The End of Year Situation

Spearhead Analysis – 29.12.2017

As 2017 ends and 2018 rears its head it is time to take stock of what was and what may come to pass. The world is at an unpredictable crossroads. Trump is in the US, Putin in Russia, Muhammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Modi in India, Kim il Jong in North Korea, Erdogan in Turkey and Netanyahu in Israel—all have their own ambitions and ideas to shape their countries and interstate relations.

The US under Trump is quite different from what it was under Obama. Undercurrents of racial, ethnic and social tension are in the open with sharp divisions on political, policy and international issues. Diplomacy seems to be taking a back seat as the President names China, Russia, North Korea and Jihadists as threats in his National Security Strategy and announces Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the future location of the US Embassy. Trump’s representative in the UN throws diplomatic norms to the wind as she holds out a threat of consequences for those who vote against the US in the UN vote on the Jerusalem decision and –surprise- that her threat is ignored and the resolution is passed against the US by a thumping majority. The US stance on climate change and the multi-nation nuclear agreement with Iran changes and the US pulls out of the Obama negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership. Trump draws India into a tighter embrace than his predecessor by broadening and deepening the strategic relationship and invites it as a partner in Afghanistan. In his August 21 speech he points to Pakistan’s support of the Taliban in Afghanistan—specifically the Haqqani Network—that is subsequently delinked from other groups. He asks for continued responsible stewardship by Pakistan of its nuclear assets implying that responsible stewardship does exist. As a follow up there is the promise of partnership with Pakistan on convergences and the threat of unilateral action on divergences. There is a consistency and resolve in Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’—this needs to be understood.

Britain under Prime Minister May copes with difficulty on the many complicated procedures associated with Brexit and disagreements with the US on some issues. The EU struggles with immigration issues and Brexit and possibly a new future member Catalonia that struggles to free itself from Spain. The EU does not share the US Presidents’ views on the Iran agreement and climate change and Jerusalem. Not only does NATO survive but the EU-NATO relationship gets a boost.

Though the IS is decisively defeated it is not obliterated. The Syrian President survives and moves to consolidate his hold and rebuild from the rubble all around him. Yemen continues to struggle and suffer. Qatar stands up to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies. Saudi Arabia under a young crown prince moderates internally and extorts billions from the members of the Saudi Royal Family as he targets corruption. As Saudi Arabia takes steps to forge a military alliance against terrorism a US- Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance grows against Iran with Israel in support. Turkey having crushed a military coup moves to a drastic purge and total control creating internal pressures even as it faces the Kurdish problem with Iraq. Iran goes ahead with its missile program but according to IAEA does not deviate from the Nuclear Agreement. There are signs of internal moderation in Iran. Iran sides with Qatar and Turkey as well as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.

Afghanistan remains under Taliban pressure and IS finds a foothold there that it seeks to consolidate and increase. Almost 50% of Afghan territory remains outside government control and the opium economy reaches an all-time high. The US supported Afghan government is riven by internal dissent and its writ outside Kabul remains tenuous. US increases troop strength and announces a conditions based approach with military power—mostly air and fire-power—being used to create the right conditions. There are reports of Russian and Iranian links to Afghan Taliban. The US sponsored Quadrilateral initiative makes no headway and China steps in with a Trilateral approach. Pakistan sees a US- India-Afghan government convergence from the prism of India’s announced policy of destabilizing Pakistan and equating Kashmir with Baluchistan as it copes with the freedom struggle in Kashmir and adopts a hard line, zero dialogue and aggressive policy on Pakistan. India drifts into Hindu dominated religious radicalization and intolerance.

North Korea remains defiant and carries out provocative missile tests besides its earlier nuclear tests. South Korea gets US weaponry to build capacity especially against the threat from North Korea. India is drawn into the South Pacific. US shores up relations with Philippines, Japan Viet-Nam and South East Asian states.

Pakistan suffers the effects of poor governance and political instability but sustains democracy as it hopes for an end to a long drawn out judicial process and elections in 2018. It stands up to US allegations of sanctuaries for Taliban. The US-Pakistan relationship remains tense because of distrust from past events and US threats of unilateral actions—even though Drone strikes, the attack at Salala, the raid to kill OBL and covert attempts like the Raymond Davis venture were all unilateral acts by the US. The Pakistan military becomes one of the few forces to have recovered lost spaces, sidelined the terrorist threat and faced down the overt and covert threats from across the eastern and western borders—and all this while supporting democracy and ensuring internal security. The focus shifts to governance, political stability and economic uplift.

What should we expect in 2018?

The US is likely to continue coping with its internal situation though some of the investigations going on could take an ominous turn with consequences for the Trump administration. The Iran Nuclear Agreement is likely to survive. The US will continue to have a confrontational approach to North Korea making it a possible conflict flash point with nuclear overtones. The US-India strategic relationship will endure and possibly strengthen though India will be wary of getting into Afghanistan and will keep its long term geopolitical and geo strategic interests in mind. US-China and China –India economic and trade relations will continue and grow. The IS in Afghanistan coupled with the opium situation creates a common threat for Russia, China, the US, Central Asia and South Asia and this may lead to meaningful cooperation for dialogue and peace in Afghanistan. Brexit will drag on. Ukraine will join the list of frozen conflicts.

The stand-off in the Middle East will continue with turmoil in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq though at reduced levels. Saudi Arabia may pull out of Yemen and the Qatar situation may be resolved. Turkey may face internal tension. The Jerusalem situation will fester and become part of the landscape as Arab reaction peters out and the US-Saudi-UAE alliance dominates. There may be an internal backlash in Saudi Arabia and though the ICMCT will not make headway there may be foreign troops in Saudi Arabia for internal defense. Iran will consolidate internally, strengthen its economy and remain an influence in the region as well as in Afghanistan. The UN will have to adapt to reduced resources and EU countries will continue to re-evaluate their military capabilities. Russia will focus on its economy but increase its influence in the Middle East and South Asia. China’s Belt and Road initiative will gain momentum and CPEC will attract Iran and Afghanistan and maybe India. China’s trilateral initiative on Afghanistan may take-off if the US and Russia come on board or at a minimum it may pave the way for a disciplined and sustained bilateral dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Prospects for Pakistan?

The US-Pakistan relationship can survive and develop if both countries can get out of the deep distrust over past policies and events. The ‘allege/threaten—deny/reject’ exchanges will have to give way to an understanding. Instead of threatening unilateral action the emphasis should be on picking up on positives—like Pakistan appreciating Trumps confidence in Pakistan’s stewardship of nuclear assets and confirming that in its own interest it will continue to be responsible. Pakistan appreciating Tillersons’ offer to work with Pakistan and the US taking up Pakistan’s offer to act on actionable intelligence on safe havens and evolving a structure for this. Both need each other. Pakistan understands the implications of a US pullout from Afghanistan with an IS threat looming and the past history of civil war that brought in Al Qaeda. The US has to resist Indian pressure to target Pakistan decisively and it has to discourage India from its policy of destabilizing Pakistan by using Afghan soil. These are not unrealistic expectations.

The Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relationship can develop if both agree on a sustained dialogue to address and resolve issues without preconditions and without external pressures. Trade, economic and people issues must dominate.

Pakistan –Iran relations should develop and the US should not pressure Pakistan on this bilateral relationship. Pakistan must, at all costs, ensure that its soil is never used for anything against Iran. The limited capacity of Chahbahar makes it a natural sister port of Gawadar.

Pakistan has stayed out of the Middle East situation and should continue to do so. It must however strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Pakistan needs to forge and expand trade and economic relations with the world and review policies that single out any country for exclusion. The trends and the drivers behind those trends should lead to a review of policies. Geography dictates closer ties with Russia and China. The CPEC opportunity must not be lost.

Pakistan must continue to push for dialogue with India and resist all coercion. Unfortunately, with India activating the LOC and talking of cross LOC actions Pakistan has to be prepared for all contingencies. South Asia is being seen as a nuclear flash point and the past structures for crisis management are withering away as animosity grows in parallel with asymmetry. India and Pakistan also need to focus on trade and economic issues. India-Pakistan face challenges, diverse risks and apparent serious instabilities that deserve to be more squarely addressed .It is in their interest to move from the present highly unstable relations with the possibility of unwanted and uncontrolled escalation from a minor incident to a major conflict, towards a stable and sustainable mutual deterrence relationship, in which there will be less incentive for either side to engage in risky behavior and less risk of vicious spirals of confrontation.

Pakistan’s focus on attaining political and economic stability must continue. The right note has been sounded with plans to carry out structural from within and abroad. Pakistan’s future security is linked to economic and political revival and a government that gives very effective governance and ensures a balanced internal environment.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to an individual)