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May 21, 2019

Imran Khan in the ‘hood

Opinion

May 21, 2019

Pakistan has four immediate neighbours. All four are in the midst of more significant crises than Pakistan itself is in. All four have an enormous influence on the security and the economy of Pakistan. All four pull Pakistan in different directions.

Let’s begin with the easiest of the four. China is the most important global partner Pakistan has. Without Chinese investment through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the priority status it was afforded within President Xi Jinping’s wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Pakistanis throughout the country would still be facing long, arduous stretched of the day without electricity. Since the PTI government took over, the relationship between the two countries has seen a lull, with at least three federal ministers – Razzak Dawood, Murad Saeed and Noorul Haq Qadri – taking public shots at China and CPEC.

China is not unfamiliar with the PTI, given that it had to delay the launch of CPEC in 2014 thanks to its infamous dharna. China also doesn’t make policy on the fly. The China-Pakistan relationship can be shaken by the shenanigans of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ministers, but it cannot be stirred. The foundations of the bilateral relationship are strong enough to be able to withstand Razzak Dawood’s business interests, Saeed’s vocal chords and Qadri’s religiosity.

So the primary issue today for Pakistan is not bilateral, but rather how Pakistan deals with potential changes to China’s own quantum of power and freedom within the global system. Growing trade tensions between China and the United States? Bad for Pakistan. Diminished capacity in China to spend large sums of money abroad? Bad for Pakistan. Increased pressure on China to assuage the US and its partners at the UN and FATF? Bad for Pakistan. In summary, a strong bilateral relationship between China and Pakistan cannot insure Pakistan from China’s wider vulnerabilities. The Masood Azhar listing at the UNSC and the upcoming FATF meetings in June this year and beyond increasingly illustrate the limits to what China can do for Pakistan.

The situation between Iran and Pakistan is ever more complex, thanks to Iran’s insatiable appetite for trouble beyond its shores. Iran has active military conflicts, whether directly or through proxies, in virtually half of the entire Middle East and North Africa region. Its investment in sectarian conflict (notwithstanding the degree to which this can be justified as a reaction to Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the same), is a clear and present threat to the stability of several countries. But perhaps no one has the same range of vulnerabilities to Iran’s appetite for destruction as Pakistan. As Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies has succinctly summarized in his Dawn column this week, Iran has afforded unprecedented freedom and space to terrorist groups attempting to use Baloch ethnicity. This tactic may well make sense for Iran, from its narrow perspective of its interests in the region, but it may risk alienating a Pakistani military and civilian leadership that has always remained keen to establish stable and strong relations with Tehran.

The sticking point in the relationship since the Revolution has been the Ayatollahs' objections to strategic ties between Riyadh and Islamabad – but these ties have never been subject to third-party approval. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that the reckless and war-mongering John Bolton will fail in baiting his boss, President Trump into a needless conflict with Iran. How would an Iran besieged by the US and its Gulf allies react? How would Pakistan respond to pressures from those countries to take sides? How might Iran-backed sectarian and ethnic terrorist groups react to such conflict? Pakistan has never been divorced from the Arab-Persian conflict that has defined the Middle East since the late 1970s. But its vulnerabilities today are dramatically higher than ever before. Managing Tehran, whilst maintaining the vital strategic partnership Pakistan enjoys with Saudi Arabia, is no walk in the park at the best of times. The capacity to find and maintain equilibrium may be tested like never before.

In Afghanistan, the momentum for a breakthrough between the US and the Taliban has suffered a moment of realism. Unlike previous phases in the now almost two-decades-long US military engagement in Afghanistan, today it is the Taliban that can afford to talk and fight simultaneously. The expansion of various footprints for the engagement between the two adversaries has diminished Pakistan’s centrality to the actual outcome – but it does not reduce Pakistan’s vulnerabilities to the absence of a compact for peace in Afghanistan. Absent a relatively quick and sustainable agreement, Afghanistan could very well collapse into a different version of the early 1990s civil war it was ravaged by. Many of the very same individuals that helped destroy Kabul between 1988 and 1996 are now in power. Many of the others that helped seal the destruction from 1996 to 2001 are talking their way back into power.

Regardless of the direction of travel for Afghanistan, Pakistan will need to continue to open doors for dialogue with all Afghans, and all Afghan groups. It will have to learn to keep those doors open, despite the tendency of many Afghan leaders to unfairly pin the blame for their corruption and dysfunction on Pakistani interference. And perhaps most importantly, Pakistan will have to play a positive and constructive role for Afghanistan in a manner that eliminates the opportunity for the US and its Western allies, to continue to pin their failure to secure a normal Afghanistan, despite eighteen years of blood and treasure, on Pakistan. In short, Pakistan cannot afford to have rogue non-state actors determine the day’s news bulletins in Afghanistan. If there is one country that stability in Afghanistan favours most, it is Pakistan. This must be visible in both what Pakistan says, and what it does.

Finally, there is India. Amidst all the risk and the worry of an evolving China, an insecure and under-threat Iran, and a perpetually unstable Afghanistan, India offers Pakistan a possible glimmer of hope. On Thursday, when the Indian election results are announced, it is likely that another BJP-led government will be formed in New Delhi. If this is the case, Pakistan will be in a position to present the new Indian government with an historic opportunity to frame a new deal for this region and its prosperity.

One of the lessons India should have learned from the last decade of its repressive occupation of Kashmir is that its Kashmir policy is a shambles. Pakistan first offered India a decent face-saving path to redemption through the Musharraf four-point formula. Whatever other facts the Pulwama attack and the Balakot invasion may have helped expose, we know that a repeat performance of such events is rife with unprecedented and unimaginable risk to peace in the region, and around the world. The chest-beating in both countries is easy, and obvious (and politicians should be allowed some leeway with their people – especially if it is in the pursuit of historic peace). But ultimately the global risks of this local competition between India and Pakistan are too high for anyone’s liking.

What could a new government in India, led by the BJP, be able to do, with its claims of post-Pulwama and post-Balakot victory (notwithstanding how ridiculous such claims may be)? Can the army and PM Imran Khan establish a clear set of principles through which they can offer India an opportunity to address the central and defining issue of Kashmir? Who are the spoilers in such a dynamic? Disruptions in the relationship through alleged terrorist actions have happened before. Perhaps equally important, what exactly will Pakistan have to show for its resistance to Indian hegemony, if the ultimate settlement is an India-centric four-point formula like Musharraf’s?

None of these issues are unresolvable. But at least within Pakistan, a serious effort at detente and normalization with India demands a wide spectrum of political ownership. The passage of the 26th Amendment to the constitution was a reflection of how powerful national consensus can be.

PM Khan will need to overcome his personal vitriol for the opposition, and reach across the aisle to take forward something as monumental as a re-opening of talks with India. If he does so successfully, he may well achieve the historic status that he longs to achieve for himself in the annals of Pakistani leadership. That is something all Pakistanis will pray for.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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