Pakistan: The Subtext of Trump's New Year's Tweet

4 MINS READJan 2, 2018 | 22:52 GMT
Forecast Update

In our 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that the U.S. administration would continue to increase pressure on Pakistan over the country's continued support for militants in Afghanistan. We also wrote, however, that Pakistan's need to prevent India from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan would cause it to continue offering support for the Taliban. Despite a harsh tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump and subsequent high-level meetings taking place in Pakistan, we maintain our analysis. 

An end to America's longest running war isn't getting any closer. The antagonism between the United States and Pakistan — the two most consequential foreign actors in Afghanistan — continues to grow. On Jan. 1, U.S. President Donald Trump fired off his first tweet of 2018, saying that the United States has received nothing but "lies & deceit" in return for the over $33 billion in aid it has provided to Pakistan over the past 16 years. Later that day, the White House announced it would continue withholding $255 million in foreign military financing that had been designated for Pakistan in 2016, but not delivered.

Both the tweet and the withheld funding are designed to punish Pakistan for its behavior in Afghanistan, where the United States has now been at war longer than anywhere else in its history. The United States has accused Pakistan of failing to take sufficient action against the militants on its side of the border, and thus beyond the reach of U.S. and NATO ground forces fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States highlighted its concerns over Pakistan in its latest National Security Strategy, suggesting their bilateral partnership cannot survive if Pakistan continues its strategy. Currently, Pakistan influences neighboring Afghanistan through militant proxies to ensure the country's government remains friendly to Pakistani interests and an arm's-length away from Indian influence.

But Pakistan is also responding to U.S. pressure. On Jan. 2, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and the chief of the country's army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, chaired a high-level meeting of officials under the National Security Committee to discuss Pakistan's response to Trump's tweet. The meeting is intended to show a unified front between the country's often bickering civilian and military leadership. The back and forth nature of international diplomacy makes it necessary for Pakistan to respond to the United States, regardless of whether Islamabad plans on abandoning its current strategy. After the meeting, the committee released a statement emphasizing Pakistan's sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and expressing dismay over Trump's comments.

Despite the hardened rhetoric, the two countries will likely continue to begrudgingly cooperate in 2018. Their relationship will continue sliding toward animosity, but neither side is interested in abandoning it. Washington knows it cannot wind down the war in Afghanistan without using Islamabad's influence to push the Taliban toward negotiations. Pakistan, for its part, doesn't want to face the global stigma of a diplomatic breach with the world's most powerful country, though its strategy of supporting militant proxies has already sullied Islamabad's reputation. Though Pakistan may threaten to take retaliatory measures of its own — such as restricting access to NATO forces transporting equipment through Pakistan into Afghanistan — it will take a gradual approach that will allow space for the relationship to fluctuate.

At the same time, Pakistan will increase its diplomatic outreach to China and Russia as part of a regional strategy to ensure it still has powerful friends it can rely on should its relationship with the United States continue to deteriorate. But regardless of how their relationship changes, the antagonism between Washington and Islamabad will give the war in Afghanistan little chance of slowing down in 2018. 

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