Will Pakistan Part Ways With Its Proxies?

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Will Pakistan Part Ways With Its Proxies?

The recent BRICS declaration can be read as a gentle push from China for Pakistan to ditch the Taliban.

Will Pakistan Part Ways With Its Proxies?

A woman adjusts her scarf as she waits for a bus next to a stall with national flags, ahead of Pakistan’s Independence Day, in Karachi, Pakistan August 2, 2017.

Credit: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The September 4 declaration made by the heads of the BRICS states after meeting in the Chinese city of Xiamen further raised the level of alarm in Pakistan first spiked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech announcing his new Afghan strategy last month.

The declaration, among other things, specifically condemned the Taliban, and a host of other extremist groups — ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,  the Haqqani network,  Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir — three of which are said to have links with Pakistan’s security establishment.

While Trump’s August 21 speech invited an angry reaction from the civil and military authorities as well as the public and intelligentsia in Pakistan, the Xiamen declaration was received as a gentle but clear reminder from the country’s so-called all-weather friend, China, along with Russia and three other developing countries that all’s not well with Pakistan’s Taliban policy.

Just a day after the 43-page BRICS declaration, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said on a television program that “we need to bring our house in order to prevent facing embarrassment on the international level.”

The seriousness of the BRICS declaration can be gauged from the fact that both Pakistan’s “best friend” China and its “worst enemy” India were signatories.

There are several factors that makes the BRICS’ declaration a serious embarrassment for Pakistan.

Most notable is the China factor. In April 2016, China blocked an Indian bid at the United Nations to blacklist Masoud Azhar, head of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group. Azhar is accused of masterminding the Pathankot attack in India.

Most recently, when U.S. President Trump warned Pakistan while unveiling his new Afghanistan policy, the Chinese foreign ministry was quick to issue a statement urging the international community to recognize “Pakistan’s sacrifices in the anti-terror war.”

Apart from diplomatic and moral support, China’s multibillion dollar investment in infrastructure building under the banner of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is one portion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China with Europe and Africa, is seen as a great gift for Pakistan.

However, China’s friendship has always been led by its economic and strategic interests. All the claims of “sweet, deep and tall” friendship with Pakistan will burst like a bubble the day China realizes that its interests are at risk in Pakistan.

China is not only worried about the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, where the continuation of war is breeding new and more violent groups and strengthening existing ones, including the specifically China-focused Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), but also needs stability in Central Asia to successfully continue with its Belt and Road Initiative.

Pakistan has to come to terms and do away with its proxies if it is interested in retaining the friendship with China; the BRICS declaration is a gentle nudge. Commenting on China’s regional approach to political, security, and economic issues, former Pakistani senator and analyst Afrasiab Khattak [no relation] writes in one of his latest articles that “China is not content with looking at Afghanistan or India from Pakistan’s point of view anymore.”

Next to consider is the Russian factor. Pakistan has recently increased its military and diplomatic contacts with Russia. The two erstwhile Cold War-era rivals have conducted several exchanges of top civilian and military personnel, with an unprecedented visit by a Russian military delegation to North Waziristan to witness Pakistan’s “success” against the Taliban.

The visits and exchanges with Russia may alleviate Pakistan’s fear of isolation that could also be used for domestic consumption and even convey warning signals to its American allies that Islamabad is moving into Moscow’s camp, but that does not mean Russian consent to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban or other armed groups.

Who knows better than the Russian leadership about the perilous nature of Afghanistan proxy war and the threat it poses to Russia’s soft underbelly via Central Asia? Russia’s consent to the BRICS declaration will further increase pressure on Pakistan regarding its support for proxies, be that focused on Afghanistan or Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Then there is Afghanistan to consider. Naming armed groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network as a “regional security concern” and asking for “an immediate end to violence in Afghanistan,” the BRICS declaration attested to the concerns expressed by Afghan leadership about terrorist sanctuaries in their neighborhood.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Islamabad in 2011, warned her Pakistani allies that “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.” Clinton’s hard-hitting remarks came days after then-Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani Network is “the veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”

Pakistan has long excelled at staying on the right side of its distant ally, the United States, despite circumstances — a feature of their “frenemies” relationship; but gimmicks have little chance to dazzle its closest neighbor China, which knows very well Pakistan’s dependence on its moral and material support. Though Afghanistan is not a signatory, the BRICS declaration must be seen as victory for its stance on the foreign roots of the ongoing conflict.

Most importantly, the BRICS’ declaration emerged from a forum where India is an influential player. Pakistan sees India’s presence in Afghanistan as a threat to its political and economic interests in the region.

While history and geography bind the two South Asian neighbors together, the bitter memories from independence in 1947 and the ensuing land disputes, much highlighted by security establishments on either side, motivate both to view the other as an enemy.

Since 9/11, the two countries have shifted their tug of war to the Afghan turf. While India had long accused Pakistan of training proxies and sending them to fight in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Pakistan has recently started pointing an accusing finger back at India for arming and bankrolling the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban and Baloch separatists.

The BRICS’ declaration naming Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) will be a moment to rejoice for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seldom misses a chance to bash Pakistan, part of his highly aggressive diplomacy.

What is Next?

It is high time for Pakistan to revisit its security calculus. Since the United States is sending more troops to reverse the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan alongside inviting India to increase its role on the economic front, Pakistan needs to revisit its position. In desperate need of repair is Pakistan’s relations with the Afghan leadership.

The new U.S. administration is more focused on keeping their country safe from terrorist attacks and for that purpose, it is accelerating efforts to target militants. Afghanistan is going to be a test case for President Trump. China needs peace in its neighborhood and so does Russia. For Pakistan, continuing support for the Taliban is a losing proposition, alienating its neighbors and allies.

Pakistan, no doubt, has suffered huge losses in terms of blood and money. But the worst casualty is its image and trust both internally and abroad. Still, this is not the end. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Eid message, where he reiterated his offer to talk, could be a fresh starting point.

The Pashtun leadership on the Pakistani side could be used to bridge the gap. Solid guarantees from neighbors such as China and world powers like Russia and the United States could help overcome mutual suspicions.

Many Pakistani analysts are of the view that the BRICS statement is a gentle nudge from China to do away with the proxies. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, China, and India wrote in a recent article that “if Pakistan is silly enough to ignore this message, it will progressively upset China and sow doubts in Chinese minds about their strategic partnership with Pakistan. This would inevitably impact CPEC. If this happens, Pakistan will have kicked itself in the face again.”

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.