Pakistan moves to link up with Central Asia and Afghanistan
by Ramtanu Maitra on 13 Jun 2015 4 Comments

Those who have observed over the years that Islamabad was digging itself into a hole, and believe it is still digging, should note recent developments that suggest Pakistan is now making efforts to become a regional power, trying to repair its moribund relations with its neighbours to the west. No doubt it will be an uphill task for both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sharif to earn the trust of neighbours with whom they had long lost touch. But it is clearly the beginning of a process that could change Pakistan over time from a perpetually-unstable to a reasonably-stable nation. While it is anyone’s guess how and when Islamabad will be able to succeed in this daunting task, the current efforts suggest Islamabad has begun to respond to the changing global economic and political environment brought about by a rapidly evolving multipolar world.


Although none of Islamabad’s initiatives have borne any visible fruit yet, some observers, such as Morgan Stanley’s Chief Investment Strategist David M Darst, have recently expressed a great deal of optimism about Pakistan’s future. Delivering a lecture on “The World Economic Environment: Where’s the Global Capital Going?” at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Darst said: “Demographics will play a major role in coming decades. Pakistan is among those nine countries in Asia that will add another China in the next 35 years, and the impact of this change will be phenomenal on the world economy.” Darst added: “In fact, I believe Pakistan is in the center of Asian countries like Iran, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia that will significantly contribute in the world economy in coming decades.” Such wishful projection is surely premature, but it reflects the emergence of optimism about Pakistan’s future amongst some in the West.


During the Cold War and the decades of the George Bush-initiated “war on terror” that followed, Pakistan steadily had dug itself into a deep hole. Pledging its allegiance to distant London, Washington and Riyadh, the country became a virtual island in the neighbourhood. During those three-plus decades, Washington’s generous transfer of cash and weapons to subvert the Soviet Union, followed by Washington and Riyadh’s joint distribution of huge amounts of clean and dirty money to fight al-Qaeda and associated terrorists, was a boon to Pakistan’s treasury and its bloated arsenal.


But the effect of the transactions was to isolate the country from its immediate neighbours. Despite the geopolitical relationship with China developed during those years to help Washington undermine Bolshevik Russia, in Pakistan things went steadily downhill. That, however, could change for the better in the coming days.


Reshuffling the soiled Afghan Deck: Pakistan’s first initiative


The ascension to power in Kabul of a technocrat trained in the West, Ashraf Ghani, who is much closer to Washington than his predecessor Hamid Karzai ever was, has provided Islamabad the opportunity to reopen a conciliatory dialogue with Kabul. Soon after the Sept. 29, 2014, inauguration of a national unity government in Afghanistan, a series of high-level exchanges took place between Afghan and Pakistani government officials to explore areas of bilateral security and economic cooperation. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz, Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif and Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Rizwan Akhtar made separate visits to Kabul, while Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani led a high-profile delegation to Islamabad for discussions on a wide range of security and economic matters, as Khalid Homayun Nadiri reported in an April 26 article, “Explaining Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Afghanistan Policy,” on the Brookings Institute’s Lawfare website.


Nadiri pointed out that the exchanges have apparently yielded some results, considering the fact that cross-border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani forces, ongoing in various forms since 2003, have for the time being come to a stop. This was followed by Gen. Raheel Sharif’s yet-to-be-honored promise to abandon distinguishing between “good” and “bad” terrorists and to treat all of them with equal harshness. In return, Kabul has promised Islamabad that it will try harder to capture the Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, who is believed to be operating out of Afghanistan’s Kunar province and is sought by Pakistan’s security authorities.


Bucking the House of Saud on Yemen: Pakistan’s Second Initiative


The second initiative undertaken by Islamabad to improve its image in the region got going when Gen. Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resisted Riyadh’s pressure to commit Pakistani troops in support of Saudi Arabia’s murderous venture in Yemen. As top Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Sharif shuttled between Islamabad and Riyadh, the Saudis - under a belligerent King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and his even-more-belligerent son Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud - demanded Pakistani participation. In fact, Riyadh took it for granted that Islamabad would acquiesce. Over the years, the Saudis have provided Pakistan with cash and weapons, and have even helped Islamabad develop its undisclosed nuclear arsenal.


But Pakistan made it clear that if Saudi Arabia’s security is threatened - which implies that Islamabad has brushed aside Riyadh’s claim that the Yemeni fighters have already endangered the country - it would come to Riyadh’s rescue. Islamabad’s decision not to accede to the Saudi demands not only jarred Riyadh but also ran afoul of a section of the Arab world. United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Qarqash went on record warning the Pakistani government on Twitter: “Pakistan needs to take a clear position for the sake of its strategic relationship with Arab Gulf states. Contradictory positions on this issue will carry a high cost.”


It is widely acknowledged, and Tehran makes no bones about it, that Iran does not want the Saudis to succeed militarily in Yemen. Islamabad realized that Pakistan’s military involvement in Yemen would deeply antagonize Iran. In effect, Islamabad’s decision not to accede to Riyadh’s demand was supportive of Tehran, and that is not what the House of Al Saud expected. It is not altogether unlikely that Iran may have goaded China to influence Pakistan to keep its military out of Yemen.


It is also said that the arrival of Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Islamabad at the time Pakistan was pondering the Saudi request did the trick. While in Islamabad, Zarif criticized the Saudi military intervention and asked Pakistan to work toward a political solution in Yemen. Yet it is unlikely that Zarif’s presence in Pakistan at that juncture was decisive. More likely, a decision to not antagonize Iran was behind Pakistan’s rejection of the Saudi demand. That decision likely rested, in turn, on two economic issues connected with Iran.


To begin with, Pakistan is desperately short of electrical power, and one obvious way to ease that shortage is to pipe in gas from Iran. The gas pipeline from Iran’s South Pars field could supply Pakistan with enough gas to produce 4,500 megawatts of electricity - almost as much as the country’s entire current electricity shortfall, Ankit Panda noted in an April 10 article, “With China’s Help, the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline Might Finally Happen,” in the Diplomat. Iran has reportedly completed the 560-mile length of the pipeline within its own territory, bringing it to its southern Balochistan border with Pakistan. All that is required now is a 50-mile extension of that pipeline from the Iranian border to the China-operated Gwadar Port set up on the Makran coast of Pakistan. China has already indicated that it would finance the $1.8 billion extension of the pipeline from the Iranian border to the Pakistani port.


The second economic factor is Pakistan’s realization that Iran is a major player in Afghanistan and that President Ghani has visited Iran seeking further cooperation with Tehran. Antagonizing Iran over Yemen could only create additional problems for Pakistan in its initiative to improve relations with Afghanistan, Islamabad must have noted.


Nawaz Sharif’s Central Asia Foray: The Third Initiative


In addition to these two moves, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan also reflects an understanding among Pakistani policymakers that closer cooperation with the Central Asian nations would help meet some of the country’s economic necessities.


Here is a report of Sharif’s meetings: “In a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Temir Sariyev, in the capital Bishkek, Sharif discussed an electricity project that would see Pakistan import up to 1,000 megawatts from mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Sharif also met Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev during the visit. Sharif flew to Bishkek from the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, where he spoke with Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.


The 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) power line, which would also supply 300 megawatts to conflict-torn Afghanistan, would ease the electro-energy deficit of his country of 185 million people, Sharif said, as the two agreed to develop energy, security and tourism ties. Sariyev promised his country’s active participation in the project, known as CASA 1000” (“Pakistan Seeks Stronger Ties with Central Asia,” by Dr. Abdul Ruff, Asian Tribune, May 25).


What should be noted is that in dealing with these Central Asian nations, Pakistan is not playing with an empty hand. The Central Asian nations have long pined for access to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf to allow their trade to grow. China has already moved in to develop Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and has operational authority of the port for the next 40 years. And, during his visit to Pakistan, President Xi Jinping committed almost $42 billion to build the China-Pakistan transport-cum-economic corridor. Since these Central Asian nations are also getting closer to China economically, they are hopeful of an opportunity to find a way through Pakistan to the sea.


Dr. Ruff points out that Pakistan has long portrayed itself as a natural trade route for Central Asian republics to reach world markets by availing of transit facilities and access to Pakistani seaports. Several agreements have been signed to develop the communication links, including road and rail links. However, Pakistan’s disinterest heretofore in Central Asia, in addition to the prevailing lawlessness and instability along all those possible routes, proved to be a major hurdle in realizing the potential for economic cooperation.


In addition, it is recognized in Central Asia that Pakistan has a well-organized military that can provide security to the weak Central Asian nations. And it is not altogether unlikely that these Central Asian nations may prefer the presence of Pakistani security personnel over the Russians.


What triggered the initiatives?


These developments did not occur in a vacuum. It is not just that Pakistan has begun thinking seriously about the need to be economically viable as a nation; certain conditions have come to prevail in the region which allowed Pakistan to initiate the change of course. To begin with, the weakening of the West’s economic might and the economic growth of China, a so-called “all-weather” friend of Pakistan, have surely had an impact. Add to that the emergence of the BRICS nations, three of whom - Russia, China and India - are located in the region; the likely inclusion this year of Pakistan as a full-fledged member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO); the withdrawal of the bulk of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan; Russia’s lifting of the arms embargo against Pakistan and its plan to hold a military exercise with Islamabad, in addition to agreeing to sell Mi35 helicopters; and China’s commitment to develop the New Silk Road, which will wind its way to Afghanistan through Central Asia, taken all together have created an environment in which Pakistan’s initiatives could bear fruit in the long run.


While it is arguable which of those developments had most weight in Islamabad’s decision to change course in the region, Pakistan’s increasingly closer relations with China, China’s successful foray into Central Asia and Afghanistan, and Russia’s willingness to develop a military-related relationship with Pakistan definitely stand out. If Pakistan can maintain its course - and that may turn out to be a big IF - its strong relations with China and friendly relations with Russia could help in achieving its objective in the mid- to long term.


Why Islamabad faces a big ‘IF’


Pakistan’s main hurdle to achieving its regional objectives lies within its own borders, and there is really no indication as of this writing that the powers-that-be in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are willing, or will be able to contain those forces soon and demolish them later. The most difficult part of this hurdle is a militant faction within Pakistan that will directly, or indirectly, oppose Islamabad’s objective to become a regional power. This faction was created decades ago and has since been nurtured by Pakistani authorities to undermine and bleed India using any means available.


This faction became the beneficiary of all sorts of largesse from the Pakistani military/ intelligence establishment, as well as from some international jihadi groups, while the duly elected government in Islamabad kept its hands off lest it get burned. Brought to life during Pakistan’s first war against India in 1947-1948, this faction’s assignment ever since has been to carry out proxy wars against India. The objective of Pakistan’s rulers then was to seize the state of Jammu and Kashmir using these proxies. In later years, Pakistan used domestic terrorists to carry out operations within the India-held part of Jammu and Kashmir and keep the so-called Kashmir issue in the news.


Subsequently, after New Delhi made its presence felt in Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001, Pakistan extended its anti-India proxy war to the western front inside Afghanistan. As a result, this faction grew bigger and developed a more complex internal structure. While this is not the place to describe in depth Pakistan’s use of “good” terrorists over the years to undermine India on its eastern and western borders or Islamabad’s “yes, but” policy response toward the United States in its so-called war on terror, what is real is that this faction has grown large and has incorporated as part of its support system those who are not terrorists themselves but are active or retired personnel, such as Gen. Hamid Gul, within Pakistan’s security establishment.


This has provided the faction a strong set of teeth. Bravado aside, the Pakistani establishment is fully aware of its muscle, if not altogether scared to take this faction on directly. There is another very important factor in whether or not Pakistan’s recent initiatives will materialize: time. Those neighbouring nations seeking to develop economic relations with Pakistan will watch how quickly Islamabad/Rawalpindi takes on these internal terrorists. For instance, China is keen to put in a significant sum of money to develop the China-Pakistan Transport and Economic Corridor. But this corridor will wind through areas that have been highly vulnerable to domestic terrorist attack. Even Karachi, Pakistan’s largest commercial center, is a mess from the security point of view, and no one really knows - not even Pakistan’s mighty ISI - how many varieties of terrorists are stationed there. China is fully aware of all of this and has reason for concern.


In 2012, when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Pakistan, he asked Islamabad to take action against the ethnic Uyghur Islamic militants present in its lawless tribal areas. These militants are engaged in terrorist activities against the Chinese state in Xinjiang province. The same year, in an April 5 statement, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security published a list of six terrorists with their profiles, stating that they were operating in South Asia (without naming Pakistan). According to the Chinese list, Nurmemet Memetmin, who was described as the “commander of the ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement),” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a South Asian country, but he escaped in 2006 and has been planning new attacks against China, including the late July 2011 attacks on civilians in Kashgar.


A month after the Kashgar attacks, Chinese authorities had invited then-Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. (r) Ahmed Shuja Pasha to Beijing and told him the militants had allegedly been trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas (“China Concerned about Uyghur Rebels Operating in Pakistan,” by Zia Ur Rahman, The Friday Times, June 8-13, 2012). A month earlier, in March, the former Xinjiang governor and now the director of the National Energy Administration, Nur Bekri, had warned that China was facing a network of militants entrenched in neighbouring countries, according to the Chinese media. Asked about ETIM’s Pakistan connection, Bekri had said then: “We have certainly discovered that East Turkistan [Islamic Movement] activists and terrorists in our neighbouring states have a thousand and one links.”


In other words, in addition to the hydra of anti-India and anti-Kabul terrorists who operate from within Pakistan and who are likely to subvert the construction of the China-Pakistan Transport and Economic Corridor, Pakistan also harbors terrorists who strike at China.


In the case of Afghanistan, as well, because of its role there since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and its active nurturing of hardcore terrorists by handing American and Saudi money and American and Chinese weapons over to them, Pakistan is considered one of the least trustworthy nations by most Afghans. The recent agreement signed between Kabul and Islamabad has come under attack already. Afghan media reports reveal that, based on the agreement, the two spy agencies will “jointly fight separatism” and “enemy espionage agencies.” The agreement will also allow Pakistan intelligence agencies to probe terrorist suspects in detention in Afghanistan. It is also said that the agreement has articles on “molding public opinion and narrative” about Pakistan in Afghanistan. President Ghani, who reads the cue cards set up in London, Beijing and Washington, may find it difficult, if not altogether dangerous, to hang on to this agreement with Pakistan for any length of time because of internal Afghan opposition.


Islamabad has surely noticed that the brawl within Afghanistan over accepting an as-is-Pakistan as an ally has already broken out. On June 1, the Pak Tribune reported that President Ghani demanded tough action from Pakistan against Afghan Taliban militants in a letter seeking greater anti-terrorism cooperation. The article made clear that President Ghani is getting pushed around inside Afghanistan on the issue. “The spy agencies of both countries this month agreed to trade intelligence and bolster cooperation in their fight against the Taliban, the latest sign of a thaw in once-frosty ties. The Afghan government played down the significance of the deal, which triggered uproar in parliament and an avalanche of public criticism, with many accusing Ghani’s government of selling out to Pakistan,” the Pak Tribune said.  

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