Interview: Shuja Nawaz

Opening of borders and strong trade ties will bring South Asian countries closer.

Interview: Shuja Nawaz
Credit: Narendra Modi via

Shuja Nawaz is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He is a political and strategic analyst and advised senior government and military officials and parliamentarians in the United States, Europe, and Pakistan. He is also the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within. He recently spoke with Saurabh Sharma about relations in South Asia.

What geostrategic and geopolitical changes do you see in South Asia with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan?

First of all there will be a major shift in the way Afghanistan and Pakistan interact with each other. Europeans and Americans will not be there. Both countries will have to rely on their leaderships to solve contentious issues. I think this will also force a rethink of the broader regional approach particularly to trade. Afghanistan and Pakistan have a transit trade agreement but it stops at the Wagha border (India-Pakistan border). If trade opens, investments will follow and then energy can flow from Central Asia into Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. There are huge opportunities in the region but they come with challenges. India and Pakistan should work in some way to satisfy their concerns on security and other issues.

What has stopped South Asian nations from working together cohesively to build a strong influential region?

Within South Asia there has been strong opposition to the opening of borders from interested parties. They could be political parties or economic groups. Only a few people want to take benefit of the close society where they have access to resources. When you open up markets to competition, it is the consumers who benefit. But the people who are currently profiteering may not be able to do so.

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There is also opposition from the political side. Extreme right wings both in India and Pakistan seem reluctant to allow the governments to move. I think that is again where strong leadership is required. If in Pakistan the military is seen as a hindrance, I would suggest inviting the Pakistan military to participate in the discussions so that nothing is hidden from them. In Pakistan, the military has a powerful economic position. They control transport and logistics in many ways and will certainly benefit [from an opening of the borders]. If you can look at the interests of all the stakeholders, everyone will try to move ahead.

The threat of terrorism has been hovering over South Asia for a long time now. What steps could be taken to deal with this challenge?

There is a very large youth population in South Asia and it will remain like that for years to come. The challenge will be to find adequate job opportunities for them. In India and Pakistan, particularly, there is fairly educated middle and lower middle class. And as more people become educated they will need a source of earning. If they don’t get it, they become susceptible to ideological recruitment. The good news in India is that the vast Muslim population has until now resisted it. But in Pakistan, it was the locals who provided most of the logistic support to Al Qaeda. Their top leadership also included some locals in the inner group. That is the most dangerous trend. If you give people equal opportunities and provide services then there is no need for them to go to alternatives. And what these terror groups offer (to youths) is, we will provide you rapid services and quick justice. In places that are backward like the federally administered tribal area (FATA) and Baluchistan that is what they were doing.

By not fully integrating these areas into Pakistan and not giving them ownership over their lives and economy, an opportunity was lost in the past. Now it is time to integrate them and regularize their relations with the state, so that they feel that Pakistan belongs to them as much it belongs to the Punjabis or Sindhis.

The region has also seen a growing trend of political parties partnering with extremist religious groups. What are your views on this trend?

That’s a big issue. Both in India and in Pakistan, and to an extent in Bangladesh, when you have right-wing extremists taking positions and doing certain things, the people should come out in the open and say that this is not acceptable. But because the political leadership’s time horizons are only up to the next election, and they don’t look beyond this.  Here I would say that both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have an opportunity to set their countries on the path of progress and higher growth. Pakistan is now a middle-income country. It can never become India, but India with its sheer size can lift up the whole region. So, the short-term advantages of these political alliances are far outweighed by the long-term opportunities for the whole society. More importantly, whenever you have free and fair elections, religious parties don’t do well.

How do you see China’s role in South Asia, especially when India is not comfortable with its growing influence in the region?

China already has a huge presence in Asia. It already has powerful links in Oceania and the Pacific region and now wants to diversify trade links with South Asian countries. There is huge trade with India. It is working with Pakistan to create an economic corridor to the Gulf. It also wants to extract minerals from Afghanistan and take them back to China from the Northern route. All this will take time but China has a huge responsibility to protect its investments. They have a very long-term strategy and their influence will only grow in coming days.

Modi is padding up for his visit to Pakistan. How do you see these talks proceeding?

I am glad that he is padding up. It’s not going to be a single innings. I think it will be a series of test matches in which both countries will have to show patience with each other. But what I feel is that directions need to be given to bureaucracies to cut through the red tape and not to fight old battles. I referred to it as cutting the Gordian knot. When you cannot unravel something, you just need to leap over the obstacles. I am hopeful that the PM will be able to that.

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I also learned from the people who were involved in crafting the trade agreement between India-Pakistan that the ground has been laid. Yet it has so far not been fully implemented. It basically requires political will now. Here I am putting on my optimist hat. India has a very powerful prime minister; somebody who is willing to take risks. And you have, on paper at least, a very powerful PM in Pakistan. He can and should convince his military that everyone will benefit from opening trade and eventually bringing normalcy to relations.

Saurabh Sharma is a journalist working with an English daily in India, where he covers economic and social policies. He has previously worked in radio broadcasting, launched a news website and holds a deep interest in strategic affairs and India’s foreign policy.