Pakistan: Hard choices ahead for a ‘Soft State’

Pakistan’s ex-ambassador at UN, asks will Pakistani decision-making elites keep on moving on a dangerous slippery road under US pressure which leads nowhere or will they now brace their belts and muster the courage for a half-way deal with Washington?


In his well-researched book, “A Hard Country”, Anatol Lieven attributed Pakistan’s survival from persistent internal and external crises to the extraordinary resilience of Pakistan’s people and society. Unlike its people, Pakistan’s rulers, drawn from its privileged elite, are vulnerable to the slightest pressure that affects their bulging pocket books. It is this weakness which makes Pakistan a “soft state”.

This sensitivity to economic pressure was on full display in the recent FATF debacle. After the event, Miftah Ismail, the Adviser on Finance, has rightly assured the country, that being on the FATF’s “grey list” does not imply major or immediate consequences for a country’s banking and financial operations, apart from a stronger “due diligence” by external entities.

Read more: The real reasons why Pakistan was put on the FATF ‘grey…

Pakistan was on the list from 2012 to 2015 without major consequence. If so, why did Pakistan respond in such panic prior to the Paris meeting? After sitting on its hands for over two years, the Government suddenly mobilized to pass legislation to enable it to close down the LeT/JuD entities.

This should have been done long ago to fulfill the requirements of UNSC resolution 1267. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s ham-handed diplomacy has made a bad situation worse.

After blocking a decision in the informal meeting with help from China, Turkey and the GCC. Pakistan’s FM prematurely tweeted his triumph, provoking the US to reopen the issue in formal session, neutralize Pakistan’s slim support and secure a decision to place it on the grey list in June.

Combining ingratitude with incompetence, some Pakistani officials have sought to deflect blame onto China and the GCC for “abandoning” Pakistan in the final hours. It is Islamabad which should convey its apologies for embarrassing them by the FM’s premature tweet. Pakistani Ministers have indicated that they will take the necessary measures to secure Pakistan’s removal from the grey list.

Read more: Government deliberately ignored the brewing FATF Imbroglio?

But, as evident, the US move is political, part of the pressure is designed to obtain Pakistan’s compliance with its new Afghan and South Asia policy. Reportedly, the actions now asked of Pakistan are more extensive than those Pakistan was to fulfill in the run up to the Paris meeting.

Whatever the status of Pakistan’s adherence to the new FATF requirements, the US, with its allies and India, having put Pakistan on the grey list, could force a decision in June, or soon after, to place it directly on the FATF’s “black list”. Although this would not terminate international transactions, it would have a negative impact on Pakistan’s financial sector.

Moreover, it would set the stage for the US to impose unilateral restrictions on Pakistan’s dollar transactions (which are all cleared through the US banking system) if it chooses to further escalate economic pressure on Pakistan. The FATF diplomatic disaster is emblematic of Pakistan’s anemic and discordant response to US President Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia policy since it was announced last August.

Read more: Is FATF a tool reflecting US, UK hypocrisy?

Kamal Alam, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK “think tank”, has written a piece entitled: “Bajwa Doctrine working well against American blackmail”. He writes: “Gone are the days of timidity and scurrying to please the Americans” and “- – the time for American threats and directives is over”.

But there is little evidence of such a “doctrine”, much less of its acceptance by the US. The Pakistani media reported recently that a Corps Commanders’ meeting had decided to cooperate with the US.

In a speech at the recent Munich Security Conference, the Army Chief enumerated Pakistan’s sacrifices and counter terrorism achievements and plans and its efforts to promote a political settlement “while we are actively supporting the new US strategy in the region.”

Meanwhile, a US official has told the media that: “Pakistan is not feeling its oats (being defiant). We have their attention”. He went on to suggest that Pakistan could take some “tactical” steps to satisfy the US, such as expelling, rather than killing or capturing, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis (alleged to be in “safe havens” in Pakistan).

Unlike its people, Pakistan’s rulers, drawn from its privileged elite, are vulnerable to the slightest pressure that affects their bulging pocket books.

Pakistan’s Role in the ‘New’ Cold War Order

To formulate and execute an effective response to US pressure and threats, Pakistan needs complete clarity on the context and substance of the US demands. Notwithstanding Trump’s tweeted tantrums, US security and foreign policy is now formulated and managed by the US marines: Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMasters.

(So much for civilian control of the military!) The US ‘establishment” is determined to utilize the Trump Presidency and the Republican control of all branches of Government to reassert American “power” (which Obama is accused of dissipating) across the world.

China and Russia are seen as the main challengers to US global preeminence, as indicated in the recent US strategy and security reviews. The US has offered India a major role in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia to contain China’s rapidly rising power. India has accepted this role (even as it denies this to China and Russia).

As part of the bargain, the US is prepared to arm India regardless of the security implications for Pakistan. Indeed, US positions indicate that it expects Pakistan to accept India’s regional domination, terminate support for the Kashmiris and give up the attempt to counter India’s nuclear and conventional military buildup.

Read more: Pakistan’s critical role in the New Cold War

This would be Washington’s preferred way to avoid an India-Pakistan war and enhance India’s capacity to compete and confront China. The US also expects Pakistan to support its latest decision to stay on in Afghanistan and to help in “bludgeoning” the Afghan Taliban into accepting peace on America’s terms.

These demands on Pakistan were perhaps most succinctly outlined by US Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan in the US Senate in late January: one, action against the “Haqqani Network” and the Afghan Taliban; two, action against the pro-Kashmiri groups ( LeT, JeM, HM); and three, ( unilateral) nuclear restraint ( no short range or long range missiles) and “alignment of (Pakistan’s) non-proliferation policy with the US”.

Obviously, each of these US demands threatens Pakistan’s vital national interests and objectives. On the other hand, rejection of these demands will have consequences, as the FATF incident illustrates.

Three Scenarios in US-Pakistan Relationship

There can be three possible outcomes in the current US-Pakistan “engagement”. One, Pakistan’s progressive capitulation. This is the present trajectory. At present, Pakistan appears to be on a slippery slope of piecemeal concessions under concerted pressure from the US and India.

Despite Trump’s insults and cut off of US “security assistance”, Pakistan continues its support to the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan is being pressed now to act against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis. Once it does so, it will be asked to eliminate the pro-Kashmiri groups. Thereafter, pressure will focus on neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Read more: Pakistan and the US: Together adrift

Two, a full-blown confrontation. If Pakistan rejects US demands, Washington could: terminate Pakistan’s non-Nato ally status; escalate drone attacks; halt IMF/World bank financing; impose targeted sanctions on Pakistani intelligence personnel; impose banking restrictions; declare Pakistan a “state sponsor of terrorism”; resort to Abbottabad type interventions and encourage Indian “surgical strikes” and/or a limited war” against Pakistan.

Pakistan, in turn, could: block coalition supply lines; halt intelligence cooperation; expel all US/allied intelligence personnel from Pakistan; align with Iran on regional issues; shoot down US drones; attack TTP “safe havens” in Afghanistan; extend support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis (that is, do what it is being accused of doing) and unleash the pro-Kashmiri groups to participate in the on-going indigenous Kashmiri revolt.

Obviously, such a Pakistan-US confrontation would create a major threat to regional and global security. Three, a negotiated course of action. In this scenario, Pakistan could attempt to accommodate legitimate US concerns while avoiding strategic costs. Thus, on Afghanistan, Pakistan appears to have already persuaded the Taliban to offer talks with US, twice in the last two weeks.

Read more: Afghanistan – A view from Pakistan

Such talks could be pursued in the Quadrilateral (Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, US) Coordination Mechanism. But the US response is unclear. It is still talking about eliminating the alleged “safe havens”. It may continue to press Pakistan to expel the Taliban/Haqqani leaders to Afghanistan.

If so, Pakistan will need to push back and mobilize international and regional support for the political dialogue. Moreover, in exchange for its assistance in promoting a negotiated settlement, Pakistan should demand elimination of the TTP’s “safe havens” in Afghanistan and a halt in Indian-sponsored subversion in Baluchistan and FATA.

With regard to the Kashmiri groups, having accepted the UN terrorism listing of the LeT and JeM in the past, Pakistan will have to impose the restraints on these groups and their affiliates as required under UNSC resolution 1267. It is not obliged to do more. Obviously, it would be unwise for any Pakistan government to confront those who espouse the defense of Kashmiri aspirations and protection of their human rights through legitimate means.

Read more: Islamabad draws red lines: No political role for India in Afghanistan!

Indeed, the Pakistan government should be in the forefront of a diplomatic campaign to support the Kashmiri struggle for freedom. On nuclear issues, Pakistan could agree to US non-proliferation objectives (since it is already implementing most of these), although it should continue to demand parity in its nuclear status and in civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

Pakistan will have to vigorously resist the US demands for unilateral restraints on Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs. To counter these demands, Pakistan should propose a set of reciprocal measures for arms control and disarmament to India and invite the US to help in securing India’s agreement to such measure for mutual restraint.

The FATF diplomatic disaster is emblematic of Pakistan’s anemic and discordant response to US President Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia policy.

China’s Understanding of its Priorities and ‘Red Lines’ Pakistan’s ability to negotiate an agreed course of action with the US will depend on: one, a clear identification of its objectives, priorities and “red lines”; two, convincing Washington that if pressed beyond its “red lines”, Pakistan will be prepared to “go to the mattresses” and confront US (and Indian) power, notwithstanding the adverse consequences; and three, generating support for its positions from China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and other regional powers.

Despite planted stories in the Pakistan media questioning China’s support for Pakistan, in Beijing, there does not appear to be any ambiguity about the strategic importance of a strong Pakistan and a solid partnership with it. China sees clearly that the US has embraced India and is pressing Pakistan to submit to the American design of an anti-Chinese South Asia.

China has formulated its own policies and priorities to address the challenge it faces from a revanchist US establishment. Despite it’s expanding economic and military power, China does not desire and, in any case, is not yet ready for a frontal confrontation with the US.

Read more: Let’s build a positive ‘transactional relationship’ with the US

The only issues on which China would be inflexible are those which impinge on its own “territorial integrity” (One China policy, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea). Through its Ambassador in Washington, and prominent business figures like Ali Baba’s Jack Ma, Beijing was quick to establish direct contact with Trump and his family.

The 2 Trump-Xi Summits have focused on the possibilities for cooperation on North Korea and trade and at least delayed a confrontation. However, ultimately, Beijing’s accommodative diplomacy may not work in hawkish Washington. North and South Korea’s “independent” peace initiative could circumvent both the US and China, reducing the value of China’s “Korea card’.

Trump and the trade “hawks” in his Administration are on course to take several protectionist actions that may trigger a trade “war” with China. The Pentagon’s recent review depicting China as a strategic competitor; the revival of “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea; the continuing US endeavor to build alliances around China’s periphery, are trends that portend a Sino-American “clash” sooner or later.

Despite planted stories in the Pakistan media questioning China’s support for Pakistan, in Beijing, there does not appear to be any ambiguity about the strategic importance of a strong Pakistan and a solid partnership with it.

Meanwhile, to blunt US efforts to build alliances around its periphery, China has adopted a “softer” approach towards its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines as well as major Asian states including Japan and India. China hopes to prevent India’s complete embrace of America, or to at least delay this for as long as possible.

For its part, while reaping the benefits of American courtship, India has sought to persuade China (and Russia, Iran and others) that it is not committed to an alliance with America. It serves China’s purpose at present to entertain India’s professions of alignment with the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the developing world.

However, the “soft” contours of India’s relationship with China (and Russia and Iran), are likely to erode in the near future as the Sino-American and US-Russian rivalry escalates across the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia and beyond. Global alignments will be thrown into sharper relief.

Read More: Countering FATF Prejudice against Pakistan: The Acrimonious Fact

Why Pakistan should Adopt a Policy of Strategic Patience

There are at least four reasons why Pakistan would be well advised to adopt a policy of strategic patience in the face of present pressure from the US and India. First, in the emerging great power rivalry, the US and its allies are likely to come out second best. China has economic, political and ideological momentum.

Under Xi Jinping’s (extended) leadership, China will enjoy policy consistency, whereas a divided America will need to heal its domestic wounds after the Trump era. By 2040, China will account for 20% of global GDP; the US for 13%; India for 7%.

When integrated with the 65 countries covered by the Belt and Road Initiative, including Russia, Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, the GCC and ASEAN, China’s influence and impact on the global economy will significantly surpass that of the US.

Read more: Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary: ‘we await the adoption by New Delhi of…

In contrast, to the significant resources being committed by China to the BRI, America’s main instrument of influence is its bloated military which has intervened in numerous conflicts but not won one war that it started since 1950. For smaller nations, the choice between a militaristic America and an open and affluent China is a “no-brainer”.

Pakistan can expect to be on the winning side of history; India may be on the losing team. Second, as US Defense Secretary Mattis has declared, henceforth, the US’ security focus will be on the strategic competition with China and Russia and no longer on terrorism. Thus, for the US, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are no longer strategic priorities; they are sideshows.

The US is likely to abandon these interventions if it cannot “win” there quickly. Thus, the rush to oblige Pakistan to “deliver” the Afghan Taliban. If necessary, Pakistan can wait out the Americans. Like others, they will eventually leave “the graveyard of empires”.

Third, given its multidirectional belligerence, the US is likely to become embroiled in new conflicts and crises-with Iran, North Korea, Russia and/or China. It is likely to lose the focus and the political will to remain stuck in the Afghan quagmire. Fourth, if global developments turn against the US; or if Trump is ousted; or opts to cooperate rather than confront China, India will change its strategic direction rapidly and revert to seeking a cooperative relationship with China.

Read more: What foreign policy will the US adopt in the east next…

If it loses U.S. patronage, New Delhi will also adopt a more reasonable posture towards Pakistan. Thus, there is no reason for Pakistan to concede on any of its core national security objectives: resistance to Indian hegemony; maintenance of credible nuclear and conventional deterrence; a fair solution to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute; a friendly Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s policies in the current global environment of change and transition should aim to maximize the advantages of its strategic partnership with China and emerging alignment with Russia, Turkey and Iran, and minimize the disadvantages of its friction and divergence with the US and its allies.

This requires skilled diplomacy; an empowered and free-thinking Foreign Ministry; plans and policies framed after close and coordinated analysis and consideration; executed by trained professionals. Today, the calibre of Pakistan’s diplomacy is as critical to the country’s security and prosperity as a strong defense force.

Read more: US urges Pakistan to ‘Do More’

Finally, as history testifies, it is the quality of a nation’s leaders that makes the most critical difference to its success or failure. Pakistan has been most unfortunate in this respect. It lost its Founder and his lieutenant very early. Most of their successors have been drawn from Pakistan’s elite, frightened to lose their privileges, driven by greed and personally vulnerable to US pressure. Pakistan’s most essential objective should be the reform of its system of governance.

It must be able to elect leaders who are sincere, dedicated, educated and honest; who can lead by example; who are committed to realizing the aspirations of the people of Pakistan, and promoting their welfare, not lining their pockets or feeding their egos. It is only then that this “hard country” can become a “strong state”.

For smaller nations, the choice between a militaristic America and an open and affluent China is a “no-brainer”. Pakistan can expect to be on the winning side of history; India may be on the losing team.

Munir Akram has served as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He has also served as Additional Foreign Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affair, Pakistan. Munir Akram was educated in Pakistan and holds a Masters degree in Political Science and a Bachelors’s degree in Law from Karachi University, Pakistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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