With Afghanistan and Pakistan as the staging grounds, politics in South and Central Asia appears to be coming full circle with the making and breaking of alliances involving major regional and international actors.
The switching of goalposts by the erstwhile Cold War-era allies — keeping their converging and diverging geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic interests in mind — apparently indicates the beginning of a new “Great Game” in the region.
Russia’s re-emergence under Vladimir Putin; China’s vision of greater connectivity in Eurasia through Xi Jinping’s ambitious Road and Belt Initiative (BRI); America’s quest to safeguard its interests in the region by not losing the war in Afghanistan and containing China’s growing economic and military clout; India’s outreach to the world markets to compete Xi’s China; Pakistan’s struggle to retain its strategic importance by taking sides; and Afghanistan’s desire for lasting peace – these are some of the key drivers spurring the race.
While Afghanistan’s unending struggle to attain peace and stability is the epicenter of this contest, it is nuclear-armed Pakistan, with its population of over 200 million and looming economic, political, and security troubles, that is attracting the focus of the major powers. For Pakistan, while a shift from its old goalpost seems to be imminent, it is not going to be without hassles.
Pakistan has been allied with the United States since the era of SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organization). This alliance, though off-again-on-again, was further cemented following the 1978 Saur Revolution in Afghanistan, which paved the way for military intervention by the Soviet Union in December 1979.
More recently, Pakistan was given the status of a non-NATO ally of the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That devastating event forced the world’s sole superpower to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, from where the al-Qaeda terrorist network masterminded the attacks in Washington D.C. and New York City.
During this period of alliance, Pakistan remained dependent on U.S. largesse in military, economic, and developmental terms. Over the decades, Pakistani leadership successfully maneuvered to secure huge sums of money for their country’s services, whether in the CIA-sponsored (Reagan-era) anti-communist jihad or the Bush-era global war against terror, with its key focus on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.
What Pakistan failed to do, however, was endear itself to the United States as an all-time trusted partner in the region. Instead, the relationship mostly remained transactional. Each bout of intimacy followed the emergence of a new security environment in the region and ended in a fiasco, leaving behind more doubts and animosities as soon as that particular security environment began to change.
The two countries’ diverging interests kept their alliance mostly transactional. The latest example is the United States’ 17-year-long war in Afghanistan. While the United States struggles to bring peace and stability by routing the Taliban, Pakistan believes the ousted militia offers the best guarantee for peace. The Haqqani Network, the most secretive group in the region, is the United States’ worst enemy. But Pakistan has its hopes pinned on this group’s survival, which Islamabad sees as the key to guaranteeing its strategic interests in the face of both anti-Pakistan sentiments in Afghanistan and perceived Indian encirclement.
Many in Pakistan’s security circles were disillusioned when then-U.S. Central Command chief Admiral Mike Mullen called the Haqqani Network a “veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence” in September 2011, months after the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Ladin in a mid-night raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad. The same year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Islamabad, gave a blunt warning to her Pakistani allies that “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
But the real bombshell came from none other than President Donald Trump on January 1, 2018 when he accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” in a tweet. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit thinking of our leaders as fools,” Trump said. “… No more!”
As the Trump administration struggles to wrap up the war in Afghanistan by seeking Pakistan’s help and support, Pakistan looks the other way by expanding and further cementing its economic and military ties with Russia and China, both of which are seen as adversaries in U.S. policy circles. Pakistan will have to balance its acts while walking this tightrope.
Sweeter Than Honey
“Sweeter than honey” is the new jargon suffixed to Pakistan’s “deeper than oceans and taller than mountains” friendship with China. The depth, height, and saccharinity, however, mostly depend on China’s contentment with the strategic, political, and economic interests that Beijing attaches to Pakistan.
There is no such thing as a free lunch in the realm of economics, but when it comes to China, every single loaf has a cost. The $62 billion that China promised for infrastructure development in Pakistan under the BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will require Pakistan’s commitment not only to China’s economic and commercial interests, but also its political and security considerations.
Pointing to the potential CPEC faultlines in South Asian security, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says in its “The Silk Road Economic Belt” report that Pakistan’s Balochistan “remains a strategic area that could become a flashpoint for regional competition and is even referred to as the new epicenter of the ‘Great Game’ by some regional analysts.”
As a result, when a Pakistani official spoke about a review of the CPEC agreements, it sparked a flurry of meetings between Islamabad and Beijing in mid-September. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi landed in Islamabad just a day after the publishing of Razak Dawood’s interview in the Financial Times. Then Pakistan’s army chief visited Beijing and met top civilian and military officials. Meanwhile, Dawood, in a face-saving statement, said that he was quoted “out of context.”
Several about-faces have been witnessed over the past decade and half as the U.S.-led global war on terror continues in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan’s becoming an ally of Russia and Iran’s rapprochement with the Taliban, both to the chagrin of the United States, are the most spectacular changes. Pakistan’s new closeness with Russia, at a time when the latter is engaged in indirect war with the United States both in the Middle East and Ukraine, is clear indication of a rift with Islamabad’s erstwhile ally the United States. Likewise, Iran and Russia’s closer links with the Taliban are being seen as a new stumbling block to U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and the region.
Nothing is more evident of these new arrangements than a meeting of the spy chiefs of Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan in Islamabad in July this year to discuss Afghanistan and Central Asia. While Russia and Iran’s ties with the Pakistan-backed Taliban have only been recently disclosed, China has long been seen as a trusted country by the Taliban leadership.
Islamabad’s emboldened stance regarding nonconformity with U.S. demands partially stems from its increased military cooperation with Russia. This bond-making between Russia and Pakistan is not new; former military ruler Pervez Musharraf visited Russia in 2003. But the pace of exchanges has picked up remarkably in the past few years.
Raheel Sharif, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated army chiefs, paid a visit to Moscow in June 2015 following the Islamabad visit of Russia’s defense minister in November 2014. Within three months of Sharif’s visit to Moscow, Pakistan received four Mi-35 assault helicopters from Russia as part of a newly signed deal.
In December 2015, Pakistani and Russian naval forces jointly organized anti-narcotics exercises dubbed “Arabian Monsoon” in the Arabian Sea. In September 2016, for the first time Russian commandos participated with their Pakistani counterparts in “Friendship 2017” exercises. And in yet another first, a Russian military delegation visited Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, once known to be a Taliban emirate, in March 2017.
Pakistan’s current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited to Moscow in April 2018, where, just days ahead of the U.S. decision to cancel training and aid for Pakistan’s military, Russia entered into a historic agreement allowing officers of Pakistan’s armed forces to receive training in Russia.
Already, there is no reversing Pakistan’s new friendship with Russia. The point here is how much Russia’s stepping in will cater to Pakistan’s military and economic requirements, particularly in terms of the space left vacant by the U.S. stepping back.
Meanwhile, Washington is tightening ties with Pakistan’s long-time rival, India. After a brief stop-over in Islamabad in early September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proceeded for the first-ever “two-plus-two” ministerial dialogue in New Delhi, where the two sides agreed to further enhance their security cooperation under the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement.
India has already been given wider space in the U.S. National Security Strategy, while Trump’s South Asia Strategy recognizes an even bigger role for India in “Afghanistan’s stabilization.” These fresh measures will further distance Pakistan from its Cold War-era ally.
A Difficult Moment
While the United States is set to proceed toward an Afghanistan solution with or without support from Pakistan, it is a difficult moment for Islamabad. Pakistan must decide whether to take side with Washington by ditching the Taliban and Haqqani Network or continue to take sides with the two militant groups, to the annoyance of its long-term partner. As part of this decision, Pakistan will need to assess whether the Russians are capable of meeting the country’s defense needs if it continues to stay detached from the United States.
Another complicating factor is that action against individuals such as Hafiz Saeed and his group Jamat-ud- Dawa will also benefit India. By acting under U.S. pressure against such groups, Pakistan will lose its strategic assets, which are being used as a counterbalance against the much bigger neighbor India.
For Pakistan, it is tough to do it, but even tougher not to.
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.