India is celebrating President Trump’s latest declaration, via twitter, denouncing Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” and rueing the “more than $33 billion… foolishly” provided as aid over the past decade and a half. Of course, Trump’s divergent and often contradictory tweets are not a particularly reliable basis for policy assessment or prediction. Indeed, in October 2017, Trump saw fit to tweet, “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts.” But Trump’s New Year message reinforces a long term trend of hardening attitudes in the US policy establishment, particularly evidenced by the refusal of the Secretary of Defence to certify that Islamabad had done enough to counter terrorism, especially by the Haqqani Network which operates in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil, resulting in the withholding of USD 255 million in aid. It is now unlikely that Pakistan will see this money, or the USD 345 million earmarked for aid to Pakistan in year 2018. Indeed, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley asserted in the Security Council, “The President is willing to go to great lengths to stop all funding to Pakistan as they continue to harbour and support terrorism.” Crucially, several top US officials have, over the past years, repeatedly testified that Pakistan has close connections with terrorist formations, including those acting against US and Coalition Forces, as well as against the Afghan National Security Forces, in Afghanistan.
The US relationship with Pakistan has long been mutually exploitative and opportunistic, but is clearly no longer serving the US interest. Indeed, the US had considered declaring Pakistan a state supporter of terrorism as far back as in 1993, but has vacillated continuously since, paralysed, on the one hand, by transient interests – particularly transit facilities through the country for supplies to Afghanistan since 2002 – and, on the other, by the self-inflicted nightmare of a rogue nuclear state ‘leaking’ weapons of mass destruction to its terrorist proxies, or ‘losing control’ over its deadly stockpile as the state progressively weakened or collapsed under Islamist extremist assault. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission had noted, “Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan”, and wondered what would happen “if the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons?” Over time, however, the US establishment appears to have moved gradually to the position that Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail will have to be confronted, even as the impunity with which it has deployed terrorism as an instrument of state policy must be brought to an end.
There have been several progressive moves to isolate Pakistan over the past years, and a growing closeness to the Indian perspective. These include the December 2017 meeting at Delhi on the joint designation of terrorists and terrorist organisations, and increasing intelligence sharing and case by case counterterrorism operational coordination over the past years. It is significant, moreover, that Washington has brought a number of India-directed terrorist formations located in Pakistan into its categorization of international terrorist organisations, and these include the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, Indian Mujahiddeen, among others. Indeed, some of these designations date as far back as 1997 – well before they were declared terrorist organisations by India.
Foreign policy establishments are, however, fundamentally conservative and unlikely to translate intention into effective action with any great alacrity. In any event, Pakistan is not Washington’s only problem. A far more unstable adversary in nuclear armed North Korea will likely be a much higher priority. Moreover, Washington is now deeply embroiled in multiple and sanguinary conflicts across West Asia, and there are indications that new theatres in the region will likely add to US headaches – at least some of them as a result of America’s own brinkmanship. It is unlikely that Washington will be particularly eager to open up another and major theatre by taking any direct punitive action against Islamabad in the foreseeable future, beyond the withholding of aid.
Within Pakistan’s flawed calculus, the withholding of US aid will not have any decisive impact on Pakistan’s future (and by implication, its sustained strategy of support to terrorism), as this can purportedly be offset by a deepening relationship with Beijing. While this premise continues to underpin state policy, however, a number or Pakistani intellectuals and experts acknowledge that the relationship with China has its own implicit dangers, chief among which are a mounting debt trap, a creeping colonisation of Pakistan’s territories, and a progressive loss of sovereignty. China has been a far from generous collaborator in its various ‘partnerships’ across the world, and demands its pound of flesh for every concession given or service rendered. Nevertheless, euphoria on the potential of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and China’s continuing and largely unambiguous support to Islamabad at the UN and other international fora, continues to drive leadership attitudes both in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Gradually, and with an incorrigible leadership in Pakistan, it is likely that US punitive measures will go beyond the withholding of aid, to comprehend wider sanctions, the declaration of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, and potentially direct action against terrorists and their backers on Pakistani soil. It is not possible to predict a timeline for these developments, and this uncertainty is enormously amplified by Trump’s impulsiveness and instability. The US-Pakistan relationship appears already to have passed the point of no return, and it is unlikely that Islamabad will be able to lie its way out of its present predicament, as it has done repeatedly in the past.
For India, much of this is good news. But it would be foolish to rely on the strategic efficacy or commitment of others. World affairs today are unfolding on shifting sands, and there is an enveloping ambiguity around all alliances and outcomes. While New Delhi may well hope to benefit from the fallout of Washington’s foreign policy, the absence of a strategy of its own, backed by an acceptable quantum of resources, will leave India vulnerable to every change in the winds.