The Regional Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities for Pakistan in 2018

Spearhead Analysis – 02.01.2018

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The year 2017 was a vibrant one, Pakistan witnessed dynamic external and internal developments. The last days of the former year manifested a series of critical events—defining the contours of Pakistan’s external opportunities and challenges for the year 2018.

Pakistan-US:

The Trump administration- towards the end of 2017 officially released its first National Security Strategy. It sets four key priorities:

  1. Protecting the homeland by securing borders, reforming immigration processes, installing layered missile defense systems and stopping terrorist threats at their source.
  2. Promoting Prosperity by shaping fair and reciprocal economic relations, protecting intellectual property and embracing America’s energy dominance.
  3. Preserving ‘peace through strength’ by modernizing its military.
  4. Advancing American influence globally.

The strategy leaves no doubts about the US threat perceptions emanating from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and other ‘terrorist groups’.

In the US perception, China seeks to displace the US in the Asia Pacific region. China’s ‘infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations’.

Whereas, Russia seeks to expand its sphere of influence in its bordering regions, ‘Russia’s control of key energy sources and other infrastructures throughout parts of Europe and Central Asia’ helps them project their influence.

Some counter strategies to these challenges include encouraging the economic integration of Central and South Asia to promote prosperity and economic linkages that will bolster connectivity and trade. Encourage India to increase its economic assistance in the region and enhance India US defense cooperation.

On a positive note the NSS acknowledges that “the intentions of both nations are not necessarily fixed and the US stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries”.

The strategy only cursorily touches upon Pakistan, adding nothing extraordinary in terms of expectations. Pakistan’s role is primarily discussed from the Afghan prism and counter-terrorism efforts.

However, the crux of the US threat perceptions emanating from the region, may present interesting options for Pakistan. The strategy also mentions that US will encourage Pakistan to continue demonstrating its responsible stewardship of its nuclear assets and would enhance trade and investment as Pakistan demonstrates that it will assist the United States in its counterterrorism goals.

US assumes that Chinese connectivity projects might shape an unfavorable regional order for its interests. China’s economic clout in the region is increasing and Pakistan is also an integral part of the BRI initiative, thus it would be unlikely for most regional countries to entirely align themselves with any one major power.

Pakistan and US must work towards creating non-linear security and economic ties and Pakistan may broaden the utility of its geostrategic advantages.

A prominent segment in the US blames Pakistan for their unfavorable outcomes in Afghanistan, and the demands over the safe havens continue. From Pakistan’s viewpoint, this narrative makes little sense owing to the fact that vast Afghan territories are under the Taliban control. Pakistani officials also suggest stringent border management to disrupt future possibilities of any cross border movements and have requested intelligence sharing to support these allegations.

Recent indications suggest a possible deterioration in Pak-US ties. Reports also state the possibility of ‘US unilateral actions’ and ‘withholding reimbursements’. Both these notions would naturally erode bilateral ties, President Trump’s 2018 initiation tweet on Pakistan doesn’t relieve such speculations. As the US gears up to tackle its broader challenges in the region, it is also believed that India’s, yet undefined. role might be enhanced in the Afghan arena; this also raises concerns for Pakistan due to India’s malevolent anti-Pakistan designs.

However, another sphere in the US seems to understand that Pakistan plays an integral role for US security concerns in the region. Since the announcement of Trump’s Afghan and South Asian policy, several high level meetings between the US and Pakistan have materialized and many speculations have been put to rest.

It is noted that the US may have relaxed some of its ‘Indian origin” demands, the delinking of LeT from the Haqqani network in the NDAA 2018 may be viewed in this light.

Nonetheless, progress remains slow paced and concluding statements usually entail ‘search for common grounds’.

Pakistan -Afghanistan:

Pakistan wishes to see a stable non-hostile Afghanistan. The Pak-Afghan ties remained wobbly throughout 2017, a slight improvement was almost always followed by a series of blame game events. Despite, the cross border infiltrations and often unpromising rhetoric of the Afghan Government; Pakistan on its part initiated several high level openings with the Afghan Government. The Pakistani security establishment continues to propose enhanced bilateral security mechanisms; the recent being “Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Solidarity”.

Aspirations to enhance connectivity and trade with Afghanistan also remain desirable. Recently, China hosted an important China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral initiative aimed at countering terrorism along with trade and connectivity cooperation. There are talks of China extending the CPEC olive branch to Afghanistan.

NUG policy is largely driven by the US and there is also Indian influence. Pakistan must focus on thwarting any hostilities stemming from this front and it needs to see how it could broaden the scope of its relations with Afghanistan beyond the issues of border management – especially as China enhances its economic and development weight in Afghanistan.

Pakistan-India:

Along the Eastern flank, stands an aggressive India. The Pak-India ties remained at a stagnant low throughout 2017.

Presently, India and US find natural allies in one another to some extent, and India also maintains good economic ties with its frenemy China. India is looking at three directions simultaneously; far east, up north and to the west.

Indian actions suggest that it would be unwilling to forsake security for economics and vice versa in its approaches. India may not disrupt its economic ties with China, India may not engage in agendas that may entirely put it at odds with Russia, India may not assume a military role in Afghanistan. Several prominent Indian voices remain concerned about India’s regional isolation that may emerge if it severs ties with key regional players.

India may possibly choose to enhance focus on US led Far East alliances that harmonize security and economic interests of the key players and secure India from entangling itself in any significant crossfires. 

India may however, assist US to some extent in coercing Pakistan to serve their China centric concerns, and seek to enhance its leverage against China. Pakistan must reverse any such approaches. Pakistan has often exhibited its willingness to engage in meaningful bilateral talks with India, these overtures have not been reciprocated so far.

Pakistan even granted a visit permission to the arrested Indian spy’s family – on humanitarian grounds. This gesture garnered little appreciation from India and instead the following day Indian forces initiated provocations along the LoC and began airing false claims of ‘surgical operations’.

Towards the last days of the year, an important development that took place was a reported meeting between Pakistan’s NSA Lt-Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua and Indian NSA Ajit Doval,— the context and future outcome of this meeting is yet to be seen.

India would watch the regional developments closely, Pakistan must too. India is unlikely to place itself at complete odds with key regional players in the long run, thus Pakistan must avoid getting caught in any trap and must continue to watch Indian policies towards Russia, China, Iran, the Arab World and explore where it can find common economic and energy connectivity grounds.

Pakistan and the broader region:

Pakistan recently hosted important 6 nation talks that included speakers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, to explore security and economic ties. Pakistan’s ties with China, Russia and Turkey remained on a positive trajectory in 2017. This is a must for the nation’s energy security and economic prosperity.

The Middle East arena is undergoing interesting configurations. Three broad spheres appear to have emerged; a ‘dominant Arab bloc’, and two ‘non-Arab spheres’ shaping fast under Turkish and Iranian initiatives. Some Arab countries such as Qatar presently find themselves in closer alignment with the non-Arab regional powers.

Pakistan maintains close ties with key players across the Middle East Region. As the region remains tumultuous Pakistan would have to balance these ties with vigilance and utilize these shifts for its own national interests. 

The Iran-Saudi relationship deteriorated in 2017, it is predicated that the trend-stoked by the US may continue in the near future. The year-end manifested a precarious political situation in Iran, because of ongoing nation-wide ‘anti-government protests’.

Owing to sanctions, Iran’s economic health remains restrained and it continues to face pressures of external forces that ‘prefer a regime change’.  Iran’s peace and stability is important for Pakistan and the overall regional connectivity plans. Despite some low points due to some border issues, both nations remained engaged to find common grounds for security cooperation, given the close geographical links this trend must continue. The COAS’ recent visit to Iran had a positive impact.

Pakistan maintains some concerns regarding Indian activities targeted against Pakistan from Iran; both Iran and Pakistan must proceed with cooperation and caution and harness their geostrategic advantages.

Pakistan also has its name deeply linked to the Saudi led IMCTC initiative and it maintains close security ties with the Kingdom. Balancing Iran-and Saudi ties requires creative approaches.

Terrorism and Insurgency:

The political instabilities across the Middle East and Afghanistan continue to give space for the forces of terror to thrive. The biggest concern of 2017 was the talk of IS trying to entrench its foothold in Afghanistan. The actual strength, capabilities and ‘origins’ of IS-K in Afghanistan is a vastly debated matter.

At the start of 2017, US tried to ‘downplay’ the IS-K crisis but the regional players remain deeply concerned. The initial US assessments suggested that the regional players – Russia in particular –  are overplaying the threat to undermine US efforts and ‘justify’ their new approach towards Taliban.

As the year progressed, key US officials slightly shifted from the former narrative and began terming IS-K as a rebranded TTP, that is working in collusion with groups such as IMU. It is believed that these regional terror groups are hoping to attract support of the main IS core to Afghanistan.

Pakistan has dismantled and cleared its territory of such groups, it continues to vigilantly defeat any residual threats. However, the problem continues to brew in Afghanistan, apart from Taliban, other groups such as TTP also maintain a foothold in Afghanistan. The IS-K and Taliban are reportedly fighting one another; it is also believed the allegations of regional support to Taliban is closely linked to this phenomenon. 

The year-end witnessed a series of tragic terror attacks in Afghanistan – claimed by IS. The attack on a church in Quetta was also claimed by IS.

Two possible outcomes of the current situation are likely: IS-K engaging Taliban in an attrition strategy, resulting in the outcome of IS-K establishing a stronger foothold in Afghanistan. Second, is an equally alarming scenario that may emerge if any shred of cooperation takes place between IS-K and other forces. Afghanistan is a war torn country, apart from ‘genuine ideological inclinations’, these groups often serve as a source of sustenance for many. The various groups may compete in utilizing various tools to enhance recruitments. These conflicts find themselves further exacerbated owing to Afghanistan’s assortment of ethno-political conflicts.

Regional security and economics are deeply interlinked. Afghanistan’s political instability paves the way for forces of terror to thrive and positions key regional players in a precarious situation— all this also provides a space for states to run their proxy conflicts.

Apart from the menace of terror, countries such as China and Pakistan also remain concerned about the patronage being provided to separatist terror groups whereas Russia is concerned about the overall security of Central Asia.  Yet, there is a regional understanding over the importance of US presence in the convoluted Afghan arena. The US too, is unlikely to leave in the foreseeable future. Thus, key players must now move towards some meaningful grounds of cooperation.

Former Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi in his recent article rightly notes that “The potential of Pakistan is enormous. But it has been consistently wasted and is becoming irrelevant. Similarly, Pakistan’s location is strategically important. But if this is not made an asset it becomes a liability”

Pakistan stands at an important juncture, the broader East is rapidly changing, its challenges can be transformed into opportunities and vice versa.

Pakistan must watch various trends and developments and devise proactive and creative foreign policies especially in managing its ties with US-China, Iran-Saudi Arabia, India and Afghanistan. Pakistan must also focus on improving internal governance– let the rule of law prevail and refrain from squandering national attention on fruitless political contentions. The US-Pakistan relationship has entered a critical stage after President Trump’s surprising and undiplomatic tweet—diplomacy needs to shift into high gear to salvage a relationship that is important for both countries.

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