When Donald Trump finally has his feet under the desk in the Oval Office and opens the files marked “Afghanistan” and “Pakistan,” he will find much to worry about.
Relations between Pakistan and India, which both have big nuclear arsenals, are in crisis. These days, their armies regularly trade shots along the Line of Control, the de facto border in disputed Kashmir — sometimes with fatal consequences.
Fears abound that Afghanistan could melt down into violent chaos that could spill beyond its boundaries.
Islamist militant groups that pose a global threat are establishing fresh roots in the region, despite a crackdown following the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Pakistan’s army has driven out the local Taliban from the mountains bordering Afghanistan, but other homegrown militants whom it uses as proxies in neighborhood conflicts are allowed to move freely.
This is not a region can safely be ignored by the world’s biggest superpower. Yet tackling this long list of problems (and there are others) is a mammoth task.
Policymakers in the region have little idea how the inexperienced Trump and his team will approach this, and are anxiously rooting around for clues.
Within Afghanistan’s government, concern is now sure to focus on whether Trump’s generally isolationist outlook will prompt him to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops now supporting Afghan security forces in their widening fight against the Taliban.
U.S. troops remain
President Obama has said he intends to keep 8,400 forces there until his term ends. If Trump pulls these out, many Afghans worry their government will collapse.
Although Trump has not said much in detail about foreign policy, he has made clear that he objects to American taxpayers’ money being squandered in faraway lands. He will find the record of massive, endemic corruption in Afghanistan particularly hard to swallow.
Pakistanis are bracing themselves for a rough ride. There is speculation that Trump, backed by a Republican-led Congress, will take a tougher line with the civilian and military leadership, focusing narrowly on U.S. security interests, and demanding tangible results in curbing jihadist activity if aid dollars are to continue to flow.
Trump may well demand that Pakistan finally acts decisively against all Islamist militant organizations operating from its soil, including the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and the anti-India jihadist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
This will likely go down badly within Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment. However, the country’s progressive minority has long been calling for these groups to be shut down.
“A blessing in disguise for Pakistan?” asked a front-page headline in the English daily Express Tribune over an article speculating that dealings with Donald Trump will be more transparent.
Pakistan tries to assess Trump
Once he gets down to work, Trump will swiftly discover that words matter greatly on the global stage and can easily backfire if they are not selected with care. Trump’s campaign threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States, albeit temporarily, will not be forgotten anywhere in the Islamic world.
“Very few would argue that Trump’s success is because of the overt racism present in his speeches or the misogynistic remarks that were uncovered later,” said an editorial in Thursday’s Daily Times. However, the paper described his election as “a commentary…on the tolerance for intolerance in the U.S. nation.”
Trump’s recent expressions of friendship with India also caused disapproving frowns in Pakistan. The U.S. has been tilting towards New Delhi for a long time — not least because it sees India as a counterweight to China. But any sign that this friendship is getting even cozier will stir alarm in Islamabad.
However, Pakistanis will have also taken note that Trump said in his acceptance speech that he wants to “get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.”
Pragmatism and self-interest defines everything. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent Trump an enthusiastic message of congratulation, saying his “momentous success” is a testimony to the confidence Americans have in his “leadership and vision,” and inviting him to Pakistan at the earliest opportunity.
This was further evidence that Islamabad’s relations with Washington, though marred by squabbles and suspicion, are remarkably durable. They survive because they have to.
U.S. concerns about key security issues — Afghanistan, Islamist groups, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the risk of an India-Pakistan war — mean that it must remain engaged. So, too, must Pakistan. While Islamabad attaches great importance to its deepening economic ties with neighboring China, it also fears being cold-shouldered and ignored by the West, and is reluctant to lose U.S. aid dollars. The U.S. has given billions to Pakistan, one of Washington’s top recipients of military aid and economic assistance.
Managing this relationship requires skill and guile on both sides. Can Trump do it? Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, thinks Trump’s inexperience in foreign affairs could work in the relationship’s favor, though “with troubling implications for U.S. interests,” he said.
“Trump may well take at face value the Pakistan military’s constant reassurances that the country is acting against all terror groups, even though we know this is untrue. Pakistan has been known to talk a big game with American interlocutors, and only the more seasoned U.S. diplomats and officials can separate the fiction from the reality,” he said.
“In effect, Pakistan knows how to play the Americans, and they really could play Trump well, to the point that he concludes Pakistan is doing all the right things on terror. This is why it’s critical that the Trump White House has knowledgeable foreign policy officials.”