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Regional relationships

May 31, 2012

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THE arrival of a top Russian diplomat, coinciding with the presence of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Islamabad on Wednesday, assumes particular importance as America prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan. During his stay Mr Jiechi met all those who matter, including the army chief, and expressed his admiration for the sacrifices Pakistan has made in the fight against terrorism. While his words sound reassuring, it is the arrival of Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan that is particularly significant and indicates Moscow’s recognition of Pakistan’s key role in the future of Afghanistan. Russia, let us not forget, has more than a century of involvement with Muslim lands to its south, and even though it withdrew from Afghanistan after a disastrous military campaign, it still has stakes in the region. Like all world powers and regional states, it would want a post-America Afghanistan that is not a hub of terrorism and doesn’t once again witness a new round of internal strife. To that extent, Islamabad’s interests coincide with those of Moscow.

These visits should not, however, detract from attempts to correct the course of the critical US-Pakistan relationship. An American military delegation is due next week and will undertake the onerous task of seeking a breakthrough in a relationship that has remained deadlocked since Salala. Wheels within wheels characterise US-Pakistan relations, with events — and the way both countries handle them — overtaking the two sides with a rapidity that complicates the task further. The latest to add to tensions is the Secretary of State’s public disapproval and the Congressional aid cut in response to Dr Shakil Afridi’s conviction. Whether or not the man actually supported militants, Pakistan didn’t even bother to tell the world that that is what he was convicted for, as official trial documents now claim.

There are other powers with whom we need to have fruitful political and economic ties. But the recent visits by Russia and China should not become cause for Islamabad and Rawalpindi to forget the importance of the relationship with America. As the two countries try to establish themselves as world powers, they will naturally seek to strengthen regional alliances and assume bigger roles in a resolution of the Afghanistan conflict. Pakistan has a lot to gain from relationships with them too, especially in the field of economic cooperation, and should address their concerns about terrorism. But America is a critical player in the region as well, and other relationships should not become cause for complacency or reason to assume that a functional relationship with the US is not critical and long overdue.