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April 6, 2021

A rough start for ‘geoeconomics’

Opinion

April 6, 2021

The nature of the political and economic crisis Pakistan is experiencing is much more profound than we would like to admit. Oddly, the visibility of how severe this crisis is would not be manifest if the country were irrelevant and unimportant. Pakistan is a hugely important country – and the global slights that disappointed many spirited Pakistanis this last week or so are therefore all the more profound and worthy of being reflected upon.

In Washington DC, Pakistan was deliberately left off a list of climate change relevant nations. This was not because Pakistan is not climate vulnerable in a way that few other countries on the planet are. It is also not because Pakistan has no story to tell on climate change, given the billion tree tsunami’s unique trajectory as a politically salient climate change mitigation effort. Pakistan was excluded from President Joe Biden’s big climate summit by a climate czar who knows Pakistan well. This exclusion is anchored in a specific and deliberate effort by the Biden Administration to signal its interest (and lack of interest in Pakistan).

In London, Pakistan was deliberately included in a list of red-listed countries, from which travellers cannot arrive into the United Kingdom. The principal driver of the scary and big new third wave of the coronavirus in Pakistan? The UK variant of the Covid-19 variant. Plenty of countries are much worse affected by the pandemic, and yet the United Kingdom, despite having nearly two million active travellers to and from Pakistan – the large British Pakistani diaspora – chose to specifically add Pakistan to a negative list. This inclusion too is anchored in a specific and deliberate effort by the UK government to signal Pakistan’s relative importance.

In New Delhi, Pakistan was largely left off the main course of the Indian national conversation despite the convulsions that emanated from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as Prime Minister Imran Khan rejected the ECC advice to unilaterally re-open trade relations with India. The source of that ECC advice? Federal Minister of Commerce Minister Imran Khan. India’s Jaishankar Doctrine – ignore, isolate and intimidate Pakistan – for all its inherent arrogance and short-sightedness, seems to be inching towards actualization.

The exclusion of Pakistan-India relations from India’s political discourse is not possible for a Pakistan-obsessed religious extremist government like Prime Minister Modi’s. But the fact that a raging debate on trade with India can occur in Pakistan without any participation whatsoever from officialdom in New Delhi is the product of a long, multiyear process that people like Jaishankar have helped shape.

What do these three slights mean? And what do they say about the nature of the political and economic crisis the country faces? To answer this, we need to dig into history a little bit.

For decades, Pakistan has punched far above its weight class in international politics. From the late 1950s to date, for seven decades, Pakistan has been a crucial strategic partner to the United States in three different phases of its global engagement. As a pre-Iranian revolution and pre-Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cold-war partner of the US, as an anti-Soviet partner of the United States in Afghanistan, and since September 11, 2011, as a vital counter terrorism partner of the US.

This strategic association has helped Pakistan engage with the international financial system at a level that exceeds the actual capacity of the country. The grand old glory days of Pakistan’s civil service excellence, its diplomatic heft, and the honour its dignitaries were received with at international venues were in fact built partly on this very vital association with the United States. Examples of other countries that benefit similarly include Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. This should be a source of neither pride nor dishonour. Countries adopt and adapt for the circumstances and opportunities they are faced with. Pakistan is, despite so much seeming evidence to the contrary, a strangely boring and normal country when it comes to how its elite define and pursue the ‘national interest’.

Unlike most other countries, however, Pakistan is not a one-trick pony, when it comes to its ability to align and engage with world powers. Throughout its history, Pakistan has enjoyed a unique and distinguished partnership with several other countries that can be defined as strategic. Saudi Arabia itself is among them. So too is Turkey. But the one that has turned out to be the most shape-shifting strategic relationship is the one Pakistan has with China. Until very recently, this strategic relationship was not particularly important to the strategic partnership between Pakistan and the US. As China has ascended the ladder of global economic power however, a growing tension has infected Pakistan’s entire spectrum of international engagements. None better reflect this tension than the story of Pakistan’s FATF grey listing of 2018 and its sustenance to date.

Of course, the climate summit snub from the US isn’t primarily or even secondarily about how close Islamabad is to Beijing. That honour belongs to the Haqqani Network (HQN). But HQN is also at the heart of the FATF grey listing, at the heart of the UK’s concerns about its relationship with Pakistan, at the heart of the Doha Peace Process, and at the heart of the future of Afghanistan. What is the HQN? It is, quite simply put, the most potent and most complex element of the Afghan Taliban. It is the paradox whose violence contaminates the so-called religiosity of the Afghan Taliban, and one that toxifies Pakistan’s ability to have coherent policy conversations with the Americans, the Afghans, the Germans, the British or the French.

Are these countries right to lay the blame for their own failures in Afghanistan on Pakistan? Of course not. But as the end of the Western military mission in Afghanistan draws to a closure, whether well-managed or chaotic, the multifarious nature of how Pakistan has tried to balance its interests, at home, across the Durand Line in Afghanistan, and with these key international partners will increasingly catch up with Pakistan.

What the Pakistani elite will now find is that the cost of a single-track national power – military might – is the country’s ability to pivot from geopolitical and geostrategic to geoeconomics. In short, a country built for geopolitics and geostrategy will find geoeconomics very hard. The climate snub, the UK red listing, and the fiasco of Pakistan-India relations, and the helplessness of Kashmiris in the Valley, are all a product of the very rough waters that Pakistan finds itself in, as it pivots from geopolitics to geoeconomics.

Reform, as a concept, can essentially be understood through a simple exercise. Imagine everything aligning against what you are trying to do. Reform is the act of analysing, deconstructing and disaggregating the alignment of forces lined up to counter the thing you are trying to do.

The Pakistani elite – led by its military – have embarked on a reform of the country’s strategic calculus. This is the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’. The shift did not come when the US wanted it to (in 2001); that’s why the US deep state is relatively hostile to Pakistan – but this condition need not be permanent. There is an array of geoeconomic opportunities Pakistan offers, particularly as a uniquely placed partner of China, that the US can and should engage with.

But this shift now requires political, economic and diplomatic expertise to be realized. One long hard look at the array of seventy plus and in many cases eighty plus year old men that surround PM Khan as the Sherpas for this important strategic shift should be enough to raise the alarm. Add to this, the range of political actors that have been surgically excluded from this process. This then is the political and economic crisis Pakistan faces. An unprecedented capability and capacity gap between what the country wants to do and what it can do. Topped off with a bureaucracy and judiciary that were well out of their depth in the 1990s, and have spent the last quarter century shaping, defining and defending their turf.

If all this sounds like it has the makings of a catastrophe, it is because it does. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing it requires urgent, artful political inclusion, and rigorous and robust rejection of retirees (and almost retirees) that want to continue their legacy of failure through their backdoor charms. At stake? Pakistan’s brave new push for geoeconomics.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.