AMERICAN impatience with China’s economic rise is quite evident in the recently launched tariff war by President Donald Trump. America has its own problems. Of these, fear of losing the mantle of sole superpower, out of own stupidities, is quite overwhelming. Hence, there is a sense of urgency, bordering panic, to stop the downslide. With this degree of desperation, direct and oblique pressure are being brought down to bear upon Pakistan from all directions to inflict punishment for joining China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The US has been contemplating a wide range of choices to make the things enduringly painful for Pakistan. Strategy is to incrementally and persistently pressurise Islamabad. Usual vehicles are counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and persecution of religious minorities. When trumpeted in orchestration, combination makes an attractive symphony for the American camp followers— especially the EU. And even if it does not, camp followers are any way supposed to fall in line.
Of now, the White House is weighing unprecedented penalties including revoking the country’s major non-NATO ally status, permanently cutting off military aid and imposing a visa bar on select Pakistani government officials resisting the US onslaught. However, there is no unanimity within the US policy circles with regard to the “tempo and scale” of such erratic measures. While some officials and military men favour pursuing an aggressive policy, others advocate caution. However, President Trump is continuously stuffing his team with hawkish guys and constituency of reason and prudence is shrinking fast. If Trump’s ‘Fire’ machine keeps its tempo, soon he would be sitting on top of the heap of likeminded trash.
For Pakistan, the omens are not good. With John Bolton and Mike Pompeo at the lead, adverse balance could soon “tilt” the discussion on Pakistan within Trump’s kitchen cabinet in favour of punitive measures. Indicators suggest that too hard a push may be in the offing—a multipronged squeeze to hit where all it could pain the most. In a sort of oblique pressure, on March 22, the US Bureau of Industry and Security, Commerce imposed sanctions on seven little known privately owned Pakistani companies, placing them on its “Entity List”, making it harder for them to operate in the US and do business with the US companies. These sanctions could complicate Pakistan’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an issue that Pakistan regards as its vital national interest. Pakistan’s foreign office responded: “We reject attempts by Pakistan’s detractors to exploit these listings to cast aspersions on Pakistan’s non-proliferation credentials.” America is known for making moves to block Pakistan’s entry into NSG and paving the way for India’s entry.
No one knows better than the US about Pakistan’s efforts in the area of export controls and non-proliferation as well as nuclear safety and security because the two countries have not only been engaged in regular talks on the subject but also have ongoing active cooperation; the US has extended substantial support to Pakistan in upgrading the relevant procedures and systems. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been expressing complete satisfaction over these measures.
Hence, there is absolutely no justification to subject private or public-sector entities of Pakistan to undue restrictions. Earlier the US went out of the way, by circumventing the procedure, to enlist Pakistan on Grey list on account of laxity of procedures and measure to prevent terror financing. The US has also placed Pakistan on watch list in the context of persecution of relegious minorities. On the eve of New Year Trump’s obnoxious anti-Pakistan tweets made headlines followed by severing of aid in the pipeline that may value up to US$ 2 billion: “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.” Contrary to tall claims, the US has not been very generous in providing the financial assistance to Pakistan. The US aid and assistance has been only limited to its strategic and political objectives. Substantial amount was recycled back through American NGOs, executing most of these projects. Despite his status as President of the US, Trump is suffering from the hangover of his previous job—a whimsical business tycoon—vested with absolute authority over his employees. He still behaves the same way, as is evident from the way he “fires” his key team members.
Latest meeting between the US Ambassador Alice Wells and Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary took place in Islamabad on March 29. This was her second visit to Pakistan in 2018. The aim of the visit was to review the entire gamut of bilateral relations and situation in Afghanistan. Indicators point towards a protracted unease in bilateral relations. The silver lining is that there are murmurings from within Trump Administration that cutting off aid to the country permanently would make it harder for Pakistan to access high-tech military hardware, hampering the fight against terrorism, bolstering militants and weakening a nuclear-armed nation.
Pakistan is also an important country as all roads to Afghan peace pass through Pakistan’s goodwill. Even mere stonewalling by Pakistan would make Afghan peace a bridge far away. Donald Trump has a casual relationship with the truth and a volatile relationship with anyone who disagrees with him. Safe projection is that Trump’s America is likely to continue hitting Pakistan where it pains the most. Billion-dollar question is: Does the US want peace in Afghanistan, followed by an honourable exit? Or, does it want a perpetually simmering Afghanistan to justify an open-ended deployment of its troops? Upcoming tempo of Pakistan-America equation would offer factual answer to real American intent.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.