On January 30, the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal found himself in an unexpected position. He was unwitting proof of the new United States administration’s claims that its brand new travel restrictions on the citizens of seven, mainly Muslim, countries were not a blanket “Muslim ban”. For Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was sitting in Washington 48 hours after the travel ban had been introduced. He had not been denied entry to the US even though he is a politician from Pakistan, a country with “problems” as Donald Trump’s senior aides have repeatedly pointed out in the days since the ban. “Perhaps we need to take it further,” Mr Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus ominously told America and the world, mentioning Pakistan by name and indicating that the list of visa-proscribed countries may grow longer.
Many, not least Pakistan and its regional rival India, interpreted the remarks differently, each according to its needs. Amid growing domestic concern that Pakistan would be added to the shame list currently comprising Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan warned that the whole idea of a travel ban “will harm the international alliance and consensus against terrorism”. But senior Indian diplomats made a snarky dig at Pakistan, saying “countries that have exported terror are not on the list”.
And from his vantage point in Washington, DC, where he was visiting the US Institute of Peace think tank and scheduled to meet new administration officials, Mr Bhutto Zardari darkly foresaw “a whole host of hostilities” from the ban. Especially, he said, if Pakistan joins the list.
Could it? Will the vague threat held out by the new US government be enough to keep Pakistan in line? What is the line anyway?
Unlike the 1990s, when it was deeply reliant on the US, Pakistan is now visibly closer to China, especially through the massive $46 billion (Dh168bn) joint venture known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
But the new US administration may want more active engagement, thereby ending the benign neglect of the Obama years.
The known knowns of Mr Trump’s view of Pakistan can best be summed up in the eight words he tweeted back in December 2011: “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend.” Seven months later, he was tweeting again in a vengeful sulk: “When will Pakistan apologise to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama bin Laden for 6 years?! Some ‘ally’.”
The unknown knowns, however, are Mr Trump’s allegedly effusive praise for Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his country and his people, within weeks of winning the US election. According to a Pakistani account of the telephone discussion with Mr Sharif, Mr Trump is supposed to have raved about his “very good reputation” and “amazing country”, along with a promise to visit, something no American president has done since 2006.
Add to that the unknown unknowns of whether Mr Trump will follow through on his campaign trail promise to secure the release from prison of Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi, who helped the CIA hunt down bin Laden. “We give a lot of money to Pakistan … they take advantage,” he said, sounding aggrieved.
The imponderables, however, don’t obscure two basic facts. First, the Trump administration is more hardline than previous ones about the terrorist threat. It is decidedly more heedless about apportioning blame to Muslims and Muslim countries. And it is less willing to employ diplomatic niceties and tactics.
Mr Trump, who has already filed the paperwork to stand for re-election in 2020, is very conscious of his core voters’ fear of terrorist attacks on American soil. One of the more horrific of such attacks was in San Bernardino, California in December 2015, which was perpetrated by an American of Pakistani ethnicity and his Pakistani wife. Days after that, Mr Trump made his infamous and popular vow to the American people, which called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.
Second, Mr Trump’s new defence secretary Gen James Mattis told the US Senate armed services committee just weeks ago that he would work with Islamabad to “focus on Pakistan’s need to expel or neutralise externally-focused militant groups that operate within its borders”. And he used a more emollient tone to reprise his boss’s previously tweeted grievances: “We have long faced a lack of trust within the Pakistani military and government about our goals in the region.”
It stands to reason then that Washington will use every trick — and tweet — possible to secure Islamabad’s compliance. Pakistan knows this and in a nimble move, it detained cleric Hafiz Saeed, who is accused of links to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, within days of the travel ban list.
But that will not be enough — for Mr Trump and for his voters — and it is unclear if the new US administration will have the patience and the tact to persuade nuclear-armed Pakistan to cooperate. Back when Mr Trump was merely a candidate for president, Pakistan’s interior minister had scolded him for his high-handedness, declaring that “Pakistan is not a colony of the United States of America. He should learn to treat sovereign nations with respect.”
Perhaps realpolitik is the most respect anyone can hope for and even that may not last.