supply any assistance for the project. So the barrier was not erected.
It is ironic that Trump is cancelling military security aid to Pakistan, because this cash assists Pakistan’s security forces to combat terrorists. In January the Pakistani media reported that “Pakistan has spent more than Rs 67.3 billion ($605 million) during the last one and a half years in its efforts to stop infiltration of terrorists operating in Afghanistan and securing vital installations, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, from cross-border attacks.”
But all was not quite what it seemed. Or perhaps it was, because nobody knows exactly how foreign policy is devised in Trump Washington. Anyway : after the Trump tweet against Pakistan his Defence Secretary, General Mattis, “vowed to continue working with the Pakistan government to defeat terrorism in south Asia despite the United States stopping nearly all its financial aid to the country.” He did not, of course, ask Pakistan if it wanted to continue working with the United States on anything at all, but that’s the way overseas relations are handled in the era of Trump.
Trump was supported by Senator Rand Paul who tweeted “I’m introducing a bill to end aid to Pakistan in the coming days. My bill will take the money that would have gone to Pakistan and put it in an infrastructure fund to build roads and bridges here at home.” This was greeted by a Trump tweet saying “Good idea, Rand!” But at the same time a “senior administration official” said “I just want to be clear that it’s been suspended. Nothing has been reappropriated. We’re hopeful that we can lift the suspension and the aid will be able to go forward.” So what is the real policy? Nobody knows.
All this leaves Pakistan with some problems. It can live without the US money, of course, although there’s no doubt it has been most useful and much appreciated, but as time goes by its air force will have difficulty in continuing to operate its F-16 aircraft because the US will probably refuse to sell it replacement parts. Its orders for US attack helicopters may also be affected. But the US is not the only source of defence equipment, and there is little doubt that China, Russia and Turkey will move to plug any gaps. And there are other factors that Washington would do well to contemplate.
One most positive effect of Trump’s insulting tweet has been to unite Pakistanis. It appears that no matter their political leanings they have joined in strong rejection of US policy. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said bluntly that the US “carried out 57,800 attacks on Afghanistan from our bases. Your forces were supplied arms and explosives through our soil. Thousands of our civilians and soldiers became victims of the war initiated by you.” And his sentiments were echoed by the prominent opposition politician, Imran Khan, who said “Despite Pakistan clearing up North Waziristan, still half of Afghanistan is in Taliban hands. So, who is responsible for this? To make Pakistan the scapegoat of a failed strategy in Afghanistan is not just a travesty of justice, it is deeply insulting and humiliating.”
Quite so. And this is probably going to be the way ahead for Pakistan. To my certain knowledge, Pakistan has provided intelligence about potential terrorist-related activities in America (and the UK). So why should they continue such cooperation? And as the New York Times pointed out on January 5, “the US “has always relied on Pakistani air and ground routes for supplies to the troops in Afghanistan” — so why should Pakistan continue to offer such facilities? It could cut them off in a moment.
Trump failed to understand that insulting North Korea’s leader would result in such strong reaction to his immature jibes. His anti-Iran diatribes are entirely counter-productive. And he’s playing the same tune again. Trump’s anti-Pakistan policy is a disaster.