The Pakistani government yesterday released a readout of a phone call between Donald Trump and Nawaz Sharif, the South Asian country’s prime minister. The call, in which Trump called Sharif “a terrific guy” who’s “doing amazing work,” is causing serious concern across South Asia and among foreign policy experts in general. It was replete with Trump’s usual nonsensical hyperbole, with the president-elect telling Sharif, “your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.”
Even more concerning than Trump’s apparent inability to converse with world leaders at a level of intelligence beyond that of a used car commercial, however, is the apparent realignment of American foreign policy in South Asia that the call suggests. Besides simply gushing praise for Sharif, who is in fact an oppressive terrorist-supporting oligarch, Trump pledged full cooperation on Pakistan’s terms, saying that he is “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.” This would be a serious about-face from the Obama administration’s policy of distancing itself from Pakistan in favor of democratic India.
It’s also a serious about-face from Trump’s own previous statements, but the schizophrenic opportunism that passes for ideological consistency in Trump’s mind is well-established and isn’t likely to change at this point.
Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. When our tremendous Navy SEALS took out Osama bin Laden, they did… (cont) http://t.co/s6u5o8Co
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2011
Chief on the list of those “outstanding problems” Trump mentioned is the issue of Kashmir, the mountainous territory claimed by both Pakistan and India that has been the cause of three wars between the two nuclear-armed rivals. And while it’s doubtful that Trump could even point to Kashmir on a map, the bumbling buffoonery of his rhetoric suggesting support for the Pakistani position there could have serious consequences. That’s because the conflict in Kashmir has been heating up again in recent months, with both civilian protests and deadly attacks on Indian soldiers that New Delhi has blamed on Pakistan-affiliated militants. The more the Pakistanis sense that there are no consequences for such behavior, the more likely they are to resort to more dramatic measures. In fact Vipin Narang, a nuclear weapons and security expert at MIT, has said in reference to Trump’s call that “this could literally start a nuclear war.”
Indeed Pakistan and its shadowy intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rank near the top of the list of state sponsors of terrorism, with money – including American aid – flowing freely from Islamabad to terrorist groups from the Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba, perpetrators out the brutal 2008 Mumbai attacks and various other assaults on India. Indeed it is more than likely that the ISI was sheltering Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, as Trump himself noted in a 2012 tweet. And Sharif himself, besides his own laundry list of human rights violations, has close ties to the ISI dating back to the 1990 elections that the intelligence service rigged in his favor to grant him his first term as prime minister.
Trump’s cozying up to Sharif and Pakistan thus goes against all of his rhetoric about protecting democracy and ending America’s relationships with, as he so elegantly puts it, “bad guys.” It also represents a significant turnaround from the policy of the Obama administration, which has taken significant steps towards ending America’s neoconservative alliance of convenience with Pakistan – one that stretches back to the Cold War days when the US allied with Islamabad and bin Laden to fight the Soviets – and realigning our South Asia policy towards India, which is a functioning democracy and can provide a counterweight to China in the region.
Years of progress towards that end, however, could be undone in a single stroke by Trump, even if his simultaneous cultivation of support from the BJP, a hardline anti-Pakistan Indian party, suggest that his policy is more schizophrenic than calculated. In a nuclear-armed region on the brink of war where America’s allegiance is unclear, however, that could be even more dangerous.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.