Lessons from Chabahar

Updated May 25, 2016

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On the day when Pakistan struggled to find the words with which to register its reaction to the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike on its soil, the leaders of India, Iran and Afghanistan were preparing to meet in Tehran to finalise an agreement. The latter will take economic cooperation between the three countries to a new level.

That meeting took place on Monday. And on that same day, our Foreign Office relayed its ‘concern’ over the drone strike to the US ambassador even as President Obama hailed it as “an important milestone”. Also on that day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, seated between his Afghan counterpart and the Indian prime minister, spoke in a televised address following the signing of a transit accord in which he said, “from Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul, this is a crucial message ... that the path to progress for regional countries goes through joint cooperation and utilising regional opportunities”.

Over the years, Pakistan is becoming increasingly isolated from its own neighbours, and the events of Monday, when juxtaposed against each other, provide a vivid illustration of how this is happening.

Read: Rail link planned between Gwadar and Chabahar

The port at Chabahar, and the linkages it opens up, can be seen either as a challenge to be countered or an opportunity to be exploited for Pakistan. Viewed through the lens of rivalry, the cooperative relations being forged by three of Pakistan’s four neighbours, with Chabahar as the emblem of this cooperation, look like an encirclement of the country, necessitating counter measures such as greater subordination of the state’s foreign policy to the dictates of China.

But viewed through the lens of cooperation, the same ties appear as an opportunity to be tapped, calling for reciprocal measures such as opening talks on overland transit trade between the three countries, building links between Chabahar and Gwadar, as well as enhanced road links between Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif with Chaman and Peshawar to complete the loop.

Pakistan’s foreign policy is built on rivalry, whereas it would be to the country’s long-term advantage to view its regional environment through the lens of cooperation instead.

Our region is alive with possibilities that greater cooperation and connectivity bring — from trade to energy — and Pakistan’s location can only be a significant asset in tapping these opportunities if our foreign relations are not dominated by suspicion.

It is realistic, and not naïve, to suggest that in the evolving regional situation, cooperation yields greater benefits, while rivalry and conflict only serve to bottle the country up further.

Of course, changing the rails upon which our foreign relations ride is not going to be easy, especially given the baggage of the past. But that doesn’t obscure the fact that the dividends actually lie on the other side.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2016