Outlining a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, U.S. President Donald Trump chastised Pakistan over its alleged support for Afghan militants – an approach analysts say will probably not change Pakistan’s strategic calculations and might push it in directions Washington does not want it to go.
Trump’s call for India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, in particular, will ring alarm bells for Pakistan’s generals, analysts said.
“Trump’s policy of engaging India and threatening action may actually constrain Pakistan and lead to the opposite of what he wants,” said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst.
Trump criticised Pakistan for providing “safe havens to terrorist organisations” and warned Islamabad it had much to lose by supporting insurgents battling the U.S.-backed Kabul government.
“It is kind of putting Pakistan on notice,” said Rustam Shah Mohman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Kabul, predicting a bumpy road ahead for relations.
Trump did resist some advisers’ calls to threaten to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism unless Islamabad pursued senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network.
“Pakistan should not be reassured by this speech, but it could have gone a lot worse for them,” said Joshua White, a National Security Council director under former President Barack Obama.
Successive U.S. administrations have struggled with how to deal with nuclear-armed Pakistan. Washington fumes about inaction against the Taliban, but Pakistan has been helpful on other counterterrorism efforts, including against al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.
The United States also has no choice but to use Pakistani roads to resupply its troops in landlocked Afghanistan. U.S. officials worry that if Pakistan becomes an active foe, it could further destabilise Afghanistan and endanger U.S. soldiers.
Daniel Feldman, a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama, said the Obama administration found it more effective to pressure Islamabad over safe havens “in private than in public, and to keep the long-standing Indo-Pak rivalry from playing out in Afghanistan”.
“There were voices within the administration who wanted to move more quickly and aggressively to declare Pakistan not just a problem, but effectively an enemy.”
In Washington, a senior administration official said on Tuesday that significant measures were under consideration, including possibly sanctioning Pakistani officials with ties to extremist organizations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan’s powerful military has not commented on Trump’s speech, but the day before it denied any militants had havens in the country.
The Pakistani government said Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif met with the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday and would speak in coming days with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “on the state of play in the bilateral relationship as well as the new U.S. policy on South Asia”.
Hussain, the security analyst, said Trump on Monday “crossed a red line” as far as Pakistan was concerned when he implored India to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have endured strain during the 16-year war in Afghanistan, especially after al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces inside Pakistan in 2011.
The Obama administration had already begun trimming military aid to Pakistan. Last year, the Pentagon decided not to pay $300 million in pledged military funding, and Congress effectively blocked a subsidised sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan.
Analysts say Trump is likely to further curtail military aid
to pressure Pakistan. But any effort to isolate Pakistan would face problems from China, which has deepened political and military ties to Islamabad as it invested nearly $60 billion in infrastructure in Pakistan.
China on Tuesday defended Pakistan after Trump’s remarks, saying its neighbour was on the front line in the struggle against terrorism and had made “great sacrifices” and “important contributions” in the fight.
Mohman, the former ambassador, said if the United States kept putting pressure on Pakistan, then Islamabad would drift farther from the American sphere of influence.
“We have options,” he said. “We can go to China and Russia, and I think the U.S. can’t afford that.”