Trump 'willing to play any role' to help 'fantastic' Pakistan, claims PM Nawaz Sharif's office
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump told Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that he was willing to play "any role that (Sharif wanted him) to play" to address Pakistan's outstanding problems, according to the South Asian nation's government.
On Wednesday, Pakistan's Press Information Department posted what it claimed was a summary of a telephone conversation that took place when Sharif called to congratulate Trump on his election win.
In what appeared to be an unusually unpolished description, the government statement said Trump praised the people of Pakistan, called Sharif a "terrific guy" and declared the prime minister was doing "amazing work." After Sharif invited Trump to visit the country, the U.S. president-elect said, "he would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people," according to the statement.
Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to an email request from CNBC, sent outside office hours, for clarification on the statement's authenticity, whether Trump has business interests in Pakistan or if he was briefed about U.S.-Pakistan and India-Pakistan bilateral ties.
But in a daily media call with reporters on Wednesday, Trump's team acknowledged the president-elect had spoken to Sharif, according to a transcript by The Washington Post.
Art of the turnaround
Wednesday's phone call with PM Sharif would appear to mark a drastic shift in sentiment for the president-elect, who has seemed to make "turnaround" his new strategy after flip-flopping on various policy stances, including his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and bashing of Goldman Sachs.
In 2012, Trump launched a series of tweets that sharply criticized Islamabad.
"Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We've given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect, and much worse," he posted in January of that year, in reference to allegations that Pakistan knew Osama bin Laden was hiding on its soil while Washington was hunting for the terror mastermind.
A few months later, in July 2012, Trump wrote, "When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some ally."
Washington and Islamabad remain friendly, with the U.S. proving critical counter-terrorism equipment and training programs to the Pakistani military, according to the U.S. State Department.
Pakistan has long been plagued by numerous security issues, including terrorist attacks from domestic militant groups. But the situation has recently deteriorated amid tense ties with India, the draw-down of NATO forces in Afghanistan and a domestic power struggle between civil authorities and Pakistan's influential army, which maintains tight control over foreign, internal and external security policies, Eurasia Group said in a note on Wednesday.
Instead of offering praise, Trump should be taking a tough stance against Sharif's administration, strategists say.
"The Trump administration should spell out to Pakistan the potential costs to its ties with the U.S. from its refusal to adequately address terrorism—and be prepared to start making changes," Alyssa Ayres, senior South Asia fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said in a note on Wednesday.
Stoking India-Pakistan tensions
Trump's remarks to Sharif, if accurate, could aggravate hostility between Pakistan and India.
Relations between the arch-enemies have worsened following a September attack on an army base in Indian-occupied Kashmir. New Delhi blamed Islamabad for the assault and conducted what it called "surgical strikes" on suspected militants in Pakistan administered-Kashmir. From 1947-1999, the two nuclear powers went to war with each other four times in addition to other serious border skirmishes.
"The White House should use active, yet quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ensure that temperatures on both sides do not rise dangerously high," Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said in a recent note.
Instead, Trump has made very public declarations of support to both sides.
During a Republican Hindu Coalition event last month, Trump said the U.S. and India would be best friends. "There isn't going to be any relationship more important to us," he added.
Last month, Trump also told The Hindustan Times that he was willing to play mediator in the decades-long conflict between the two countries. But that isn't likely to sit well with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.
"India rigidly opposes outside efforts to help ease tensions with Pakistan. It fears that external mediation would invoke the Kashmir dispute, which New Delhi views as non-negotiable. If Washington proposes mediation, its relationship with New Delhi could suffer," Kugelman explained.
Modi was one of the earliest heads of states to congratulate Trump on his election win. In a Nov. 9 phone call, Modi said he hoped the two leaders would work closely to "take the India U.S. strategic partnership to a new height."
Instead of playing up both sides, the president-elect should be urging the two sides to hold regular dialogues on soft issues-from trade cooperation to educational exchanges-to promote goodwill, Kugelman stated. And during crisis periods, the White House should work the phones to warn both capitals against military escalation, Kugelman added.
"What remains to be seen, however, is if Trump's lack of foreign policy experience constrains his ability to oversee such delicate diplomacy."