WITH STREET protests raging in Iran and North Korea’s dictator appearing to offer a rare olive branch, President Trump chose to dedicate his first tweet of 2018 to . . . Pakistan. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the past 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” he virtually bellowed. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Not surprisingly, the outburst caught Pakistan’s elected government by surprise; emergency cabinet meetings and angry rebuttals from senior Pakistani officials soon followed.
Mr. Trump’s outburst was not completely out of the blue nor entirely unwarranted. He and other senior U.S. officials have been warning since last summer that Islamabad’s support for terrorists both in and outside Afghanistan was no longer tolerable, and the administration was already withholding $255 million in military aid to demonstrate its dissatisfaction. An article in the New York Times on Friday, before the tweet, said senior administration officials were recently incensed by the refusal of Pakistani officials to provide access to a captured operative of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network who was involved in the abduction of a Canadian-American family.
Still, the tweet triggered a question all too often asked about Mr. Trump’s public statements: What was the point? Was the public insult to the Pakistani government part of a carefully considered strategy for turning around an important but troubled foreign relationship — or simply an impulsive gesture? Given Mr. Trump’s record, the latter seems a safe bet. After all, in his previous tweet about Pakistan, in October, the president declared that his administration was “starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders.”
Certainly, the new tweet appeared unlikely to yield a useful result. Pakistanis across the political spectrum condemned Mr. Trump; the government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi protested, with some justification, that U.S. payments had merely reimbursed Pakistan for expenses incurred in supporting the war against terrorism — and that the country had itself suffered tens of thousands of casualties in that battle. In truth, Pakistan has long played a double game — simultaneously fighting some Taliban factions while supporting others, such as the Haqqani network. Mr. Trump’s hyberbolic tweet will likely cause the security establishment to cling to rather than curtail that strategy.
If so, Mr. Trump’s tweet will join a host of others that have undermined U.S. policies and alliances in the past year. His childish insults of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have complicated attempts to find a peaceful way out of the crisis caused by the regime’s nuclear weapons. His ill-informed attacks on Qatar, the host of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, have helped deepen a rift among U.S. Persian Gulf allies. Then there were the seemingly random gibes at European allies such as Britain, Germany and even Sweden.
Before the latest tweet, the Times asked Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, what was being done to gain Pakistan’s cooperation against the Haqqani group. “What we’re trying to do is talk to Pakistan about this, and not try to communicate with them through public messaging,” he replied. Whoops.