Pak-US ties under a Trump Presidency

Tuesday’s United States Presidential election has triggered a range of responses in Pakistan. To capture the first take on this hot-button issue Jinnah Institute quizzes a panel of former diplomats and policy experts on the likely impact of a Trump Presidency on US policy interests in the region, and specific implications for America’s relations with Pakistan.


Senator Sherry Rehman, Jinnah Institute President and former Ambassador to the United States. 

As Pakistan and the world at large reel from the reverberations of a Trump victory, the government in Islamabad must use the weeks between now and the January inauguration to set out to do its policy homework and strategically plot a decisive roadmap for bilateral engagement as well as contingencies for Pak-US ties. Tweaking tactics will not be enough, whatever the path Trump takes.

Real groundwork from Pakistan will be impossible to do without an empowered Foreign Minister leading the way, or political stability at home. While the Indo-US partnership is unlikely to undergo major reversals, the rise of China and the security situation in Afghanistan are likely to remain the enduring filters through which a strident Republican Presidency will view Pakistan and modulate its strategic interests to this part of the world. Counterterrorism operations will also likely be under constant review, as will aid to Pakistan. The “do more” ask will also resonate with higher volume from a Republican Congress empowered by a Republican president.

As India steps up its diplomatic outreach for NSG membership, Pakistan must continue to lobby for a criteria-based approach to the 48-nation cartel and find new and effective ways to engage global powers, while leveraging its geostrategic capital as a key player in the evolving Asian order.

This will be doubly important given the great many unknowns of the hour, and the fact that uncertainty may lengthen the shadow of America’s policy interests in the region.  

riaz khokhar 

Riaz Khokhar, former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the United States.

Given that Pakistan had been banking on a Hillary Presidency, the Pak-US relationship is now likely to head into unchartered territory. Pakistan’s contacts with the Republican Party can be best described as limited, and there has been little diplomatic outreach to build bridges between Islamabad and Washington. There has been no coherent or intelligent statement by President-elect Trump that can be used to decipher his likely foreign policy priorities in South Asia, and most of his remarks have been decidedly off the cuff. Much will depend on whom the President-elect chooses to head the State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council, and key intelligence agencies. President Trump’s brief on past and current issues between Pakistan and the United States may generally be negative, and it is in this context that his public comments on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons should be viewed.

Mahmud Durrani

Mahmud Durrani, former National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the United States.

Under a Republican Presidency, there is unlikely to be a fundamental change in US policy towards Pakistan. US geostrategic objectives will remain the same. India will continue to be America’s favoured and preferred partner for various reasons, while the containment of China will frame Washington’s broader focus in the region. Pakistan will remain an important partner, but for the wrong reasons. Mistrust and terrorism will continue to be important factors in guiding the Pak-US dynamic. While China serves as an important all-weather friend for Islamabad, Pakistan will still need to engage the United States in critical ways. It will be important for Pakistan and the US to find a way to develop a common understanding and build a harmonious strategy to combat terrorism. For this to work, however, Pakistan will need to to put its house in order before it can hope to be an effective regional and global player.

moeed yusuf

Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President Asia Centre at USIP.

There are too many unknowns to be certain of how the relationship will play out. The fact that President-elect Trump has not held public office before and his appointees to lead the South Asia account within US government are still not known makes the future even tougher to predict. That said, for some time, I have seen a fairly strong consensus develop in Washington that will likely drive an India-first US policy. This would have been true regardless of the US election’s result, but this will not necessarily translate into any desire to cut off ties with Pakistan. Ultimately, the US will likely persist with a de-hyphenated approach to India and Pakistan and seek to balance within the bounds of the India-first approach. Yet, the US-Pakistan relations won’t be an easy one. I foresee continued differences between the US and Pakistan over Afghanistan, terrorism, and nuclear issues. Assistance is likely to decrease over time. The problems notwithstanding, neither side benefits from a rupture of the relationship. They must therefore persist. It is crucial for Pakistan not to compare its ties with the US with the direction of the Indo-US relationship. It will only hurt Pakistan’s case. At the same time, I have argued in Washington that US security interests in South Asia will remain challenged unless India-Pakistan ties are normalised. Greater attention to this is unlikely but desirable.

huma yusuf

Huma Yusuf, Global Fellow of the Wilson Centre and Dawn columnist.

Pakistan will be discomfited by the fact that Trump sought to win votes among the Indian-American community by adopting a Hindi slogan ‘Ab ki baar Trump sarkar’ reminiscent of Prime Minister Modi’s campaign. While much about the impact of a Trump presidency on the trajectory of US-Pakistan relations remains uncertain, we can expect a clear tilt to India. In India, Trump sees a partner that has endured terrorism and shares his stance against radical Islam. In Prime Minister Modi, he sees a fellow strongman and pragmatist he can do business with. Trump will also welcome the fact that India offers a regional counterbalance to China. We can expect increased pressure to clamp down on anti-India militant groups and less support in Washington for continued civilian and military assistance for Pakistan or IMF and World Bank assistance. That said policy shifts are likely to be gradual as South Asia will be a low priority in President Trump’s foreign policy. Moreover, Trump will likely take a brutally transactional approach to bilateral engagements, and Pakistan could secure targeted military assistance in exchange for specific counterterrorism initiatives, for example, against the Haqqani Network of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Pakistan may face some immediate impacts as a result of Trump’s election, including enhanced visa requirements to the US. But it is more likely to be indirectly affected by his taking office: his election will spur militant recruitment, the blowback of which will be felt within Pakistan; his Iran policy could deepen regional instability; the impact of his Middle East policies and the resultant effect on oil prices could lead to more labour layoffs in the Gulf, and so fewer remittances for Pakistan. Under any circumstances, it will be a challenging four years for the US-Pakistan relationship.

The views in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2016