Pakistan’s encirclement by the Indo-Afghan alliance is nearly complete. The Afghan Army Chief General Qadam Shah Shaheem said on April 30 that if other options don’t yield any positive results in bringing Pakistani incursions to a halt, the Afghan Army would step in as a last resort in responding to military aggression along the Durand Line. The Indian foreign secretary told Pakistan that it “cannot be in denial of the impact of terrorism on the bilateral relationship”, essentially reiterating that terror and talks cannot go hand in hand.
Quietly, New Delhi remains focused on entrenching itself at the Iranian Chabahar port to gain access to Afghanistan and Central Asian energy markets, as well as connecting with the Middle East and Europe. With Afghan transit trade down, traffic through Chabahar is likely to make Pakistan even more irrelevant for Afghan imports. India has also successfully cultivated the ruling elite in both Afghanistan and the land-locked Central Asian states, thereby trumping the natural geographical importance and relevance that Pakistan has for these countries.
We in Pakistan believe to have successfully thwarted Indo-Afghan-American conspiracies against us. But empirical evidence — Pakistan’s image abroad and its continued isolation on issues related to terrorism — suggests that this ‘success’ continues to bleed Pakistan socially, politically and economically. Tactically, we have been successful — but at what cost? Beyond doubt, neither the US nor India can bend a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Both tried, but failed to dictate. Punish they can, nevertheless; and continue to do so, both directly and indirectly. Through its strategic investment and a whole-of-government approach towards Afghanistan, India has created a hornet’s nest for Pakistan. Those who are relevant in Afghanistan — from members of parliament, to President Ghani, to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, to former president Karzai and the civil-military establishment — are all blowing hot and cold on Pakistan as the supporter of “all those animals killing innocent Afghans”, a perception that resonates with common Afghans and is gaining currency by the day.
The way the Quadrilateral Contact Group has come to a halt on the heels of the deadly bombing in Kabul clearly illustrates that Pakistan has lost on the strategic front. It is fighting a modern war of perception-management with a Cold War-era tactical mindset blunted by an outdated bureaucratic implementation regime towards the war-battered country. The country cannot complete critical investments — a nuclear medicine hospital in Kabul or crucial road links — in nearly 10 years. The bureaucracy in Islamabad miserably fails in addressing Afghan importers’ grievances related to the transit trade.
Many Pakistanis love to point to the US, India and other countries, despite the fact that Pakistan itself has relied on non-state actors in the last three decades to achieve geo-political objectives. From South America to the Middle East to Africa, we have seen support for such entities. Recently, President Obama expressed his determination to continue funding the training of anti-Assad Syrian non-state actors. This is considered to be fine as long as the US government and Congress consider it to be in the American interest. Most Pakistanis overlook the obvious difference here — a superpower, with all its might, or a burgeoning economy like that of India, can get away with such ventures. A struggling and marginalized economy — beset with endemic governance, political polarization and a dearth of strategic vision — cannot.
Are our ruling elites thinking in the strategic way leaders in other countries think? We may be very good in tactical approaches. It has helped the country stay afloat, but is that enough for long-term peace, economic development and regional connectivity? Can the country afford policies that have drawn it into a prolonged state of conflict with both its major neighbors? The third neighbor — Iran — looks on as we hang on to the Cold War security matrix. Shouldn’t India’s growing economic proximity to Iran as well as to Saudi Arabia serve as a wake-up call to us all? That is real encirclement. Can an apologetic policy towards the Afghan Taliban really help the country end its global isolation and put it on the path to development?