Trump, Sanders, and the future of Pak-US ties | Hannan Rifaat Hussain

The new administration would have a significant bearing on Pakistan’s security concerns

After comprehensively sealing competition in the New Hampshire presidential primary, Senator Bernie Sanders and business-juggernaut Donald Trump, are now in contention to win the nominations of their respected parties. Historically, a victory in New Hampshire increases a candidate’s share of the final primary count in all states, by a sweeping 27% points margin. Therefore, Mr Sanders’ 60% votes in the state, along with Donald Trump’s 35.1%, would prove instrumental to their chances of presidency.

The new administration would have a significant bearing on Pakistan’s security concerns, which is why the outcome of America’s November elections are critical. If Donald Trump’s right-wing Republican party wins, a strong anti-Pakistan agenda can replace the current strategic partnership between Pakistan and the US. Additionally, a strengthened Indo-US economic partnership could downgrade the value of Pakistan’s regional role, and feed into a globally unfavourable opinion of the country.

On the other hand, if the Democrats prevail, which is the likely scenario, Bernie Sanders’s administration is expected to transform volatile ties with Pakistan into an in-depth engagement. The chances of Pakistan being looped into the security realm as a collaborator, without outright dismissal of its role, are comparatively better should the democrats win the White House again.

Donald Trump’s party enjoys a history of advocating armed invasions, and designs of regional warfare. Barack Obama’s move to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, for instance, generated severe opposition among the Republicans. Especially after losing control of Sangin and a few other districts in the Helmand area to the Taliban, the party views American presence in the region as a move of progress, as an investment that guarantees an end to the Taliban, and ISIS affiliates. Pakistan’s relative disengagement from the American imperial design in Afghanistan, to concentrate on its domestic war on terror, could be perceived as an obstacle in ensuring regional peace.

Moreover, Trump’s entrepreneurial disposition affords him the luxury of corporate media, a power he has used disproportionately to target the Muslim population. A scathing anti-Muslim narrative led the Republican party’s response to last year’s Paris attacks, calling for a complete ban on Muslims. This lack of sensitivity to separate Islam, the second largest faith in the world, from the contradictory roots of terrorism, threatens to jeopardise effective US ties with Muslim powers, including Pakistan. Amid all the antagonism, to hope for a window of bilateral negotiations with the Trump administration, would be a grave misjudgment on Pakistan’s part.

America’s relationship with India, however, is set to blossom regardless of the election results. Thriving economic trade would play a huge role in determining the positive future of the Indo-US strategic partnership. Strengthened economic ties oftentimes demand mutual consensus on matters of political priority, and India’s perception of Pakistan as a firm supporter of militancy could gain ground. Also, since stability in Pakistan is being viewed through the American security lens, all financial and military aid sent to Pakistan, totaling $75 billion since 1948, could possibly be suspended.

Bernie Sanders’s victory, on the other hand, would most likely prolong the Democrats’ policy of collaboration towards Pakistan, in view of both countries’ security challenges. The collaboration, however, would also bring with it an attitude of vigilance and assertion towards the country. America’s growing discontent with Pakistan’s domestic militancy, could be a prime cause of strained relations between the two states.

The Democrats are widely known for criticising Pakistan’s policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan, and have urged the latter to give up connections with extremist forces, and deal with militants head-on. Under Sanders’s watch, this narrative may undergo favourable shifts, though the same administration may stick to a militancy-centric analysis of Pakistan, if issues such as the Mumbai attacks, continue to strain US ties with India.

Unlike his Republican counterpart, however, Sanders’s victory would also sustain the Democrats’ long-held policy of engagement with Pakistan. During Bill Clinton’s six-day visit to South Asia in March 2000, he advocated democracy’s role in Pakistan, called for mutual cooperation in eliminating common enemies, and encouraged bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan. Over a decade later, during Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Barack Obama in October 2013, the Democrats sustained their policy of cooperation with Pakistan, by emphasising joint strategic dialogue and defence collaboration. As a result, the angle with which the prospective Sanders administration shall approach Pakistan’s security concerns may undergo some change, but Pakistan would remain critical to America’s strategic interests in South Asia.

Dealing with a collaborative Sanders administration can be eased through fruitful exploitation of bilateral dialogue. However, in case Donald Trump makes it to the centre stage, Pakistan would be urged to revamp its course of action completely. The main challenge would then be to find common ground to engage with the US, without allowing the latter to minimise Pakistan’s role in the South Asian region.


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