Trump’s tweet on Pakistan blindsided US officials

Trump’s tweet on Pakistan blindsided US officials

WASHINGTON: A surprise New Year’s Day tweet by President Donald Trump in which he appeared to decree an end to US aid for Pakistan, sent US officials scrambling to suspend security assistance without even knowing how much aid they were freezing, four US officials said.

The decision to freeze up to about $2 billion in security aid, according to a later estimate by US officials, to a nuclear-armed ally is the latest example of how, nearly a year into Trump’s presidency, US officials sometimes have to scurry to turn his tweets into policy.

At the time of Trump’s tweet, a US assessment of Pakistani compliance with those demands was still under way. A cohesive US policy – including preparations for possible Pakistani reaction – was not expected to be completed until March or April, three US officials said.

“None of the elements of a coherent policy was in place, or even close at hand, when the president, in effect, made a policy announcement,” said US official. “Despite a mad scramble to backfill a tweet, we still don’t have … an effective policy in place.”

It is not clear what prompted Trump to issue the tweet, which infuriated Pakistani officials. Pakistan’s National Security Committee of senior civilian and military chiefs denounced it as “completely incomprehensible.” US Ambassador David Hale was summoned to the foreign ministry for an explanation.

Caught by surprise on their New Year’s Day holiday, a small group of White House aides and other top officials scrambled to make good on the president’s unexpected statement, said a senior US official who was part of the consultations.

There was no time to issue a formal White House policy directive outlining the amount of frozen funds, officials said.

The Pentagon and State Department were especially concerned that the Pakistani army, which effectively runs foreign policy, might close the air and land corridors on which U.S.-led troops and Afghan forces in landlocked Afghanistan depend for supplies, the officials said. So far, Pakistan has not done so.

At the time the decision was made, there was no agreement with neighboring countries for alternative routes, five US officials said. “It appeared to be a tweet in search of a strategy,” said Dan Feldman, a former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.