‘Pakistan is moving from US towards China-Russia sphere’

Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says alternative voices are being systematically silenced in the country

After publishing the second edition of her seminal work Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan‘s Military Economy, defence analyst and South Asian politics scholar Ayesha Siddiqa is working on her forthcoming book that focuses on a vastly different subject. She is currently working on this project as a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

In this interview, she addresses several current issues, including Pakistan‘s foreign policy, its role in the emerging international alliances, civil and military relations in the country, freedom of expression, democracy, militancy, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The News on Sunday (TNS): You recently examined Pakistan’s defence and foreign policy at the Asma Jahangir Memorial Lecture 2020, organised by South Asia Democracy Watch (SDW) and Wilson Centre in Washington DC. Would you like to further elaborate on it?

Ayesha Siddiqa (AS): Pakistan’s defence and foreign policy community lacks independent thinking and diversity of viewpoints. Over the years, alternative voices have been silenced. I was talking to a diplomat, who said that during her two postings to the country between 2016 and now, many people that she would talk to are no longer in the country. The security community that we have now comprising faculty at the known public sector universities and think tanks only preach to the choir by communicating dominant narratives of the establishment back to them through their reports. It is interesting to note that most of the think tanks are located on the Grand Trunk Road with little input from other parts of the country.

Given the fact, only a limited perspective can be promoted in developing defence and foreign policy, which ultimately reflects the ideologies of the dominant security establishment in Pakistan. I have yet to come across a foreign policy practitioner or a politician whose portfolio was foreign policy, but who would honestly speak about the control of this policy. Over the years, the Foreign Office has had little input. Any control that individuals may boast about is tactical, not strategic. A significant problem is that the establishment perspective dominates our foreign policy. There is no societal or cultural connect with any country with whom we have relations. This includes countries that are important to us and those with whom we desire to build relations.

The nature of our foreign and security policies community is such that it seems to have limited potential to evaluate Pakistan’s three key foreign policy objectives: to fight India, seek financial support as we have never developed our economic strength, and getting recognized as a regional power or leader of an Islamic bloc. Objectives have to be in sync with political, social, and economic capacities. Resultantly, we falter in our alignments. For me, the gap between our goals and our ability to fulfill these objectives is a matter of concern as we shift gears and move from the US to China. The issue for me is not that we are shifting from one to the other, but that we may be unable to fully comprehend the challenges.

TNS: The dynamics of the international power structure are fast changing with new loyalties and emerging alliances. Do you think Pakistan will also be affected by these changes?

AS: Yes, the nature of US-Pakistan relations is changing drastically. Even though it has played a vital role in the US-Taliban negotiations, no one expects the continuation of American financial assistance to Pakistan. Islamabad joined the American alliance against the Taliban after 9/11. While the dominant narrative popularized by Islamabad was that it was forced into alignment, governments stuck to the narrow prism of extracting financial resources from the US, which also meant delivering reluctantly. The foreign policy debate in Pakistan is silent about our own responsibility in supporting the Taliban or keeping Osama bin Laden. Ultimately, the relationship collapsed at a point of overselling of our capabilities with limited capacity to deliver.

Now China appears to be the only option. It may be Pakistan’s only hope for economic assistance, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.

In the wake of the fast-changing world dynamics, as the coalition among the United States, India, and Saudi Arabia gains strength, Pakistan is drifting away from the US towards a potential alliance between China, Russia and perhaps Iran. There are a lot of issues that still need to be worked out between these countries. Pakistan will only benefit if it can do its homework and go beyond the idea of extracting limited benefits.

There is an expectation that Pakistan and Iran will come close as a result of both being part of BRI, especially if Beijing and Tehran sign an agreement that is being talked about. Right now, we don’t know if the agreement will get signed, but even if it does, I am not sure that we are domestically talking about the competition between Iran and Pakistan that will happen naturally. It was there even when both neighbours were once part of an American alignment. The hype being generated by the security community is as if benefits to Pakistan are inevitable. It goes without saying that Pakistan ought to improve relations with its neighbours, including India, Iran, and Afghanistan. More importantly, what will be the challenges as both Iran and Pakistan will compete for BRI resources? We must wait and see. Also, it is essential to evaluate the reaction from elements inside the country that were produced as part of our older alignment with the US and serving its security policy goals. One can already hear the background noise of Shia-Sunni tension in the country. We are just disengaging from Saudi Arabia that will have its repercussions. How it is to be balanced for our benefit is a million-dollar question.

“Now China appears to be the only option. It may be Pakistan’s only hope for economic assistance, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. As the coalition among the United States, India and Saudi Arabia gains strength, Pakistan is drifting away from the US and towards a potential alliance between China, Russia, and perhaps, Iran.” 

TNS: According to some analysts, the establishment has become extremely strong during the last seventy years and it will take some time to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. Is that true?

AS: Because of the powerful security establishment which refuses to allow a free exchange of ideas on social and political issues, democratic norms are systematically wearing down in Pakistan.

We have entered from a period of weak democracy to a hybrid rule in which democracy will weaken further. The establishment has weakened the political party system. [Now] I see it as an extension of the establishment and not politics. The present government and how it is clamping down on media; the case of Mir Shakeelur Rehman; Dawn leaks; the abduction of Matiullah Jan – there are so many reminders of where we have gone amiss in strengthening a democratic process. Sadly, because of the weakening of the political process within the political parties, there is no encouragement to the idea of a political movement.

Gen Zia, unfortunately, left more things behind than he took away with him when he died in the plane crash. The will to resist is one of those things. Citizens are so afraid of the ongoing suppressive environment that they do not dare any loner to fight back. The political parties, in particular, are in a bad state. While we constantly get distracted by political rallies, the fact of the matter is that political parties have no vision to energize people and bring back political vibrancy. The media and academia are both in an unenviable state. The conditions today are far worse than during the 1980s.

TNS: One of the strategies to silence alternative voices has been to suppress freedom of expression. Direct and indirect methods are being used to control media outlets in Pakistan. As a result of economic pressures, many media workers and journalists are unemployed. How do you analyze the situation?

AS: Alternative voices are being systematically silenced in the country. During 1990-2000, we were able to critique and analyze significant issues facing the nation. After 1988, there was a relative opening up that allowed people to express themselves. It is not possible now. All direct and indirect methods, including violence, are being used to obscure alternative views. A very recent example of coercion is the harassment of women journalists by government trolls. Today, there is so much self-censorship, it was unimaginable even a decade ago. Fear seems to be guiding people’s instincts.

TNS: President Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. Do you think they can ever leave this strategically critical location?

AS: Even though the American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, their military infrastructure will remain. So, it is not that they are removing every single soldier. What withdrawal actually means is that the US will no longer strategically engage with Afghanistan and get involved in its internal crisis. The departure and re-entry of the Taliban into power will result in a lot of complexities for Afghanistan and the region in general. Different forces will try gain more power resulting in instability and possibly a civil war. Generally, the Taliban influence on their ideological partners in Pakistan, in particular, is a matter that we have not even touched upon. We imagine that the peace deal between the US and the Taliban will start an era of peace. There is a need to be more careful about such an analysis.

TNS: We hear that you are working on a book in London. Would you like to discuss your new project?

AS: I have been working on this book for quite a while. It is about looking at extremism in Sindh and the Punjab not just in terms of organizations but its societal connect. Our imagination of extremism is dominated by events taking place after the 1980s. In Pakistan, many people believe that radical ideas are foreign. However, I am using personal stories of people to argue that ideas that we find extreme today have always been there. The states have not encouraged every idea, being selective in who they support and who they don’t.

The author has recently published his co-edited book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States.

‘Pakistan is moving from US towards China-Russia sphere’: Ayesha Siddiqa