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A time of hope

September 02, 2018

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WITH the election of Imran Khan’s PTI government, there is a sense of hope and expectation in Pakistan that, finally, a democratically elected leadership will pursue policies that serve the national interest and the welfare of the people. This sentiment springs mainly from the established integrity of the new prime minister and the presumption that this will infuse the entire governance structure.

Apart from the renewed hope among Pakistanis at all levels, this presumption of integrity will also enhance Pakistan’s credibility and credentials within the comity of nations, and with both friend and foe.

Despite some hiccups, the US has come around to declaring that it considers Pakistan a “valued partner” and expressed interest in the PTI’s reform agenda. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to briefly visit Islamabad next week. The encounter may help to ease the year-long tensions between the two countries. It could enhance the prospects for the smooth approval of an IMF financial support package which is the urgent objective of the new government.

The new Pakistani leadership may succeed in convincing Pompeo that Pakistan is prepared to extend whatever assistance it can to evolve a political settlement in Afghanistan and convince the Afghan Taliban to enter into an open negotiating process. However, Pakistan will no doubt make it clear that it cannot accept the onus for securing a political settlement. The US itself will need to negotiate mutually acceptable terms with the Taliban.

The presumption of integrity will enhance Pakistan’s international credentials.

As part of the process of rebuilding mutual confidence, it appears essential to convince the US that Pakistan’s assistance can be best obtained through friendship and reciprocity rather than coercion and threats. The US should acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against global terrorism and the complicity of Pakistan’s eastern neighbour in fomenting terrorism and violence against Pakistan including from the territory of Afghanistan.

However, there should be no expectation on Pakistan’s part that its cooperation on Afghanistan and counterterrorism will change America’s regional strategy and the US effort to build India as its ally to counter the rising power of China. US efforts to press Pakistan to end support for the Kashmiri freedom struggle and to dilute its nuclear deterrence against India will remain issues in contention.

Pompeo’s visit will be followed almost immediately by the visit of China’s state counsellor and foreign minister, Wang Yi. This will provide an early opportunity to further enhance the enduring strategic partnership between Pakistan and its largest neighbour. Recent global and regional developments, including India’s intensifying military alliance with US to contain China, has created a compulsion for Pakistan and China to further intensify their military and economic partnership.

China can be expected to continue to provide generous financial support to stabilise Pakistan’s serious balance-of-payments problem, with or without an IMF package. The discussion will no doubt also encompass ways to enhance and expand the CPEC project. Many of the socioeconomic priorities of the PTI government can be achieved through such enhanced execution of CPEC.

The solidarity with Pakistan expressed by Saudi Arabia, and its reported willingness to provide financial support, are important signals of receptivity of the Gulf countries to the new government’s desire for friendship with the Muslim world. Turkey is also the victim of the Trump administration’s proclivity to use coercion rather than negotiation as a policy tool. Pakistan’s empathy for Turkey has enhanced the solidarity between these two key Muslim countries.

Likewise, Iran which is facing economic strangulation from unilateral US sanctions, is open to closer cooperation with Pakistan. Tehran’s cooperation will be vital in promoting a sustainable political settlement in Afghanistan and tranquillity in Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan.

Russia’s strategic alignment with China and India’s growing alliance with the US have opened avenues for comprehensive cooperation between Pakistan and Russia. Apart from their coordination on counterterrorism and Afghanistan, there is significant scope for expansion of this relationship in defence, industry, technology and other areas.

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight to the threat to Pakistan’s security from India. The vast arsenal of conventional and strategic weapons and advanced technologies which India is acquiring from the US, Israel, Russia and others are being deployed mainly against Pakistan (not China). Modi’s government faces a popular revolt in occupied Kashmir to which it has responded with characteristic brutality. Its widespread violations of human rights in Kashmir have been credibly chronicled in the recent report issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As usual, India has sought to transfer blame for the violence in Kashmir on to Pakistan. It is likely that in the context of the upcoming Indian national elections, the BJP leadership may escalate its anti-Pakistan rhetoric, further intensifying tensions. To win back dwindling electoral support, Modi may even attempt to conduct the threat of a ‘surgical strike’ across the LoC.

Given the PTI’s socioeconomic priorities, the new prime minister has offered to ‘take two steps [towards normalisation] if India takes one’. But it takes two hands to clap. India remains adamant in refusing to resume the dialogue with Pakistan on the agreed ‘Composite/ Comprehensive Agenda’ (which includes Kashmir and peace and security as the principal items) until ‘violence is ended’. This begs the question — the very purpose of the dialogue is to end the possibility of violence and war through the equitable resolution of conflicts and disputes.

India has been unable to suppress the current Kashmiri uprising or to impose its dominance over Pakistan despite its threats, co-option of venal Pakistani politicians and American support. Faced now with a Pakistani government that is committed to peace, but also to national interest and self-respect, India may at last agree to resume a dialogue without preconditions.

Prudence dictates that Pakistan offer peace and a dialogue to India but maintain the capability to deter and repel India’s threats of surgical strikes, a ‘limited war’, or a ‘Cold Start’ (surprise) attack. As long as there is credible deterrence, India cannot contemplate a war against Pakistan. This provides space for Pakistan’s government to focus on its socioeconomic priorities.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018