Never have different periods in modern history been without challenges and opportunities for any state or nation. While they come and go with remarkable regularity, statesmen and leaders with foresight and precise understanding of world affairs can take advantage of what would advance national interests. They also mobilize strength and resources effectively to overcome the challenges. However, the real challenge is knowing precisely when the openings are available in the ever-changing world, and what are the likely constraints a state is likely to encounter. Therefore, the major task before our state institutions dealing with national security and foreign affairs, think tanks and independent experts is to make an objective assessment of regional and global political and security environments to help formulate policies. Seldom has this been an easy affair in a region where Pakistan is located for its history of long foreign wars, geopolitical shifts and multiple confrontations in which state and non-state actors have been involved. First we examine the positive trends and then we look at some of the threats that appear to be either constant or new that might impinge on Pakistan’s national security.
It is no longer a subject of speculation or controversy any more that the Americans are engaged with the Afghan Taliban to negotiate a peace deal. Many years back in the heat of war they would reject any suggestion of sitting across the table with the Taliban leadership. Then Washington insisted on Taliban renouncing their resistance to the foreign sponsored and aided ‘nation and state building’ exercise, lay down their arms and become part of the new ‘democratic’ Afghanistan. And if they wanted to negotiate anything, they were advised to talk to the Afghan government in Kabul. Gradually, the Americans have scaled down their ambitious project of ‘rebuilding’ Afghanistan, and have pulled out a large number of their forces. Most of their allies have evacuated, leaving the security in the hands of Afghan National Forces, in which they have invested very heavily. It seems the Americans have finally come to terms with the ground realities in Afghanistan. One of the most bitter of these is that the Afghan Taliban have far greater power and influence, and their interests and views about what kind of state Afghanistan may evolve into cannot be ignored.
The challenge, however, Pakistan has faced and may continue to face is balancing its acts to stay clear of Arab-Iranian rivalry. Pakistan’s geopolitical compulsions cannot allow Pakistan to be part of any of the regional power centres. Rather, it has attempted to mediate and counsel restraint to all sides.
The prospects of ending the forty-years long Afghan conflict, of which the last eighteen years have been the most painful not only for the Afghan population but also for Pakistan is nearing an end. A few months back, the Americans and the Taliban had reached an agreement, and were preparing for its final signing, when President Donald Trump jettisoned it, reacting sharply to a violent incident in Kabul in which an American serviceman was killed. After a few months of hiatus, they are back to the negotiating table.
Pakistan has played a vital role in convincing both sides that continuation of war is not a realistic option. While persuading the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal, Pakistan has carefully avoided being a part of the negotiations or taking any responsibility for its outcome. I am sure Pakistan would not stand as a guarantor either. The negotiations have brought Pakistan back to the centre of the Afghan endgame. Neither Kabul nor New Delhi appear to be happy about how the Afghan conflict is likely to end.
The fact is, the world powers, particularly the U.S. have accepted Pakistan as a key player in the Afghan endgame, and as such, interests of Pakistan are more likely to be accommodated. In this respect, Pakistan’s policy has been consistent: it wants a peaceful, stable and unified Afghanistan. That is apparently the purpose of other countries involved in the reconstruction of this war-torn country. But Pakistan has some key interests that it wants the world powers to address. It will not allow India or any other power to use Afghanistan as a base to train proxies and use them for creating troubles inside Pakistan. Every country in the world would like to protect itself from destabilising acts of hostile countries from the territory of neighbouring states. Contrary to this goal of Pakistan, the U.S. has, in the past, consistently encouraged playing a greater role in the security of Afghanistan. Our experience is different: it translated into India acquiring a capacity to support terrorist networks across the border into Pakistan. Today, Pakistan is in a better situation to get its vital interests recognised in Afghanistan.
Owing to the role Pakistan has played in the Taliban-U.S. negotiations, not only has the ‘do more’ mantra come to an end, but the relations between Washington and Islamabad have also improved. A year back, it was almost impossible to arrange high-level meetings and interaction at the highest level. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has met with President Donald Trump twice and there have been quite a few telephone calls that have resulted in removing many misunderstandings between the two countries. The way global power relations are structured, no country in the world can engage with the global financial institutions, the larger western markets or access modern technologies without having comfortable relations with the U.S. We know that the old time of military alliances and power blocs are over, but the legacy and heritage of our relations with the U.S. is such that we need to continuously create a better atmosphere of close friendly relations. There is now a big opening, and much more may happen if we see a peace deal between Taliban and the U.S. signed.
However, there remains a challenge of building durable peace in Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves the country. The world powers, particularly the U.S., will have to remain engaged in providing economic and security assistance to Afghanistan. There is a lot of frustration and disappointment about the Afghans in the U.S., and the desire to quit Afghanistan is greater, as a consensus has emerged that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting anymore because of human and material cost. We should make sure that Afghanistan’s security infrastructure doesn’t collapse and Afghanistan doesn’t plunge back into a new civil war. There is lot of scepticism about political capacity and will of the Afghan factional leaders to respect the peace deals, share power and rebuild their country. While supporting the efforts, current and in future, to stabilise Afghanistan, Pakistan will have to prepare for the worst – civil war, more refugees and likely opportunism of hostile powers supporting rival Afghan factions.
It is time to cultivate an image of Pakistan as a beautiful land of natural wonders, blessed with the heritage of several civilizations, diverse cultures and warm people. Fortunately, the reimaging of Pakistan is not a major issue, as the reality on the ground is far more positive than it used to be a few years back.
Pakistan’s relations with China, and several agreements to take the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects to the next stage, will continue to offer Pakistan an opportunity of fast economic revival and growth. We have completed many of the road transport infrastructural schemes, like motorways, Gwadar Port and power generation facilities. Despite a lot of open criticism and behind the scene pressures from the U.S. to explore other ‘alternatives’ to the China-sponsored development plans under the Belt and Road Initiative Pakistan has remained steadfast. It is Pakistan’s future, as it integrates with the second-largest economy in the world, which is fast-growing and next door. In the coming years, we will see the development of economic zones along the motorways, foreign direct investment, and fast industrial growth. Deepening relations with China are not about alignment or re-alignment, the two words that have become a cliché in a fast globalizing world; it is about strategic and economic realism and building further on the heritage of trust, mutual cooperation and benefits spanning about half a century.
Challenges and Constraints
India, as we are abundantly aware, has remained a major threat to Pakistan’s security. Both the founders of India as well as later generations of political leaders, and most of the parties on the right of the ideological spectrum, have lived with a lingering resentment of creation and independence of Muslim majority Pakistan. Never have they let any opportunity go when circumstances offered, to harm Pakistan. Actually, our assessment has proved right time and again that India poses an existential threat. Asymmetries of size, economic and industrial base, actual and potential power assets have consistently encouraged the Indian leaders to expand the horizons of their ‘manifest destiny’ to include playing a great power role in the neighbourhood. Quite remarkably, we have very successfully resisted India’s quest for domination. Learning some bitter lessons from the East Pakistan debacle, which couldn’t happen without India’s military intervention, we have acquired a deterrent capability that has frustrated many of its designs against us.
Today, India under the political power of Bharatiya Janata Party which is fascist in its ideological orientation, and diehard anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan, poses multiple threats. It has kept its strategy of destabilising Pakistan through proxies and terrorist groups no secret. There is considerable evidence about how it has been training, equipping and sheltering terror groups in Afghanistan that have many a times carried out acts of violence. Well before coming to power, the BJP and its leaders had been ranting against Pakistan, and they have been involved in acts of violence against Muslims, including massacre of thousands of innocent Muslims in the Gujarat state when Narendra Modi was the chief minister. More recently, they have revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, ending special autonomous status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Actually, they have disbanded the state altogether. On the heal of locking down the entire Kashmir region the BJP government has amended the Citizenship Act, which may leave tens of millions of Muslims stateless. There is growing resentment against the new act, which is evident from all right groups, including opposition political parties protesting in every major town and city of India. The Modi government may set itself on an adventurous course against Pakistan to divert attention from growing domestic troubles. It has already heated up situation along the Line of Control.
The world community has widely condemned Indian actions in Kashmir and its discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. We have never seen such an outpouring of support and sympathy for the people of Kashmir as in response to the Indian blockage of vast civilian population. The media coverage, debates and discussion in the powerful houses of legislatures of the western democracies and favourable comments by intellectuals are unprecedented. With the new challenge that India’s attempts to transform itself into a Hindu state pose, has come a good opportunity for Pakistan to present its case and that of the people of Kashmir more widely and effectively.
The Middle East landscape offers great opportunities where we have the largest of manpower exports, a short distance market and a long history of very close ties with the pro-West regimes. Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have always come forward to support Pakistan in very threatening and destabilising economic situations. They continue to play a big role in providing Pakistan a breathing economic space for restructuring and stabilising its economy. Without their reserves in the State Bank of Pakistan, huge short-term loans, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, offering delayed-payment facility for oil, Pakistan could face economic meltdown. Pakistan’s policy has been justifiably right in staying within the orbit of Saudi Arabia-led Arab bloc. These countries have been our time-tested friends.
The challenge, however, Pakistan has faced and may continue to face is balancing its acts to stay clear of Arab-Iranian rivalry. Pakistan’s geopolitical compulsions cannot allow it to be part of any of the regional power centres. Rather, it has attempted to mediate and counsel restraint to all sides.
Recent developments in Iraq – the American attack against Iranian supported militia in reaction to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on December 27, 2019 by members of popularly mobilized militias, and then assassination of Iran’s most glorified and powerful, General Qasem Soleimani in the early hours of January 2, 2020 – are likely to push the shadowy war between Iran and the U.S. to the next level. In any such eventuality, Pakistan will face two challenges. First, what if escalation in and around the gulf region involves security of Saudi Arabia and UAE? Pakistan has made an open commitment to extending security assistance to them, if they are directly attacked. That may test and challenge the traditional position of Pakistan that it will remain neutral. Second, what if the U.S. acts on its plans of regime change, and it heats up its confrontation with Iran further? That will create a more complex and difficult environment for Pakistan to stay neutral, and at the same time remain friendly with either side. In my opinion, no matter what the cost, we should stay neutral all the time and in every situation. That is for the long term, and also in the interests of national cohesion, solidarity and national security.
Pakistan has made tremendous progress in reviving its image as a moderate and modern state. The global community has begun to acknowledge tremendous sacrifices, resolve and success of our national security forces against terrorism. We need to build on our success by accelerating post-conflict reconstruction, which has seen remarkable progress with allocation of greater funds for the tribal districts. It is time to cultivate an image of Pakistan as a beautiful land of natural wonders, blessed with the heritage of several civilizations, diverse cultures and warm people. Fortunately, the reimaging of Pakistan is not a major issue, as the reality on the ground is far more positive than it used to be a few years back. As our engagement with the world, as a society, through promotion of tourism and other interactions increases, greater clarity about a real Pakistan – a land of peace and harmony – will grow further.
Pakistan has cumulative capacity, potential, skills, national achievement and talent of youthful population to make its place prominent in the community of nations. Many of the challenges of last two decades seem to be fast moving into the shadow of history. Much would depend on how our political and national security leadership can make the best use of the openings and devise careful strategies to steer the country clear of growing dangers of conflict in the Middle East.
Equally important are domestic issues of political stability, economic revival and fast growth. At the end of the day, it is the question of national power of all dimensions that matters in achieving the national purpose. The more we focus on this aspect, the better it is for peace, stability and social order.
The writer is an eminent defense/political analyst who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. Presently he is on the faculty of LUMS.
E-mail: [email protected]
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