Sure, Donald Trump hasn’t been the nicest when it comes to public treatment of Pakistan, one of our more complex yet oldest allies in the region. Upon its separation from India and its inception as an internationally-recognized nation in 1947, Pakistan – a Muslim-majority nation whose people have often clashed with its former Indian brethren – chose an allegiance with America over the Soviet Union. But with their recent formal announcement that it no longer considers America an ally, the two nations find themselves in uncharted diplomatic waters.
Nobody mistook the U.S.-Pakistani alliance as anything more than one of economic and military convenience. It has been reported that 40% of Pakistanis live in poverty, meaning that their reliance upon the United States’ financial aid is imperative to the nation staving off complete chaos. In return, the United States has been permitted to maintain airbases in the nation, though the grip on those bases has been tenuous in recent years.
In December 2011, U.S. forces were ordered to vacate Shamsi air base in Pakistan after a NATO predator drone attack near the Afghan border left 24 Pakistanis dead. The issue is not as cut-and-dry as it may appear, and though the Pakistanis killed were likely to not have been terrorists, the nation’s status as a state-sponsor and breeding ground for extremism leaves it without legs for the high horse it seemingly chose to stand upon. Pakistan’s poverty and Muslim majority is inextricably linked to its reputation as one of the most fertile grounds of Islamist extremism, an underpinning that has always made an allegiance with the nation, from the American perspective, suspect at best. Oil-wealthy Middle Eastern nations, some of whom also profess to be American allies, have long-tapped Pakistan as a nation whose impoverished citizenry is poor, illiterate, and desperate enough to do its dirty work, and too often Pakistanis have been willing to oblige.
Even though U.S. troops were allowed to return to Pakistan in 2012, it was no secret why they were being allowed back. The Pakistanis needed more aid after an air base in the Hindu-Kush mountains was buried in snow, leaving both people and the base itself in need of rescue. Since then, the ‘alliance’ between America and the powder keg that is Pakistan have been on the rocks. Truthfully, it’s always been on shaky ground. Making matters shakier, the U.S. has increasingly embraced an emergent India, Pakistan’s mortal enemy. The agreement with Pakistan was an alliance of convenience and bartering, not of any genuine cultural overlap. The preeminence of Islamic extremism within the global landscape has only heightened these tensions.
If any president has been liable to light the fuse on the diplomatic powder keg, it’s Donald Trump, and that’s precisely what he did when he kicked off the New Year by issuing this Tweet:
"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 wasn’t wrong, and Pakistan took an undue amount of offense to the content of the message and the means by which the president issued it. Pakistan has waffled over the years in their commitment to American interests, as evidenced by the 2011 forced removal of U.S. troops, and even the more Islamic-friendly Obama administration made efforts to crystallize what Pakistan could do to hold up their end of the tentative alliance. Considering that the U.S. has gifted Pakistan an estimated $20.7 billion in aid since 2002 alone, it’s a fair request that they not continue to sponsor terror and take greater steps to root out extremism within its borders.
Though the U.S. has increased the number of drone bases in Pakistan since being re-admitted in 2012, it hardly seems to be an arrangement which warrants the $2 billion in aid that the Trump administration has now threatened to withhold should serious changes in Pakistan’s approach to extremism not be made. Just like any transaction or dollar spent, the service or item being given in return should be worth the value. With Pakistan, the price America has paid has not been commensurate with the returns, and at least according to Pakistan, they are ready to move on from what has been for them a financially fruitful allegiance, over a few Tweets and reasonable demands. The controversial ‘ally’ even poked America in the eye, releasing a cleric with ties to terror as the Trump feud was publically unraveling. There’s also been credible speculation that the nation will once again ramp up overt acts of terror against its rival and neighbor, India. This move reinforces the notion that Pakistan was never a true ally of the U.S., and that with the threat of their paychecks removed, they would shed all appearances of being a moderate nation with little hesitation.
But it’s not as simple as saying ‘good riddance’ from an American perspective. There is another world power waiting in the wings to fill our shoes, and China has made significant investments in Pakistan already. While China has long been an ally of Pakistan, there’s no doubt that Chinese financial investments and assurances have made it far easier for Pakistan to publically disavow the United States.
As part of China’s “One Belt Road” economic initiative, President Xi Jinping has given the go-ahead to increase investment in Pakistan, according to Newsweek.
‘The sparsely populated province of Balochistan, on the border with Iran and Afghanistan, has now taken center stage in China’s growing relationship with Pakistan and the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking China’s western city of Kashgar with Balochistan’s Gwadar Port, nestled 3,000 kilometers away on the Arabian Sea,’ notes a September 2017 report from the Howard Baker Center, a nonpartisan public policy center, located on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (Newsweek)
It has also been reported that China is building additional military bases in Pakistan, including one near Gwadar, which is not far from the Iranian border. While the U.S. had tenuous ties with Pakistan, they were ties nonetheless. And the recent announcement by Pakistan that they no longer consider America an ally not only drives Pakistan further toward China, but some other world powers with whom America has tenuous relations.
‘Pakistan has embraced China, the chief U.S. competitor for influence in Asia, which has a $55 billion infrastructure-building program in Pakistan. Islamabad has also developed better ties with other U.S. rivals: Iran, Russia and Turkey.’ (WSJ)
Further, Pakistan’s alienation is likely to affect America’s operations in Afghanistan.
‘Pakistan could retaliate to any such further deterioration of ties by cutting off the key supply route for the nearly 14,000 U.S. soldiers in landlocked Afghanistan, experts said.’ (WSJ)
While Pakistan was never a truly ally, even the mildest gestures helped prevent unmitigated expansion by nations whose collective goals are to compete with the U.S. for global influence, their long-term goals remaining unclear. America will save money should the rift continue to deepen, but they will lose whatever influence they had in a nation that seems eager and willing to embrace our greatest rival, China.
It’s a complex issue, but Pakistan’s ‘loyalty’ – and that is not even the right word – was likely not worth the future $2 billion investment we may now spend on fortifying more genuine allies in the region. For now, it appears that our peace with Pakistan ceases to exist, and the consequences of this alliance potentially lost will be China and potentially other world powers’ collective hegemonic gain.