July issue 2016

By | Cover Story | Newsbeat National | Profile | Published 8 years ago


People question if Pakistan-US ties have ever been as uneventful as they are right now. Do you think Washington still feels Pakistan can toe its line on Afghanistan, considering Islamabad’s track record in the recent past?

Yes, they have been more uneventful, but since people have short memories and don’t study history they forget what happened in the past. In my book Magnificent Delusions, I lay out the history both of the highs (1950s, ’80s and 2000s) and the lows (mid-1960s, 1990s).

Washington has consistently hoped that with the right kind of carrot (aid, equipment, and offer to act as arbiter with India), Islamabad (especially Rawalpindi) would change its policy towards Afghanistan. However, this has not happened and right now there is little hope in Washington DC that Islamabad is either willing or able to adopt a policy that the US would like.

How do you view Ashraf Ghani’s outbursts against Pakistan following the terror attacks in Kabul (this year and last year)? With both countries accusing each other of letting Islamist militants use their territory for cross-border attacks and the stalled negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, is there any chance Pakistan-Afghanistan ties would improve in the near future?

Ashraf Ghani came to power at a time when relations with Pakistan were at a low and there was little dialogue at most levels of the two governments. Ghani hoped that his positive overtures to Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership and offer to improve ties with Pakistan and back away from close ties with India would assuage Islamabad and encourage Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network safe havens. Ghani, along with the US, also hoped that this would lead Pakistan to convince the Afghan Taliban to join the peace process.

However, the rise in terror attacks in Kabul, the discovery of two consecutive Afghan Taliban chiefs in Pakistan (Omar and Mansour) and the continued safe havens for anti-Afghanistan jihadi groups are what resulted in Ghani’s outbursts.

Ties between the two countries can improve if and when Pakistan adopts a no-tolerance policy for any jihadi group, irrespective of whether those groups attack Pakistanis or foreigners. When this happens, not only will Pakistanis be safer but Pakistan’s ties not only with Afghanistan but with all its neighbours and with countries like the US will also improve.

What do India and Pakistan need to do to overcome mutual diplomatic animosity, considering that both the Nawaz and Modi governments seem genuinely interested in bridging the differences?

India and Pakistan should be friends. They share 5000 years of history and only 70 years of bitterness and animosity. In my latest book India v/s Pakistan, I argue that the baggage of Partition, the development of national identities and the challenges of terrorism, nuclear weapons and radicalising societies in each country have led us to where we are today.

Just as Modi and Nawaz are genuine in wanting to bridge differences, so were Nehru and Liaquat in the 1950s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi during the 1980s, Nawaz and Vajpayee in 1999 and Gilani-Zardari and Manmohan Singh in 2008.

Leaders of the two countries have met over 55 times in the last 70 years but we are still where we are today. For things to really change, the establishments on both sides need to change their views about each other. The Pakistani establishment needs to move beyond focusing on India as the existential enemy and move towards viewing it as a neighbour with whom Pakistan shares ties and needs to build trade, economic and cultural relations, while at the same time ensuring its defence. The Indian establishment needs to view Pakistan as its largest South Asian neighbour, and instead of treating it with disdain, treat it with respect and discuss all those issues, including Kashmir, that can help resolve the differences.

Will Pakistan allow relations with Iran to go the Afghanistan route by viewing them through the Indian prism?

Pakistan’s policy towards Iran has been a balancing game where Pakistan treats Iran as an important Muslim neighbour but Islamabad has also allowed itself to participate in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Years of Saudi-Wahhabi funding and the acceptance of safe havens for radical Islamist groups has meant that Pakistan has allowed its territory to be used by anti-Iranian groups operating out of Balochistan. In recent years, this has led to periodic tensions and firing at the Iran-Pakistan border, something that rarely happened in the past.

Iran has always had close ties with India, whether under the Shah or after the Islamic revolution. Further, as a leading supplier of oil and gas in the region, India is one of Iran’s top markets. Pakistan should not expect every country to pick a fight with India because we have one.

However, Iran has till now managed to maintain good ties with both India and Pakistan but that may change if Pakistan starts to look at Iran solely through the India lens. In that case, I fear Iran will choose India over Pakistan.


How do you see Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia evolving in the next 10 years, with Iran getting closer to the West (and India)? Will Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi led ‘anti-terror’ coalition aggravate Saudi-funded sectarianism back home?

Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been symbolic (close ties with the Harmain Sharifain), ideological (Pakistan has seen itself as a Middle Eastern Muslim country with close ties to the Ummah) and economic (Pakistan depends on oil and gas, periodic emergency loans and remittances).

Since the late 1970s, Pakistan has built military ties with Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf countries) providing military advisors, troops and training to the Gulf armies. During the first Gulf war, Pakistan sided with Saudi Arabia against Iraq.

In recent years, with the rise in sectarianism at home and increasing concerns within Pakistan about the blowback from Wahhabism, there is a reluctance to send Pakistani troops to the Gulf. However, Pakistan is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and its allies and so after initially saying it would support but not participate in the coalition, Pakistan has said it will participate.

There is no doubt that the more Pakistan participates in conflicts overseas, it will have increasingly negative consequences and blowback at home. Pakistan needs to figure out a way to not seem ungrateful to the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, who have done so much for Pakistan.

It is one thing to avoid entanglements far from our borders and quite another to make friends feel you do not care about their security. We need to realise that accepting assistance on promises of supporting others creates an obligation that cannot be ignored at will.

How can Bangladesh and Pakistan address the mutual paranoia that has crept inside their relations?

The mutual paranoia and anger will lessen when both sides take a deep breath and talk to each other.

We, as Pakistanis, need to read our own history and make sure all our children read the true story of what happened in 1971, not the whitewashed version that is taught in most schools in Pakistan.

Former army chief Musharraf made a start by apologising for what happened. We need to take that forward and improve our ties with Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, too, needs to extend its hand and seek to improve ties with us. We could have talked to them about a truth and reconciliation process like the one in South Africa, which allows truth to come out without harsh punishments. But we opted for whitewashing history and pretending that no injustice or war crime was actually committed.

Do you believe Pakistan has put all its eggs in China’s CPEC basket?

In a nutshell, yes. We have always had this mythical notion that a superpower ally will come from outside, solve all our problems, improve our economy and build our military so we can stand up to India. First we looked to the US, but they did not do what we expected them to do. Then we turned to China and we have consistently believed China will solve all our problems.

China, when it invests money in a country, does it not for the sake of altruism or in the name of development (like the US or EU) but solely for the purpose of investments that should benefit Chinese companies.

CPEC is one of the many corridors that are part of the OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative of Beijing. Another such corridor in South Asia is the BBIM (Bangladesh Bhutan India Myanmar) corridor.

China has often promised large amounts of investment in countries but rarely has all that investment actually flowed through. For example, despite announcing plans for more than $24 billion in investment in Indonesia since 2005, a decade later China has invested only $1.8 billion there.

If Pakistan seeks to develop its economy we need to move beyond being a textile-cotton dependent economy, improve our tax to GDP ratio, resolve our energy problems and improve security and provide political stability. That will attract much more investment that will be long-lasting in nature. We need to view ourself as something more than a warrior nation sitting on a strategically important location, collecting strategic rent from great powers for our location.

Are Pakistan’s defence and energy ties with Russia strong enough to substantiate the optimism surrounding a possible ‘China-Russia-Pakistan axis’?

Pakistan’s defence and energy ties with Russia have improved over the years and will improve further as Russia seeks more and more markets because of rising Russia-EU and Russia-US tensions. Further, with India — at one time Russia’s biggest defence market — now purchasing more arms from the West, Russia needs more buyers. But Russia sells weapons for cash and we do not always have cash.

The belief in a Russia-China-Pakistan axis is, as of now, only a myth or a desire. Russia still remains one of the top defence suppliers to India and will not risk upsetting New Delhi beyond a certain extent. That is why President Putin has not yet visited Pakistan and the Russian ambassador keeps saying he will come only when there is more substance to the relationship.

China too, despite its border conflict with India, does not want India to get too close to the US. So it will probably play a balancing game. Chinese trade with India in 2013 was $65 billion, six times its trade with Pakistan.   According to a 2014 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey, 78% of Pakistanis had a favourable view of China compared to only 30% of Chinese viewing Pakistan favourably — the same share of Chinese that had a favourable view of India.

How do you see Islamabad’s pivot towards Central Asia to cater to its energy needs? Also, can the TAPI and IP pipelines coexist?

Right from the 1990s, Islamabad hoped to be the route to Central Asia, both in order to access the energy resources of the region as well as be the channel through which other countries accessed the Central Asian market. Unfortunately that has not happened. Pipelines and trade routes do not flourish through conflict zones.

The two growing economies in the region are China and India. China has direct access to Central Asia and Pakistan has not allowed India access to Central Asia through its territory. So India is now trying to use Iran as its route to Central Asia.

Both TAPI and IPI can coexist but only if Pakistan allows India transit trade and greater trade and transportation access through its territory. The larger market for both pipelines is India and Pakistan would actually benefit by allowing transit trade as it would then become the crossroads of trade and commerce and energy, collecting revenue as well as having some leverage in dealing with India. Pakistan’s energy needs would be resolved and it would also obtain investments from foreign investors. Our strategic decision to not normalise trade with India without resolving the Kashmir dispute does not let us tread that path.

How do you feel the current PML-N government’s foreign policy compares to the previous PPP government’s?

Both these civilian governments have attempted to change Pakistan’s foreign policy and that is where both of them have faced challenges. The Pakistani establishment is not willing to relinquish control over Pakistan’s foreign policy and insists on creating roadblocks to initiatives or domestic crises that prevent any real change from happening. Both parties have been unable to challenge the establishment’s ability to reject new ideas by orchestrating an outcry of ‘sell out’ by the media and the religious right.

How would Modi’s recent trips to Saudi Arabia and Iran and the recently signed agreements with Iran and Afghanistan impact Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Under Modi, India has improved its relations with many countries, both in its neighbourhood and beyond. India is now close not only to Iran but also to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Not only are energy and economic ties deeper between Saudi Arabia and India but Riyadh, in recent years, has repatriated jihadi terrorists (often with ties to Pakistan-based groups) back to India.

Iran continues to remain one of India’s largest oil and gas suppliers and now India is helping building Chabahar port, some say as a rival to Gwadar, so that it has access to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and India signed a strategic agreement some years ago. India is the largest regional bilateral donor with over $2 billion in aid and has even supplied Afghanistan with helicopters.

Pakistan does not need to visualise India’s close ties with its neighbours as being necessarily anti-Pakistan in nature. We need to change our own paradigm and have security in our own relationships.

The belief that Muslim countries and Pakistan’s Muslim South Asian neighbours should only support Islamic Pakistan not India (which is a Hindu-majority country) did not work in the 1950s and will not work today. Countries build ties with others based on national interest, not ideology. We need to make ourself of interest to others, positively.

Finally, do you see any change in the establishment’s control over foreign policy in the near future? Can Pakistan’s foreign policy become more progressive without that?

As of now, I do not see any change in the establishment’s control of Pakistan’s foreign policy nor do I see a change in its global outlook.

Pakistan’s foreign policy can only become progressive if we give up our fixation with India, move away from ideology to pragmatism and let realpolitik frame our decisions. We need to act against radical Islamist groups, jihadi groups and all such non-state actors so as to make Pakistan a safer place for our citizens. We need to focus on economic development and growth. Right now we are like a man who exercises only one arm to the detriment of the rest of the body. Our military and security arm is strong but our economic legs, our cultural and intellectual brain, and our heart and human development blood circulation system works rather poorly.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.