In phone call with leader, Trump lavishes praise on Pakistan, 'fantastic place of fantastic people'

The annals of international relations are filled with mundane readouts of conversations between world leaders, the language shorn of sharp edges and massaged into shapeless lumps of diplomatic-speak.

The report of a telephone call between Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was more interesting than that.

“You are a terrific guy,” Trump told Sharif, according to a readout Sharif’s office released of his call to the president-elect on Wednesday. “You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way.”

Many Pakistanis might not recognize that characterization of their embattled prime minister, who has been buffeted by corruption allegations, but Trump told Sharif that he felt like he was speaking to an old friend. He added that he “would love” to visit Pakistan —  “a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”

“Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people,” Trump said. At another point, he said: “Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.”

One could almost visualize a secretary in Sharif’s office transcribing furiously, trying to keep pace with the adjectives.

A senior official in the prime minister’s office said Thursday that the statement accurately reflected the conversation.

“We have not added anything in it,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Hours after Sharif’s office issued its release, Trump’s transition team put out a brief, more measured statement saying the two “had a productive conversation about how the United States and Pakistan will have a strong working relationship in the future.”

Sharif’s two-paragraph statement went viral not only for Trump’s fulsome language toward an often difficult U.S. ally —  an American president hasn’t visited Pakistan since 2006 —  but also because it seemed sharply at odds with the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his presidential campaign. The “exceptional people” Trump referred to wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. under his threat to ban Muslim immigrants.

In Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 180 million people, the conversation raised hopes of better ties with the United States, which has accused Pakistan of not reining in Islamist groups attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

If Trump was concerned about Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policies —  which led Congress this year to withhold $300 million in funding for the Pakistani army and deny sales of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets at subsidized prices —  he did not let on.

“The first ever telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggests the U.S. president-elect may prove to be Islamabad’s good friend,” opened a report Thursday in the Express Tribune, a leading Pakistani daily.

But the call also raised eyebrows in India, Pakistan’s blood rival, which sees a potentially strong ally in Trump.

Trump said he was “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems,” according to Sharif’s office.

There was no context or elaboration, but Trump could have been referring to Pakistan’s seven-decade feud with India over the countries’ disputed border in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. Hostilities have flared since September, when India blamed Pakistan-based militants for a raid on an army base that killed 19 soldiers.

War between the two nuclear-armed nations is one of the gravest scenarios envisaged by U.S. strategic planners. While Pakistan has sought to raise the Kashmir dispute in international forums, India opposes mediation by a third party and has sought to isolate Pakistan diplomatically since the army base attack.

Former Indian diplomats said that New Delhi was looking at Trump’s comments closely but played down their importance, owing in part to the former reality TV host’s penchant for speaking off the cuff.

“These remarks are in the nature of exchanges of congratulatory messages, and such effusive remarks are customary,” sad Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to Washington. “And Mr. Trump being Mr. Trump, we didn’t read too much into what he said.”

Mansingh added that Trump’s language was vague and did not signal a shift in U.S. policy toward South Asia, which in recent years has more closely embraced India.

“Nothing Mr. Trump has said leads India to think he wants anything but a close partnership,” Mansingh said. “One expects that given his tough views on terrorism, he will put pressure on Pakistan much more than President Obama did.”

Pakistani analysts said the statement was a clumsy attempt to show that the weak prime minister had a powerful foreign ally.

“This statement does not reflect the policy of the new American administration towards Pakistan,” said Hassan Askari, an expert on international relations in Lahore, Pakistan. “We should try avoiding issuing such statements at this point in time. And official statements should always be precise.”

It could also reflect fears that Trump has appointed top advisers who would advocate tougher measures against Pakistan. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has accused Pakistan of playing “a double game” in Afghanistan, supporting Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. and Afghan forces.

 

Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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