Why the Trump administration could quickly regret extending its travel ban to Islamabad.
- By Mosharraf Zaidi <p> Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist for the News and a former Pakistani government official. </p>
Sunday morning talk shows in America don’t typically stir the imagination in Pakistan. There are plenty of domestic scandals to deal with, whether it’s the corruption of politicians or the military’s interference in civilian matters.
Last Sunday was different. With the world still trying to process last Friday evening’s ban on entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Sunday morning talk shows were expected to be the Trump administration’s shot at some degree of redemption. But Pakistan was the only country White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus mentioned by name to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press as likely to be added to the list of banned countries. As soon as he did, the national discourse spun into action: “Pakistan next on Trump’s list,” the television tickers screamed.
In India, a country that longs for Uncle Sam to lay a smackdown on its hated neighbor, the expressions of joy at the news were to be expected. Pakistanis, for their part, turned to the acerbic sense of humor that has helped the country endure an era of terrorist violence that has taken over 60,000 lives since 2007. Novelist Bina Shah tweeted, “Trump hates Muslims because they all have better hair than he does,” while comedian Azhar Usman tweeted, “dearest trump-hating Americans! Now’s your chance to stand up against fascism: CONVERT TO ISLAM to protest trump! (bonus: eternal salvation).” Yet there is nothing funny about a potential ban on Pakistanis’ movements in and out of the United States.
In the 2010 U.S. Census, Pakistanis were the seventh-largest diaspora community in the United States, numbering just under a half million, from grocery store owners and taxi drivers to doctors, software engineers, and bankers. But Pakistan’s American dream began to sour after 9/11. The U.S. government heightened its scrutiny of Pakistani applications for visas — a precursor to Trump’s avowed “extreme vetting” — and introduced efforts to generally make life more difficult for illegal aliens (cracking down in communities known to have high concentrations of Pakistanis, like Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn). The post-9/11 environment has led to substantially slower growth of the Pakistani-American community. The fears brought about by the Trump administration’s immigration ban are likely to aggravate that trend.
Still, some Pakistanis, especially those who are U.S. President Donald Trump’s ideological cousins, are unbothered by these developments. Almost immediately after the ban was unveiled, populist opposition leader Imran Khan announced his strong desire to have the ban extended to Pakistan. Khan, a former cricket star, may be Pakistan’s leader at some future time. He has earned his reputation for dangerous rhetoric, which is designed to provoke and arouse angry young men and women across the Islamic republic in service of short-term political gains.
Speaking to party workers near Multan this weekend, Khan said: “It is being heard that Pakistanis may face U.S. visa restriction. I pray that Trump also stops visas for Pakistanis as I believe that it will help us develop our own country. Besides, we will also give him an Iran-like response … (not allowing Americans here in Pakistan).” Khan’s loyal following of entitled malcontents across Pakistan’s cities were quick to adopt this approach, many celebrating the bold autonomy and sovereignty that they believed his approach represented.
In more sober quarters, Pakistanis were trying to reckon with more immediate challenges posed by the ban — namely, the specter of elderly green-card holders, young student visa recipients, and business travelers from Pakistan stuck at U.S. airports in the event that the ban were to be extended to Pakistan. Dawn, one of the largest newspapers in the country, published a checklist for travelers, and the staff at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington had to suspend disbelief and get down to the business of proactive diplomacy.
Pakistanis who take the longer view understood that the Trump ban will ignite yet more hostility between Iran and the United States (to say nothing of the subsequent warning issued by National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to Tehran after its recent missile test). With Saudi Arabia firmly in the U.S. camp, this dynamic poses even more problems for the delicate balance Pakistan must maintain between the two major Muslim-majority powers.
Given how radical a departure Trump has brought to U.S. governance, all bets are off on whether Pakistan will be added to the list. Regardless, both the elected Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani military are in for a complicated ride.
The bilateral relationship has been a roller coaster in recent years, with the U.S. government first supporting military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and later adopting a terrorist assassination program on Pakistani soil using unmanned aerial vehicles. American military officials who have served in Afghanistan almost universally blame the country for allowing safe havens to U.S. adversaries in Afghanistan affiliated with the Afghan Taliban.
The U.S. government wants Pakistan to more robustly support its efforts in the region by clamping down on terrorist groups it believes enjoy safety in Pakistan.
American officials are well aware that at least two major acts of terror in the United States since 9/11 have involved people of Pakistani origin: the attempted bombing of Times Square in New York in May 2010 and the San Bernardino, California, attack in December 2015 in which 14 people were killed.
Pakistan has its own grievances. The Pakistani government, and especially its military and intelligence community, wants the United States to, as they see it, stop setting up the region for complete dominance by India. Many Pakistanis, both civilians and military folks, are perturbed by the influence that India has acquired in Afghanistan on the back of security underwritten by American troops. Some openly admit to the India factor being a principal driver of insecurity about Afghanistan, while others hint at it more gingerly. But the combination of New Delhi’s fingerprints in Kabul and deepening U.S.-India ties does not sit well in Pakistan.
And yet, Islamabad understands that Washington is an indispensable partner, and that any further restrictions on the movement of Pakistanis in and out of the United States would be a severe blow.
The United States continues to be Pakistan’s largest export market, receiving over 15 percent of Pakistani exports. Pakistani-Americans who send money back to Pakistan constitute by far the highest per capita source of remittances for the country.
There would also be risks for the United States in extending the ban to Pakistan and causing a diplomatic rupture. Aside from the economic implications of excluding a country of 200 million people (far larger than any country currently blacklisted), both Washington and Kabul rely on Pakistani support (in the shape of significant troop deployments on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border) in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s embrace of Washington’s rivals, including Beijing, would only grow tighter, and the prospects of sustained U.S. influence in the country would shrink dramatically.
But Pakistan may have some powerful advocates in the new administration. Some of the key members of the impending Trump cabinet know Pakistan well. Flynn and incoming Pentagon boss James Mattis have spent years dealing with the complexities of Pakistan’s geography and its legitimate concerns about being surrounded by hostility. Unlike many in the Obama administration, whose default position on the imbroglio in Afghanistan was to blame Pakistan, Flynn and Mattis have expressed appreciation for the difficulties Pakistan faces, and the need to rebuild trust between the countries and to support Pakistan when it requires help.
Yet perhaps the most important reason to avoid adding Pakistan to the immigration ban is what it would do to Pakistan’s domestic political dynamic. Khan’s approach to eliciting the support of young urban millennials in Pakistan by raising hopes of a hypernationalist revival is not unique to the country. And it would be foolhardy to dismiss it. Right-wing narratives are finding resonance in the United States and Europe, and have enjoyed a sustained dominance in next-door India.
Pakistani elites have traditionally been complacent about the moderation of their country’s politics, but six months ago, many of the same people thought Trump was just a punchline. It’s been less than a month since his inauguration, and from Australia, to Mexico, to India, the White House has spread fear and anxiety. If Trump can win America — perhaps precisely because he won America — Khan is more than capable of winning Pakistan.
Of course, as with Trump’s platform, there doesn’t have to be a good reason for Khan to adopt one or another policy line. No one can coherently explain how the inability of Pakistanis to travel to the United States would help develop Pakistan. But in this Trumpian world, as long as wild nationalism sells well with the disaffected, who really cares?
Pakistanis have rarely bought into such narratives, with anti-U.S. rhetoric succeeding politically only once, back in 2002, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion of that country. If Trump imposes a travel ban on Pakistan, it would help strengthen the foes of democracy and freedom — the same foes that the United States claims it wants to fight. That would constitute an own-goal for the United States when it badly needs victories.
Photo credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images