Pakistan lives in a difficult neighbourhood

The most problematic is the developing situation in Afghanistan

Shahid Javed Burki August 29, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

In several of my earlier writings, I have treated Pakistan’s location as a positive feature in its economic situation. It could become a major transit route for the countries in its neighborhood. Using the Pakistani territory, India could trade with Afghanistan and the countries in Central Asia. China could use the corridor it is building to bring in goods from the sea to its western provinces at a considerable saving. That said, the four countries with which Pakistan shares its borders, face difficult situations that could negatively affect Pakistan. All are related to their relations with the United States.

Looking at the way the United States is factoring Asia into its external affairs leaves one with impression that it has no or little interest in Pakistan. When Imran Khan was Pakistan’s prime minister, he was the only major world leader US President Joseph Biden did not get in touch with. Biden took residence in the White House on January 20, 2021. Imran Khan by then had been Pakistan’s prime minister for two and a half years. But the new American president ignored the Pakistani leader and didn’t call him on the telephone as he had done with most other major world leaders. He did not even send any of his senior advisers to Islamabad to hold discussions with the Pakistani leadership. On the other hand, the Indian presence in Asia as a major power was fully recognised by the American president. In this area, he followed the policies adopted by his predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden took up the suggestion Shinzo Abe, the late prime minister of Japan, had made by proposing the assembly of Asia’s major powers into an arrangement he called the ‘Quad’. This collection of countries was made up of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. This was initially an informal arrangement, but President Biden made it formal by inviting the leaders of the Quad countries to visit him in the White House. He met with them again on one of his visits to the Asian mainland. In May 2022, Washington launched a 13-counrty group that included in addition to the United States, 12 Asian nations. Pakistan was excluded from the group. This group was to coordinate government policies in several areas to — counter global warming, share advances in technologies and manage the complicated supply chains that were now part of the global industrial production system

Why was the United States ignoring Pakistan? One answer came from the former prime minister Imran Khan. Washington punished Imran Khan and the country that he then led because of Islamabad’s close relations with Beijing. Further, while the United States intelligence was predicting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Imran Khan went ahead with his planned visit to Moscow. He was in the Russian capital when its troops moved into Ukraine. On the same day — February 24, 2022 — he had a long meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. To the United States great annoyance, Pakistan refused to condemn the Russian invasion.

Imran Khan believes that his decision not to follow the American line in external affairs led to his removal from office. There may be some truth in this assertion. Notwithstanding the cold shoulder that is being given to Islamabad by Washington, the American administration must understand that it has strong interests in the four countries that border Pakistan.

The most problematic is the developing situation in Afghanistan. With the Taliban having taken over the government in Kabul — this happened on August 15, 2021 when Ashraf Ghani, then the country’s twice elected president fled from Kabul as the Taliban advanced — it is difficult to say the direction in which this particular neighbour is likely to go. Whichever way it goes, Pakistan will be impacted. Iran has a stable government following a well-defined governing strategy. Its difficulties with likely consequences for Pakistan are relations with the United States. Washington, under the influence of the Jewish state of Israel, is determined to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. As a consequence of the way the United States is dealing with Iran, the clerics in Tehran are working on improving their relations with some parts of the Arab world.

And then there is India, with which Pakistan has fought two wars and has never had a settled relationship. The dispute over Kashmir has simmered ever since the two countries gained independence from British rule; but since 2014, another disturbing factor has been added to the relationship. This is with the rapid move by the current leadership in India towards the adoption of Hindutva as the country’s governing philosophy. Since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected the country’s prime minister, the minority Muslim population has been assigned a low status. Muslim population is estimated at 200 million, one seventh of the Indian total. There have been several incidents of radical Hindu mobs destroying Muslim mosques and killing worshippers. From some of the recent moves made by the administrations headed in Washington by Presidents Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, it is clear that they are banking on India to play an important role to counter the growing influence of China in Asia.

It is only with China, the country’s fourth neighbour, that Pakistan has had a close relationship. This relationship has become even closer since Washington began to see Beijing as a rival for global leadership. Washington has serious concerns about Pakistan having become such a close partner of China that it is using all the tools it can deploy to prevent the two countries from working together. This may mean using domestic politics in Pakistan as a way of disturbing the growing Beijing-Islamabad relationship.

In its issue of May 15, 2022, The New York Times wrote a long analysis of how internal divisions in Pakistan are being exploited by those who don’t won’t a close China-Pakistan relationship. The paper used the suicide bombing by a young Balochi woman who blew herself outside the campus of Karachi University as a vehicle carrying some Chinese instructors was being driven into the campus. Three Chinese were killed; they were not the only casualties in the war the separatists are waging against China’s development efforts in Pakistan. Responsibility for most of the attacks was taken by the Balochistan Liberation Army which is fighting for winning independence for their large province. The BLA is actively supported by India. Sometime ago, a senior Pakistani diplomat looking after Indian affairs in the foreign ministry in Islamabad told me that ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, had caught red handed a senior Indian diplomat paying a Balochi insurgent who had carried out for India some operation in Balochistan.

The point of this brief analysis of the involvement of the United States in the Pakistani neighborhood tells us that while Washington may be giving the impression that it has no interest in Pakistan — a large Muslim nation it can safely ignore — that would be a mistake. Washington will pay a heavy price for not working with Pakistan.


Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2022.

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