In last few weeks some important events happened that seem unrelated but they might be related when we look at the global big picture. These events are violent clash between Afghan and Pakistani forces at Torkham border that result in scores of deaths both civilian and military. Indian application to join Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) and UK voters to support leave EU which is termed as Brexit (British Exit). The big picture is that emerge from this apparently unrelated events is that there is an international jostling going on between global Superpower USA and emerging regional powers Russia and China that are aspiring to claim a global foot print.
Almost all analysts agree that Brexit succeeded because of local fears of rising tide of immigrants and a reaction against globalization. Although most of the immigrants in UK are from within EU but the perception during the referendum was that there is an onslaught of Muslim immigrants from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. This implies that UK voters rejected Western policy, led by USA, of interfering in North Africa. This consequently means rejection of US foreign policy despite an appeal from President Obama to vote for remain in EU. UK was the key USA ally in EU and her departure means that European foreign policy will be increasingly independent of her influence. This situation may work in favor of Russia and China which would like to form their own alliance with European nations. This could also have far reaching consequences on NATO which can weaken as well as trade flow of EU shifting from America to China. Another fall out could be that Turkey which has traditionally been an influential central Asian power turn its back on Europe and seek association with SCO. She may become first country to decide to leave NATO especially since it felt vulnerable to Russian air strikes and was not supported by Western allies. Turkey is also feeling left out when USA decided to support Syrian and Iraqi Kurds despite her opposition. But all this depends on what happens next in Brexit saga. It is not a done deal yet and there is a lot of buyer’s remorse including among leave campaign leaders including Boris Johnson.
The other key event was rejection of Indian application by NSG on the grounds that all applicants have to conform to Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) without exception. The main sponsor of India was USA and the reception accorded to Prime Minister Modi in Washington reminded me of the reception given to Pakistani PM Liaquat Ali Khan in early 1950s. That visit paved the way for Pakistan to become a front line state against communist Soviet Union. Indian NSG application was rebuffed by China along with Turkey, New Zealand and South Korea among others. This was a major diplomatic win for China as it showed that US hold on multilateral organizations are weakening although we can’t say that it is rising for China but it is certainly in a transitionary stage.
Everyone agrees that India is being promoted by USA as a counterweight to China in the region. But this strategy to force India to confront China turning its back on South Asia is sort of defying the last 5000 years of history. Throughout their existence China and India had their backs towards each other and never fought except for few minor border skirmishes. Both of these countries were satisfied to dominate their immediate neighborhoods and did not step on each other’s toes. India looking towards West and China to the East. There is only one such example in history when two large powers did not compete with each other that was Egypt and Rome in the classic era.
To encourage India to turn around and face China requires a guarantee from USA that her back will be secure from any aggression by Pakistan. This requires Pakistan turning its face from East to West which will also be a historic first because the areas comprising Pakistan have always been part of Indian sub-continent. It is this history defying idea adopted by USA that resulted in the formulation of Af-Pak. Pakistan made a strategic mistake when it did not demand that size of Afghan National Army (ANA) should be commensurate with its population and economic size. An army of 325,000 without any economy will be cause for instability and unrest. It will be an army for hire to do bidding of anyone that is willing to pay their salaries. We should also keep in mind that throughout history all major invasions of India have occurred through Afghanistan. By engaging Af-Pak in a war this risk of aggression against India is mitigated. The skirmishes in Torkham could be an effort to initiate an Iran-Iraq style long war that keeps Pakistan engaged on its Western borders while India turns around to face China. Short sighted and opportunist politicians on both sides of the border are making it easy to make this scenario a reality.
The other about turn sought by USA is for Iran to turn its back on Middle East and face Central Asia. The signing of Iran-Afghanistan-India trade pact supported by USA is part of this strategy. This will again be a historic first because Central Asia has always been a domain of Russia while Iran looked north-West controlling Iraq and Syria which were parts of Persian Empire in classic era. President Putin says that unrest in the world is the result of crazy ideas of regime change by USA. These three history defying turn around of India, Pakistan and Iran are a crazy idea and chances of their success will defy thousands of years of history which is highly unlikely.
This brings us to the question what are USA strategic interests in Afghanistan? First is to keep Pakistan engaged on the Western border to provide relief to India to focus on China. To facilitate Iran to look towards central Asia as a counter weight to Russia which has been the traditional dominant force in that region and finally to prevent China from gaining unrestricted access to Central Asia and from there to Europe. I don’t think any of these strategic objectives will be achieved and USA will have to finally depart from Afghanistan for peace to return to the region. There are many reasons for it. First is admission of Pakistan and India to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). There is also increasing cooperation between Iran-Russia to exert influence in Middle East and it is expected that Iran will join SCO as full member. Finally if India become front line against China and the conflict heats up then the loser will be India because it is a much more fragmented society while China is a more homogenous state. PM Modi’s inexperience in foreign policy coupled with his narcissist tendencies have been effectively utilized by USA to ensure deadly embrace of India.
What should be Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities? We must adopt a zero trouble with neighbor’s policy and ensure equal distance with all major powers. We should prioritize this and first focus on improving our relations with Western neighbors Iran and Afghanistan. Departure of foreign forces as soon as possible should be an important agenda item for lasting peace in the region. Iran should be made part of the CPEC as well as security partner in countering terrorism and intelligence sharing. Iran should be made part of the dialogue about Afghanistan along with Russia. It will be hard for us to improve relations with an aggressive India that is openly talking about encircling Pakistan. We should start with items that are easier to solve to build mutual confidence and then move up the agenda. But any improvement in relations with India is not possible as long as a fundamentalist PM Modi is in the office.
In this piece I have presented a perspective which could be one of many. We should look at all possible scenarios so that a visionary foreign policy is formulated. Absence of a vision would mean an ad hoc approach which will be risky and should be avoided.