While observers point to similarities in the rise of Donald Trump and Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, that’s where they end as relations between the US and Pakistan enter into a serious period of political uncertainty.
The Trump administration recently froze some $255 million in aid to Pakistan for continuing to harbor “terrorists” – in this case, Afghan Taliban, which was created years ago by Pakistan’s military intelligence, Inter-Service Intelligence, (ISI). In this year’s Pakistani election, ISI apparently supported the former cricket player and playboy, Khan – who is known for his anti-American rhetoric.
In the past, Khan has been very vocal in his opposition to US efforts to strike terrorist operations by drones inside Pakistan. His criticism has extended to any US efforts to link foreign aid to Pakistani cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. The cut-off of aid suggested that the Trump administration was holding Khan to the same criteria for continued assistance as previous US administrations have required of previous Pakistani governments.
This became apparent in a State Department comment following the election of Khan. The Trump administration said that it expects Khan to do more against “externally-oriented terrorist groups,” namely the Afghan Taliban.
“We have expressed our concern over the fact that terrorist proxy groups continue to be able to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan,” the State Department’s Alice Wells said. “We are urging the government to do more to bring pressure to bear against these organizations and externally-oriented terrorist groups.” Wells is the head of the South and Central Asian bureau at the State Department.
Wells made clear that “externally-oriented terrorist groups” not only included the Afghan Taliban but also the Haqqani Network, an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban, as well as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, both of which also operate inside India.
The primary issue between the US and Pakistan revolves around the status of the Taliban in Afghanistan which continues to attack, almost with impunity, the heart of the US-created Afghan government as well as remote regions of the country. Since the Taliban’s near-elimination in October 2001, the US diverted its attention to Iraq, causing the Taliban to reemerge to the point that the insurgent group today occupies more than 50 percent of Afghanistan.
While the neocons, particularly the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, welcomed the sanctioning of Pakistan, this latest action against Pakistan reflects a lack of fundamental geostrategic thinking at the highest levels of the Trump administration.
Even before Khan’s election, Russia immediately filled the political and military void which has been created as a result of increased tension between Washington and Islamabad. Such concerns have now resulted in the US freezing military assistance, which included anti-terrorism training. Moscow’s increased assistance has included training in counterterrorism, and Russia has been conducting joint military exercises with Pakistan despite years of discord between the two countries.
Despite Haley’s announcement of suspending assistance to Pakistan, Khan signaled a willingness to work with the US. Some commentators suggest the overture may be a reflection of a potential relationship with Trump that would be more personality-driven, such as the one Trump experienced upon meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to whom weeks earlier Trump had referred as “rocket man.”
Both Khan and Trump are unconventional leaders, neither of whom are career politicians and have led an extravagant lifestyle and each, in his own way, exhibit a certain charisma.
“As a new prime minister, Khan will politically benefit from such grandstanding against an unpopular United States,” said Shamila Chaudhary, who served as director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council. She was referring to Khan’s previous anti-American rhetoric and the “bluntness” in his political speeches, similar to that which Trump has exhibited in his political statements. According to Chaudhary, both Khan and Trump make politically blunt statements for public consumption, showing a “fearlessness of the implications” of what is said.
“But the bones of the relationship will suffer,” she said. “Should the two countries go down this path, bureaucrats in their respective governments will have to work extra hard to keep the relationship intact behind the scenes but with little hope of policy progress.”
Since being elected, Khan has also reached out to India and offered to start a dialogue over long-simmering disputes, such as Kashmir. Remember, both are nuclear powers and for years have been at odds, resulting in numerous border confrontations between the respective militaries. It’s a prime reason Pakistan created the Taliban and other jihadist groups in the first place.
In response to Khan’s offer, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi similarly expressed a desire for talks. Khan has expressed interest in the two countries coming to grips with the dire poverty that pervades in South Asia and to undertake new trade agreements.
In pursuing a hardline stance against Pakistan, the Trump administration, unlike its counterparts in the Kremlin, has failed to notice the subtle geopolitical shifts over time – shifts away from a US-led world order. This emergence is taking place in the East where the rise of an alternative world order now favors countries such as Turkey – which is at loggerheads with the US – along with Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.
Much of this evolving shift was accelerated by Trump dropping out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iranian nuclear agreement, causing countries which trade with Iran to decide whether they will side with the United States and the dominance it wields has over the Western world order, or team up as a group.
Much of the framework for such an alternative world order is emerging with the combination of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s One Belt/One Road Initiative, along with the potential expansion of the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRICS, comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Now, Turkey wants to join as well, which will create its own set of geopolitical issues for the US and NATO.
And this is where the Trump administration has missed the boat in looking at the world as it is, rather than the way the neocons wish it to be as they pursue an agenda for a universality of American domination.
As one retired general recently told this writer, we should not look at the world through the prism of ideology but through the prism of reality. Clearly, the neocons haven’t got the memo.
What is emerging is a multi-polar world order which seeks an alternative to relying on the dominance of the US dollar in international business transactions and recognizes the importance of different cultures and political systems under a new economic vision.
This observation was underscored by former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke in Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, titled ‘As Trump ‘goes nuclear’ against Iran and China, what’s next?’
Crooke pointed out that multipolarity is in direct opposition to Western universalism.
“It is not anti-Western per se, but it is directly opposed to the Western utopian projects that have attempted to slice all that is human down to a ‘single size fits all’, model society.”
Crooke said the “the Russian Eurasian notion” is of different cultures,“autonomous, and sovereign, that precisely denies universality and hegemony, in principle.”
“The idea rather, is of a grouping of ‘nations,” each reaching back to its primordial cultures and identities – i.e. Russia being ‘Russian’ in its own ‘Russian cultural way’ – and not being coerced into mimicking the Westernization impulse,” he said. “What makes such a wider grouping feasible is that cultural identities are complex and storied,” he said. “It escapes the prevailing obsession to reduce every nation to singularity in value, and to a single ‘meaning’. The ground for collaboration and conversation thus widens beyond ‘the either-or’.”
And this is the lesson Haley and the entire Trump administration’s national security team, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have not learned. Besides Pakistan and even India, the Trump administration is sanctioning half of the world, including Turkey, Russia, China, Iran, and the European Union, among other countries.
Now, spurred by the US dropping out of the Iran nuclear deal even though Iran was in compliance with the agreement, these countries are rebelling against American universalism, further isolating the US from the rest of the world.