By Zeeshan Salahuddin
The unprecedented victory of Donald J. Trump has undoubtedly sent shockwaves through the United States. Detractors have taken to the streets across the country, hate crimes have seen a sharp rise, and Trump’s flip-flopping on key policies may only be the start of one of the most unpredictable times in U.S. politics. As Trump himself would put it, it is a total and complete mess—but now, as president-elect, he really is the only one who can fix it.
Reactions to his election have reverberated around the globe. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, and the head of the largest opposition group, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party, have publicly offered felicitations. In interactions with various diplomats posted in Pakistan, the official response stays predictably consular and prudent: “We will continue to work with whoever is in the highest position in office, as the U.S. is a key ally.” In private, however, there is a palpable sense of trepidation and uncertainty. One friend, on condition of anonymity, even performed a routine, complete with OK hand gestures and a lower-lip pout. “Put simply, folks, this is a yuuuuuge disaster!” Over the last few weeks, some have expressed concerns about what a Trump administration could mean for Pakistan and how it might affect regional balance.
Critics, pundits, and analysts in Pakistan have one thing in common when commenting on Trump: No one really knows what he will do. The tweet from Trump’s Twitter account about Pakistan that is quoted most often is from 2012: “When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some 'ally'.” Trump didn’t speak much about Pakistan during the campaign, nor has he expressed any specific positions after getting elected. While some in Pakistan see this as a good sign, others view the uncertainty as a potential source of volatility. It does not help that Trump is infamous for macho military slang when questioned on how he will deal with the so-called Islamic State, saying he “would hit them so hard and so fast that they wouldn't know what happened.” Given the Taliban’s presence in Pakistan, as confirmed by our own government, and the Osama bin Laden raid by U.S. forces, Trump is likely to readily accept the narrative that Pakistan has a major problem with terrorism, potentially paving the way for more drone strikes in the future.
Trump has no prior political career, and thus, he has no tried and tested policies that could help us predict his actions. Furthermore, election rhetoric often does not translate well into actual policy. President Barack Obama came in with a positive outlook toward Pakistan and was initially looked upon favorably. Yet during his presidency, well over 10 times the number of drone strikes occurred than under President George W. Bush. The Salala incident, during which NATO forces mistakenly engaged Pakistani soldiers at a checkpoint at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, killing 28 soldiers and injuring 12, also happened during his tenure. While Obama’s record shows that policies and attitudes can change over the course of a president’s term, Trump has already changed his position on multiple policies that were core components of his campaign before entering the White House.
If he keeps some of his campaign promises, however, Trump will likely not agree to continue providing aid to Pakistan without imposing conditions that will have a significant impact on the geo-political climate in South and Central Asia. His administration may stipulate that Pakistan do more to curb terrorism domestically and work harder to dismantle camps that present threats, real or perceived, to neighbors Afghanistan and India. This would bolster India’s repeated stance that Pakistan is a sponsor of terror, backing Pakistan further into a very tight corner.
Another policy he seems keen on carrying out is the controversial step to register all Muslims living in the United States, citizens or otherwise. The Pakistani public has always had a soft spot for the plight of Muslims anywhere in the world, despite the range of atrocities Muslims, especially minorities, face domestically. Coupled with Trump’s statements such as “I think that Islam hates us,” his record inspires little confidence that he will do right by Muslims. In fact, his anti-Muslim rhetoric has the potential to become a rallying cry for radicals and extremists everywhere who see America and the West as the enemy.
Despite concerns from many quarters about what Trump will do once in power, others in Pakistan feel that the winner of the election does not matter as much as the role of the office of the president. “It doesn’t matter who becomes president,” says Tahir, a cab driver in Islamabad. “America does not want us to succeed, and they want to keep us busy with India and Afghanistan.”
Still, Trump mania has gripped the imaginations of news producers, local politicians, and ordinary citizens. A news channel aired a satirical report claiming Donald Trump was originally Pakistani, born in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and was taken to the U.S. as a young child. The proof, they claimed, was a grainy picture of a child that bore more than a passing resemblance to Trump. In the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, police confiscated a man’s illegal vehicle license plate that read “Trump-1.” In various towns and locales across the country, aspiring local politicians have put up banners congratulating Trump, despite knowing nothing about him or his policies. It seems that Trump’s tenacity is rendering his presence ubiquitous, even in Pakistan. No matter what the media, activists, or pundits and pollsters do or say, he will continue to dominate news cycles both domestically and abroad.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is a senior research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He is a freelance journalist and holds a bachelor and master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @zeesalahuddin.
[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]