Behind Pakistan's strategic shift towards Afghanistan
With the geopolitical landscape of our region changing fast, many optimists say they are able to see a shift in Pakistan’s geostrategic approach. Some believe this shift is largely oriented towards geo-economics, and if established, it would be a major doctrinal shift. But so far, state institutions have not hinted at that in their statements. Or perhaps, this is merely an issue of a different reading of their actions.
Pakistan’s faltering economic indicators do not lend weight to such notions that the state is making some expedient efforts to strengthen its geostrategic or geo-economic approach. For one, even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was until recently projected as a game-changer for the country’s weak economy, has become a victim of the short-sightedness of state institutions. However, those seeing a shift in Pakistan’s geostrategic approach do not use economy-related arguments only; they also highlight the changing geopolitical behaviour of the state, specifically towards Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process is vital. It was widely appreciated as being instrumental in sealing the US-Afghan Taliban deal of Feb 29. But this does not reflect any change in Pakistan’s strategic approach. Instead, it supports its long-standing position; it has long been advocating that a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders is a viable solution for Afghanistan.
Pakistan has facilitated talks between the US and the Taliban because of several reasons. First, the US has acknowledged Pakistan’s stance of negotiated settlement. Secondly, the Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC were also factors because China does not want a major, protracted conflict near a key belt of its ambitious connectivity initiative. Similarly, Pakistan’s internal security concerns as well as its urge to correct its global image have proved to be critical reasons.
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It requires an in-depth inquiry to examine how effectively Pakistan used these factors and to what extent they have influenced the country. However, Pakistan’s strategic doctrine appears to have remained unchanged in the process mainly because the geopolitical and strategic challenges facing the country have still not been resolved. Nevertheless, these challenges have become more complicated after India revoked the special status of India-held Kashmir last year on Aug 5, which was granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
Pakistan tried hard to raise the issue before the international community and on the relevant platforms - especially focusing on human rights abuses in held Kashmir. These efforts yielded results, and international media and rights groups took the atrocities in Kashmir seriously. However, Pakistan has not cultivated enough political and diplomatic support to force India to review its brutal practices in Kashmir. China supported Pakistan’s stance at the UN Security Council but that was not enough to pressurise India. However, a real setback was experienced when the Muslim bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE obstructed all Pakistani efforts to use the Organisation of the Islamic Conference platform for Kashmir. It showed that the religious bond is relevant in international relations only when coupled with a strong economy. South Asia is the region Pakistan considers the least essential, or perhaps it does not fit in well with the state’s ideological framework. Pakistan’s close bilateral relations with South Asian nations would have generated political capital to pursue its geo-economic and political interests in the region.
Despite introducing structural and stabilisation reforms, Pakistan is desperately looking for economic revival. The power elites’ continuing practices reflect that they are mainly capitalising on the strategic importance of the country, which they believe can perform miracles time and again by diverting international investment and aid towards Pakistan. The nuclear arsenal and strong military forces have contributed to this confidence. Afghanistan is central to this approach, from where the country can extract global support. Afghanistan is important for Pakistan not only in the context of the Indian presence in its backyard but also for strategic reasons, and the US has exploited it very well.
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Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan peace process facilitated the improvement of its global image, reduced the trust deficit in its relations with the US, and helped it get loans from international financial institutions. But Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan has not generated support for its stance on Kashmir. Second, in its efforts to balance its relationship with the US and China, Pakistan has significantly lost focus on CPEC, which was a rare opportunity for the revival and strengthening of its economy. However, Pakistan has not used the Afghanistan factor effectively. Some say the fear of being blacklisted by the FATF, the international financial watchdog, has forced it to extend more support to the US in Afghanistan. The FATF has proved a lethal factor, neutralising Pakistan’s efforts to take advantage of its cooperation in Afghanistan.
Maintaining an equilibrium in its relationship with China and the US is another challenge for Pakistan. The country has a history of ups and downs in its relationship with the US, but it cannot afford a standstill with China, as the relationship has an altogether different nature in the geopolitical, geo-economic, and geostrategic contexts. The impression, which has developed during the last two years, that Pakistan is eager to restore its relationship with Washington has created resentment in Beijing. The slowdown of CPEC has strengthened suspicions.
In a nutshell, Pakistan is struggling to adjust its geopolitical priorities, and nothing substantive has changed in its geostrategic doctrine. A geostrategic shift should have manifested itself in better trade and political relations with neighbours and aggressive pursuit of implementation of transnational energy and infrastructure megaprojects, which have already been agreed upon and just need a little push. CPEC and its connectivity with Afghanistan, as well as structural economic reforms would have substantiated such a shift. All these efforts need-out-of-the-box thinking and courageous leadership.
Fixing the economy through a geostrategic lens cannot be called a doctrinal shift.