A low ebb in Pak-US relations

Daily: Weekly Cutting Edge
Date: 01.12.18

The lowest ebb of Pak-US bilateral relations is now discernable, marked by counterclaims
and recriminations. On November 19, as before on 1 January this year, US President
Donald Trump tweeted to reprove Pakistan publicly.

In the tweet, Trump lamented the escape of Osama bin Laden from the missile strike
launched on the orders of former US President Bill Clinton before 2001, and said that the
success of the strike could have forestalled the gory incident of 9/11. Trump attributed the
failure of the US before 9/11 to capture bin Laden to Pakistan that kept on receiving billions
of dollars in aid but did nothing substantial on the ground. In a subsequent tweet on the
same day, Trump said that Pakistan failed to inform on bin Laden’s hiding in a compound in
Abbottabad in 2011. The implied message is that Pakistan was aware of the hiding but
observed silence. Trump says that Pakistan temporized with the bin-Laden issue to procure
more money from the US; otherwise, the US could have captured or killed bin Laden much
earlier. In the same tweet, Trump once again reiterated his earlier stance of condemning
Pakistan for its inaction against the Afghan Taliban hiding on its land and consequently
informing Pakistan of tapering off the US military aid amounting to more than one billion
dollars.

Trump’s tweets unfold the way the administration in Washington thinks about the role of
Pakistan. First, the tweets incriminate Pakistan to the whole issue of the wave of terrorism
launched by bin Laden amid his stay in Afghanistan. Second, the tweets implicate Pakistan
in the crimes perpetrated by bin Laden by offering him either a tip off before 9/11 or a
hiding place after 9/11. Third, the tweet accuses Pakistan of duplicity: joining the US camp
to fight the war on terror and offering a hideout to the fugitive militants, the al-Qaeda or the
Afghan Taliban on its land. In short, Trump is saying that the mess the US is in was partly, if
not fully, engendered by Pakistan.

Pakistan has launched the rebuttal but the refutation is limited in scope. Pakistan does not
give reasons for not helping the US before 9/11 to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan
despite the fact that Pakistan helped the Taliban take over Kabul in 1996. Similarly,
Pakistan is silent on the (implied) allegation that any insider alerted bin Laden to escape
(narrowly) the missiles passed over its airspace striking at the place bin Laden was holding
a gathering in Afghanistan. Certainly, that was not the era of drone strikes.

Pakistan has replied to the second part of the tweets by saying that it provided the US with
initial footprints of the presence of bin Laden on its land. The claim, tossed to work in
favour of Pakistan, boomerangs on Pakistan for an inferred admission that it could not
locate bin Laden on its land despite knowing his presence inside the country at some safe
place. Only if the admission of failure were enough. The same claim hits a dicey surface
when, on flimsy grounds, Pakistan incarcerated Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who led the polio drive to
ascertain the genetic identity of the bin Laden family hiding in the compound. The question
is this: was the duty of Pakistan to share with the US just the initial footprints of bin Laden
and nothing afterwards? Keeping Afridi interned weakens the stance of Pakistan that it
offered an unrestrained help to the US to locate bin Laden.

Through the tweets, Trump made it public that the military aid to Pakistan was being denied
owing to its noncooperation. The timing of the announcement was such as to affect
adversely Pakistan’s negotiations with the IMF to seek loans to run the economy. The
insidious effect was apparent when the IMF refused to budge on its harsh conditions
thereby creating a hiatus in the negotiations.

To Trump’s tweeted messages, the stance of Pakistan is that it has suffered enough
fighting the war on terror and that it would fight the war in its own way keeping in view the
interests of its people and the country. Pakistan claims that it has a right to change the
course because, first, no Pakistani was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and second, Pakistan
has suffered 75,000 casualties and has suffered the loss of over $123 billion compared to
the minuscule $ 20 billion the US gave to Pakistan in aid. Pakistan also claims that it has
offered the US free land access to Afghanistan and is promoting negotiations between the
US and the Taliban.

Pakistan thinks that its participation in the war on terror predicates no more on the
conditions set by the US but by itself. That is, Pakistan wants to fight the war on terror but
on its own conditions. This is where the difference of opinion appears spoiling bilateral
relations. The US thinks that Pakistan’s fighting the war in its own way is not serving the US
purpose to stay in Afghanistan and fund Pakistan’s civil and military coffers.

Pakistan seems to have been shunning the label of a rentier country by changing the terms
of engagement set by the then President General Pervez Musharraf. This is where another
dilemma lies: a military dictator plunged the country into the war without setting the limits.
General Musharraf thought of his own political survival and opted for financial gains to run
the government. He submitted to the US demands without delimiting the boundaries of
engagement.

Presently, Pakistan believes that the US is the final loser because the US is gravely
engaged in Afghanistan and it is unable to finish the war without Pakistan’s help. Pakistan
considers to have been playing on its strength. On the other hand, however, the US thinks
that the economy of Pakistan would not survive without the financial assistance by the US
as happened in the wake of 9/11. Here, the US plays on its strength.

In short, Pak-US relations have reached the point where the apparent competition rests with
strengths and not with weaknesses. Nevertheless, the real test of Pak-US relations and the
tested strengths would be on the day when a US drone makes a strike on Pakistan’s land,
as was the practice in the past.

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