As anyone familiar with South Asia knows, a “tight slap” is a colorful Indian idiom for a verbal takedown. It is the rhetorical equivalent of giving someone a crisp smack on the face, sharpening the impact by leaving no gaps between your fingers. My many Twitter followers from India will recognize President Trump’s blunt remarks about Pakistan on Monday, made during his address unveiling the new U.S. policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, as a textbook “tight slap.”
The President announced that one pillar of the new U.S. policy “is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan,” Trump continued. “It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
After acknowledging that Pakistan’s past military cooperation with the U.S. has been valuable, Trump went back to putting the screws on: “Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people,” he said. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.
“But that will have to change,” said Trump, adding ominously: “And that will change immediately.”
Trump continued: “No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.”
Although past presidents have criticized Pakistan’s double game on terror—providing some cooperation to the U.S. on the one hand, harboring and sponsoring terrorists on the other hand—no previous commander-in-chief had delivered this message as bluntly and forcefully as Trump did on Monday.
In case Islamabad somehow still didn’t get the message, Trump turned next to Pakistan’s arch-rival, India: “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.”
Trump challenged India to do more on Afghanistan: “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
While some might believe that Trump was mildly chiding India on Afghanistan, he was actually turning up the heat again on Pakistan: The last thing the Pakistani government wants is deeper Indian involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long made unsubstantiated accusations that India supports insurgents who use Afghanistan as a base to attack Pakistan. These include separatists seeking independence for Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by land area, whose ethnically and linguistically distinct indigenous population has, according to human rights groups, suffered horrific abuses under Pakistani rule.
The fingerprints of Lisa Curtis, who recently left the Heritage Foundation to become National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s top aide for South Asia, are evident on the new U.S. policy. Together with Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and a strong voice against violent extremism, Curtis co-authored a report this year that urged the U.S. to more strongly pressure Pakistan to stop backing terrorist groups. Significantly, this included terrorist groups that focus primarily on attacking India—“good terrorists,” as they’re known in some Pakistani military circles.
If the Curtis-Haqqani approach is fully adopted, Pakistan can expect the U.S. to ratchet up pressure with a series of steps—cutting military aid, downgrading the relationship, possibly declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism—if Pakistan doesn’t cease using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, elaborating Tuesday on President Trump’s speech, said that such measures “could be on the table for discussion if in fact they are unwilling to change their posture or change their approach to how they are dealing with the numerous terrorist organizations that find safe haven in Pakistan.”
Although China wasn’t mentioned in Trump’s speech, Beijing was certainly listening carefully. China, Pakistan’s major ally in the region, is investing over $60 billion to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a series of infrastructure projects that will create a strategic transportation route for China to Pakistan’s deep-water port on the Arabian Sea. China’s economic support will buttress Pakistan’s ability to withstand a reduction in U.S aid.
On the other side of the equation, Beijing is watching India’s blossoming alliance with the U.S. with concern. India is currently locked in a tense military standoff with China over the latter’s attempt to build a strategically important road through land claimed by India’s neighbor and ally, Bhutan. India and the U.S. have a common interest in containing China, which is aggressively pushing dubious territorial and sea claims against several of its neighbors, including important U.S. allies. The U.S. sees India, a nuclear power on China’s border with the world’s third largest military, as an important counterweight to China.
Trump’s rebuke of Pakistan received a largely positive reaction in the U.S. Congress. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said that Pakistan “remains a fount of radical Islamist thought” and must be pressed “to put an end to its destabilizing activities.” Royce’s Southern California neighbor, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), shares that sentiment: Last year, along with Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), he sponsored a bill to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.
I have written in the past that while our alliance with India is based on shared values, our alliance with Pakistan has always been transactional. Donald Trump, the real estate magnate from New York, knows a thing or two about holding his own in transactional relationships. And as he made crystal clear on Monday, he fully expects Pakistan to start holding up its end of the bargain.
David B. Cohen formerly served as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs. He co-chaired the Federal Interagency Group on the Guam Military Buildup, and served on the Trump-Pence Asian-Pacific American Advisory Committee.