The Straits Times says

US, Pakistan shouldn't let ties crumble

It has been clear that United States President Donald Trump has had Pakistan in his cross hairs ever since he announced his Afghanistan policy last August. His first tweet of the New Year, which was a broadside against Islamabad, confirmed that the nation is indeed in severe disfavour with Mr Trump. The United States, he tweeted, had "foolishly" given Pakistan more than US$33 billion (S$43.6 billion) in aid and "they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!"

It is a worn-out cliche that while states have militaries, in Pakistan the military has a state. The Pakistani "deep state", which is led by the Inter-Services Intelligence, has been known to have strong connections to insurgent groups that target India's grip on Jammu and Kashmir state, as well as those battling the regime in Afghanistan. Mr Trump is not the first American to either recognise this, or threaten Pakistan over it. After the 9/11 attacks, according to former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, the US State Department's Richard Armitage called him to threaten that Pakistan would be bombed "into the Stone Age" if it did not cooperate in the war on terror. The message was not lost in translation; Osama bin Laden was subsequently hunted down in a garrison town of Pakistan.

US officials, who had been weighing the consequences of stern US action against the South Asian nation, were left scrambling to implement Mr Trump's threat after his tirade. The move is already having its impact: Islamabad has reportedly stopped sharing intelligence with the US. For the moment, it has not played its other cards, such as banning the US from using well-trodden overland routes to supply its troops in Afghanistan. That is probably meant to educate Mr Trump that the US-Pakistan relationship is too complex, and complicated, for him to unravel altogether.

Without question, Pakistan could do with a strong nudge to control the militant groups it favours in its strategy of balancing Indian power and influence in the subcontinent. Important as the developing US-India relationship is in the wider Indo-Pacific context, it also is important for the US to recognise that Pakistan, despite its wobbles, is a nation of mostly-moderate Muslims and it too has been a victim of terrorism.

To push such a country too hard may be counter-productive - who wants to see hardline Islamic parties, which have never won more than 15 per cent of the popular vote, get a fillip? Besides, Pakistan is important in its own right; a significant military power straddling a geopolitically critical region. That said, it is time the "establishment", as the Pakistani power elite is called, recognises that it has little to gain from alienating this blunt and outspoken American leader.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2018, with the headline 'US, Pakistan shouldn't let ties crumble'. Print Edition | Subscribe