An entire subcontinent is currently scratching its head over a read-out issued by the Pakistani government of a phone call on Monday between Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif:
Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called President-elect USA Donald Trump and felicitated him on his victory. President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it. Feel free to call me any time even before 20th January that is before I assume my office.
On being invited to visit Pakistan by the Prime Minister, Mr. Trump said that he would love to come to 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, said Mr. Donald Trump.
Clearly, there’s some garbled paraphrasing and editing here—I’m assuming Sharif also said a thing or two—and according to the Washington Post, the Trump transition team hasn’t responded to requests for corroboration, but it certainly sounds like Trump’s very distinctive cadence and vocabulary. Given what’s been released about his other conversations with world leaders, the tone here wouldn’t be out of character. Another example: his informal invitation to British Prime Minister Theresa May to “let me know” if she happened to be traveling to the U.S.
It would be unusual for the president-elect to talk to any foreign leader this way, and particularly Sharif given the complicated and tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan. The country is a major recipient of U.S. military aid but its security services are also widely believed to be backing anti-American insurgent groups, including the Taliban. It’s the sort of situation that any president should approach only with extreme caution.
Trump’s lavish praise for Pakistan has predictably made headlines in Pakistan’s rival India. The Times of India reports that a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry has issued the “deadpan” response: “We look forward to the president-elect helping Pakistan address the most outstanding of its outstanding issues—terrorism.”
During the campaign, Trump—a self-proclaimed “big fan of Hindu”—promised the U.S. would be “best friends” with India under his administration and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He’s also acquired an odd cult following among hardline Hindu nationalists, who are likely now miffed that the man they counted on to be an anti-Islamic crusader has such nice things to say about their most hated enemy. The Indian media is suggesting this is some kind of flip-flop for Trump. He did once tweet, back in 2012, “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. #TimeToGetTough”.
As Akbar Shahid Ahmed of the Huffington Post writes, we should be worried less about what Trump’s plans for South Asia are than the fact that he likely doesn’t have any. Typically, presidents-elect get State Department briefings before speaking with foreign leaders, but Trump has reportedly been turning those down. It’s all been very casual. Assuming the transcript is mostly accurate, then, it seems safe to assume that Trump was just buttering Sharif up without giving much thought to the sensitivities involved in a very tense geopolitical conflict or how his words might be interpreted. Which makes the story both pretty amusing—and scary.