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Insulting Pakistan Solves Nothing

Sahar Khan

President Donald Trump began 2018 by tweeting about Pakistan and withholding $255 million in aid until Pakistan
took decisive action against the Haqqani Network.
Pakistan reacted swiftly and angrily. On Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister
Khawaja Muhammad Asif stated that the United States is turning
Pakistan into a “whipping boy” and no longer sees the U.S. as an
ally.

Insulting Pakistan is unproductive, especially given that the U.S.
troops in landlocked Afghanistan depend on Pakistan for supplies. More importantly, Pakistan will
not simply change its policy of using jihadi groups just because Trump is
tweeting at them to do so or because the U.S. has decided to
withhold assistance. With the latest U.S. troop
surge to Afghanistan now complete, harsh words and short-sighted plans
are counterproductive to U.S. interests in the region.

This is not the first time Trump has called Pakistan out for
harboring militant groups. In August 2017, as the president
outlined his new strategy for Afghanistan, he
reprimanded Pakistan for continuously harboring terrorists. The
U.S. National Security Strategy, released in
December, stated, “We will insist that Pakistan take decisive
action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its
soil.”

While belligerent tweets
and cutting off aid may be popular with Trump’s base, they are
detrimental to diplomacy, which is essential if the administration
hopes to find a solution to America’s longest war.

So what was the point of Trump’s latest tweet, and will
depriving Pakistan of aid actually change its behavior?

Perhaps the tweet was simply impulsive: just another day with
another tweet in the life of the president. But singling out
Pakistan for harboring terrorists has two broad implications.

First, the Trump administration is in the process of expanding
U.S.-run counterterrorism operations within Pakistan – and without
Pakistan’s consent. Trump’s rhetoric mirrors that of President
George W. Bush, who famously stated “you are either with us or against us” after the Sept.
11, 2001 attacks. Trump’s message to Pakistan seems to be, “stop
harboring terrorists or we’ll come in and get them ourselves.”

Not only would this show careless disregard for Pakistan’s
sovereignty, but more significantly, it would simultaneously
jeopardize the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and
U.S.-Pakistan relations overall. Whether the United States want to
admit it or not, stability in Afghanistan is tied to Pakistan, and hence, the United States
needsPakistan, especially if it ever hopes to
withdraw its troops.

Second, singling out Pakistan for harboring terrorist groups
while remaining silent on Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of terrorism ignores
the role Saudi Arabia has had in Pakistan’s ability to sponsor
terrorist groups. Without criticizing Saudi Arabia, any U.S. action
to deter Pakistan from militant sponsorship will be useless.

Trump is not the first U.S. official to reprimand Pakistan or to suspend aid. The Obama
administration was constantly frustrated with Pakistan, and in 2016, withheld
$300 millionin military assistance and
reimbursements till Pakistan took strong actions against the
Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, actions that Pakistan has
deflected over time. The current aid cut is to foreign military financing, a grant that allows
countries to purchase U.S. defense equipment, services, and
training. That, however, has not been the most lucrative assistance program, so
cutting it may have little effect on Pakistan’s counterterrorism
policies.

Like past administrations, Trump continues to view Pakistan
through the lens of Afghanistan, and to some extent, is using
Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan. On the
other hand, Pakistan has not always been a reliable partner:
Pakistan’s continued support of the Haqqani Network and Afghani Taliban continues
to be constant source of tension in the U.S.-Pakistan
relationship.

The core problem of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, therefore,
is that each views the other as unreliable and a source of instability, an issue that that
president’s tweets and policies blatantly dismiss. With respect to
Afghanistan, U.S.-Pakistan tensions are rooted in their differing views on what a stable Afghanistan
would look like, and what role each of them will have in the
post-conflict (and potentially post-U.S. withdrawal)
environment.

The first step in building trust and encouraging transparency
between the two countries is to focus on practical actions and
logistics rather than attempting to persuade the other of the “correctness” of their point of
view
. In the past, quiet diplomacy, involving discretion and
behind-the-scenes interactions between officials has been the most
successful approach to finding common ground on counterterrorism
issues. Trump’s disdain for diplomacy and preference for a
military-centric approach, however, makes quiet diplomacy
improbable.

While belligerent tweets and cutting off aid may be popular with Trump’s
base, they are detrimental to diplomacy, which is essential if the
administration hopes to find a solution to America’s longest
war.

Sahar Khan is
a visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and
Foreign Policy Department.