For CPEC peace

24 Jul 2016


The writer is a researcher at SOAS, University of London.
The writer is a researcher at SOAS, University of London.

WHEN the breakthrough came in 1963, Pakistan was united in anticipation over its new relationship with China, a blank canvas against which all hopes and wishes were projected. What it got was weapons of every kind and a UNSC veto. Today’s dream is of making money together, so it is worth looking seriously at what converting a security-based relationship into an economic one will require.

Back in the 1970s, Pakistan helped cement an alliance between the Gulf states, China and the US. What this diverse bunch of countries shared was a fear of Soviet penetration into the Indian Ocean following British withdrawal. Many of those fears converged on Balochistan; so much so that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto offered Gwadar to president Nixon as a US navy base during a trip to Washington D.C., with Beijing’s enthusiastic support.

That today’s China wants Gwadar as a trading hub says much about the transformation of a state whose chief exports were once guns and ideology. ‘Wealth is glorious’ as Deng Xiaoping, who buried Maoism, was often quoted saying. The result of this turnaround in national priorities has been world-shaking; the largest movement out of poverty in human history.

Iran and Afghanistan cannot be treated as adversaries.

Can Pakistan achieve similar benefits from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor without shifting its own paradigms? To succeed CPEC must be different from every previous strategic partnership; security and ideological goals must serve economic objectives instead of the other way around. Yet change will be difficult given the steady securitisation of governance and Pakistan’s dependence on even more regressive allies.

CPEC is not Pakistan’s first attempt at ‘geo-economics’ or reviving the Silk Road; the previous effort led to the Taliban’s rise, and is a warning against the status-quo mindset.

In 1993, Benazir Bhutto returned to power and her interior minister, retired Maj-Genl Naseerullah Babar — one of her father’s Afghan hands — set up a project with Turkmenistan to establish a trade corridor between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Under their direction Deobandi mujahideen networks (led by Mullah Omar) and the secular Turkmen forces of Gen Dostum would pacify and then govern Afghanistan. Central Asian gas would flow south while Pakistan’s agricultural produce and the world’s goods would roll north into the ex-Soviet republics.

Aside from Pakistani leaders’ perennial folly, the original framework did not survive long. When president Farooq Leghari dismissed Benazir Bhutto’s government in November 1996, the military regained control of the Afghan file. Turkmenistan was replaced by Saudi Arabia, whose main concern was countering Iranian influence. Suddenly the point became the army’s ‘strategic depth’ and the dominance of Sunni ideology.

But Iran and Afghanistan cannot be treated like adversaries or battlegrounds if CPEC is to succeed. Investment needs peace, and peace in the graveyard of empires requires difficult compromises. When Kabul (with Soviet encouragement) revived its ‘Pakhtunistan’ claim after the departure of East Pakistan, the Shah flew to Rawalpindi in January 1972 to communicate Iranian commitment to West Pakistan’s territorial integrity.

Bhutto in turn helped secure Iran’s Sistan va Baluchestan, even raiding the Iraqi military attaché’s residence in 1973 to seize smuggled weapons. Backed by vast amounts of aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran mediated a modus vivendi between the governments only ended by the communist coup and Soviet invasion. Zia’s pursuit of reconciliation in Balochistan and good relations with revolutionary Iran nevertheless helped contain conflict in the province for nearly three decades until things flared up over the Gwadar gold rush.

Given Islamabad’s alignment with the US and Saudi Arabia such cooperation with Tehran is hard to ima­gine today, and commander Khulbushan Yadav’s ‘monkey’ business shows things could get much worse unless ties are mended.

Iran has made strides towards reconciling with America, while their influence in Afghanistan is growing within the government and a Taliban that is irrevocably fragmented and up for bid; Mullah Mansour’s last journey from Taftan illustrates militants’ options. Internally, no matter how many troops are poured into Balochistan, KP and Fata, there will never be enough to create international investor confidence in deeply unsettled and unresolved situations. The answer to these dangers will not be found in competitive escalation but cooperation.

As an analogy, imagine if India had to bet its economic future on peace in India-held Kashmir, and the transformation in relationships with Pakistan and with Kashmiris this would demand; that is the challenge Pakistan faces with CPEC.

Pakistan must make peace with its western neighbours, within its own borders, and within those neighbours’ borders for the venture to succeed. The question is if the khaki gentlemen who have the final say in these matters are capable of the breadth, creativity and stamina demanded, or if the usual solutions based on a balance of terror will win out.

The writer is a researcher at SOAS, University of London.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2016