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Geopolitical challenges

Updated February 20, 2019

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

RECENT events underscore Pakistan’s geopolitical challenges and options. India’s jingoism following a suicide bombing on a paramilitary convoy in India-held Kashmir has heightened our security concerns. Blaming Pakistan for sponsoring the deadliest attack in the disputed territory that killed over 40 paramilitary personnel, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has threatened to retaliate with full force.

While keeping the option of military strikes open, he has vowed to isolate Pakistan and cripple it economically. A day after the attack, the Indian government announced it was withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation (trade) status for Pakistan. There was nothing unpredictable about Modi’s battle cry given the timing of the attack. It happened months before the general elections with the ruling BJP struggling to retain power.

As responsibility for the attack has been claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad, the finger is conveniently being pointed towards Pakistan despite the fact that the attacker was a native of IHK. But even before the attack the Modi government had upped the ante, with greater military manoeuvring along the Line of Control.

Most alarming is Modi’s decision to give a ‘free hand’ to the Indian armed forces to take any action against Pakistan. Such a reckless move that has also drawn criticism in India is tantamount to a declaration of war. In the words of a retired Indian general, giving a ‘free hand’ to the armed forces against a nuclear power is not acceptable. Modi’s brinkmanship could lead to a conflagration in the world’s most combustible region.

Pakistan’s response to India’s war hysteria has indeed been a measured one.

Pakistan’s response to India’s war hysteria has indeed been a measured one. The prime minister was right in offering to cooperate with India in any investigation into the incident and taking action if the latter provided verifiable evidence regarding any Pakistani connection. He has also issued a firm warning against any Indian military adventurism.

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Nothing could be more ridiculous than Modi’s claim of isolating Pakistan and crippling it economically. Surely, Pakistan has some serious foreign and security policy problems that have greatly harmed our interest and damaged our position in the international community. But it is a tall claim that one can isolate a country enjoying an extremely important geostrategic position. The withdrawal of the MFN status will hardly make a dent in Pakistan’s economy.

Pakistan’s relations with the US may have hit a low over the past few years but the interests of the two countries converge in finding a negotiated political settlement to the Afghan war. The emergence of a multipolar global order has led to ever-changing alignments. Pakistan’s strategic alliance with China has strengthened and so have its relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia. A country can only isolate itself through its policies, not because of any foreign power. There are, though, some problems related to the country’s antiterrorism policy that need to be fixed.

Yet another event at the same time has brought some relief. The visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman amid a pomp and show rarely witnessed before sealed a $20 billion investment deal with the kingdom. The grand reception in Islamabad must have come as a morale booster to the crown prince who is still reeling from the allegations of having ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have long maintained a strong strategic relationship. The two countries have worked together very closely within the framework of several bilateral, regional and global forums. Their relations, however, hit an all-time low when Pakistan declined the Saudi request to send troops to fight in Yemen in 2015.

Now the relationship is back to normal with the mending of fences.

Surely, the Pakistani military leadership has played a huge role in bringing the alliance back on track. Both nations share strong military ties. Riyadh has traditionally maintained a close relationship with Pakistan’s military establishment. The appointment of retired army chief Gen Raheel Sharif as head of an ‘Islamic alliance force’ is an example. Pakistan is one of the 41 members of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.

The strategic relationship has now taken a new dimension with the promise of Saudi investment that is a part of Vision 2030 launched by the crown prince to diversify the Saudi economy and make investments in other countries. The close ties between Riyadh and Islamabad can provide more opportunities for cooperation within the framework of Vision 2030. The fact that Saudi Arabia assured ‘maximum assistance’ to Imran Khan’s government suggests that the two leaders have struck a chord and have developed a good chemistry. The bonhomie between the two was all too obvious.

While the benefits for Pakistan’s cash-strapped economy are huge, there is also a risk that the country could be pushed into a regional power game. Surely Pakistan has done incredibly well so far, balancing its relations with Iran despite its closeness with the kingdom. But the latest Iranian charge implicating Pakistan for terrorism in Iran is ominous.

Indeed, there must be some cause of concern with Iran blaming Pakistani security agencies of harbouring the group responsible for the devastating bombing that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. It was not the first time Tehran has pointed fingers towards Pakistan but the tenor was much harsher and categorical this time. The charges of Pakistan’s involvement may be baseless, but there is need for the two countries to come together to resolve the issue.

Pakistan has declared its neutrality in the conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. Yet there are strong apprehensions that its close cooperation both in defence and economics with the Saudis could push the Pakistani government into taking sides. The scathing remarks made by the Saudi foreign minister describing Iran as the biggest exporter of terror would certainly not have gone down well.

The complex external circumstances surrounding the country demand prudent management of foreign relations. Fast-changing regional geopolitics have a direct bearing on our national security and internal political stability. Given our geostrategic position there is a greater need to take a more balanced approach.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2019