The Land of Opportunities

Spearhead Analysis – 17.07.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

New Great Game“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” – Sun Tzu

Interesting times lie ahead of us, where the Great Game of power is being played on a larger canvas with new players jostling through for any opportunity to tip the scale in their favor. The ground remains Afghanistan, with a larger impact on the Asian region; the main power struggle being between America and China, with Iran, Pakistan, and India in auxiliary roles.

The Great Game

Under the new Trump administration, there seems to be a lot of confusion and division between the power elites with regard to foreign policy decision making, especially in Pakistan’s case. In a recent example, while on a regional tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Senator John McCain warned Pakistan in his speech in Afghanistan against sheltering and supporting the Haqqani network, whereas earlier while on his Pakistan leg of the tour he referred to the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship and the latter’s commitment to eradicating terrorism.

A significant body of opinion in the US Congress supports the Trump administration adopting a tough approach towards Pakistan by cutting off financial support first and foremost, however, the other faction advises against it due to the pressure it could put on the country, and take away any ‘leverage’ over it – sending it into survival mode, spiraling further into the security state dilemma, where it could build its defenses in the most unconventional ways that it is known to do. This would become a possibility even more so due to America’s recent acknowledgment of India’s role in the Afghan issue, designating it as its junior partner in the war, drawing upon the rivalry between Pakistan and India, not realizing that this could kickoff a storm in the region – one that will be difficult to contain.

Pakistan’s anxiety could also be derived from the recent drone strike in Waziristan carried out by the US, one that was absolutely unilateral in nature, and alluding it to the new face of US foreign policy towards Pakistan – one that is imposing, strict, and lacks respect of set boundaries. India’s recent addition in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and considering the US’s lack of regard for Pakistan’s territorial integrity, has raised many red flags. The most pivotal one being this: Will India use the guise of cross-border terrorism and attacks, as trumpeted by Afghanistan, as a warrant to target Pakistan? Will it exploit Afghanistan’s struggle to juxtapose and couple it with the Kashmir issue to justify its case and garner support?

With India’s growing confrontations along the Line of Control, it’s government notoriously known for its Hindu nationalist sentiment, Modi’s diatribe against Pakistan and promising its isolation, its blatant confessions of using Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan by sponsoring TTP terrorism and Baloch insurgents (openly admitted by the Indian National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval), along with New Delhi’s frequent mention of its issues with the CPEC – all of this paired with, and supported by the US could be a recipe for disaster.

Heads or Tails

While the Indo-US alliance has grave security repercussions for Pakistan, the question remains: Is India winning or losing in its ‘friendship’ with the US as an ally in the War on Terror?

Modi is setting foot in this strategic partnership with many expectations. First, the hope to influence Trump’s policy toward Pakistan. Second, that the US would build India up as a counterweight to China in the economic scene. Third, that it would give India the authority over the South-Asian region. Fourth, that the US would lend unconditional support to India’s narrative of the Kashmir issue, as well as all issues ‘Pakistan’.

This is where things get interesting.

India and the United States are disproportionate powers, which means that the Trump administration will not shy away from using the leverage that it will procure over India. It’s the US style of foreign policy, the ones that it holds closest are the ones that it reels in in its sphere of dominance: a classic case of a wolf dressed in a sheep’s clothing. India might be asked to do many things that could be against its wellbeing, for example reconsider its ties with Iran and Russia, and open closed markets to the United States. And as Pakistan has learned the hard way, defence ties with the US are erratic, as pointed out by Munir Akram:

The arms and technology tap can be turned on and off by Washington to secure desired behaviour from its allies and partners”

He further goes on to discuss that as with Pakistan, there’s a possibility that once that Lockheed’s F-16 production is relocated to India, it would “implant software to neutralise the aircraft’s operational capabilities in a crisis…New Delhi will never be sure that any equipment it acquires from the US, or Israel, will not be ‘compromised’ if India attempts to use this for purposes other than those endorsed by the US”. That is one possibility, the other is a more threatening one, that India could use the technology supplied by the US on Pakistan if the US fails to put a leash on it – or turn a blind eye to India’s misuse and misconduct.  

While Pakistan has much to be afraid of, especially getting trapped in a two-front situation with India on one side and Afghanistan on the other, it is unlikely that the US will back off from Pakistan – and that is one reason for the US administration going back and forth between statements, one extending a hand of friendship, and the other jerking it away. The US realizes that without Pakistan’s cooperation, resolving the Afghan issue is far from becoming a reality, and as much as it wants to unveil its contempt for Pakistan’s handling of the problem, it goes back to adopting a very ‘understanding’ position where it says, “we know you’re not cooperating fully, and you’re harboring terrorists as a backup plan in case the regional balance tips over, but at least you’re doing something and that’s enough to hold on to”.

And it is for this reason, that while the US is pushing India in the region as an attempt to harass China, it may be reluctant to support its advances against Pakistan. India becoming a regional superpower will remain a pipe dream, as it is unlikely that the US would want to delegate control to India, and give it authority over South-Asian countries that it has deep strategic interests in.

The Chinese Equation

The added dimension to the whole Afghanistan, Pakistan, US, and India scuffle is of China, one that India is adamant on confronting considering that it has become vocal about its angst over the One Belt One Road project, where it has stopped construction on the Chinese territory along the Bhutan-China border, and provoked China by inviting the Dalai Lama to the disputed territory of South Tibet.

However, considering that China’s economy is four times that of India, that it enjoys good relations with many in the region including Pakistan and Bangladesh, that Trump’s administration will seek China’s assistance to influence Pakistan as opposed to India’s, and finally that India has been unable to bully Pakistan into subservience, let alone China – in what capacity does it think that it is well placed to confront it on the US’s instructions?

On the other hand, a new layer peeling through the Pak-Afghan relationship is of China’s increasing interest in seeing relations between Islamabad and Kabul mitigated. The development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) stands as a major reason for China’s evolving role in the region, where its economic strategy with respect to the One Belt and One Road initiative pushes it to be more involved.

In a region where economics and security work in tandem, China is pushed to fuse its economic interests with its regional security interests where its projects could possibly be affected by the ongoing situation in both countries. It is perhaps for this reason that Kabul is pushing China to find a workable solution between the two.

And this is what the optimists can pin their hopes on: the idea that this QCG, and the attempt to resuscitate Pak-Afghan relations could be a possibility considering that both countries want to maintain good ties with China, and would have to correct their attitudes and intentions towards each other to please the former. A statement by the deputy spokesman for Ghani reflects the same: 

 “…this time the quadrilateral meeting which will be held between Afghanistan, Pakistan, [the] U.S., and China would be different compared to past meetings”

As for now, China has brokered a deal between Pakistan and Afghanistan for the formation of a bilateral crisis management mechanism targeted towards keeping communication channels between both countries open during crisis situations enabling them to resolve their differences through dialogue, as opposed to resorting to finger pointing. Since border controls and fencing could not put an end to the blame game, it is perhaps the involvement of China that could insulate the relationship from negativity and dilute Indian influence – denting its efforts towards strategic rivalry with China in the region.

Fast Thinking

It’s true that Afghanistan has become a battleground for those wishing to retain control, and exert dominion and influence over the region. For Pakistan’s foreign policy, this could become a decisive moment where neglected issues, vague plans, and inactive strategies, are resuscitated and revisited to adopt a more self-assured role with respect to its position in the region – in relation with Afghanistan, as well as a sovereign country in its own right. Pakistan needs to a) devise a clear Kashmir strategy to back the Kashmir freedom movement, and publicize its right over Kashmir as India repeatedly does on international forums, b) build strong alliances with Iran, Russia, and other countries interested in OBOR, which will have a more lasting impact on regional prosperity and peace, c) be more assertive where its territorial integrity is concerned, d) address the allegations of providing safe havens to terrorists along the borders – one that Iran, India, and Afghanistan have levied against it.

In a pertinent article by Adam Weinstein in the Daily Times titled ‘Washington’s big mistake in isolating Pakistan’, he speaks of Pakistan’s position being of geo-strategic importance, and the need for the US to internalize the blame as opposed to pointing fingers towards and getting tough on Pakistan. He recommends:

Rather than threatening Pakistan the US should acknowledge its own missteps in Afghanistan, initiate backchannel diplomacy between Pakistan, India, and even Iran, on the issues of Kashmir, Balochistan, and Afghanistan, treat the Pakistani government and military as an equal partner, and recognize that for Pakistan the ‘war on terror’ has been fought at home. Taking Pakistan’s security concerns seriously will not be seen as an act of weakness or one that implicitly justifies Pakistan-based terrorism but rather one of much needed leadership” 

Keeping this in mind, it is imperative that the US stops viewing its relations with Pakistan through an Indian and Afghan prism, and should strengthen its bilateral ties with the nation independent of such factors. It is only through renewed confidence that Pakistan will be pushed to better its position, as opposed to isolating it and further pushing it into the darkness it’s engulfed in. As in the words of the chairman of a Washington think tank, ERG Partners, “If we treat them as a pariah, they are likely to behave as a pariah”.

As for Pakistan, there’s one thing that it needs to make sure, and it is this: to become the opportunist, and not the opportunity.

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