Trump’s new Afghanistan policy upsets Pakistan
“President Trump wants to portray us as a villain despite the huge losses we have suffered in the so-called antiterrorism war,” said Hafiz Hamdullah, a conservative Muslim cleric and legislator. “Both India and the U.S. want to use Afghanistan against us. These charges of terrorist hideouts are just to destabilize Pakistan.”
Mian Raza Rabbani, the left-leaning chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, denounced Trump in similar terms. “No country in the world has done more than Pakistan to counter the menace of terrorism,” he declared. Invoking the “legacy of Vietnam,” he said that if Trump “wants Pakistan to become a graveyard for U.S. troops, let him do so.”
In tribal regions along the border, where U.S. drone strikes have killed hundreds of suspected militants and civilians, one crowd of tribesmen chanted, “Long live Pakistan.” In another spot, religious activists held up placards saying, “India, America and Afghanistan are conspiring against Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s National Se- curity Committee, which comprises top military and civilian officials, sharply rejected Trump’s charges of sheltering insurgents and demanded that the U.S. military “eliminate sanctuaries for terrorists” on the Afghan side. “The Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan,” the group declared.
Pakistani officials took other steps to show their unhappiness. They requested that a planned visit by Alice Wells, the senior State Department official dealing with the region, be indefinitely postponed. Pakistan’s foreign minister, who had been planning a trip to Washington, instead announced he would travel to China, Russia and Turkey.
Despite the hostile rhetoric, there were signs that U.S.-Pakistan relations are far from collapsing. Over the past few weeks, several low-profile meetings were held between current and former officials from both governments to discuss how to keep relations on an even keel.
Pakistani newspapers ran headlines that blasted Trump as a hectoring bully but also published nuanced commen- taries calling for pragmatism and patience. The editors of Dawn, the country’s most influential daily paper, counseled that “there is still space and time for constructive dialog. A strategic rupture is in neither the U.S. nor Pakistan’s interest.”
For Pakistan, the issue of militant sanctuaries is a familiar one; both of Trump’s immediate predecessors pressed Pakistan to crack down on them but did not take harsh measures, especially because Pakistan was cooperating in the broader anti-terrorism war. This time, though, Pakistani officials are said to be far more worried that Trump, an unpredictable leader, may follow through.
“Trump’s threats are real . . . Madness on our doorstep has already arrived,” commentator Syed Talat Hussain wrote in The News International on Monday. He suggested that if Trump, “an ignoramus addicted to creating sensation,” ordered a drone strike in Pakistani territory — as opposed to the border tribal areas — it could “get us embroiled in a war with the U.S. This is deadly serious business.”
Pakistanis have been even more deeply rattled by Trump’s warm embrace of India, where the current prime minister is an ardent Hindu nationalist and Indian army troops have been waging an aggressive, monthslong campaign against Muslim protesters in the disputed Kashmir region.
Pakistan has long pursued influence in Afghanistan largely as a foil to India, a larger and more powerful rival, only to see New Delhi become a major benefactor of the American-backed government in Kabul.
“Trump’s comments about India were more unsettling for Pakistanis than his threats to Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The U.S. calling for a deeper Indian footprint in Afghanistan sets off alarm bells across Pakistan. It will cause very real fear.”
A few Pakistani voices here have called for a rethinking of Pakistan’s efforts to influence Afghanistan, noting this has created a burden on its resources and a spillover of Islamist radicalization.