The regional and global geopolitics has had its impact on Pakistan’s foreign policy since its inception due to its geostrategic location. Throughout the Cold War, Pakistan was fully entrenched into the American led camp. After the disintegration of Soviet Union, the tight bipolarity of Cold War ended and gave way to a unipolar world order. It opened a Pandora’s Box of intrastate conflicts in Global South and resulted in the rise of non-state actors across the globe. Post 9/11 US invaded Afghanistan and Bush Administration was a big proponent of “coercive diplomacy” and “regime change” in other countries. Pakistan once again was allied to US and designated as a major Non-NATO Ally in war against terrorism. However, recently the tectonic plates holding the unipolar world order are shifting. The global and regional geopolitical dynamics are rapidly evolving due to a resurgent Russia, an assertive China and the rise of national populism across the globe. Pakistan needs to consider these developments while developing a comprehensive foreign policy to pursue its national interests.

There are five major issues which should be dealt with through a robust foreign policy.

  1. Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation
  2. Indian Obduracy in light of Indo-US strategic relationship
  3. One Belt One Road initiative and regional connectivity
  4. Balancing act between Iran and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
  5. Managing the complex relationship with US

1. Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation

This is a conservative estimate of the areas in Afghanistan that are contested, under the Taliban, and under government forces.
Above map is a conservative estimate of the areas in Afghanistan that are contested, under the Taliban, and under government forces.

Since 2001, the rapidly changing and complex dynamics of insurgency in Afghanistan have stumped the Afghan security establishment. A weak Kabul regime along with an emboldened Afghan Taliban with IS making inroads into Afghanistan, all have further exacerbated the Afghan quagmire. Washington Post had reported that the Afghan government barely controls 57% of Afghan territory. Most alarming of all developments is the ascendancy of IS Khorasan. IS poses a perceptible threat to all of Afghanistan’s immediate and extended neighbours. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan is mainly due to emergence of IS Khorasan. Mr Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan clearly stated that Russia and Afghan Taliban shared similar goal of defeating IS. The trilateral meeting between China, Pakistan and Russia also stressed on the need for an outreach to Afghan Taliban. Russia has also decided to proactively start using its 201st base in Tajikistan in light of growing activity of IS in Afghanistan. Iran too is feeling the heat because of the new phenomenon of IS Khorasan. General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, in a recent statement claimed that Iran and Russia were backing Afghan Taliban. Nevertheless, these developments shed light on the fact that the regional powers view Afghan Taliban as a belligerent rather than a terrorist group.

Pakistan needs to work collectively with other states to further strengthen an implicit entente between regional countries with the common aim of neutralizing the burgeoning threat from IS in Afghanistan. Pakistan also needs to highlight the fact that IS Khorasan comprises of mainly former TTP/JuA elements. The very TTP/JuA which are covertly supported by RAW and NDS. The arrest of TTP leader Latifullah Mehsud by Americans from an Afghan intelligence convoy revealed the deep nexus between TTP and RAW/NDS. The recent cross border artillery strikes, after a week of deadly blasts in Pakistan, on Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) positions in IS held Nangarhar Afghan province were followed by a visit of Pakistan’s foreign advisor Sartaj Aziz to Iran for security related discussions. This reflects the deepening security relations between the two neighbours and reinforce the fact that threat perceptions of regional countries are evolving due to gradual rise of IS in Afghanistan. Furthermore, all regional and extra regional powers need to work towards an inclusive Afghan led and Afghan owned reconciliation process involving Afghan Taliban. Afghan Taliban are a reality and a major sub state actor, in Afghan political landscape and peace cannot be established without including them in any reconciliation process.

2. Indian Obduracy in light of growing Indo-US strategic partnership

Western strategists continue to view India as a regional counterweight to China. India plays a critical role in US “Pivot to Asia” strategy announced by Obama administration in 2009. Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed in 2016, signifies the deepening strategic relations between the two countries. Americans seek India to adopt a more proactive security role not only in Indian Ocean Extended Region but also South China Sea. This strategic relationship perfectly aligns with the Neo-Curzonian view point of those at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. According to Robert Kaplan in his book “Monsoon”, Indian leaders tend to view Indian Ocean Extended Region and Asia from a Neo-Curzonian prism. They seek this region as a natural sphere of Indian influence and strive for geopolitical pre-eminence of India.

2005 Indo-US nuclear deal followed by NSG waiver to India in 2008 (although it was a non-signatory to NPT) and sale of high ticket defence equipment to India by US all have further emboldened India’s regional hegemonic pretensions. All these factors buttressed by a right-wing BJP/RSS cohort in office in New Delhi have resulted in India adopting a more aggressive posture towards its neighbours, especially towards Pakistan. The arrest of Indian intelligence officer Kulbushan Yadav ,from Balochistan, reinforces the fact that India is officially pursuing “offensive defence” doctrine (covertly funding subversion in Pakistan) publicly advocated by Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Prime Minister Modi’s threat to unilaterally annul the Indus Water Treaty (1960) has a potential to push this region towards a military conflict. Under Indus Water Treaty, western rivers are considered to be a natural resource of Pakistan. Any attempt to divert them or reduce their flow would mean violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty under Article 2(4) of UN Charter and Pakistan would reserve the right of self-defence and retaliate to such an aggression.

The test of Babur III SLCM (Submarine Launched Cruise Missile) is a significant development towards achieving a nuclear triad and ensuring a Nuclear Balance of Power to establish regional peace, just the way that Pax Atomica ensured that peace prevailed during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of India’s military deployments and doctrines are Pakistan specific. It is evident that the weapons being sold to India, in order to contain China, will actually be used against Pakistan. Pakistan needs to proactively engage with Trump administration to ensure that Pakistan’s concerns are taken into account in the US strategic calculus. Moreover, due to growing conventional asymmetry vis a vis India, Pakistan needs to ensure it maintains the required strategic force level to ensure “Full Spectrum Deterrence”.

3. One Belt and One Road Initiative and Regional Connectivity

One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious project of China to economically integrate 64 countries across different continents. It comprises of three projects; 1) Silk Road Economic Belt 2) China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) 3) Twenty First Century Maritime Silk Route. CPEC is a geostrategic zipper as it will be the link between the other two projects, while simultaneously it is considered to be the pilot project of One Belt One Road initiative.

One Belt One Road Projects

CPEC would give China a strategic outreach into West Asia and Middle East and would enhance China’s ability to protect its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in Indian Ocean Extended Region. CPEC along with regional economic and security frameworks such as ECO, SCO, QTTA and CAREC would act as catalyst for OBOR initiative to achieve economic prosperity and security through inter connectivity.

CPEC would add an economic dimension to an already robust Pak-China strategic relationship. It will allow Pakistan to act as a regional trade and economic corridor and act as a geostrategic pivot for Pan Eurasian economic integration under OBOR initiative. Pakistan would be able to fully exploit its geoeconomic potential in accordance with its geostrategic location, which will further boost Pakistan’s regional and international diplomatic standing.

4. Balancing Act between Iran and GCC

Pakistan has always maintained robust defence and security relations with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. When a new 39 member Saudi led anti-terror military alliance was announced in 2015, Pakistan was included in that alliance. However when Pakistan decided not to intervene in Yemen war, UAE officially announced its resentment which translated into UAE and India signing investment MOUs worth $75 Billion and recent participation of UAE military contingent in India’s Republic Day military parade. This poses a new diplomatic challenge for Pakistan.

On the other hand, Iran has officially requested Pakistan that it wants to join CPEC. Iran is also simultaneously pursuing a North-South corridor project with India and Afghanistan to connect the Iranian port of Chahbahar with Central Asia. This signifies Iran is not willing to put all its eggs in one basket. CPEC potentially offers Iran an overland route to China, which might seek Iranian energy resources to satisfy its increasing demand for energy domestically. Iran is also on the same page with Pakistan and other regional countries when it comes to dealing with Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to perform a geopolitical balancing act between Iran and GCC. Pakistan needs to maintain effective defence and strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. At the same time, Pakistan needs to consider Iran’s request to join CPEC. This will ensure more economic interdependence between the two neighbours. Pakistan should work on improving security relationship with Iran to neutralize the threat from Islamic State in Afghanistan. Both countries should also focus on joint border management and patrolling of the Pak-Iran border to deal with the issue of smugglers and subversive elements on both sides of the border. Pakistan needs to offer its good offices and play a role in mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to remove their mutual apprehensions for each other.

5. Managing the complex relationship with US

Pak-US relationship is known as a “marriage of convenience” by many international relations experts. Pakistan’s relationship with US started in 1950’s when Pakistan was viewed as a bulwark against communism in the region. Post 9/11, Pakistan was again declared as a major Non-Nato Ally and a frontline state in war against terrorism. If one observes this relationship, it would be safe to say that Pakistan’s geostrategic location always had a significant impact on PAK-US relations.

However, today Pakistan and US have multiple nodes of divergence;

  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program
  • Pakistan’s growing relations with Russia and China
  • Deepening Indo-US strategic relationship

In the past, the US had pressurized Pakistan to nudge the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table while simultaneously asking Pakistan to militarily deal with Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network. Afghan Taliban today control momentum on the battlefield from Helmand in South to Kunduz in North. It is naive of American and Afghan leadership to exaggerate Pakistan’s influence over the Afghan Taliban. The talks under Murree initiative were scuttled by elements from within Kabul regime who announced the death of Mullah Omar. While chances of any reconciliation were further reduced when a US drone strike killed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Precariously, the Afghan Taliban office in Doha, Qatar is located in the same city as the US CENTCOM Headquarters for the region. US needs to clarify its policy with regards to Afghan Taliban, instead of oscillating between two extremes and trying to scapegoat Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has in the past offered India a bi-lateral arrangement for ban on nuclear testing. Pakistan believes in non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and denuclearization globally. However, Pakistan needs to convey its concerns to US, that Pakistan’s nuclear and missile program is for deterrence and not aggression. It was India, not Pakistan, which nuclearized this region in 1974. The Indo-US nuclear deal (2005) and NSG waiver to India (2008) will allow India to buy nuclear fuel from other countries for civilian use and divert its domestic fuel for military purposes. This will negatively impact the strategic balance of power in South Asia and Pakistan would have to reciprocate in an appropriate manner to protect its national interests. Pakistan also needs to convey its security concerns to US with regards to sophisticated weapons sales to India, as almost all of Indian military deployments and doctrines are Pakistan centric.

Pakistan should invite the US companies to invest in CPEC. A clear message should be conveyed to Trump administration that CPEC is an economic initiative to economically integrate the region with an aim to achieve peace and prosperity, which also aligns with the long-term US foreign policy goals for this region. Moreover, Russia is concerned about turmoil in Afghanistan. Russia perceives that increased IS presence in Afghanistan would threaten its interests in Central Asia. Any security relationship between Pakistan and Russia to counter the rise of Islamic State of Khorasan should be welcomed. Pakistan and US should diligently strive towards removing the mutual bones of contention and ensuring that the future trajectory of bilateral relations remains positive.

Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges are multifaceted due to Pakistan’s strategic location. Pakistan’s civilian and military establishment needs to be on the same page to develop a coherent foreign policy and resort to deft diplomacy to secure Pakistan’s national interests in this region and beyond.