Thursday January 27, 2022

Key to Pakistan’s enhanced reach is Afghanistan

January 03, 2022
Key to Pakistan’s enhanced reach is Afghanistan

Pakistan can link up China, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan eventually into a new geopolitical forum, a Quad whereby Islamabad will get a larger regional and global space and reach. Though it may take a few years, here is how to operationalise this idea.

Islamabad is well placed to leverage Afghanistan by helping China expand CPEC westward, operationalising BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) in West Asia. It starts materialising after Islamabad quickly resolves irritants with the Taliban by offering a near-recognition status. Already China has signed a 35-year deal with the UAE to develop a port between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. China, Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia have convergence on geoeconomics involving China's corridors and its consumer base.

On the other hand, Iran and UAE have improved relations and Pakistan has always represented its interest as a resident in West Asia by forging pragmatic relations with Tehran.

As the Ibraham Accord has brought UAE closer to Israel, Islamabad can also leverage its close relations with UAE by strategically preventing harm to its interests in the wake of strengthening Israel-India partnership. Given the power differential in diplomatic, economic and military prowess with India – and this power gap is maximising with each passing day – Pakistan needs to break a few foreign policy barriers. This will also help neutralise any conceivable US backlash against Pakistan's potential effort for this new regional concept.

Saudi Arabia is also moving to a non-carbon economy and China can be the largest consumer of its oil. Thus, Pakistan, China, UAE and Saudi Arabia can become a new geopolitical Quad with Afghanistan as the eventual partner. As Iran's mainstreaming is in full swing – JCPOA talks are continuing – Islamabad can play a proactive role as a lynchpin of this multilateral forum.

The way forward is helping to break the diplomatic impasse on Afghanistan by leaning on the Taliban. As such, Islamabad's relationship with the Taliban and how best it can avert an adverse situation in Afghanistan come to the fore. Pakistan is too slow to strengthen its fragile bonhomie with the Taliban.

Five Afghan Taliban conglomerates are important players and Islamabad needs new top-to-bottom linkages with the Taliban hierarchy. First, the Haqqani Group led by Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani is a key Afghan Taliban faction and currently controls nearly 21 provinces of Afghanistan.

Second, the most important grouping is the Kandahari faction (Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada and Molvi Yaqoob – Defence Minister – controlling majority of provinces). This faction is increasingly aligned with Iranian interests as well, i.e. it has recently propped up pro-Iranian commanders as deputies in the Taliban government.

The third is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar having his sub-group and is USA/Qatar influenced, but has been weakened substantially.

The fourth is the Helmand Group. It is also an Iran-influenced faction since few Taliban leaders are in contact with Tehran. They control Iranian interests, i.e. drug trade, immigration and the Helmand Dam, flowing to Sistan Balochistan.

The fifth important faction is the Mullah Rasool Group. Lobbying these factions will be a key to Pakistan's geopolitical influence in Afghanistan, the region and beyond. A dearth of vision, diplomatic, political, linguistic and cultural skills in MOFA can hardly be a contributing factor in achieving this goal though. Urgently, Islamabad should recourse to its Pashtun ties to reach out to the de-facto Afghan government of the Taliban factions.

Given a parallel flurry of diplomatic activities underway, India, as a distant neighbour of Afghanistan, has positioned itself to play as an active spoiler. Delhi has deepened ingress with Central Asian countries by exploiting their concerns vis-a-vis the Taliban. It is also trying to get a toe-hold in Afghanistan under the guise of humanitarian assistance. There are also reports that Delhi has increased flights between CASs and India to serve as a launching pad for a fresh round of insurgency in Afghanistan leveraging a Central Asian State as a forward base.

To respond forcefully to India, the only option Islamabad left with is to cultivate closer relations with the Taliban and focus on how best they can be convinced of conceding on two main concerns of the international and regional community.

Both Taliban's and other countries' concerns are not mutually exclusive: the Taliban can accommodate some representatives with a clear political support base of major minorities and also address counter-terrorism concerns of US and regional countries, including Russia, China and Iran. Short of full recognition, a near-recognition status can encourage the Taliban to move forward and start fulfilling their commitments. Here again, Islamabad can convince regional countries to confer near-recognition to move the Taliban to cooperate on international concerns, i.e. counter-terrorism guarantee and relatively an inclusive government. Some progress in this direction will enable the Taliban to come out of isolation and give comfort to other countries that the near diplomatic recognition as an incentive is positively affecting the behavioural change of the Taliban regime.

The geostrategic location of Gwadar does offset China's Malacca Choke Point dilemma, i.e. if choked by its adversaries in Malacca Strait, Beijing can rely on Gwadar Port (and land-based supply chain from Russia). Also, Pakistan enables China to become an Indian Ocean power by giving access through Gwadar. These levers will give Pakistan expanded influence and space in relations with a rising global power, China.

Via twining Gwadar with Chabahar, Pakistan has already enhanced its potential stake in the BRI, i.e. China and Iran's grand investment agreement (worth $400 billion) in line with the BRI's infrastructure and energy development plans cannot unroll without a functioning Chabahar Port. Chabahar is located in Pakistan's Mekran Belt. The total distance between Gwadar and Chabahar is nearly 200km and by sea, it is about 60km. The westward expansion of the CPEC will culminate in linking Gwadar with Chabahar through both sea and land routes.

Pakistan is a net contributor to UAE's domestic stability and both establishments enjoy mutual respect for relations, trust and consensus in reducing conflict-laden drivers in the Middle East, South and West Asia. So, the UAE will geopolitically value this convergence. While the political government of Imran Khan has a degree of trust deficit with the UAE, the military establishment, particularly Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa, is highly regarded by the UAE as a pillar of stability.

While the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia places Islamabad in a unique position, the four decades old cherished relations between the two countries and the people-to-people contacts constitute a rare diplomatic and geopolitical heft. These drivers will constitute physical pillars for the proposed realignment.

Pakistan's role in West Asia, its eventual geostrategic leverage of China's supply chain through the CPEC, its westward expansion and a closer bond with Saudi Arabia and UAE affords Islamabad to work for a multilateral forum. And for this, Afghanistan's stability and westward expansion of the CPEC is the key. Islamabad can undertake the heavy lifting with vision, tact and diplomacy. Is it ready for the gigantic endeavour?

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai