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Lack of US election focus on Pakistan termed a boon

Eight years since the pledge to end the war in Afghanistan gave Pakistan a somewhat unwanted prominence in then-candidate Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the election campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have barely featured mention of Pakistan.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times in October, Mr Trump claimed that he would “love to be the mediator or arbitrator” between India and Pakistan, but in typical contradictory fashion, he told a Republican Hindu Coalition event the same day that the US would be “best friends” with India under a Trump presidency.

Meanwhile, Ms Clinton has not made any comment of significance on Pakistan throughout her campaign. The combined silence of the candidates, however, may be something of a boon in a tumultuous election season, according to Pakistan analysts in the US.

“It’s very fortunate for Afghanistan and Pakistan to have been out of the campaigns because if they had become part of it, it would have been in a negative way,” Andrew Wilder, a vice president of Asia programmes at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told Dawn. “This has not been a campaign about substantive policy issues.”

While Ms Clinton has a long public record, including as Secretary of State, the virtual absence of any mention of Pakistan in Mr Trump’s speeches has meant there is little clarity about where a Trump presidency may diverge from President Obama’s approach to Pakistan and in which areas continuity can be expected.

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Mr Trump’s skeletal foreign policy and national security team and his often public contradictions of prominent advisers have further muddied the policy waters. “Trump is more dangerous than Clinton because you don’t really know what he’s thinking,” said Shuja Nawaz, author of the soon-to-be-updated Crossed Swords and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The most visible of Mr Trump’s national security advisers is a retired army general, Michael Flynn. Gen Flynn was director of the Defence Intelligence Agency until August 2014 and has triggered public concern among ex-colleagues and supporters for his enthusiastic embrace of some of Mr Trump’s signature, and most controversial policies.

However, according to Mr Nawaz, Gen Flynn is well acquainted with Pakistan and as director of the DIA had shown evidence of cross-border militancy to Pakistani officials in a bid to press the US administration about Pakistan’s perceived lack of action.

The move angered some of Gen Flynn’s colleagues in the intelligence community who believed that the DIA director’s overture to Pakistan may have exposed American intelligence-gathering methods. “Gen Flynn may be more likely to engage with Pakistan and likely may not be who his boss (Mr Trump) is, but ultimately it’s the boss’s decisions that matter,” Mr Nawaz said.

Relative to the fundamental uncertainty about what a Trump presidency could mean for Pakistan, a Clinton presidency’s policy outlines are easier to predict. “Clinton would likely be a basic continuation of Obama,” said George Perkovich, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of Not War, Not Peace: Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism.

“Keep India and Indians as happy as we can. Keep an eye on China. And with Pakistan, simultaneously resist those in Congress who want to cut ties and aid to Pakistan because of the intel cooperation that [the US] needs, and at the same time be suspicious of the (Pakistani) military’s intentions in Afghanistan and work on lowering risk of (militancy) attacks in India,” Mr Perkovich explained.

Continuity itself could be an irritant, however, according to Mr Wilder, the vice president at USIP. “More broadly, because of the commitments the US has made in Afghanistan until 2020, Afghanistan is going to remain a priority for engagement,” he said of a possible Clinton presidency. “And because of that, US-Pak relations will likely remain an irritant.”

In the short term, Mr Wilder warned that the transition from the Obama presidency between the election next Tuesday and the swearing-in of the next president in January could open the door to political strife in neighbouring Afghanistan.

“The National Unity Government is held together largely by the US ambassador, the special representative (for AfPak) and Secretary of State Kerry. Once they’re gone and before a new team can settle in, something could happen in Afghanistan,” Mr Wilder said.

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2016

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