BY PRABASI NEPALI
US President Trump’s administration has announced the suspension of about US Dollar 2 billion in security aid to nuclear-armed Pakistan – officially a US ally and strategic partner – over accusations that the country is playing a double game in Afghanistan since decades. Islamabad has denied this very self-assertively and has accused the United States of disrespecting its vast sacrifices in fighting domestic and international terrorism. Its casualties have numbered in the tens of thousands. The US aid suspension was announced days after Trump tweeted on January 1 that the United States had foolishly given Pakistan a total of US Dollar 33 billion in aid over 15 years and was rewarded with “nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”
As an immediate reaction, Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told the head of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel that the nation “felt betrayed” at criticism that it was not doing enough to fight terrorism. Amid rising tension between the US and Pakistan over massive complaints that the Taliban insurgents targeting US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan are allowed to take shelter on Pakistani soil, Gen. Votel has assured his Pakistani counterparts that the US was not contemplating any unilateral action inside Pakistan.
It seems the world has to get used to US President Donald Trump using very strong, even foul language, forgetting diplomatic niceties. Only last Thursday, in blunt vulgar language, he questioned why the US would accept more immigrants from Haiti and other “shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway (whose prime minister he had greeted at the White House only the previous day). This has sparked a storm of protest at home and abroad. Trump’s remarks during a meeting on immigration policy that was held at the White House were reported by a US Senator at the gathering, who said that the president had used “vile, vulgar” language, including repeatedly saying “shithole”. Trump was condemned in many African nations, as well as in Haiti and El Salvador, and by international human rights organisations. In the US, many from the world’s of diplomacy, academia and even etiquette experts cringed. Diane Gottsman, an expert on good manners in professional and social settings, said: The reality is that when you have to resort to it, it does send a message of insecurity.” Her advice was that people at the top should avoid profanity: “When we are in a position of power, people look up to us.” Fazit: Trump’s personal prestige, and unfortunately that of the US is going down the drain!
Trump’s attack against Pakistan where he accused it of providing safe havens to terrorists appears to be helping surge already very close relations between Pakistan and China, according to a report in the state-run Chinese “Global Times”. It attributed Islamabad’s decision to allow Chinese currency (Yuan) in bilateral trade and financing transactions as China has stepped up its investments in the US Dollar 50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The timing was significant according to Dong Dengxin, director of the Finance & Securities Institute at Wuhan University of Science and Technology: “This is more of a political statement in response to pressure from the US.”
Trump’s outburst will not only boost economic, but also defence ties between Beijing and Islamabad. According to a report in the “Washington Times”, China is in talks with Pakistan to build its second overseas military base as part of a push for greater maritime capabilities along strategic sea routes. The facility could be built at Jiwani, a port near Iran’s Chabahar port, close to the Pakistan-Iran border in the Gulf of Oman, and is located a short distance from Gwadar port in Balochistan province which is already being developed by China to gain access into the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. China has already formally established the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti (in co-existence with an American base), in the strategically located Horn of Africa – just across Yemen and commanding the Bab el-Mandeb, the narrow passage to the Red Sea. The Chinese “Global Times” has written that the main role of the base would be to support Chinese warships operating in the region ‘in anti-piracy and humanitarian operations’. This is the apex of the strategic triangle comprising the Gulf of Aden (guarding the entrance to the Red Sea and further to the Suez Canal) and India’s western coast (comprising Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala). Jiwani is just a stone’s throw from Chabahar port being jointly developed by Iran, Afghanistan and India to ensure a trade corridor for Indian exports to Afghanistan, and the latter’s exports/imports with the outside world. However, some observers maintain that Jiwani could be a pressure tactic by Pakistan since China is already developing Gwadar where earlier reports said Beijing plans to station its marines. Thus, Professor Lin Minwang at Fudan University’s Centre for South Asian Studies said: both Beijing and Islamabad have the ability to build a joint naval and air facility in Pakistan, but it is unnecessary at this time.”
US Pentagon officials are watching for Pakistan’s next moves after Washington froze security aid payments to Islamabad, saying it is not doing enough to target Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network terrorist bases. Most problematic for America as it wages its 16-year war in Afghanistan would be if Pakistan suddenly shut its border points into the country, stemming the vital flow of goods, food and gear from the port at Karachi. Also of particular concern was the possibility of Pakistan closing its air space to American planes, meaning efforts to fly air cargo into Afghanistan could get much more difficult – an enormous problem.
While the US favours Pakistan supply routes because of cost, US military officials stressed America has built “flexibility and redundancy” into its supply chains, and “as military planners, we develop multiple supply chain contingencies to sustain theatre requirements to maintain the train, advise and assist mission to the Afghan National Defence Forces.”Unlike in 2011 and 2012, when Pakistan closed down the ground lines of communication and transport, the US no longer has an air base in Kyrgyzstan. Additionally, Washington’s fraught relations with Russia could make flying over Central Asian states less reliable, with Moscow able to exert influence over its smaller neighbours. Now after more than a decade of simmering US exasperation at Islamabad’s links with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, the Trump administration is trying to draw a line in the sand. Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University, therefore, calls on the Trump administration to clearly spell out what it expects from Pakistan and what additional punitive steps would be taken if it shuts down the supply lines.
According to Richard N. Haass, one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, the US should not drop Pakistan, because “Bad situations can always get worse. Today Pakistan is a weak state; tomorrow, it could become a failed one. That would be a regional and global nightmare, given the presence of nuclear weapons and terrorists.” Haass also makes the case for a continuation of US economic and humanitarian support. He predicts that some limited cooperation in countering terrorism and in Afghanistan might still be possible and pleads urgently for talks on how to avoid a crisis involving Pakistan – and how to manage one should prevention fail. He also urges the US government to work closely with both India and Pakistan “to strengthen their relationship which is still far less developed than the US-Soviet relationship at the height of the Cold War.” [“The Pakistani Conundrum”, Project Syndicate/”The Rising Nepal”, January 14, 2018] This is key to peace and stability and with it to all-round development in the whole region of South Asia.