Asif Haroon Raja
Imran Khan (IK) has assumed charge of the government at a time when Pakistan is in dire economic straits and the disenfranchised people socially traumatized. It is politically polarized, economically weak and is carrying a huge burden of foreign debt and circular debt. Foreign exchange reserves have dipped to about $10 billion while fiscal deficit and current account deficit have ballooned.
Pakistan is faced with looming water crisis and has still not overcome the menace of terrorism. Regionalism has gained strength as can be seen from the emergence of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement in FATA/Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), simmering in Gilgit-Baltistan and in AJK, and foreign abetted terrorism in Baluchistan.
IK has promised a lot and is expected to show results in next 100 days. He is determined to bring back the $ 200 billion looted wealth from abroad, end culture of corruption and pomposity, introduce simplicity and austerity, carryout across the board accountability, restore merit, provide jobs to ten million people, and 50 lacs houses to the poor, provide clean drinking water, make the country green by planting trees, carry out electoral, bureaucratic, judicial, education, health and police reforms, build Diamer Bhasha dam, implement 20-point National Action Plan.
He intends to convert PM House and Governor Houses into public places and has taken a lead by shifting to the 3-bed house of military secretary, has cut down servants from 520 to two and fleet of cars to two. On the occasion of oath taking ceremony, only tea and biscuits were served.
At the outset he has made mistakes which are censured by his critics. In his bid to complete the number game in the Centre and in Punjab, he had to induct independents and members from PML-Q and MQM whom he had severely disparaged and vowed that he will never take them on board. In his 21-member cabinet, 18 are from other parties and only three from PTI.
The most censured act is the selection of chief minister Punjab about which apart from PTI, all are of the view that it is not a wise choice. Handing over portfolio of defence minister to former CM KP Pervez Khattak is viewed as a poor choice. Placing of jailed three-time PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam on exit control list, while ignoring absconder Gen Musharraf living in self-imposed exile and wanted by the trial court is also not well received.
The country is faced with major challenges on the foreign policy front. Pakistan’s foreign policy is often visualized through the prism of the country’s unpredictable relations with Afghanistan, the eternal rivalry and perpetual tension on the Line of Control (LoC) with its much bigger neighbor India and the love-hate relationship with the United States. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of Middle East also figure out notably in the foreign policy framework. The US, western world, Israel and Afghanistan are heavily tilted towards India and have formed a strategic nexus. China and Turkey are the only two countries upon which Pakistan can depend upon but both are faced with US sanctions.
While IK did not explain his government foreign policy in his inaugural address to the nation on August 18, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s news conference soon after taking charge of office in Islamabad on August 20 quietened the critics. Besides passing on a message of peace to the governments and people of Afghanistan and India, Qureshi also tried to dispel the general impression that the security establishment is the real formulator of Pakistan’s foreign policy. He made it clear that the foreign policy will be made at the Foreign Office of Pakistan.
Strained relations with USA
Relationship with the US is at the lowest ebb. Insecurity in Afghanistan has been one of the major reasons for the ups and downs in relations between the two countries. After spending billions of dollars and sacrificing the lives of more than 2,300 American men and women over the past 17 years, the US wants to terminate the war and exit with honor.
Miffed by the defiance of Pakistan, the US is prompting Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to black list Pakistan if it refuses to mend its ways. The FATF, the global financial watchdog, has placed Pakistan on the grey list at a time when the country needs an immediate bailout package of $12 billion. To this end a meeting has already taken place few days ago and the next meeting is scheduled in October. The US has already frozen aid to Pakistan for the country’s alleged failure to take serious steps in fighting terrorism and extremism.
Since Trump’s security speech on Afghanistan on August 22, 2017, the US has been distancing itself from Pakistan and is now at the verge of cutting off relations and imposing sanctions. After several punitive steps, the Trump administration has now instructed the IMF to give loan to Pakistan only if it receives an assurance that the money will neither be used to repay the loans to China, nor for the development of CPEC. It has made it clear that help will be rendered if IK becomes compliant to a degree of undercutting his domestic credibility and dipping Pakistan’s relations with China. CPEC has become a bigger threat than nuclear program for USA since it breaks the strategic encirclement and containment of China, and also poses a threat to the US hegemony in Asia.
The Trump administration, in its latest attempt to put pressure on Pakistan, has started to close various training programs for Pakistani military officials. Trump’s decision to shut down military training programs that have kept the two countries’ security institutions engaged means that Washington’s influence will further reduce over the country, particularly when it comes to the question of engaging with the national security establishment in Pakistan.
The US stand to lose more by withdrawing the training than just the prospects of future relations with the Pakistan military. They have only two plausible access routes to Central Asia. One passes through Iran and the other via Pakistan. Having already severed relations with Iran, it makes no sense to push Pakistan into a corner at the same time as well. The US has all along been giving a raw deal to Pakistan. Drone attacks, raids on military posts, refusal to reimburse costs of logistics supplies, cessation of military aid, do more mantra etc. are the rewards doled out for the huge sacrifices rendered.
Presumably, Washington take it for granted that Pakistan’s dependence on the US for spare parts and stores for her existing military equipment is such that it over-rides all other considerations.
The US changed stance towards Pakistan and its heavy tilt towards India will certainly become a factor that will further drive away Pakistan’s national security apparatus when it comes to developing strategic ties with other states that are willing to fill the void being left by the US.
The possibility that Washington may resuscitate the military training program for Islamabad in the near future cannot be ruled out. Pakistan cannot afford to wait for any such development to take place. Pakistan is bound to feel alarmed and threatened enough to consider instituting suitable measures to protect her security that may not suit the US in the future. Pakistan has already signed a military training agreement with Russia and the first group of Pakistani military officers is expected to arrive in Russia soon. According to the agreement, the Pakistani military officials will receive training in Russia’s military institutes.
The decision is likely to further isolate Washington’s remaining pockets of influence in Pakistan. Pakistan’s national security establishment, which prefers to maintain a working relationship with the US, particularly in the area of security cooperation, is not going to appreciate a decision that directly targets its institutional professional development and outreach. It will only leave Washington more secluded when it comes to developing a direct connection with Pakistan’s security institutions.
Furthermore, an effort to segregate Pakistan militarily at a time when the US is trying to directly engage the Afghan Taliban doesn’t bode well for any effort to revive the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has big stakes in the Afghan peace process and an eventual settlement will have to incorporate Pakistan’s concerns. In that context, the ongoing targeting of the country’s security apparatus would simply create more distrust among both countries’ national security institutions, which are directly engaged in Afghanistan.
Pak Army’s resolute stance against Indian aggressive posturing and on Kashmir issue and its insistence to reduce Indian influence in Afghanistan irrespective of what the puppet Afghan regime in Kabul may want are not to the liking of Washington. To keep Pakistan under pressure, the US-Afghan-India trio keep hurling unsubstantiated allegations of providing safe havens to Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. Imran is also accused of having a soft corner towards the Taliban.
The military leadership has concluded that the US is not a reliable bilateral and regional partner. GHQ has decided to abstain from doing more at the cost of harming Pakistan’s national interests. This change in posture has angered the US. The US policy makers are feeling upset that Imran Khan will “lubricate the military agenda”, since he is viewed as a pawn of the military, likely to pursue GHQ dictated national security policy.
India’s persistent animosity
The archrival India which has still not reconciled with the existence of Pakistan even after breaking it into two, has doubled efforts to strategically encircle and further isolate Pakistan on the international level in her bid to create conducive conditions for another adventure to further splinter Pakistan.
India blamed Pakistan for all the terrorist attacks in India and in IOK and for keeping the LoC hot. Ignoring the hard reality that IOK is in illegal occupation of India since October 1947, and that unresolved Kashmir issue is the chief bone of contention which led to three major wars and several conflicts between the two arch rivals, India has created a false narrative that Pak Army stands in the way of good relations with India.
This fake narrative is far from truth. The reality is that India is a hopelessly diverse and divided country. It will not be wrong to say that it is an ethnic museum and Indian union is farcical and artificial as is evident from dozens of separatist movements and insurgencies in all parts of India. India needs an external enemy to keep the attention of her people away from the internal woes. Pakistan fits the bill perfectly for this purpose. In its absence India will fall apart sooner than later. They know it, which makes close relations between the two countries wishful thinking at best.
Yet another notion in play is that if Pakistan accepts LoC as the permanent border and resolves the Kashmir dispute, it will end the age old antagonism and usher in era of peace and friendship. This idea died its death in the aftermath of 9/11 when India started to meddle in FATA, Baluchistan and Karachi and threatened to break Pakistan into four pieces and also resorted to water terrorism to make Pakistan’s arid lands barren. India has deployed over seven lacs troops in IOK to suppress the freedom movement and to deny the Kashmiris their right of self-determination in accordance with the UN Resolutions.
Afghanistan’s unwanted resentment
Afghanistan under a string-puppet regime continues to act as a base of operation for anti-Pakistan agencies involved in cross border terrorism to destabilize Pakistan. Relations with Afghanistan are once again returning to the usual blame-game phase following the Taliban’s unsuccessful attempt to besiege Ghazni City, capital of Ghazni province, located 120 kilometers south of Kabul. Visiting the city of Ghazni days after the Taliban attack was repulsed by the Afghan security forces, President Ashraf Ghani alleged that the attackers came from Pakistan and many of those injured in fighting are now being treated in hospitals across the border. Pakistan refuted the charges by saying that many Afghans visit Pakistani hospitals for treatment on daily basis. It is still ready to play its role in establishing peace in Afghanistan.
The Taliban that are on the offensive and have gained influence over 65% of Afghan territory and are now attacking cities, refuse to have parleys with the unity govt. They have held direct talks with USA at Doha and will soon be holding second round of talks. Their stance of withdrawal of occupying troops remain unchanged.
Since victory against the Taliban is now almost out of the question, and for all practical purposes the US has lost the war, the need for a negotiated settlement is felt more than ever before. Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is considered pivotal both by Washington and Kabul.
Iran’s unfounded reservations
Iran has its own reservations and off and on heats up the southern border. It has serious objections over appointment of Gen Raheel Sharif as the head of 41-Muslim States military alliance. It is more close to India than to Pakistan and is in a way helping India in her encirclement plan by letting India develop Chahbahar seaport and connecting it with road/rail network in Afghanistan to provide trade routes to Central Asia and to undermine Gwadar Port.
Mellowed relations with GCC States
Pakistan’s relations with the Saudi led GCC States are not as warm as they used to. Coolness occurred when Pakistan crassly refused to come to the rescue of Saudi Arabia faced with Yemen crisis in 2016. Since then, Saudi Arabia and UAE have veered towards India. However, a change is seen in their attitude after the takeover by new regime in Islamabad. Riyadh has promised to extend financial assistance and oil on deferred payment.
Pak-China ever-growing relations
China is the only country which has never let down Pakistan and irrespective of changing leadership, their relations have progressed leaps and bounds. CPEC is a glue which has bonded the two together.
Pakistan’s nuclear program an eyesore
With regard to Pakistan’s nuclear status, it is unacceptable to both, the US and India as well as to Israel. They feel that the Pakistan Army stands in the way of her nuclear disarmament. Realistically, this US objective is not going to change and will always remain at the base of her policy towards Pakistan. All the allegations related to terrorism, Afghanistan, etc. are mere excuses and ruses to keep Pakistan under pressure.
It will be juvenile to think that all will be well if Pakistan were to give up her nuclear weapons. A capability once acquired can always be recreated. The next step will be to reduce her to a state that makes this impossible. In a sense Pakistan is riding a tiger and she cannot afford to dismount.
Reasons behind strain in Pakistan-US relations
Following are the main reasons that resulted in distancing both the countries from each other and contributed towards growing Pak-Russia relations:
- Washington has now since long been choking the military assistance and funding to Pakistan alleging Pakistan to be harboring terrorists and supporting non-state actors in Afghanistan.
- As if the denial of financial aid and military hardware was not enough, US has also put a block to International exchange Program of Military Training with Pakistan.
- Under the new South Asian policy, the Trump administration has given India a larger role believing it to be a more dependable and trustworthy partner to resolve the Afghan quandary, instead of Pakistan, thus further alienating Pakistan, which has rendered thousands of sacrifices for the cause.
- The US called a special FATF session to get Pak placed in the grey list and played a main role in diverting Saudi support against Pakistan.
- The US has been criticizing CPEC and has also gone as far as to caution IMF and Pakistan as to not allow using IMF money to pay back Chinese loans. Pakistan has still not opted for the package.
- Though the US policy makers are mindful of the implications of isolating Pakistan and realize that a likely isolated Pakistan will fall into the lap of Russia, yet the US is continuing with its policy of pressurizing Pakistan.
- Cessation of military training program has caused a serious blow to the GHQ-Pentagon’s direct line of contact for the military-to-military relationship.
Pakistan-Russia improved relations
Security cooperation between Islamabad and Moscow has expanded over the last few years. Among other things, Washington’s heavy-handed approach toward Pakistan has been considered one of the reasons driving it away from the US.
Islamabad had sufficiently anticipated the upcoming harsh decisions by the Trump administration after the New Year Tweet alleging Pakistan of cheating, deceiving and backstabbing. As such, Pakistan started cultivating relations with Moscow which were already on an upward trend after the sale of Russian MI 35 helicopters to Pakistan in 2015/16.
Following are the reasons of ongoing warmth in Pak-Russia relations:
(1) Both the countries have sufficiently moved past cold war and Soviet- Afghanistan war legacy. Credit should be given to the Pakistan’s aggressive military diplomacy with Russia over the past 3 – 4 years.
(2) Gen Qamar Bajwa’s visit to Russia was extra ordinary in further fomenting the Pak-Russia relations during which Russia acknowledged Pakistan’s contribution in War on Terror and termed Pakistan as a geo-strategically important country. During the early half of this year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister and National Security Advisor had already conducted successful visits to Russia.
(3) During his visit to Moscow, the COAS also discussed the possibility of buying air defence systems, the T-90 tanks and Russian engines for JF-17 fighters. Discussion has also been started to sign Sukhoi-35 deal.
(4) Pakistan and Russia have now been regularly holding military exercises. The military exercise, Druzhba (Friendship-2016 and 2017), a two week long exercise had been held twice at a time when Indo-Pak tensions were particularly high. The military drill not only strengthened Pakistan-Russia military ties but also provided a conducive environment for trust building.
(5) After the stoppage of military training exchange program with the US, Islamabad signed a similar agreement with Moscow allowing Pakistan military officials to join training in Russian institutions on reciprocal basis.
(6) The supply of military hardware and equipment with Russia is also expected to increase in coming years.
(7) The chief of Russia’s external intelligence agency visited Pakistan to participate in a four-nation meeting, with Chinese and Iranian spymasters in attendance. The rare meeting focused on the buildup of ISIS (Khurasan) in turmoil-hit Afghanistan, which might jeopardize key interests of both countries in the region. Induction of Blackwater in Afghanistan by USA to takeover security duties will add to the worries of regional countries.
(8) The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries has increased by 82 percent in the first five months of 2018 and stood at $450 million.
(9) Moscow is also working to help Pakistan build a 1,100-kilometer gas pipeline linking Karachi to Lahore.
(10) There is strong possibility of nuclear cooperation for peaceful purposes.
(11). Moscow had also sent its envoy in Islamabad to meet PM elect IK. The Russian ambassador urged him to fast track the growing relations between the two countries while IK also expressed interest in economic cooperation and asked for Russian drilling companies to explore oil and gas in Pakistan.
(12). Being blackmailed and alienated by US, Pakistan is also seeking Russian support for its fragile economy. The country needs IMF bailout package worth more than $ 5 billion to repay due installments of foreign loans, however, Pakistan is trying to avoid IMF bailout.
Alarm bells have started to ring in USA after IK’s election and he having spelt out his policies to convert Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state on the model of Madina and make it self-reliant. Knowing that he is a go-getter and will brook no external dictation, the US will redouble efforts to apply diplomatic and economic pressures on Pakistan as in the case of Turkey and Iran. International media will also train their guns on Imran Khan to discredit him.
His dilemma is that if he disregards the US unsubstantiated allegations and terms them as a pack of lies, and at the same time establishes himself as a leader after dismantling all the internal obstacles in the way of building Naya Pakistan, the US will remain vary of him that as a national leader he will take no exterior dictation either.
Placing own national interest over the US strategic interests comes at a price. Turkey is faced with this reality. Nevertheless, IK will need to make it clear to all and sundry that no matter what the price, he will face down all who presume to limit his vision for Pakistan.
The US Secretary of State is visiting Pakistan on September 5 to meet the newly elected PM IK. Foreign Minister Qureshi has made it clear that after listening to the concerns of the visitor, Pakistan security concerns will also be put forward and an effort made to carve out a relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity.
It will be seen how dexterously IK and Qureshi will play their cards to bridge the trust deficit with USA, India and Afghanistan, reinvigorate relations with Iran and Arab States, further cement relations with China, build mutually sustaining relations with Russia, forge deeper relation with ASEAN, Central Asia, Africa and Europe, explore new markets to enhance exports, and above all, improve the image of Pakistan and restore the pride and honor of Pakistanis.
The new Finance Minister Asad Umar will be under close scrutiny and judged how he will tackle the debt problem and energize the sinking economy. Speedy development of CPEC will be crucial for the revival of economy.
Pakistan should continue with its steady approach in stimulating its relations with Russia as it is in need of a heavy weight like Russia apart from China at global level to counter challenges posed by the US.
As highlighted by PM IK and FM Qureshi, Pakistan should follow an engagement policy with the US to avoid further damage to the bilateral relations and ensure a balanced and mutually beneficial relationship.
The US has sufficiently denied Pakistan of the military hardware agreements, so it must try to diversify its suppliers of military needs and Russia can be a major contributor.
Pakistan must commit as well as ensure benefits of CPEC to Russia and Central Asia to gain from this major economic initiative.
Pakistan should continue to work with all regional and global partners to seek a long lasting and peaceful resolution to Afghanistan conflict instead of being pressurized on the issue.
The US is trying to use economic tool against Pakistan like it is doing against China and Turkey to further its political goals. World needs to see such non- constructive moves by the superpower, which are detrimental to global peace.
Pakistan-Russia are important regional partners desiring peace in Afghanistan through political moves instead of using force.
Pakistan offers the benefits of CPEC to all the regional countries including Russia and it invites open partnerships in this landmark economic initiative.
Military diplomacy guided by the landmark visit by COAS to Russia has opened new avenues of cooperation between Pakistan and Russia from which both the countries have only to gain.
Convergence of interests of Pakistan and Russia in military domain will help both the countries to work for peace in the region. The ultimate aim of Pakistan leadership is to have a peaceful and prosperous South Asia.
Afghanistan peace is a joint desire of all regional countries and Pakistan-Russia partnership in Afghanistan is likely to bring a lasting end to Afghan conflict.
Stronger Pak-Russia ties are the need of the hour for a peaceful South Asia.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, Member Council PESS and TJP. [email protected]