Ghulam Mustafa |
Mired in its Afghan Policy quagmire, reeling from Trump led Saudi Arabian stunning uppercut and Panama JIT, Pakistan appears to have been left way behind in the past tense of rapidly evolving international power game. Saudi Arabia’s move to boycott tiny Qatar, citing its pro-Iran leanings and, hold it, Qatar’s support for terrorism in the region caught us napping yet again. That Qatari Forces were fighting alongside Saudis in Yemen to put down Iranian-backed Houthis, that Qatar was supporting Saudi efforts to oust Assad Regime in Syria and that this small Arab state had agreed to be part of Saudi-led Military Alliance being raised to ostensibly fight terrorism, appears to have been totally forgotten.
It must be remembered that Qatar has longstanding territorial disputes with both its neighbors and claims that the two have illegally occupied its oil and gas rich areas adjoining their borders.
Eight other states were in equal hurry to join the move. King Salman’s dementia appears to have affected them as soon as they got a call from the paymaster. It is not a sudden development but had been building up because of a reported personality clash between three young leaders at the controls in Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar. Being the smallest, most progressive and the richest of them all, Qatar had taken an irksome lead in affairs of GCC as well as the surrounding region. It had the courage to support Akhwans of Egypt and Taliban of Afghanistan. Being home to Regional HQ of CENTCOM was another big advantage. Al Jazeera TV and associated media powerhouse, so-called independent entity, located in Qatar and going about its business quite aggressively, was yet another sour point.
Emir of Qatar invited trouble when he said that Iran, being a major player in the region, cannot be ignored or isolated as a terror sponsor. He went on to claim that were it not for the presence of CENTCOM on Qatari soil, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would have captured this tiny sheikhdom. It must be remembered that Qatar has longstanding territorial disputes with both its neighbors and claims that the two have illegally occupied its oil and gas rich areas adjoining their borders. This statement, coming immediately after the Trump chaired conference of fifty-four countries in Saudi Arabia became the catalyst for swift Saudi action.
Pakistan was quick to declare that it will not sever its ties with Qatar but stopped short of declaring its intentions or further course of action with regard to Saudi Arabia or Saudi-led Military Alliance. Turkey sided with Qatar because the two have a military pact. Donald Trump was ecstatic declaring it as the most important result of his Saudi Arabia yatra. He was quick to add that isolating and sorting out terror sponsor, meaning Qatar, and major nuisance in this regard, Iran, would lead to final victory against the menace of terrorism.
What is in it for Russia?
It does not take much to conclude that China would opt to be with Russia, thus Iran and Turkey, if push comes to shove in the case of Qatar.
Putin must have been the happiest man at this unraveling of whatever unity existed within the Muslim world. He was quick to side with Qatar. So was Iran. Kuwait not only abstained but its Emir traveled to Riyad in search of much-needed sanity in rapidly deteriorating regional order. Rumors are rife that supported by Egyptian Forces, Saudis are thinking of attacking Qatar. On its part, Qatar has declared an emergency and has called for dialogue to ease the tension.
Is Russia the ultimate chess master? Or has the game been thrown its way by some myopic leadership in the region? Here is why Putin can gloat while looking over the chess board.
1. Syria: Turkey and Qatar moving out of American-led alliance battling to overthrow Assad Regime will ease its burden. Russia and Iran will get a lot of space to further stabilize Syrian Regime and go after various rebel groups who are on the run anyway.
2. Military Alliance: The Saudi-led alliance of forty-one countries appears to be a nonstarter when Turkey joins hand with Qatar in becoming indirect supporters of Iran, its declared enemy. Mr. Donald Trump was very emphatic in this regard during his famous address in Riyad. No one present in the conference objected, including our Prime Minister.
3. Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Adventure: Already into its third year, the state in Yemen is not making much of a headway. Qatar has pulled out of it. Iran will now have a better excuse to support Houthis openly. Russia, lurking in the shadows, might also lend a helping hand ensuring that Bab Al Mandib remains out of Saudi reach. China moving to Eritrea is also a good sign. Egyptians, having tried and failed miserably in the seventies, may jump in support of KSA but results can be foretold if history is any guide. Turkey, coming closer to Iran, will balance the rest.
4. Chinese Connection: China has a lot at stake in the game. Is lending more than a helping hand in settling Syria and Afghanistan to counter US influence in the game. Has 150 Billion Dollars worth of trade agreements with Iran and not opposed Iran’s adventurism in the region? It does not take much to conclude that China would opt to be with Russia, thus Iran and Turkey, if push comes to shove in the case of Qatar.
Where does Pakistan stand?
Besides traditional relationship, Pakistan has signed up over 15 Billion Dollars worth of LNG deal with Qatar only last year. Its details are shrouded in mystery giving rise to all kinds of speculations.
Where does it leave Pakistan? As of now, we seem to be in a trance, doing nothing, firmly rooted to where ever we were a few months back. Our considerable national power appears considerably diminished when we opted not to object to Trump’s diatribe against Iran. A tiny state like Qatar had the gumption to challenge him but our leadership was and continues to be on mute. Our internal dynamics and challenges emerging due to evolving power game have combined at the worst possible time. The absence of a coherent foreign policy and lack of efforts at remedial measures are adding to our woes. Complexities of these problems can be gauged from the following:
1. The US vs China: As part of OBOR, we have firmly hitched our wagon with China. And OBOR is a huge strategic gambit setting the stage for control of the Indian Ocean anchored around regional and extra-regional economies. It directly challenges American-led western hegemony. How can we become part of any groupings contrary to China’s interests? Tricky as it sounds, it is far worse on the ground whether one looks at our Afghan Policy, China’s Iran connection, US-India LEMOA and or US-sponsored move in Middle East part of Great Game.
2. The US vs Russia: Resurgent Russia, while challenging the US on all fronts, is also softening up with Pakistan. It is actively supporting Pakistan’s stance on Afghanistan and is leading quite a few initiatives in this regards. Mind you, it has not given up on India either. May well be playing us to get greater leverage here. Regardless, how are we going to balance our position when it comes to Middle East puzzle given Russia’s position on Syria and now Qatar? Do not forget that China is partnering Russia in quite a few of its strategic moves and has its full support in OBOR too.
3. Pakitan’s ties with Qatar: Besides traditional relationship, Pakistan has signed up over 15 Billion Dollars worth of LNG deal with Qatar only last year. Its details are shrouded in mystery giving rise to all kinds of speculations. And then there is this Qatari Prince and his various letters which are supposed to clear our Prime Minister and his family in the ongoing Panama Leaks Inquiry. Sounds quite difficult to join Saudi-led Qatar’s boycott from a purely personal angle. Even if that were managed, how would we back out of LNG deal now that our entire energy sector is gearing up to utilize it gainfully? Cynics suspect lot behind the scene in this mega deal citing it as yet another reason for our inability to break away from Qatar.
Pakistan’s Iran policy, or no policy, to be precise, has magnified many of our manageable foreign policy issues. Latest bombshell by Saudi Arabia has done the rest.
4. Pakistan’s KSA tangle: Well, known personal relationships aside, we are now part of American-sponsored, KSA-led Alliance of Muslim States. Our ex-Army Chief is in Riyad as head of this would be a force. Approximately over two million Pakistanis work there earning huge amount of badly needed foreign exchange. Can we say no to any demand emanating from Riyad?
5. Pakistan’s Afghan imbroglio: The issue with Afghanistan does not appear to be settling down anytime soon. Indo-US nexus is not ready to settle on anything less than an Afganistan totally in their control. Apparently, Iran is not averse to it so long as their interests are safeguarded. It leaves us holding the bag with no respite in sight.
6. The Kashmir issue: The World has opted to ignore Indian genocide to quash indigenous Kashmiri Intifada. Our government is doing nothing beyond yearly rhetoric in UNGA. What if India succeeds? Kashmiris would be justified in feeling let down despite tremendous sacrifices by them. Do we realize the possible consequences?
7. Pakistan’s Iran policy: Pakistan’s Iran policy, or no policy, to be precise, has magnified many of our manageable foreign policy issues. Latest bombshell by Saudi Arabia has done the rest.
What can Pakistan do?
It is the time we started putting our house in order through institutionalized decision making. Mistakes must be recognized and corrected from the base up.
How does Pakistan grapple with this complex situation? Most of it is our own doing and only we can cut through this Gordian knot. We have let our power erode gradually because of a thoroughly confused style of governance. Institutional Approach, the bedrock of any policy formulation, much less foreign policy, appears anathema to our present crop of leadership. Wider consultation on issues of national importance is completely missing. There is no review or course correction mechanism per se. Our failure to evolve a Charter of Pakistan through national consensus was never more evident as it is now when we are in a mess of monumental proportions. A weak and unstable political landscape, weak economic base, and unwillingness to look beyond our nose is a recipe for disaster and we are not very far from it.
It is the time we started putting our house in order through institutionalized decision making. Mistakes must be recognized and corrected from the base up. Some of the measures could include:
1. America figures out prominently in all major turns in the evolving Great Game. It has to be neutralized with the help of friends like Turkey, China, Russia and even Iran as far as possible. It sounds very tough but we are going nowhere without cracking this nut. It does not imply defeating it but bringing its meddlesome influence in manageable limits. It will take time but is the Ryder Clause for all moves to bring peace in the region.
2. Pulling back a little to make Saudi Arabia recognize that it cannot shoot everyone and hope to remain unscathed. It will boomerang, sweeping away the House of Saud and much more. Saudis must be made to understand that our relations with Iran, like theirs with Israel, do not have to be mutually exclusive. It might be too much but let me say it anyway; Saudi Arabia has to be saved from present occupants of the House of Saud.
Pakistan has to face up to India if Afghanistan has to be settled. Pussyfooting has not helped, nor it will in the future.
3. It is already late but there is no harm in opening up with Iran. Completion of stalled gas pipeline can be a good start. Iran will not become pally overnight but it always pays to reduce friction. Iran’s Indian connection must be clarified to our satisfaction if Iran wishes us to do the same in the case of KSA.
4. Qatar needs to reign in its outsized ambitions. Pakistan can play a role in bringing it around to stop further deterioration. Turkey can also be co-opted for this purpose.
5. Finally, Pakistan has to face up to India if Afghanistan has to be settled. Pussyfooting has not helped. Neither will our being together in various regional or international forums. Military alone cannot do it.
Ghulam Mustafa is a retired Lieutenant General of Pakistan Army. He is credited with raising the Army Strategic Forces Command. He is an analyst of security and geopolitical affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.