For all intents and purposes, Pakistan is now entering the third phase of the war against extremists. The first phase was the Musharraf era, followed by Kayani-Zardari timeframe, and now Nawaz Sharif and the next army chief, will own the third and crucial stage of this struggle.
Nawaz Sharif started his tenure focusing on the economy. However, the ground reality forced him to tackle extremism on a priority basis, for without a stable law and order situation, economic potential of the region cannot be realized.
Speaking last week at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, the nation’s finance minister Ishaq Dar asserted the focus of his administration was on dealing with the simultaneously the three Es: Energy, Economy and Extremism.
After an upsurge in terror activities, Nawaz Sharif quickly coalesced the political leaders and the security establishment in forming a national security policy and counter-terrorism strategy. That exercise proved to be cumbersome from the outset. Policies and strategies are best made when the surrounding environment and the threat projections faced by a country present a pattern. However, there is acute dearth of constancy and heavy dose of change in the region and beyond. This makes development of any policy or strategy extremely difficult and leads to piece meal efforts and confusion.
Consider first the uncertainty presented by Afghanistan. It’s not clear how many foreign troops will remain in the country after the 2014 US/NATO withdrawal. Moreover, the Bilateral Security Agreement (BLA) between the US and Afghanistan remains elusive with a possibility that US will exercise the ‘zero-troops’ option.
The potential for the failure of Afghan reconciliation talks also persists, along with possibility of another civil war on who represents the Afghans, once the US/NATO withdraws. How the US-Iran thaw progresses, will become another unknown variable as it relates to the Afghan reconciliation. This ambiguity and stalemate makes it hard to focus on a single strategy and instead results in a scenario based hedging approach.
The Pakistan-India ties and Indian involvement in Afghanistan is the second dilemma. Without normalization of relations with India, Pakistan will continue to be suspicious of its role in Afghanistan, especially as it relates to insurgencies in Balochistan and the FATA. This pushes Pakistan’s focus on both the external and internal troubles, and prevents it to concentrate on economics and regional trade. On the other hand, India remains worried about Pakistan’s character in Afghan reconciliation, as it could once again free up extremists to focus on Kashmir.
President Obama highlighted the threat posed by non-state actors at the 68th session of UN General Assembly. Others, however, may interpret their utility differently. In the case of Syria, Hezbollah fighters, backed by Iran, came to the defense of the Assad regime. Had it not been such fighters adept at urban fighting, the job of Syrian army would have been made much more difficult. This is especially the case when western interventions in Islamic states are on the rise.
The larger dynamics of the China-US-Russia ties continue to ripple across the South and Central Asian region as well, causing actors to hedge their bets. As American image continues to take the hit as it relates to the war against terror, the perception of Russia and China is resurgent. In the long run, Muslim countries are tilting more towards these powers for their economic and security needs. This presents a unique challenge for the western world, which many suspect desires to reconfigure the region.
The geopolitical environment Nawaz Sharif and the new army chief inherit is starkly different from the past. The US/NATO has changed its emphasis from kinetic approaches to negotiated settlement, from the use of heavy footprint to smart tactics and strategies, and pushing the allies to take the lead the fight.
If not managed carefully, these allies run the risk of civil wars. Moreover, when the country has already been weakened considerably by earlier campaigns against extremists, continuing the course could cause the economy to collapse and provide an indirect victory to the enemy.
Under these circumstances, the challenge for Pakistan is which groups to reconcile with and who to fight, and to manage the international perceptions. As it stands now, the talks with TTP are unlikely to produce results without significant progress on the Afghan reconciliation. Moreover, in absence of tangible results on the Pakistan-India tangent, the dismantling of India-oriented jihadist will be difficult.
Given this uncertain outlook, PoliTact’s strategic assessment suggests that Pakistan is betting less and less on Afghanistan situation stabilizing in the near future, although it is facilitating the reconciliation process. Many other stakeholders are of the same opinion that Afghanistan is not heading for normalcy in the near term. And thus the trade and energy corridor to Central Asia via Afghanistan will likely not materialize. Pakistan is instead focusing more on the Kashghar–Gwadar trade zone over which it has more control. For this, however, calming down the TTP elements first will be far more important, and for which Pakistan will still need the help of Afghan Taliban.
At another event, also held at the Atlantic Council, the chairman of John Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucus Institute, S. Frederick Starr pointed out to Kashgar-Gwadar initiative and the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project to illustrate how Pakistan is ahead of the curve, as it relates to regional trade and energy integration and the forming of Eurasia super continent. He went on to criticize the lack of American leadership on defining a vision and policy related to the New Silk Road initiative, first referred to by Hillary Clinton during her visit to India in 2011. He went on to add that others will fill the vacuum – a point of view fully supported by the author of Afghanistan’s national development plan, Adib Farhadi.
Because of the uncertain future of Afghanistan, Pakistan is essentially bypassing the country. This is similar to how India is trying to skip Pakistan to reach Central Asia via Iran. However, India would still need to deal with the security situation of Afghanistan, and Pakistan may have to confront further deterioration of the security situation in places like Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and FATA.
This article first appeared in Pakistan Today, a leading Pakistani newspaper. Click here to go to the original.