Pakistan and Growing Regional Uncertainty


A Pashtun man passes a road sign while pulling supplies towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing. Reuters photo.
TIME FOR A RESET? A Pashtun man passes a road sign while pulling supplies towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing. Reuters photo.

Pakistan needs all its diplomatic and strategic skills to deal with the emerging challenges on both Western and Eastern fronts


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecent developments in the wider region and in Pakistan’s neighborhood have important implications for the country’s security and will need to be carefully evaluated to effectively deal with any of their destabilizing effects.

The danger of regional instability has been heightened by the crisis in Iraq. Fuelled by a bitter sectarian divide, this has seen the Iraqi army crumble before the forces of the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Compounding this complex crisis is the battle for regional influence between the Arab monarchies and Iran.

Closer to home, a political storm is brewing in Afghanistan following the presidential run-off election whose credibility has been challenged by allegations of ballot fraud. This has raised fears of instability at a time when Afghanistan has crucial transitions to navigate as the deadline approaches for western forces to wrap up their combat mission. And on Pakistan’s eastern front, there is uncertainty about how relations will evolve with India under a Narendra Modi-led government.

The external environment is fluid at a time when Pakistan has pressing internal problems to resolve, and especially after the military assault that has been launched on terrorist hideouts and sanctuaries in North Waziristan. This will test military capacity and civilian resolve as well as the government’s ability to manage the humanitarian fallout and the operation’s crucial aftermath.

In this challenging setting it is important at the outset to acknowledge three realities. One, the geo-strategic environment around us is in flux. There are more unknowns than knowns, and much uncertainty about how the regional situation will unfold. There are fresh challenges amidst longer-standing ones, and threats that must be fully understood if they are to be competently managed.

Two, in this uncertain scenario, Pakistan obviously cannot shape regional outcomes by itself. It can seek to influence outcomes. But for that, it must engage vigorously in the region and pursue active diplomacy with major powers that have interests in this region. Playing dead is not a policy option.

And three, the only way Pakistan can deal with a complicated regional scenario is by securing itself at home, and pursuing a coherent and consistent policy to achieve that. At the very least, this means sustaining the domestic consensus on countering militancy, acting decisively to restore peace within its borders, maintaining steady civil-military relations, and stabilizing the economy on a viable basis.

Turning to relations with India, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Delhi to attend Modi’s inauguration marked a hopeful start to the process of re-engagement between the two countries. But the real diplomatic test lies ahead.

How relations evolve will depend, in large part, on how Modi’s avowed muscular nationalism translates into policy. His choice of a hard-line foreign policy and national security team does not send a reassuring signal.

But he has yet to elaborate his foreign policy priorities or regional approach, apart that is, from an early visit to Bhutan designed to shore up India’s regional position and counter China’s growing influence.

Will Modi’s emphasis on reviving India’s struggling economy and support from corporate India, urge him toward focusing on domestic issues and following more pragmatic policies towards neighbors?

That question is yet to be answered. For that reason, Islamabad must adopt a wait-and-see approach. The planned encounter between the foreign secretaries of the two countries will provide the first opportunity to assess the terms of engagement Modi is likely to pursue with Pakistan.

If these terms are confined to the three Ts – terrorism, trade and (the Mumbai) trial – Islamabad will be obliged to resist the narrowing of dialogue and insist on resumption of the broad based peace process that reflects the concerns and priorities of both sides.

‘Partial’ or selective normalization will be unsustainable if the strategic environment between the two neighbors remains fraught. Durability of the normalization process, including building trade and economic ties, has to be ensured by confronting contentious issues, not ignoring them, because if history is any guide, they will re-surface to spark tensions and set back peace efforts.

The issue that can cause turbulence in relations in the near term is Afghanistan. This is the proverbial elephant in the room, because the two countries have never formally held discussions on this. Suspicion of each other’s strategic intentions could intensify as December 2014 approaches. Therefore an immediate diplomatic challenge for both countries will be how to prevent this from derailing their relationship.

For Islamabad it is important to persist in the endeavor to normalize ties with India. This is all the more essential because Pakistan is preoccupied on its western border and must continue to address urgent economic problems at home.

Turning to Afghanistan, the impasse following the presidential election has intensified the risk of the political transition being disrupted if the controversy over ballot rigging is not quickly resolved.

Another recent development of consequence is Washington’s announcement of what is effectively a zero-option in 2016 – involving a complete US pullout from Afghanistan. Plans for a residual American military force remain in place, provided a Bilateral Security Agreement is concluded with the next Afghan government.

Whatever the fate of the BSA, the Afghan national army’s capacity will be tested after December 2014 amid new fears provoked by the Iraqi experience, about whether it will hold together as a unified force in the face of a Taliban onslaught.

However, the urgent challenge is to resolve the dispute over the second round of the presidential election without imperilling the political transition. Charging his poll rival’s camp with “industrial scale” electoral fraud, Dr Abdullah Abdullah has announced a boycott of the vote count, ceased cooperation with the election authorities and called for UN intervention. His allegations rest mainly on questioning the turnout figure, which is surprisingly high in provinces afflicted by insecurity.

An election result that is widely accepted as legitimate is essential for the political transition to proceed. A prolonged political standoff will adversely affect the other transitions – security and economic – and further delay the conclusion of a BSA. All this will increase the chances of an unstable post-2014 outcome.

But even if the present crisis is resolved and rival candidates accept the election outcome, a successful political transition will rest on more than this. It would also involve an intra-Afghan dialogue that can produce political accommodation, and ideally, bring to an end to fighting soon after December 2014.

A likely but dire post-2014 scenario is of a violent standoff, where fighting continues, the Taliban are unable to take Kabul much less overrun the country, but with government forces also failing to assume control of all of Afghanistan. The best way to avert this scenario is for peace talks between the new government and the armed opposition that can yield ‘reconciliation’ through a negotiated settlement.

While Islamabad would hope for this best-case scenario to materialize and be willing to assist efforts to achieve this, its ability to shape events is obviously limited. It must therefore be prepared to deal with any worst-case scenario by tougher border management, reinforcing its internal lines of defense, and taking decisive steps to contain militancy within its borders well ahead of December 2014.

Pakistan will also have to protect itself from any negative fallout of Afghanistan’s various transitions – a fresh influx of refugees, spillover of violence or a security vacuum taking hold in the neighborhood, which could compromise its efforts to defeat militancy and heighten the threat to its security. Pakistan must also prepare for any economic fallout in the shape of contraction in bilateral trade or the adverse impact on certain sectors of the economy of an end to transit facilities provided to Nato.

In order to respond effectively to an uncertain situation in the neighborhood and to the fallout of fast-evolving dynamics in the wider region, Pakistan must secure itself at home. Only by establishing peace within, will the country be able to manage any instability that might be fueled from outside.–The News International (Excerpts from a presentation at a recent seminar 

All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

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