When I saw US President Donald Trump tweeting (his first in 2018) about Pakistan, saying: “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,” the first thought that came to my mind was how the people of Pakistan would feel about it.
I saw the tweet in the morning of January 2 (Bangladesh time) and waited for the day to turn into dusk. At night, coming home, as I was browsing through the television channels, I spent some time on BBC, CNN, Euronews, Channel News Asia, NHK, NDTV, DW TV, and the like. I couldn’t find any reason to be glued to any particular channel on this issue.
Suddenly, still browsing, I came across PTV World, on which one Faisal Rehman was anchoring a talk show with three analysts as his guests. Faisal was a well-informed anchor; so were his guests -- Bashir Alo Mohamad, Dr Nazir Hussain, and Mr Rizvi. I didn’t get his full name, but he was possibly Pakistan’s UN ambassador in New York.
They were furious over the message that President Trump had sent across. They were angry and infuriated, expressing that the US president had said something disrespectful to Pakistan, a long-time friend of America.
It seemed that they hadn’t expected it -- suddenly, Pakistan looked like an enemy. They seemed to have been taken aback. They started revealing and criticising various facts about US-Pakistan relations on the show.
One point was common in the discussion that “Pakistan has sacrificed immensely for Washington for the last 60 years, and it’s time now for Islamabad to do some soul-searching” as far as “fighting somebody else’s war” was concerned.
On the following day, on the same show and same anchor, analysts such as Dr Zafar Nawaz Jaspal and Dr Riffat Hussain were ventilating similar anger. The show was discussing the same topic on the next day (January 4).
From the government to ISPR chief to Imran Khan to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to the strategic analysts to the people of Pakistan -- everyone looked extremely angry and termed the American president “ungrateful” for what Pakistan had done for that country.
Well, it’s quite difficult to fathom the equations and complexities of US-Pakistan ties from just one phase of tension between them, but it was obvious that their ego was shattered by the tweet. My Pakistani friends tell me that this wasn’t new in the relationship between them, but this time the people of Pakistan felt angry, but they were not disillusioned.
We’re getting various types of messages from Pakistani analysts and the media. Not being an international affairs expert but a common observer, what I saw was that, for the first time, I see everyone in that country in one page, expressing a common thought: Soul-searching.
However, this wasn’t the first time that America had publicly admonished Pakistan. It has been doing so for a long time. In 2011, US counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan publicly questioned Pakistani authorities over bin Laden’s whereabouts. President Bush had cut aid by 13% in 2008.
Then in 2009, the Obama administration increased non-military aid and continued military reimbursements, leading to unprecedented levels of assistance -- reaching over $2bn in 2011. But after the bin Laden episode, total assistance decreased by 64%.
This latest US diplomatic onslaught looks quite thought-provoking. Various possibilities come to mind when I think of President Trump’s latest diatribe at Pakistan.
This wasn’t the first time that America publicly admonished Pakistan. It has been doing so for a long time
The US, maybe, right at the moment, has tilted towards India; it has better strategic gains from India than it would have from Pakistan.
According to news reports, a new peace alliance involving China and Russia has slowly been gaining momentum; these countries are seeking connectivity through Afghanistan to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and others. The civil societies of Pakistan, China, and Iraq seem to have already reached a consensus on this.
This may have angered America, as it may have felt sidelined.
With China’s downward access to the Indian Ocean, Pakistan has been enjoying better strategic partner status of Beijing. Given this scenario, the US probably has been experiencing a widening gap between Washington and Islamabad. On the other hand, Pakistan and Iran ties are presently quite warm.
Having said that, I must say that the Pakistanis should have seen the latest attack coming. And it came. The entire month of December was full of messages from Washington.
In August last year, President Trump said: “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
That the US would withhold $255 million from Pakistan because of its failure to cooperate fully in America’s fight against terrorism had already been said in December.
At the end of December, CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned Islamabad that if it didn’t eliminate the alleged safe havens inside its territory, the US would do everything it could to destroy them.
At the beginning of December, Trump had asked Pakistan to take “decisive action” against terror groups operating within that country.
Vice President Mike Pence, during a surprise visit to Afghanistan just before the Trump tweet, once again warned that Pakistan has allegedly provided safe haven to terrorists for too long, but those days were over now, as his president has now “put Pakistan on notice.”
This was so far the harshest US warning to Pakistan since the beginning of the Afghan War more than 16 years ago.
So, the stage was set for them to be hit by Trump’s bombshell-tweet.
As I’m quite curious to see whether Pakistan really searches its soul after all this, and I’m also very eager to see whether this soul-search becomes a game-changer in its ties with America.
Well, if the game changes, fixing the wounds from a Pakistani point of view may take a while, as Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has just said on Thursday that the US was not a friend of Pakistan, and the country needed to revisit its ties with Washington.
Ekram Kabir is a story-teller and a columnist.