Pakistan angrily dismissed threats by U.S. President Donald Trump to cut off aid as “completely incomprehensible” on Tuesday, in the latest diplomatic row to rock the shaky alliance between Washington and Islamabad over militancy.
The “recent statements… by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly,” read a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office after a meeting of the National Security Council. Trump’s comments “struck with great insensitivity” and “negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation,” it added.
The statement was the first formal comment from Pakistan since Trump lashed out on Monday, making Islamabad his inaugural Twitter target of 2018.
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” Trump said. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”
Pakistan, which says it has lost more than 62,000 lives and $123 billion since 2003 in its war on extremism, disputed the $33 billion figure in the statement. “[T]he huge sacrifices made by Pakistan… could not be trivialized so heartlessly by pushing all of it behind a monetary value—and that too an imagined one,” it said.
Foreign minister Khawaja Asif also mocked the figure on Twitter, suggesting Trump hire a U.S. audit firm to check it “on our expense.”
Trump first hinted at cutting aid to Pakistan in an August speech charting his Afghan policy, and administration officials including Vice President Mike Pence have also intimated cuts in recent months. But the Pakistani statement said recent interaction with U.S. officials had been “useful,” citing visits in recent months by Pentagon chief James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “robust and forward-looking.” Observers said that without further information the tweet could just be more hot air between the allies, whose often-fractious relationship has taken a nosedive under Trump.
“Trump is in the habit of issuing hardline statements which only spoil the atmosphere and violate diplomatic niceties,” analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, adding that Pakistan should seek more information.
The statement came one day after U.S. ambassador David Hale was called to the foreign ministry in Islamabad in a rare public rebuke. Neither U.S. nor Pakistani officials have commented on what was said at the meeting.
After the September 11 attacks on the United States, Washington forged a strategic alliance with Islamabad to help in its fight against militancy. But Washington and Kabul have long accused Islamabad of supporting militant groups including the Taliban, believed to have links to Pakistan’s military establishment, which allegedly aims to use them in Afghanistan as a regional bulwark against arch-nemesis India.
Islamabad has repeatedly denied the accusations, lambasting the U.S. for ignoring the thousands who have been killed on Pakistani soil and the billions spent fighting extremists.
On Tuesday China, which has stepped up a multi-billion dollar economic investment in Pakistan, spoke out in its defense, with a foreign ministry spokesman praising its “outstanding contribution to the global cause of counter-terrorism.”
Trump’s August speech, in which he accused Islamabad of harboring “agents of chaos,” triggered a series of high-level diplomatic meetings in the U.S. and Pakistan.
The Trump administration also told Congress it was weighing whether to withhold $255 million in earmarked aid to Islamabad over its failure to crack down more effectively on terror groups. But though Islamabad said Tuesday that recent meetings had created a “better understanding,” it has given few signs of concessions since August.
Of foremost concern in the U.S. is Islamabad’s attitude toward the powerful Haqqani Network, whose leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy of the Afghan Taliban. The group, accused of some of the most lethal attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been dubbed a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence by some in the U.S. military. For many years it found safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, however the military launched an operation there in 2014, and now insists it has eradicated all safe havens in the country.
For Pakistan, analyst Imtiaz Gul noted, the assumption is that arch-rival and fellow nuclear power India is fueling Trump’s hostility toward Islamabad. India has long vied with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, and Trump and other administration officials have called on new Delhi to become more involved there—an idea that is anathema to Pakistan, which fears encirclement. “Now Pakistan’s first attempt will be to neutralize India’s narrative of Pakistan,” Gul said.