Pakistan is in a difficult spot on three issues. First is rapid pace of negotiations between Taliban and Americans with projected quick withdrawal of American troops, second is isolation of Iran and third is potential entanglement in intra-Arab rivalry with United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on one and Qatar on the other side. Pakistan is facing these regional challenges in the background of internal political instability and very serious economic downward trend. Part of political instability and associated economic meltdown is due to self-inflicted wounds. Departing from the normal process of check and balance, judiciary and army played an active role in tuning up the system that will have its own set of consequences. It has widened the political gulf and added new fissures.
Regional challenges of Pakistan are directly linked with American policies. We are living in a Trumpian world that has sowed a lot of confusion on all fronts. Every country and non-state player is adjusting positions at such a rapid speed that it is hard to make sense of every move. Pakistan is also caught in this Trumpian world on several fronts.
US policy is in disarray with no coordination between different government agencies. President Trump is using single point agents without full institutional support behind these efforts. In many cases, some power centers of Washington are diametrically opposed to President’s efforts. It is probably right time for withdrawal of American troops from both Syria and Afghanistan. Trump may have realized what Christopher Fettweis wrote in 2008 in his book Losing Hurts Twice as Bad that “bringing peace to every corner of the globe, even those whose stability we have wrecked through our own incompetence, is not necessarily in the strategic interest of the United States”. However, the method in which it is being done has confused both allies and foes. American intelligence agencies are publicly disagreeing with Trump that is unprecedented. In late January 2019, in a hearing at Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence and heads of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) contradicted Trump on security issues. They told the committee that Iran was still abiding by the nuclear deal. Trump had pulled out of the deal stating that Tehran had broken the deal. Furious Trump sent his twitter tirade saying that ‘the intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naïve when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong’.
Trump announced withdrawal from Afghanistan without input from any other institution. Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad nick named Zal to negotiate directly with Taliban. He is given a single point agenda of quick withdrawal. He is the right person for such byzantine intrigues. Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan front is completely handled by the army.
Pakistan put pressure on Taliban leaders in Pakistan to sit with the Americans. Some members of the civilian government tried to get Taliban agree to come for at least one meeting with Zal in Islamabad so that government could get credit both domestically and internationally. However, Taliban wiggled out of the offer. Taliban are playing their cards deftly by exploiting competing interests of Pakistan, Afghan government, Iran, United States and Russia as well as intra-Arab rivalry. Initial meeting was scheduled in Jeddah and later Abu Dhabi but when these governments put pressure on Taliban, they hitch hiked on Qatari wagon. Ironically, now Pakistan is doing what United States wanted all along and doing it free. I doubt if they will get a thank you note from the Americans. Pakistan is worried that high likelihood of instability in the aftermath of quick American withdrawal will have significant social, economic and security fall out for Pakistan, therefore current exercise is more in self-interest. Afghan chessboard is in the process of being rapidly re-arranged. Constructive work needs to be done diligently to avoid another cycle of civil war, however history and ground realities should always be kept in mind.
Rewind the clock two decades and we will see that a similar crew of Afghans was gathered in Taif; Saudi Arabia and had to be put in a prison for a night to agree to who would be their spokesperson. Forget about anything else. In another round, all were pushed inside the most holy building of their religion; Ka’aba where they swore that they will stop bloodshed and signed on their most holy book Quran. When they returned to their homeland, they brought the destruction that surpassed the punishment inflicted by Russians on Afghans. How much trust one can put on a signature on a piece of paper negotiated with an infidel. In the end, this matter will be settled by Afghans and on their own terms and by their own methods. Time will tell whether it will be around the camp fire with legal and religious arguments or settled with long knives. This will determine the future of their next generations.
In view of Pakistan’s precarious economic situation, it has very little room of maneuverability to keep out of anti-Iran block. Pakistan has deep religious connection with holy places of Saudi Arabia as well as dependence on remittances from expatriates living in Saudi Arabia and UAE; the leaders of anti-Iran camp in the Arab world. In contrast, there are no meaningful economic relations with Iran. Iran has deep relations with Pakistan’s archrival India and especially running of anti-Pakistan covert operations from the Iranian port city of Chabahar ticked off army brass. However, Shia Muslims of Pakistan that constitute 10-15 percent of the population have sectarian affinity with Shia Iran as well as deep antipathy towards Saudi Arabia in view of history of sectarian wars on Pakistani soil.
Trump has gathered anti-Iran hawkish crowd in his administration. A conference on Middle East is scheduled in Warsaw February 12-13. It was an anti-Iran conference but with cool reception, it was called conference on Middle East security and stability. Iran was not invited as it was on the menu and not on the guest list. Lebanon and Palestinian Authority boycotted the conference. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an eight-day tour of the region and kept on the old message that this international conference was to discuss Iran’s regional and international threats. In view of confusion about the agenda as well as deep division in the Middle East as well as Europe, it will be a gala for speeches. However, optics will be bad for the streets of Muslim world where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in attendance with foreign ministers of Arab countries for projects conceived by Trump. American presidents have never won any popularity contest in Muslim world, but Trump has broken all the records and I doubt if any future president can match it.
In late 2016, former Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was appointed head of a Saudi inspired Islamic Military Alliance Against Terrorism (IMAT) but widely perceived as a joint front against Iran. It was viewed with concern in Pakistan. Parliament had passed a unanimous resolution against joining in fratricidal wars and the whole exercise was done clandestinely with no discussion on pros and cons of this decision. There was also significant negative opinion inside the armed forces. In view of this negative environment, Raheel kept a very low profile. Suddenly, he landed in Pakistan on 10 February with a delegation of IMAT and had meetings with army chief, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, foreign minister and Senate chairman. If this visit is ground work for a more robust involvement in regional snake pit, then it is not good news for Pakistan. Saudi Crown Prince Price Muhammad Bin Salman will be visiting Pakistan on 17 February and it is expected that he will sign several lucrative economic deals. What is expected of Pakistan has not been spelled out?
Events of last five years with rise of sectarian groups on many battlefields should be note of caution for everyone. Sunni and Shia fighters from Pakistan have joined the fight. Pakistani Salafi fighters joined Daesh in Syria and fought there. Shia from Pakistan were recruited for protection of Shia holy sites in Syria. Pakistani contingent is named Zainabiyuon Brigade while Afghani Shia contingent is named Fatimayoun Brigade. Exact numbers are not known but when these fighters come back home, they will be more lethal than locals for two reasons. First, they are battle hardened from the ferocious fights and more importantly have developed international connections. Tackling them inside Pakistan can be a difficult exercise.
So far Pakistan has cashed on intra-Arab rivalry and milked feuding princes. It has secured loans from Saudi Arabia and UAE as well as some economic benefits from rival Qatar. However, such measures have limits and Pakistan needs to be very careful so that it does not get bruised in this brawl of the Princes.
Pakistan serious economic troubles are forcing it to take some decisions that are desperately needed but can have its own set of consequences. It is important to have informed debate on these issues as well as coordinated effort with saner elements of the civilian government. Otherwise, if army is perceived to be the driver of these foreign policy decisions then it will be blamed for the negative fallout.
“It is not a question how much a man knows, but what use he can make of what he knows.” Josiah Gilbert Holland