US President Donald Trump’s recent criticism of Pakistan not “doing a damn thing” for Washington, despite receiving billions of dollars in aid, this week provoked an equally combative response from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It is unclear, though, whether the acrimony will have any long-term implications for the relationship – or whether it was merely an exchange between two leaders seeking to curry favour at home.

Nor was it the first time Trump mentioned Pakistan in a scathing tone. In his first tweet of 2018, the president accused Pakistan of receiving US$33 billion in aid and doing nothing for the US. On Sunday, he revisited the topic while discussing the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

He tweeted: “Of course we should have captured Osama bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot. We paid Pakistan Billions of Dollars & they never told us he was living there. Fools!

“We no longer pay Pakistan the $Billions because they would take our money and do nothing for us, Bin Laden being a prime example, Afghanistan being another. They were just one of many countries that take from the United States without giving anything in return. That’s ENDING!”

Khan wasted no time before responding in both Urdu and English, claiming the US had been ungrateful for Pakistan’s sacrifices in killing and capturing terrorists.

In the last of four separate tweets, Khan wrote: “Trump’s false assertions add insult to the injury Pak has suffered in US WoT [war on terror] in terms of lives lost & destabilised & economic costs. He needs to be informed abt historical facts. Pak has suffered enough fighting US’s war. Now we will do what is best for our people & our interests.”

The argument was embraced by other Pakistani leaders and members of the media. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi went so far as to claim the US only remained safe today because of actions undertaken by Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign office on Tuesday summoned the US charge d’affaires and issued a diplomatic protest known as a démarche. Trump responded in kind.

Pakistan’s policy is about pragmatism. I doubt Khan’s words will get in the way of Pakistani officials continuing to seek American aid
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US

The US-Pakistan spat has escalated while Khan’s administration seeks financial bailouts from its traditional allies and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There is also internal political instability stemming from the July 25 elections, which opposition parties claim were rigged. For Khan, the argument with Trump may have been politically convenient and a welcome distraction from those troubles closer to home.

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, was unimpressed by the exchange of the tweets and the subsequent protests.

“The démarche to the US charge d’affaires is just meant for domestic consumption and is insignificant in terms of the bilateral relationship,” he said. “Pakistan’s policy is about pragmatism. I doubt Khan’s words will get in the way of Pakistani officials continuing to seek American aid or support for an IMF programme.”

The Pentagon also played down the exchange, emphasising Pakistan’s strategic importance in South Asia and in bringing stability to Afghanistan. However, Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, stopped short of suggesting the Trump administration has become divided over how to engage with Pakistan.

“There is a strong degree of bipartisan consensus in Washington about needing to take a harder line on Pakistan, but what exactly this harder line should be, and how it should be implemented, remains in dispute,” Kugelman said. “While there may be contrasts between the messages coming out from different US agencies, there is overall a strong degree of convergence around the idea that what’s been done previously didn’t work, and it’s time for something new.”

Jalil Abbas Jilani served as Pakistan’s foreign secretary and was also the country’s ambassador to the US from 2013-17. He said the Trump administration had abandoned its plan to “strengthen the historic relationship”.

“President Trump, it appears, is surrounded by hawks within the establishment which explains the less than stable trajectory of transatlantic relations besides the Pakistan-US relationship,” he said.

Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “the US would have to climb down off the Trump high hill as they have no better option than Pakistan in resolving the Afghan imbroglio”.

“There is a yawning chasm between American posturing, based on bombast and strong rhetoric, and policy towards Pakistan,” he said. “As the Pentagon noted, Pakistan is a ‘critical partner for peace in Afghanistan.’”

Husain Haqqani, however, disagreed with that assessment of Pakistan’s importance: “The US seems to have determined that it has to pursue an Afghan settlement without relying on Pakistan. If Pakistan helps, they will take it but they won’t count on it.”

Murtaza Solangi is a senior journalist based in Islamabad