The U.S. presidential election has finally made it to Pakistan, where a top leader issued a blistering statement Monday accusing GOP front-runner Donald Trump of being “ignorant” for demanding the release of a doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In a statement, Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan said “the government of Pakistan and not Mr. Donald Trump” will decide the fate of Shakeel Afridi, who has been held in a Pakistani prison for five years after he worked with the CIA to pinpoint bin Laden’s hideout.
Khan was referring to comments Trump made Friday on Fox News. In that interview, Trump said if elected president he would use the weight of the presidency to force Pakistan to free Afridi, who remains held on vague charges.
"I think I would get him out in two minutes," Trump said. "I would tell them, 'let him out,' and I'm sure they would let him out."
Khan responded that Afridi is a “Pakistani citizen, and nobody” including a President Trump “has the right to dictate to us about his future.”
“Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America,” Khan said. “He should learn to treat sovereign nations with respect.”
Despite considerable tension following the U.S. military raid that killed bin Laden, relations between Pakistan and U.S. leaders have generally been on the upswing. It’s also rare for Pakistan’s government to wade into American politics, but it’s clear that Trump has touched a nerve in Islamabad.
Khan’s statement was unusually pointed, even suggesting that the United States has not given Pakistan enough foreign aid for its role in fighting terrorism. Since 2001, the Pentagon has reimbursed the Pakistani military $13 billion for its counterterrorism efforts. When he was in the Senate, Secretary of State John F. Kerry also helped appropriate several billion dollars in humanitarian aid.
But Khan said the “peanuts" that the United States has given Pakistan "should not be used to threaten or browbeat” the country “into following Mr. Trump’s misguided vision of foreign policy.”
“Pakistan is a country which has suffered much, and the cost it had to pay in supporting the U.S. over the years has been mind-boggling,” Khan said. “Mr. Trump’s statement only serves to show not only his insensitivity, but also his ignorance about Pakistan.”
In many ways, Khan’s statement appeared to be a preemptive strike against one of the central tenets of Trump’s apparent foreign policy. On the campaign trail, Trump has been rallying his supporters by warning he will use the threat of reduced foreign aid or American investment to force policy changes or, in the case of Mexico, build a border wall.
Such a stance could hit Pakistan particularly hard considering past diplomatic tussles between Washington and Islamabad over issues ranging from Afridi’s case to questions about whether Pakistan is a friend or foe in the war in neighboring Afghanistan. In his interview on Fox, Trump also said he would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan so they could keep close watch on Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Khan’s statement also comes as frustration is building within the Pakistani military over objections in Congress to the sale of eight new F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan.
More than anything, Khan’s tough words toward Trump apparently reflect a widely held view in Pakistan that U.S. voters are highly unlikely to make Donald Trump the next U.S. commander in chief.