How about an audit Mr Trump?

Pakistan gives measured response to US president's tweet

How about an audit Mr Trump?
It would be an understatement to say that 2018 got off to a rocky start for Pakistan. We had hardly heaved a sigh of relief that a stormy 2017 had ended when a tweet by President Trump left the entire country seething for being wrongfully characterized as cheats.

Trump is an expert at annoying others on Twitter. He has done this with other countries and their leaders and will continue to. Only a day after his ‘No more’ anti-Pakistan post, he followed up with another inane tweet, saying, “It’s not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing, but also many other countries, and others.” Was he trying to lower the intensity of insult felt in Pakistan or was he trying to tell us that many others were also defrauding his country? Whatever the case may be, Trump is reckless, impulsive, intolerant, insensitive and his world view is hollow.

But, importantly Trump’s tweets, beyond an expression of anger within himself, provide a valuable insight into the thinking prevailing in his administration, which is anyway contemplating a number of adverse measures against Pakistan – a wider scope of which would become clearer in the coming days. It was this particular aspect that seemingly worried the Pakistan government more. The tweet, it shouldn’t be missed out, came against the backdrop of growing chatter of ‘unilateral action’ by the US on its territory. Otherwise it was the third time that Trump had repeated the same allegation of Pakistan taking billions of dollars and not doing the needful. He did this while announcing the policy on South Asia and Afghanistan and then while unveiling his administration’s National Security Strategy document.

The concern over “unilateral action” in Rawalpindi and Islamabad is real. Inter-Services Public Relations Director-General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had last week underscored this saying: “We are getting signals of a unilateral action from America.”

Within hours of Trump’s tweet, emergency meetings of the federal cabinet, corps commanders, and the National Security Committee (NSC) were convened and US Ambassador David Hale was summoned to the Foreign Office. The cabinet meeting was, however, later put off, probably out of realization that the NSC, which includes both top civil and military leadership, was a more relevant forum for deliberating the issue.

Luckily, better sense prevailed and the NSC avoided being drawn into a crisis. “Despite all unwarranted allegations, Pakistan cannot act in haste and will remain committed to playing a constructive role towards [the] Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” the committee resolved through consensus.

Pakistan had leverage, which it could have opted to use. This included blocking the coalition’s land supply routes into Afghanistan known as ‘Ground Lines of Communication’, but it did not. Doing so would have added to America’s woes in Afghanistan given their tense relations with Iran and Russia and the high cost of hauling supplies via the Northern Route passing through Central Asia.

It’s worth recalling that Pakistan had been providing the transit facility to US-led NATO free of cost and could have well earned billions had it gone for levying a fee. The NSC, therefore. rightfully reminded the US that the transit facility was Pakistan’s contribution to the international effort in Afghanistan.

The statement issued after the meeting recapped for Trump the causes behind the international community’s “collective failure” to restore peace in Afghanistan and recalled the sacrifices made in the fight against terrorism by noting that those (sacrifices) “could not be trivialized so heartlessly by pushing all of it behind a monetary value – and that too an imagined one.”

While Trump has been ranting about $33 billion given in aid to Pakistan over the past 15 years and a large share of which includes the reimbursements made under the Coalition Support Fund for the cost incurred by Pakistani armed forces for actions taken in support of the coalition fighting militancy in Afghanistan, the Pakistani position has been that it had suffered 62,421 casualties, including over 6,000 troops and in terms of economic costs lost $123 billion in this fight. The Pakistani contributions, it is said are not being acknowledged when abuses are hurled at it like Trump’s New Year message for Pakistan.

These hard statistics may not be good enough for the Americans to understand what Islamabad is saying, but Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has probably articulated it better. The foreign minister offers Trump to “hire a US-based audit firm on our (Pakistani) expense to verify this ($33b) figure and let the world know who is lying and deceiving.”

Behind-the-scenes damage control by the State Department after the Trump tweet reportedly prevented escalation to a full-blown diplomatic crisis. But Pakistani leaders should not lose sight that the core problem – the divergence over the presence of alleged terror sanctuaries, which predates the Trump presidency – is very much there and an eventual solution has to be found. One could start with a bit of introspection over what our leaders, out of their short-term considerations, have committed to the US in the past even though it is both convenient and politically correct to blame the US for its overbearing attitude.

Correcting mistakes may not be easy, but lessons can be learnt for the future and one such moral is that transparency in external relations must be ensured. Right now we are even averse to a parliamentary ratification of the international agreements that we commit ourselves to. That has to change if we are to spare ourselves blushes.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at @bokhari_mr