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Why a top Pakistani official called a senior US diplomat a “little pygmy” on Twitter

Well, that escalated quickly.

John Bass, nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill September 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. 
John Bass, ambassador to Afghanistan, during his confirmation hearing on September 12, 2017, in Washington, DC. 
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

A top Pakistani official just called the US ambassador to Afghanistan a “little pygmy” on Twitter.

Her angry words, in this case, are more than just an insult: They have the potential to upend the Trump administration’s delicate, years-long efforts to reach a peace deal in Afghanistan that would it allow it to withdraw troops after nearly 20 years of war.

Here’s what happened: John Bass, America’s top diplomat in Afghanistan, tweeted early Wednesday morning directly at Pakistan’s new prime minister and former cricket star, Imran Khan, over a controversial statement he made about Afghanistan’s government.

“Some aspects of #cricket apply well in diplomacy, some do not,” he wrote, adding that it’s “important to resist temptation to ball-tamper with the #Afghanistan peace process and its internal affairs.”

Khan has yet to respond to Bass’s tweet, but Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s human rights minister, had some choice words for the US envoy.

If you’re thinking “surely she will retract that” — no such luck. In response to criticism on Twitter, she sent out another zinger: “But seriously what diplomatic norms? US dips have been violating them all day today from Zalmay to this moron!”

So what the heck is going on here?

Why Pakistan’s human rights minister is angry at the US

The State Department declined to comment, but it seems that Bass’s tweet was in direct response to a comment Khan made on March 25 saying Afghanistan should have an interim government to help with peace talks, although it’s unclear how that would help the situation.

That greatly angered Afghanistan’s US-allied administration, and led Kabul to pull its ambassador from Pakistan.

Bass’s tweet seemingly came in response to this last move. He was surely trying to both support Afghanistan and reprimand Khan for his comments. But some, clearly, were not happy with the way he went about doing it.

“Some Pakistanis are now angry at the Bass tweet and believe it was an inappropriate way to address Pakistan’s prime minister,” Alyssa Ayres, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “That’s how you end up with the ‘pygmy’ tweet.”

To be fair, no government official would take kindly to their boss being openly rebuked by a foreigner. In that sense, then, Mazari’s comments are somewhat understandable. She also has a track record of harshly rebutting any external criticism of Pakistan, including from some human rights groups.

But the online spat may have imperiled US-Pakistani relations in the short term and Afghanistan peace talks in the long term.

Pakistan has long played a major role in the Afghanistan war, mainly by providing support to the Taliban, an Islamic insurgent group that has fought the Afghan government for nearly two decades. That makes Pakistan an important player in the Trump administration’s months-long negotiations with the Taliban to end the war and possibly bring all 14,000 US troops home.

The prospects of improved US-Pakistan ties, though, don’t look good because of President Donald Trump’s hardline approach to Pakistan.

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” Trump tweeted on January 1, his first tweet of that year. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” He later suspended up to $1.3 billion in military aid to Pakistan.

Khan was already skeptical of the United States before coming to power last summer. Trump’s earlier moves — and Bass’s undiplomatic tweet — certainly won’t help his perception.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mazari (like others in Khan’s government) harbors animosity toward the US. But calling a US ambassador a “little pygmy,” in the middle of a sensitive diplomatic negotiation, could lead to further complications.

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