Emphasizing the need to respond to international concerns about the presence of extremist and terrorist structures in Pakistan, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif sounded quite realistic when he favoured the path of engagement with friends and world powers instead of going for confrontation. In a press talk after attending envoy’s conference in Islamabad on Wednesday, he felt we needed to ‘put our house in order’ to change the international perception about Pakistan.
This response to Xiamen Declaration of BRICS summit held in China and issued on September 4 is quite different from the way Pakistan had reacted to the speech of US President Donald Trump on August 22 in which he enunciated a new strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. On that occasion Pakistani Foreign Minister had not only postponed his scheduled US visit but the Pakistan visit by a US official from the State Department was also delayed on the desire of the Pakistani side. According to a changed schedule, Khwaja Asif was to visit more friendly countries like China, Russia and Turkey to garner support against US pressure. Not only that. The so called Defence of Pakistan Council – an umbrella organization of jihadist networks led by Moulana Sami-ul-Haq, the self-proclaimed father of Taliban - took it upon itself to announce in a press conference in Islamabad that Pakistan Army will not act against the Haqqani network and that Pakistani jihadists will also keep fighting against US in Afghanistan. There was no denial or contradiction of Sami-ul-Haq’s statement from official sources.
But after the BRICS Summit declaration at least the Pakistani Foreign Office seems to have realized gravity of the situation in terms of the ever deepening international isolation of the country. To be fair, the foreign office not only knew this grim reality already but also had the courage to bluntly report it to a high level security meeting in September 2016. Chinese frustration with a soft Pakistani attitude towards extremist militancy was the most important specific highlight of the aforementioned report. Unfortunately, due to imbalanced civil-military relations the controversy over publishing of the report’s contents the next day in a leading English daily overshadowed the debate about national security and foreign policy.
For Foreign Office professionals it’s not difficult to understand the changing dynamics of international relations particularly the monumental changes taking place in our region. But the problem is that unlike the distant past they don’t have much role in shaping the foreign policy now as foreign policy, along with national security policy, is totally dominated by the security establishment. The main job of our diplomats now is to justify and explain policies that are not shaped by foreign policy experts.
Many people in Pakistan haven’t comprehended the width and depth of Chinese vision of One Belt and One Road. For them it’s just another name of CPEC. They don’t realize that CPEC is just one project in a grand strategy envisioned by Chinese leaders for the region and for the world. Starting from regional connectivity, trade and economic cooperation it aims in the long term to create a new world order. China has come to give ownership to globalization at a critical stage of history when some western countries including US are turning against it and are adopting protectionist policies. In the last few years China has boldly gone for translating its soft image into solid political and strategic influence. For example China is not content with looking at Afghanistan or India from Pakistan’s point of view anymore. China has already made significant investments in Afghanistan and has more ambitious plans for the future. The Republic of Afghanistan, which is the target of Taliban insurgency supported by Pakistan, happens to be a staunch ally of China for promoting regional economic cooperation and is also an active partner in trade. Similarly, despite disputes on borders with India, China is determined to maintain and develop economic relations with India. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the jihadist project based in Pakistan and manifested in various extremist and terrorist networks in the country and in the region is the most serious hurdle on the path of implementation of One Belt and One Road vision. How can China remain indifferent to the problem of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan in this situation? After getting frustrated with its quite diplomacy of long years to persuade Pakistan to change course, China went public along with other members of BRICS on the issue.
The case of Russia isn’t very dissimilar. It goes without saying that Russia is opposed to US military presence in Afghanistan for an indefinite period in the future, although it had cooperated with the US in its military action against Al Qaida and Taliban in the aftermath of September 11. But its most recent anxieties have been about the presence of the so called IS in the region. It is understandable because Central Asia and South Russia with big Muslim populations remains the soft underbelly of Russia; even more so after the collapse of Soviet Union. But it doesn’t imply that Russia will come around to support the jihadist project as some remnants of the Cold War mind-set in Pakistan were expecting. One has to just look at the Middle East to understand Russian priorities. Russia has supported Bashar Al-Assad in Syria against all religious factions. How can it be expected to support a Taliban dominated Afghanistan next to Central Asian Republics? This also explains the lines in BRICS Summit Declaration in support of Afghan government’s fight against Taliban and other terrorist networks.
Be that as it may one has to see as to whether Pakistan turns this challenge into opportunity for getting rid of extremism and terrorism to reap the dividends of peace and prosperity or decides to stubbornly follow a bankrupt policy which stands exposed both nationally and internationally. By now it’s quite clear that even the closest friends aren’t ready to support this flawed policy. Pakistan has to make a choice and make it quite soon.
The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.