Trump’s Opportunity in Pakistan

An open letter to US President Donald J. Trump

Dear President Trump,

As you prepare to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 22, you have a grand opportunity to reset this fractious misalliance so that it no longer remains an unhappy marriage between unequal partners. You can help change it from merely a transactional relationship focused on the US exit from the failed conflict in Afghanistan, to a strategic one covering not just Pakistan but also greater South Asia, opening a large market for US goods and services, and creating a democratic bulwark against autocracies and religious zealotry.

The key to this is connecting with the Pakistani people not just making deals with their leadership. You must understand and address Pakistan’s economic and security needs, as well as its legitimate regional interests.

Like you, Prime Minister Khan is a political disrupter with a message of change. After twenty-three years in the political wilderness, building a reputation as a social dreamer who set up a successful cancer hospital, he upended Pakistan’s dynastic political system in 2017. He energized Pakistan’s dominant and burgeoning youth to come out and vote. And, with alleged  help from his military supporters in key districts that taint his democratic credentials, he managed to sweep the polls at the center and form coalitions in key provinces. 

He has announced a battle against corruption and is attempting to revive Pakistan’s flagging economy, although his fledgling and fractured government is running into headwinds. The United States has begun to help him by bringing in financial aid from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, and Khan has been bolstered by the discipline these funds require. 

Reviving bilateral US aid and trade will further help Khan’s effort to jumpstart the Pakistani economy, which is in dire straits. Foreign currency reserves and foreign direct investment have been falling. The tax system is in a shambles, as barely one million people out of a population of over 200 million pay their income tax. More than 23 million children are not enrolled in school

Despite its economic challenges, Pakistan has a large military (similar in size to the United States Army), equipped with nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems. It faces a huge and hostile neighbor to the east in India and an existential threat of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy at home. Pakistan fears India’s growing and hostile influence in Afghanistan. It is challenged by an insurgency in its Western Marcher regions from militants who now use Afghanistan as a base, after Pakistan cleared most of the terrorist bases and training camps in its western Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

 All these fears have led Islamabad closer to China, its neighbor and friend since the 1960s. 

You cut $300 million of US aid to Pakistan in September 2018 and have even withheld the $800 million Coalition Support Funds reimbursements owed to Pakistan for its counterterrorism operations. Don’t stiff the Pakistanis. You were told that Pakistan had not done anything for the United States, but were not told that since 2000 64,000 Pakistanis perished fighting terrorism, including more than 20,000 civilians and more than 7,000 security personnel. Pakistan’s officer-to-soldier fatality ratio is one to ten, and includes general officers too. (Data from  former army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for my new book The Battle for Pakistan, forthcoming Penguin Random House August 2019The economic cost of Pakistan’s war against terrorism is estimated at more than $126 billion

Additionally, some $2 billion of US development assistance under the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar-Berman program lies undisbursed due to inadequate Pakistani preparations and haphazard approach to development financing by the US Agency for International Development during the Obama administration. There is enough blame to go around, but Washington must now re-assess its assistance to Pakistan. 

It is time to rebuild your relationship with a critical Muslim power that straddles the Middle East and South Asia, by avoiding the mistakes of your predecessors. Leave Afghanistan, but ensure that Kabul gets the economic aid that will guarantee it can sustain its progress in improving its security and society. Former US President Barack Obama went in to defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda. Once that was done, he dithered, allowing many different wars to continue within Afghanistan, run by different segments of his government. The “necessary war” became an unending one. 

Both he and former US President George W. Bush changed generals at a speed that defied all military logic. Since 2001, the United States and its allies had eighteen commanders in Afghanistan. Not a great way to fight a war. US ambassadors in Kabul also were zipping through a revolving door.  Mission creep took over and a publicly announced withdrawal date by Obama at West Point on December 1, 2009 gave sustenance to the Taliban insurgents. 

You did the right thing to give Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad the remit to foster dialogue among the Afghans to come up with a fresh balance of power. Khalilzad has adopted a regional approach, including seeking Pakistan’s help in getting the Taliban to the table. Whatever deal he hammers together will not be perfect, but then it will be up to the Afghans to make it work. 

Afghanistan may well be the immediate issue that brings you and Prime Minister Khan together. He is bringing his army chief and intelligence chief along to Washington to ensure that what you hear is a joint statement from both poles of power inside Pakistan, especially as the military traditionally calls the shots on security and key foreign policy issues. 

Declaring the Balochistan Liberation Army a terrorist group does Pakistan a favor. They have returned it by arresting yet again Hafiz Saeed, who you have declared a terrorist.  Next may be the release of Dr. Shakeel Afridi by Pakistan for his role in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and may be release by you of Dr. Afia Siddiqui for allegedly trying to attack the US military in Afghanistan.  

You can move to a higher plane in this relationship, by showing the Pakistani people the benefits of healthy engagement with the United States. Allow Pakistan’s superb entrepreneurs to benefit from trade within their region and with the United States. Help Islamabad build the infrastructure and software needed for the woefully underfunded education and health sectors in Pakistan. Assist Pakistan but make it responsible for equitable and productive economic investments. Help construct the critical road and rail networks that China has left unfinished. A major opportunity to leave a lasting US legacy beckons. 

Isolating Pakistan would be a blunder. Help construct the critical Western road and rail economic corridor from the north of Pakistan through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that the Chinese did not undertake. Connect a tributary from Afghanistan. These will become lasting symbols of the US investment in Pakistan, like the famous Mangla and Tarbela Dams and the great educational institutions and economic planning bodies that America helped set up in the earlier decades of our friendship. Use your moral persuasion and links to the leadership connections in the region to open direct and unhindered trade between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And finally, reopen the hastily broken links between the US with and the Pakistani militaries by restarting  and expanding the International Military Education and Training Program, through which was previously  training over 200 officers a year in recent years. You could enhance these training opportunities by adding attachments with US military units. This approach, used by the Europeans, builds person-to-person ties and a deeper understanding of each other between Pakistanis and Americans.

You may have been told of polls showing that a majority of Pakistanis consider the United States a threat to Pakistan. You were not told that the same polls indicate that a landslide majority of Pakistanis want better relations with the United States. 

You can lay the foundation for those better relations now on the basis of mutual trust, honor, and respect, rather than threats and hostile rhetoric.

Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. His new book The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood (Penguin Random House) is due in late August.