Pakistan risks falling off the tightrope it walks as it attempts to balance its relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Developments in recent days, including this weekend’s Baloch nationalist attack on a luxury hotel in the strategic port city of Gwadar and a legal dispute over completion of a gas pipeline against the backdrop of Saudi-Iranian-Qatari competition for the Pakistani gas market, suggest that Pakistan is caught between a rock and a hard place.
The South Asian nation’s seemingly unsustainable tightrope walk is likely to have consequences for the security of China’s massive US$45 billion investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative; an approximately US$10 billion planned Saudi investment in a refinery and a copper mine in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; and Pakistani hopes of getting a grip on political violence in a bid to attract further badly needed foreign investment and avoid sanctioning for inadequate counterterrorism measures.
The assault on the highly secured hilltop Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel Gwadar, part of Pakistan’s largest luxury hotel chain, in which four people, including three gunmen were killed, was the second incident since Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani last month agreed to step up security cooperation along their 959-kilometre long border.
Many Baloch, members of an ethnic minority on both sides of the border, feel economically disadvantaged and marginalized with a minority harbouring nationalist aspirations. Security-led repressive policies by both Iran and Pakistan have fuelled militancy and offer ample opportunity for manipulation by regional powers.
In an emailed statement claiming responsibility for the hotel attack, Baloch Liberation Army (BL) spokesman Jihand Baloch said this weekend’s attack targeted “Chinese and other investors who were staying at the PC hotel.” The hotel was believed to have few guests because of Ramadan.
In an earlier statement issued last week after an attack on a coal mine in which five people were killed, Mr. Baloch asserted that “Balochistan is a war-torn region and we will not allow any investments until the independence of Balochistan.”
BLA operatives have in the past seven months hit various Chinese targets beyond the boundaries of Balochistan, including a convoy transporting Chinese engineers in Karachi and the People’s Republic’s consulate in the city.
Baloch nationalist militancy is not the only problem confronting Pakistani security forces in the strategic southwest of the country. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack last month on a market in the Baloch capital of Quetta frequented by Hazaras, a beleaguered Shiite minority, in which 19 people were killed and dozens injured.
Iran blamed allegedly Saudi and US-backed Balochistan-based Sunni Muslim militants for an assault in February on the Iranian side of the border that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards.
In an apparent bid to build confidence, Mr. Khan admitted during his visit to Tehran that militants operating from Pakistan had attacked targets in Iran but vowed to put an end to that.
Complicating Mr. Khan’s efforts to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran and safeguard crucial Chinese and future Saudi investment is the fact that the Trump administration’s stepped up maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic republic is restricting the South Asian nation’s ability to live up to prior commitments to Iran and fuelling Iranian concern that Saudi Arabia is able to influence Pakistani policy.
Jeddah-based Arab News quoted Mobin Saulat, the managing director of Pakistan’s state-owned Inter State Gas Systems, as advising his Iranian counterparts that US sanctions were preventing it from completing the Pakistani leg of an agreed gas pipeline despite statements by Messrs. Khan and Rouhani that they were seeking to enhance connectivity between their two countries.
Iranian suspicion of Saudi covert activity in Balochistan as well as the kingdom’s ability to influence Pakistani policy stems from multiple factors that Tehran sees as indicators.
These include massive Saudi financial assistance to help Pakistan avert a financial crisis, question marks among international oil executives of the economic rationale for the kingdom’s plan to build a refinery in Gwadar, a plan published by a Riyadh think tank calling for the fostering of an insurgency among Iran’s Baloch minority, reports by Pakistani militants of Saudi funding for anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim militants in Balochistan, and evidence of broader segments of the Pakistani population buying into Saudi-inspired ultraconservative interpretations of Islam as a result of the kingdom’s decades-long support of religious and cultural institutions as well as media.
Iran’s province of Sistan and Balochistan hosts the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres up the Arabian Sea coast from Gwadar. A shadowy militant Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar in December.
Pakistan scholar Madiha Afzal noted in a just released Brookings report that “Saudi Arabia has succeeded in changing the character of Pakistan’s religiosity in a bid to expand its influence in the Muslim world, and in its mission to counter Iran.”
While US sanctions may have, at least for now, given the death knell to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, Saudi influence appears to have failed in stopping Pakistan from entertaining a gas deal with Qatar, another of the kingdom’s nemeses, despite an almost two-year old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.
Qatar recently lowered the price in a bid for a major Pakistani liquified natural gas (LNG) contract in an effort to outcompete Saudi Arabia, that last month sent a delegation to Islamabad to discuss the South Asian nation’s gas needs.
The competition is about more than commercial advantage. While Qatar sees its gas exports as part of its soft power strategy, Saudi Arabia views the Pakistani contract as part of an effort to establish the kingdom as a major trader and marketeer as it strives to position itself as a significant gas exporter over the next decade.
Pakistan’s ability to maintain its tightrope walk could be further endangered if it fails to convince the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watch dog, that it is doing sufficient to meet the group’s standards.
Pakistan was last year grey listed by the group and risks being blacklisted if it fails to convince FATF in talks later this month that it has substantially improved its controls. Blacklisting listing would significantly curtail its access to international finance at a time that it is seeking a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. (IMF).
Juggling multiple balls is proving to be an increasingly difficult act in which Pakistan may be the country out on a limb but many of its partners have a stake in ensuring that it maintains its tightrope walk.
India’s open invitation to a nuclear Armageddon
Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said that “India was not averse to the possible demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier , the world’s highest battleground and an old sore in India-Pakistan ties , provided the neighbour accepted the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) that separates Indian and Pakistani positions. Acceptance of AGPL is the first step towards demilitarisation but the Pakistan side loathes doing that”. He said, ‘The Siachen situation occurred because of unilateral attempts by Pakistan to change status quo and countermeasures taken by the Indian Army’ (Not averse to demilitarisation of Siachen if Pak meets pre-condition: Army chief, Hindustan Times January 13, 2022).
Reacting to the Indian army chief’s statement, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan reminisced that the Siachen could not fructify into a written agreement because India wanted Siachen and Kashmir to be settled together. India’s approach ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ scuttled the agreement. As for Kashmir, “a simultaneous effort was made through the backchannel …in what is commonly known as the Four-Point Formula” (Siachen recollections, Dawn January 16, 2022). Riaz laments Indi’s distrust that hindered a solution.
Shyam Saran, a voice in the wilderness
Shyam Saran, in his book How India Sees the World (pp. 88-93) makes startling revelations about how this issue eluded solution at last minute. India itself created the Siachen problem. Saran reminisces, in the 1970s, US maps began to show 23000 kilometers of Siachen area under Pakistan’s control. Thereupon, Indian forces were sent to occupy the glacier in a pre-emptive strike, named Operation Meghdoot. Pakistani attempts to dislodge them did not succeed. But they did manage to occupy and fortify the lower reaches’.
He recalls how Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek agreements could not fructify for lack of political will or foot dragging. He says ‘NN Vohra, who was the defence secretary at the time, confirmed in a newspaper interview that an agreement on Siachen had been reached. At the last moment, however, a political decision was taken by the Narasimha Rao government to defer its signing to the next round of talks scheduled for January the following year. But, this did not happen…My defence of the deal became a voice in the wilderness’.
Saran says, `Kautliyan template would say the options for India are sandhi, conciliation; asana, neutrality; and yana, victory through war. One could add dana, buying allegiance through gifts; and bheda, sowing discord. The option of yana, of course would be the last in today’s world’ (p. 64, ibid.).
India’s current first option
It appears that Kautliya’s last-advised option,yana, as visualised by Shyam Saran, is India’s first option nowadays. Kautlya also talks about koota yuddha (no holds barred warfare), and maya yuddha (war by tricks) that India is engaged in.
By unilaterally declaring the disputed Jammu and Kashmir its territory does not solve the Kashmir problem. This step reflects that India has embarked upon the policy “might is right”. In Kotliyan parlance it would be “matsy nyaya, or mach nyaya”, that is big fish eats the small one. What if China also annexes disputed borders with India? India annexed Kashmir presuming that Pakistan is not currently in a position to respond militarily, nor could it agitate the matter at international forums for fear of US ennui.
India’s annexation smacks of acceptance of quasi-Dixon Plan, barring mention of plebiscite and division of Jammu. . Dixon proposed: Ladakh should be awarded to India. Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit and Baltistan) should remain with Pakistan. Whole Kashmir valley should have a plebiscite with no option to independence. Jammu should be divided on religious basis. The river Chmab should be the dividing line. Northern Jammu (Muslims dominated) should go to Pakistan and Hindu majority parts of Jammu to remain with India.
In short Muslim areas should have gone with Pakistan and Hindu-Buddhist majority areas should have remained with India.
India’s annexation has no legal sanctity. But, it could have bbeen sanctified in a mutually agreed Kashmir solution.
India portrays the freedom movement in Kashmir as `terrorism’. What about India’s terrorism in neighbouring countries?
The world is listless to accounts of former diplomats and RAW officers about executing insurgencies in neighbouring countries. B. Raman, in his book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane makes no bones about India’s involvement up to the level of prime minister in Bangladesh’s insurgency.
Will the world take notice of confessions by Indi’s former intelligence officers and diplomats?B. Raman reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta. Kao, through one RAW agent, hijacked a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore.
India’s ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, with the consent of then foreign minister Jaswant Singh, `coordinated military and medical assistance that India was secretly giving to Massoud and his forces’… `helicopters, uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds through his brother in London, Wali Massoud’, delivered circuitously with the help of other countries who helped this outreach’. When New Delhi queried about the benefit of costly support to Northern Alliance chief Massoud, Kumar explained, “He is battling someone we should be battling. When Massoud fights the Taliban, he fights Pakistan.”
Death of back-channel
In his memoirs In the line of fire (pp.302-303), president Musharraf had proposed a personal solution of the Kashmir issue. This solution, in essence, envisioned self-rule in demilitarised regions of Kashmir under a joint-management mechanism. The solution pre-supposed* reciprocal flexibility.
Death of dialogue and diplomacy
Riaz warns of “incalculable” risks as the result of abrogation of Kashmir statehood (Aug 5, 2019). Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. In the absence of a dialogue on outstanding issues, war, perhaps a nuclear one, comes up as the only option.
Sans sincerity, the only Kashmir solution is a nuclear Armageddon. Or, perhaps divine intervention.
Major Challenges for Pakistan in 2022
Pakistan has been facing sever challenges since 1980s, after the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The history is full of challenges, but, being a most resilient nation, Pakistan has faced some of them bravely and overcome successfully. Yet, few are rather too big for Pakistan and still struggling to overcome in the near future.
Some of the challenges are domestic or internal, which can be addressed conveniently. But, some of them are part of geopolitics and rather beyond control of Pakistan itself. Such challenges need to pay more attention and need to be smarter and address them wisely.
Few key areas will be the main focus of Pakistan in the year ahead. Relations with China and the US while navigating the Sino-US confrontation, dealing with Afghanistan’s uncertainties, managing the adversarial relationship with India and balancing ties between strategic ally Saudi Arabia and neighbor Iran.
Pakistan has to pursue its diplomatic goals in an unsettled global and regional environment marked by several key features. They include rising East-West tensions, increasing preoccupation of big powers with domestic challenges, ongoing trade and technology wars overlying the strategic competition between China and the US, a fraying rules-based international order and attempts by regional and other powers to reshape the rules of the game in their neighborhood.
Understanding the dynamics of an unpredictable world is important especially as unilateral actions by big powers and populist leaders, which mark their foreign policy, have implications for Pakistan’s diplomacy. In evolving its foreign policy strategy Pakistan has to match its goals to its diplomatic resources and capital. No strategy is effective unless ends and means are aligned.
Pakistan’s relations with China will remain its overriding priority. While a solid economic dimension has been added to long-standing strategic ties, it needs sustained high-level engagement and consultation to keep relations on a positive trajectory. CPEC is on track, timely and smoothly progress is crucial to reinforce Beijing’s interest in strengthening Pakistan, economically and strategically. Close coordination with Beijing on key issues remains important.
Pakistan wants to improve ties with the US. But relations will inevitably be affected by Washington’s ongoing confrontation with Beijing, which American officials declare has an adversarial dimension while China attributes a cold war mindset to the US. Islamabad seeks to avoid being sucked into this big power rivalry. But this is easier said than done. So long as US-China relations remain unsteady it will have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s effort to reset ties with the US especially as containing China is a top American priority. Pakistan desires to keep good relations with the US, but, not at the cost of China. In past, Pakistan was keeping excellent relations with US, while simultaneously very close with China. When the US imposed economic blockade against China and launched anti-communism drive during the cold war, Pakistan was close ally with the US and yet, keeping excellent relations with China. Pakistan played vital role in bring China and the US to establish diplomatic relations in 1970s. Yet, Pakistan possesses the capability to narrow down the hostility between China and the US.
Pakistan was close ally with the US during cold war, anti-communism threat, war against USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s, and war on terror, etc. Pakistan might be a small country, but, possesses strategic importance. As long as, the US was cooperating with Pakistan, Pakistan looked after the US interest in the whole region. In fact, Pakistan ensured that the US has achieved its all strategic goals in the region. Since, the US kept distance from Pakistan, is facing failure after another failure consecutively. The importance of Pakistan is well recognized by the deep state in the US.
US thinks that withdrawal from Afghanistan has diminished Pakistan’s importance for now. For almost two decades Afghanistan was the principal basis for engagement in their frequently turbulent ties, marked by both cooperation and mistrust. As Pakistan tries to turn a new page with the US the challenge is to find a new basis for a relationship largely shorn of substantive bilateral content. Islamabad’s desire to expand trade ties is in any case contingent on building a stronger export base.
Complicating this is Washington’s growing strategic and economic relations with India, its partner of choice in the region in its strategy to project India as a counterweight to China. The implications for Pakistan of US-India entente are more than evident from Washington turning a blind eye to the grim situation in occupied Kashmir and its strengthening of India’s military and strategic capabilities. Closer US-India ties will intensify the strategic imbalance in the region magnifying Pakistan’s security challenge.
Multiple dimensions of Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan will preoccupy Islamabad, which spent much of 2021 engaged with tumultuous developments there. While Pakistan will continue to help Afghanistan avert a humanitarian and economic collapse it should not underestimate the problems that may arise with an erstwhile ally. For one, the TTP continues to be based in Afghanistan and conduct attacks from there. The border fencing issue is another source of unsettled discord. Careful calibration of ties will be needed — assisting Afghanistan but avoiding overstretch, and acknowledging that the interests of the Taliban and Pakistan are far from identical. Moreover, in efforts to mobilize international help for Afghanistan, Islamabad must not exhaust its diplomatic capital, which is finite and Pakistan has other foreign policy goals to pursue.
Managing relations with India will be a difficult challenge especially as the Modi government is continuing its repressive policy in occupied Kashmir and pressing ahead with demographic changes there, rejecting Pakistan’s protests. The hope in establishment circles that last year’s backchannel between the two countries would yield a thaw or even rapprochement, turned to disappointment when no headway was made on any front beyond the re-commitment by both neighbors to observe a ceasefire on the Line of Control.
Working level diplomatic engagement will continue on practical issues such as release of civilian prisoners. But prospects of formal dialogue resuming are slim in view of Delhi’s refusal to discuss Kashmir. This is unlikely to change unless Islamabad raises the diplomatic costs for Delhi of its intransigent policy. Islamabad’s focus on Afghanistan last year meant its diplomatic campaign on Kashmir sagged and was limited to issuing tough statements. Unless Islamabad renews and sustains its international efforts with commitment and imagination, India will feel no pressure on an issue that remains among Pakistan’s core foreign policy goals.
With normalization of ties a remote possibility, quiet diplomacy by the two countries is expected to focus on managing tensions to prevent them from spinning out of control. Given the impasse on Kashmir, an uneasy state of no war, no peace is likely to continue warranting Pakistan’s sustained attention.
In balancing ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan should consider how to leverage possible easing of tensions between the long-standing rivals — of which there are some tentative signs. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman keen to use economic power to expand his country’s diplomatic clout by making strategic overseas investments, Pakistan should use its political ties with Riyadh to attract Saudi investment through a coherent strategy. Relations with Iran too should be strengthened with close consultation on regional issues especially Afghanistan. The recent barter agreement is a step in the right direction.
In an increasingly multipolar world, Pakistan also needs to raise its diplomatic efforts by vigorous outreach to other key countries and actors beyond governments to secure its national interests and goals.
Afghanistan: UN launches largest single country aid appeal ever
The UN and partners launched a more than $5 billion funding appeal for Afghanistan on Tuesday, in the hope of shoring up collapsing basic services there, which have left 22 million in need of assistance inside the country, and 5.7 million people requiring help beyond its borders.
Speaking in Geneva, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said that $4.4 billion was needed for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan alone, “to pay direct” to health workers and others, not the de facto authorities.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for $623 million, to support refugees and host communities in five neighbouring countries, for the Afghanistan Situation Regional Refugee Response Plan.
“Today we are launching an appeal for $4.4 billion for Afghanistan itself for 2022,” said Mr. Griffiths. “This is the largest ever appeal for a single country for humanitarian assistance and it is three times the amount needed, and actually fundraised in 2021.”
Needs could double
The scale of need is already enormous, both UN officials stressed, warning that if insufficient action is taken now to support the Afghanistan and regional response plans, “next year we’ll be asking for $10 billion”.
Mr. Griffiths added: “This is a stop-gap, an absolutely essential stop-gap measure that we are putting in front of the international community today. Without this being funded, there won’t be a future, we need this to be done, otherwise there will be outflow, there will be suffering.”
Rejecting questions that the funding would be used to support the Taliban’s grip on de facto government, Mr. Griffiths insisted that it would go directly into the pockets of “nurses and health officials in the field” so that these services can continue, not as support for State structures.
UN aid agencies describe Afghanistan’s plight as one of the world’s most rapidly growing humanitarian crises.
According to UN humanitarian coordination office OCHA, half the population now faces acute hunger, over nine million people have been displaced and millions of children are out of school.
Asked to describe what might happen if sufficient support was not forthcoming, the UN emergency relief chief replied that he was particularly concerned for one million children now facing severe acute malnutrition. “A million children – figures are so hard so grasp when they’re this kind of size – but a million children at risk of that kind of malnutrition if these things don’t happen, is a shocking one.”
But humanitarian agencies and their partners who will receive the requested funding directly can only do so much, Mr. Griffiths explained, before reiterating his support for the 22 December UN Security Council resolution that cleared the way for aid to reach Afghans, while preventing funds from falling into the hands of the Taliban.
“Humanitarian agencies inside Afghanistan can only operate if there’s cash in the economy which can be used to pay officials, salaries, costs, fuel and so-forth,” he said. “So, liquidity in its first phase is a humanitarian issue, it’s not just a bigger economic issue.”
Stave off disease, hunger
He added: “My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan. Humanitarian partners are on the ground, and they are delivering, despite the challenges. Help us scale up and stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death by supporting the humanitarian plans we are launching today.”
Highlighting the need to avoid a wider regional crisis emanating from Afghanistan, UNHCR chief Grandi, insisted that what was needed most, was “to stabilize the situation inside Afghanistan, including that of displaced people who are displaced inside their country. Also, to prevent a larger refugee crisis, a larger crisis of external displacement.”
Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours had sheltered vulnerable Afghans for decades, Mr. Grandi explained, as he appealed for $623 million in funding for 40 organizations working in protection, health and nutrition, food security, shelter and non-food items, water and sanitation, livelihoods and resilience, education, and logistics and telecoms.
Decades of shelter
No-one should forget “that there is a regional dimension to this crisis, represented by the Afghan refugees but also Afghans with many other ‘stay’ arrangements in neighbouring countries in particular,” Mr. Grandi said, “especially in Pakistan and Iran that have hosted Afghans for more than 40 years, but also Central Asian States.”
Since the Taliban takeover last August, women’s and girls’ rights have continued to come under attack, OCHA noted in a statement, “while farmers and herders are struggling amid the worst drought in decades and the economy is in freefall”.
On the issue of protecting fundamental rights, Mr. Griffiths underlined the fact that UN humanitarians were continuing to hold “conversations” with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities at a national and sub-national level, on issues such as aid and education access for all.
Echoing that message, UN refugee chief Mr. Grandi noted that humanitarians on the ground were well aware of the importance of stressing the need to protect the rights of minorities and other vulnerable Afghans.
“Our colleagues are there every day, and that’s what they talk about every day; they certainly talk about access, and delivery and needs, but they also talk about women at work, women in school – girls in school – rights of minorities, but it’s that space that we need to preserve.”
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