Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

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 & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

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