Last week US President Donald Trump finally unveiled his “new strategy” for the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his approach, outlined in a long speech at Fort Myer, Virginia, concerned Pakistan, which has long been accused of harbouring Taliban and other militants along its border with Afghanistan. Pakistan had “much to lose” if it continued to shelter terrorists, Trump warned, without spelling out exactly what punitive measures might be taken. According to news reports, the administration is considering aid cuts, drone strikes, a removal of Pakistan’s status as a “major non-NATO ally” and even its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But American aid to Pakistan has been declining in recent years, reducing what leverage Trump might have over its policies. Funding ballooned after 9/11, when Pakistan’s then-ruler General Musharraf agreed to help in George W Bush’s “war on terror”. President Obama increased it still further to an eyewatering peak of $3.5 billion in 2011. But bilateral relations nosedived that year, when US forces found and killed Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Moreover, the US started withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, lessening its reliance on Pakistan for logistical and security assistance. By 2016, US funds had fallen below $1 billion.
The Obama and Trump administrations both withheld portions of that money because of Pakistan’s alleged support for militants. But, given the smaller sums involved, such measures had little impact. And, while American influence over Pakistan has declined, China’s role in the country is expanding exponentially. Beijing has pledged tens of billions of dollars as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive network of infrastructure and investment projects that form the largest single component of its global connectivity program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. CPEC is still in its early stages, but has already given China more leverage over Pakistan than the US now has.
While Washington has struggled to change Islamabad’s policies of late, Beijing has had more success. China is particularly concerned about the presence of Uighur militants from its restive western province of Xinjinag, who have taken refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2014 the Chinese pressured Pakistan to launch a massive military operation, named Zarb-e Azb, to expel the Uighurs and other terrorists. And this year Pakistan deployed a new security force of more than 15,000 personnel to protect Chinese investments in the southern province of Balochistan. In 2015 China also managed to broker preliminary talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan has also deepened its ties with Russia. This is a striking change, as the two countries were adversaries in the Cold War, when Pakistan strongly opposed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and through the 1990s, when they backed different sides in the Afghan civil war. But in the past few years, economic ties have increased, with Russia agreeing to help build a gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. In 2014, President Putin revoked an arms embargo on Pakistan so Russia could start providing weaponry. This was followed in 2016 by an unprecedented joint military exercise between the former rivals.
Cooperation does not end there. Pakistan shares with Russia and China the professed goal of securing a negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan. There have so far been two rounds of talks convened in Moscow to explore this possibility (America was absent from both). Iran also believes in pursuing peace talks, and has reportedly started providing assistance to the Taliban. This is another surprising development, given that Iran used to strongly oppose the Sunni militant group. In 1998 the Taliban murdered several Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, almost resulting in a retaliatory invasion by Iran.
Relations with Pakistan remain tense. Iran is concerned about Sunni terrorists in neighbouring Balochistan. Pakistan, for its part, fears that its nemesis India is using Iran as a launchpad for hostile intelligence activities. But the two countries have grown closer in recent years. Both sides are keen to develop stronger trade ties after the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. President Rouhani visited the country in 2016 to discuss these matters and addressed a Pakistan-Iran Business Forum in Karachi. Iran, rich in oil and gas, can help mitigate Pakistan’s serious energy deficit and reduce the lengthy power cuts that plague the country daily.
In a sign of its improved ties with Iran, Pakistan has been careful not to take sides in the Saudi-Iran regional rivalry. This is all the more striking given Pakistan’s traditionally close relationship with Riyadh and other US-backed Gulf states. During the Cold War Saudi Arabia and Pakistan teamed up with the US to support resistance fighters battling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan provided fighter pilots to fly raids during the Kingdom’s 1969 war in Yemen. But relations soured in 2015 when Pakistan (wisely) refused to commit forces to the new Saudi-led war there.
Pakistan has also remained relatively neutral in the Syrian civil war, which has seen Saudi-backed forces attempt to overthrow Tehran’s close ally, President Bashar al-Assad. And, when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries attempted to ostracize Doha for its alleged ties to Iran this year, Pakistan (which imports gas from Qatar) declined to take sides. Relations with Riyadh remain solid, as shown by the appointment of Pakistani General Raheel Sharif to head a new Saudi-led regional counterterrorism alliance this year. But Pakistan is showing a greater desire to balance its traditional Saudi links with stronger ties to Iran. As a condition of his appointment, Sharif insisted that this new force not be an anti-Iranian sectarian outfit.
In a world of fluid and shifting geopolitical alignments, Pakistan has diversified its foreign policy by cultivating ties with countries outside the US-led power bloc. It has also strengthened its old military and economic alliance with Turkey, which — though a NATO member — has drifted away from the West. Taken together, these developments fortify Pakistan against US pressure and undermine Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. Instead of using coercion, America would be better advised to work diplomatically with China, which has greater influence over Islamabad. Washington and Beijing both want to counter militancy and improve security in the region. They have much to gain by cooperating.