Pakistan's hardliners get an election boost from Trump

President Donald Trump's first Twitter tirade of 2018 may have let off pent-up frustration about Islamabad but it does nothing to serve US interests, and has ironically given a boost to Islamist radicals in Pakistan.

His outburst was not unsurprising; senior administration officials have disclosed months before that Washington was unhappy about what it saw as Pakistan's lack of cooperation in its fight against terrorists.

And shortly before the tweet, the New York Times said senior US officials were angered by Pakistan's refusal to grant access to a captured member of the Taleban-linked Haqqani network.

Still, the fury in Mr Trump's tweet stung : "The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the past 15 years, and it has given us nothing but lies and deceit... It gives safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!"

America's aggressive new attitude towards Islamabad will have multiple ripple effects.

First, it is likely to push Islamabad further into Beijing's and Moscow's sphere of influence.

Supporters of banned Islamic charity group Jamaat-ud-Dawa burning a US flag during a protest in Karachi on Tuesday. US President Donald Trump's recent critical tweet of Pakistan will stoke support for hardline Islamist groups in the country and give them political legitimacy, says the writer. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Second, given the complex realities of Pakistan's domestic politics, which directly influence the country's foreign policy, it will make any future efforts at rapprochement between the two countries extremely difficult.

What Mr Trump has done - via the tweets and threatened cuts in aid - is aggravate an already entrenched anti-Americanism in Pakistan. As it is, liberals, nationalists and far-right conservative forces share a variety of misgivings towards the US.

What Mr Trump has done - via the tweets and threatened cuts in aid - is aggravate an already entrenched anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

As it is, liberals, nationalists and far-right conservative forces share a variety of misgivings towards the US.

Liberals blame Washington's traditional policy of supporting military regimes for undermining civilian institutions in Pakistan.

Far-right conservative forces have been indoctrinated to the world view that America's foreign policy is focused on undermining the expansion of Islam worldwide. According to this view, containing Pakistan, which is the world's only Islamic nuclear power, remains a central part of US policy.

Other nationalist forces in the country, and political and military elites, believe that Washington remains an unreliable ally which views Pakistan solely in the role of a "proxy state" that is needed to fix America's security problems in the region.

In the aftermath of Mr Trump's public criticism, heightened hostility towards the US is also likely to feed into Pakistan's deep-rooted paranoia about India.

Policymakers in Islamabad consider India an implacable enemy which is using its relationship with the US to isolate and undermine Pakistan internationally.

Pakistan's traditional India-centric security and foreign policies have already caused the US and Pakistan to differ on a number of key regional security priorities. In the past, Pakistan has used various proscribed militant organisations as part of its security policy to counterbalance or neutralise India's influence in the region.

While Pakistan has been working to rein in these groups domestically, generally, the country does not see them as part of its militancy problem.

Moreover, these groups retain substantial support in the country, making it hard for the authorities to fully crack down on them without inviting a dangerous backlash.


What Mr Trump's tweet has achieved is to make that job even harder by stoking support for hardline Islamist groups and giving them political legitimacy.

And it will only get worse. With Pakistan headed for a general election in July, Mr Trump has given far-right Islamist groups additional ammunition for their ani-US propaganda drive and to step up pressure on the government to cut ties with Washington.

A number of these extremist groups have been making efforts to rebrand themselves as political parties. In recent by-elections, they have found that bashing the US and the West are effective vote-winners. If Islamist political parties - which already have considerable street support - win even more seats in the next election, then they will not only be even more empowered to promote their radical ideologies but also make it almost impossible for any attempts to mend ties with the US.

From Pakistan's perspective, Washington remains fixated on finding a solution to its own security challenges while having total disregard for its regional security concerns and domestic constraints.

It is unclear how destabilising a nuclear-armed state economically or otherwise furthers Washington's interests in the region.

Pakistan is only going to use its growing alienation from the US to deepen its ties with China, Russia and perhaps Iran as well.

Whatever its domestic challenges, Pakistan remains a major player in South Asian political and security affairs, and public twitter tongue-lashings and aid cuts will only serve to lessen US leverage over it.

• The writer is a lecturer with the Forman Christian College University in Pakistan and a correspondent for The Diplomat magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline 'Pakistan's hardliners get an election boost from Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe