Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, addresses supporters in Lahore. Photo: Reuters / Mohsin Raza
Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister and chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, addresses supporters in Lahore. Photo: Reuters / Mohsin Raza

Pakistan has reacted strongly to US President Donald Trump’s tweets in which he accused Islamabad of deliberately shielding Osama bin Laden, and “not doing anything” for Washington in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was the first to counter Trump. He took to Twitter on Monday to give a rebuttal to Trump’s claims.

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In a statement issued on Tuesday, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa addressed specific accusations launched by Trump, claiming that Pakistan has done more for peace “than any other country.”

“Pakistan has successfully fought against terrorism while also contributing to regional peace”, the director-general of the Army’s media wing tweeted on behalf of the Army chief.

In addition to statements issued against Trump’s claims by military and civil leaders, which included jibes by cabinet ministers, the Foreign Office also summoned American Chargé d’Affaires Paul Jones on Tuesday to explain the US president’s statements.

Worsening relations

Analysts note that the statements from Trump and Khan are the latest indication that relations between the two countries have nosedived. A growing mistrust between the two states has been observed since the Bin Laden raid in 2011, with American drone strikes inside Pakistani territory and claims that Islamabad was shielding the Taliban.

However, following Trump’s election, Washington has increasingly singled out Pakistan as the “root” of regional instability. The US President’s South Asia policy announced last year also accused Islamabad of “providing safe havens” for jihadist groups.

After the election win by Imran Khan, who is perceived as a rightwing nationalist, many had feared that Pakistan and the US might come to a better understanding with two populist leaders at the helm.

The two countries’ only meaningful formal exchange since Khan’s election win in July was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad in September, where both states claimed that ties had been “reset” after Pakistan put on a show of civilian and military unity for the American delegation.

Pakistan’s US policy

Civil and military leaders expressed similar unity to issue a strong rebuttal to Trump in what is seen as a national consensus on Pakistan’s US policy. Sources within the military claim that this has been brought about following the US announcing that it would cut military aid to Pakistan in January this year.

“The reason for the rift in the US-Pakistan relationship is the divergence of interests between the two countries, especially over Afghanistan but also over China’s expanding influence in Asia,” former Pakistan Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani told Asia Times.

“Tweets by President Trump and Imran Khan only highlight the breach, they won’t be a major factor in the breach. Khan not only parrots the Pakistani establishment’s line, he also echoes the sentiment in Pakistan, which tends to be anti-American.”

Haqqani believes that the manner in which the two leaders issued their statements and got entangled in a heated exchange on Twitter does not mean that they aren’t accurately representing their states’ respective positions. It is an observation expressed by many regional analysts.

“Trump said in a very undiplomatic way what US governments have been saying all along, and Khan said undiplomatically what Pak governments have responded always,” noted security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of ‘Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’.

IMF bailout

The Khan-Trump verbal exchange comes as Islamabad is discussing terms with the International Monetary Fund for a 13th bailout package. The terms of those negotiations are one reason that Pakistan has sought a rejig of the economic corridor and trade pact with China after Mike Pompeo urged the IMF to “reject” the bailout if it benefits Beijing.

“[The US-Pakistan relations] are doomed and this is evidence of what we already know. [However], the conversation itself is not what will doom relations. It is no longer about relations with the US, but [about the] money we hope to get from the IMF,” Siddiqa said.

Haqqani doesn’t feel that Trump calling out Pakistan and Islamabad retorting would have too much of an impact on the government seeking an IMF bailout. However, he warns that alienating Washington will not help Islamabad.

“I doubt Khan’s words will come in the way of Pakistani officials continuing to seek American aid or US support for an IMF program,” he said. “Pakistan’s ongoing talks with the IMF have already been tough and lack of US sympathy for Pakistan or the Khan government will certainly not help in bridging the divide between the IMF’s demands and Pakistan’s expectations.”

The war of words between the US and Pakistan comes after Russia hosted a delegation representing the Taliban for talks in Moscow to try to find a way to end the 17-year conflict for Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, at least 50 people were killed and over 80 injured in a suicide bombing targeting religious clerics in Kabul on Tuesday.

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