ISLAMABAD: Pakistan angrily dismissed threats by US President Donald Trump to cut off aid as “completely incomprehensible” yesterday, in the latest diplomatic row to rock the shaky alliance between Washington and Islamabad over militancy. The “recent statements… by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly,” read a statement issued by the prime minister’s office after a meeting of the National Security Council. Trump’s comments “struck with great insensitivity” and “negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation”, it added.
The statement was the first formal comment from Pakistan since Trump lashed out on Monday, making Islamabad his inaugural Twitter target of 2018. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” Trump said. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Pakistan, which says it has lost more than 62,000 lives and $123 billion since 2003 in its war on extremism, disputed the $33 billion figure in the statement. “(T)he huge sacrifices made by Pakistan… could not be trivialized so heartlessly by pushing all of it behind a monetary value – and that too an imagined one,” it said. Foreign minister Khawaja Asif also mocked the figure on Twitter, suggesting Trump hire a US audit firm to check it “on our expense”. Trump’s words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but longtime ally China defended Pakistan.
Trump first hinted at cutting aid to Pakistan in an August speech charting his Afghan policy, and administration officials including Vice President Mike Pence have also intimated cuts in recent months. But the Pakistani statement said recent interaction with US officials had been “useful”, citing visits in recent months by Pentagon chief James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “robust and forward-looking”.
Observers said that without further information the tweet could just be more hot air between the allies, whose often fractious relationship has taken a nosedive under Trump. “Trump is in the habit of issuing hardline statements which only spoil the atmosphere and violate diplomatic niceties,” analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, adding that Pakistan should seek more information.
The statement came one day after US ambassador David Hale was called to the foreign ministry in Islamabad in a rare public rebuke. Neither US nor Pakistani officials have commented on what was said at the meeting. After the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, Washington forged a strategic alliance with Islamabad to help in its fight against militancy. But Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting militant groups including the Taleban, believed to have links to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment which aims to use them in Afghanistan as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India.
Islamabad has repeatedly denied the accusations, lambasting the US for ignoring the thousands who have been killed on Pakistani soil and the billions spent fighting extremists. Yesterday, China, which has stepped up a multi-billion dollar economic investment in Pakistan, spoke out in its defense, with a foreign ministry spokesman praising its “outstanding contribution to the global cause of counter-terrorism”.
Trump’s August speech, in which he accused Islamabad of harboring “agents of chaos”, triggered a series of high-level diplomatic meetings in the US and Pakistan. The Trump administration also told Congress it was weighing whether to withhold $255 million in earmarked aid to Islamabad over its failure to crack down more effectively on terror groups. But though Islamabad said yesterday that recent meetings had created a “better understanding”, it has given few signs of concessions since August.
Of foremost concern in the US is Islamabad’s attitude toward the powerful Haqqani network, whose leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy of the Afghan Taleban. The group, accused of some of the most lethal attacks on US forces in Afghanistan, has been dubbed a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence. For many years it found safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, however the military launched an operation there in 2014, and now insists it has eradicated all safe havens in the country.
For Pakistan, analyst Imtiaz Gul noted, the assumption is that archrival and fellow nuclear power India is fuelling Trump’s hostility towards Islamabad. India has long vied with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, and Trump and other administration officials have called on New Delhi to become more involved there – an idea that is anathema to Pakistan, which fears encirclement. “Now Pakistan’s first attempt will be to neutralize India’s narrative of Pakistan,” Gul said.
Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”. Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States. “We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.” Pakistani officials say tough US measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative. – Agencies