By Con Coughlin
It is not hard to understand why Pakistan has become the latest country to find itself the object of Donald Trump’s displeasure. Mr Trump, as Michael Wolff ‘s controversial book Fire and Fury makes clear, has a unique way of running the White House. And whatever you might think about the president’s unconventional practices, such as not commencing his working day until 11am and existing on a diet of cheeseburgers, the one indisputable quality he has brought to the presidency is his sharp business acumen.
Unlike so many politicians, whose instinctive judgments are all too often dulled by the constraints of the policy-making establishment, Mr Trump looks at issues in the same way he would a business proposition, with a cold and clinical appraisal of how to get the best possible deal for the American people.
We have seen him take this approach to North Korea where, by turning his back on more than two decades of failed American policymaking, he has got the rival leaders in Pyongyang and Seoul talking to each other for the first time in years – a feat that seemed inconceivable only a few months ago.
The president has adopted a similar policy with Iran, whose constant meddling in the affairs of neighbouring Arab states, as well as its support for numerous Islamist terror groups, is totally at odds with the spirit of the nuclear deal Tehran signed with the major world powers in 2015 on its controversial nuclear programme. So it should come as no surprise that Mr Trump is taking a robust approach to Washington’s problematic relationship with Pakistan. Reviewing the Pakistan brief with the cool logic of the business world, Mr Trump has reached the conclusion that Washington is simply not getting value for money from the estimated $35billion it has given the country during the past 15 years or so.
Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s decision to pick a fight with a country that is seen as pivotal to the success of US policy in central Asia has, predictably, alarmed many critics in Washington, particularly those interested in ridding neighbouring Afghanistan of Islamist terror groups such as the Taliban and al-qaeda. Without Pakistan’s support, or so the argument goes, the United States’ hopes of bringing political stability to Afghanistan after decades of civil war are unlikely to succeed.
There is, though, another side to this argument, one where Pakistan’s long history of double-dealing, alongside its well-documented association with the Taliban – which it helped to create – is seriously undermining Washington’s prospects for success. If Pakistan’s generals and intelligence chiefs – the primary beneficiaries of Washington’s largesse – were really serious about helping the United States to secure its goals, then why are they continuing to provide refuge to Pakistani-based terror groups, such as the infamous Haqqani network, as well as the Taliban and al-qaeda?
Seen in this light, Mr Trump’s decision to question the merits of an alliance that Washington has struggled to keep on an even keel for many years seems long overdue. It is not that long ago, after all, that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration made the very serious threat to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if it did not end its backing for groups like the Taliban. Nor have Americans forgotten that Osama bin Laden, al-qaeda’s terrorist mastermind, lived in hiding for several years just a mile away from a major Pakistani military base at Abbottabad before he was killed in a daring raid by US special forces in 2011. Both the Bush and Obama administrations did their best to turn a blind eye to Islamabad’s double standards in the interests of achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Maintaining access to the vital supply routes Pakistan provides to its landlocked neighbour was deemed more important than holding the country to account for its duplicity. In fairness to the Pakistanis, they have had their own war to fight against Islamist insurgents – the conflict is said to have claimed 50,000 Pakistani lives during the past decade – and Islamabad’s interests do not always easily elide with those of the US.
But such nuances are unlikely to make much of an impression on Mr Trump, who has clearly looked at the existing arrangement and decided he does not like what he sees.
Turning his back on Pakistan is not, of course, without risk. The job of stabilising Afghanistan becomes a lot more difficult without Pakistani cooperation, particularly if Islamabad closes the supply lines, as it has done in the past. But alienating Washington also poses serious risks for Islamabad. Pakistan’s most feared rival in the region is India, and in recent years it is only through American mediation that all-out war between the two countries has been avoided. But deprived of American goodwill, Pakistan would soon find itself isolated in any future confrontation with the region’s undisputed superpower.
(The author Con Coughlin is prominent British journalist and author and Defence Editor of Daily Telegraph, London. Coughlin on Twitter @concoughlin)