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Beyond Afghanistan

The last few weeks have been crucial for Pakistan’s foreign policy. Apparently, the civilian and military leaderships dealt successfully with the challenges thrown up by developments in the region and the Middle East. However, the question remains: is Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation heading towards a major shift, or merely undergoing some adjustments?

Let us have a look at some major highlights of the past few weeks. First, the Saudi foreign and defence ministers’ visits to Islamabad mounted considerable pressure on Pakistan to become a ‘visible’ partner in the Saudi-led 34-state anti-terror military coalition. While Pakistan reassured the kingdom of its resolve to defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia, it remained cautious in committing to a clear engagement in the alliance. That was in line with its previous stance in the aftermath of the Yemeni crisis.

Secondly, the first round of the quadrilateral steering committee meeting on reconciliation in Afghanistan concluded on an optimistic note in Islamabad. Representatives of the four nations comprising the committee — Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US — agreed to continue efforts for exploring the prospects of reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul. It seems Pakistani foreign policy has been stuck in Afghanistan. Thirdly, though the talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan have been delayed for a while after the Pathankot incident, the overall optimism remained intact. In a departure from the past, it seems that, at least for the moment, the militants have failed to disrupt bilateral engagement between the two countries.

Fourthly, there was an important development in Quetta; the Balochistan chief minister and the governor of the Iranian province of Sistan-Balochistan agreed to lay a railway track to connect Gwadar with the Iranian port of Chabahar. This may prove a balancing act in the context of developments in the Middle East. Also, from the geo-economic perspective, it could be a major development as Pakistan has remained concerned about Indian engagement in the Chabahar port project.

However, the sizzling debate on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the country, which forced the Chinese embassy in Islamabad to issue a press note appealing to the government to remove political discord, should also not be overlooked.

Credit goes to Pakistan’s leaders for managing all these diplomatic challenges. However, Pakistan’s responses were largely of a defensive nature. It was quite evident that Islamabad was trying to ease pressure coming from different sides. Would it be depicted as a weakness of Islamabad’s foreign policy, which is seen by many as stagnant in nature and made active only by external factors?

This is happening at a time when Pakistan’s neighbours are pursuing organic and proactive foreign policies while maintaining a fine balance between their geo-economic and strategic interests. For instance, China has adjusted its foreign policy objectives according to its ‘one road, one belt’ dream and is redefining its relations with its neighbours. India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy is yielding results. Iran is successfully pursuing its foreign policy principle of multilateralism both on the regional and international levels.

In Pakistan’s foreign policy, which was based on the core principle of Kashmir, Afghanistan has gradually taken centre stage. It seems our foreign policy has been stuck in Afghanistan. This factor has further transformed the drivers of diplomatic engagement. The international community, including Arab friends, evaluate Pakistan from the perspective of one driver — security.

Pakistan’s strengths are broad in scope and not necessarily confined to security capabilities. The country has huge economic potential, which has not been exploited because of internal and external constraints. Despite structural issues, Pakistan still has the option to realign its diplomatic engagements as opportunities are available to evolve a balance between its economic and strategic priorities.

CPEC is an important avenue, which can help Pakistan transform its economy and dynamics of regional engagement, as well as enhance its international image. But CPEC is facing multiple challenges. However, the prime minister has formed a committee to look into domestic grievances regarding the project.

It is imperative Pakistan work for regional peace that is important for the completion and functioning of CPEC. It is easy to see that internal and regional conflicts and crises invite international attention and interventions, which first hit the economy of the country and region.

The Chinese see in CPEC much potential for regional connectivity, trade and economy. Experts also see Iran as a potential partner in the CPEC initiative and an active contributor in energy, infrastructure, and maritime links. Many believe that Sino-Iran relations will thrive. A few media reports indicate that China has already promised $52 billion in investment to Iran.

Yet these developments should not happen at the cost of Pakistan’s relations with the Arab countries, not only for reasons of faith, but also from the geo-economic and strategic perspectives. Pakistan needs to review its Middle East policy to exploit full potential of economic ties with it. This is also important in the context that, rightly or wrongly, Pakistan is considered part of an extended Middle East.

As far as regional strategic issues are concerned, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation provides an opportunity to Pakistan to safeguard its core strategic and economic interests as well as to readjust its diplomatic priorities. There is a need for a discourse on how Pakistan can optimise its relations with Central Asia. Can Pakistan make it a top diplomatic priority to connect with Central Asia?

No one can ignore South Asia, and Pakistan is after all part of the region. But Pakistan first needs to deal with its Afghanistan approach. An unstable Afghanistan will not benefit the region, including Pakistan. The world sees Pakistan in Afghanistan’s context, and Pakistan has to break this stereotype through fast-tracking the reconciliation process.

Afghanistan has multiple factors of instability, but what hinders Pakistan the most is the perception of its influence on the Taliban. Once Pakistan is able to detach itself from this perception, it can rationalise its regional view and start exploring the world beyond Afghanistan.

The writer is a security analyst.

Muhammad Amir Rana, "Beyond Afghanistan," Dawn. 2016-01-17.
Keywords: Economics , International policy , Economic relations , International community , International relations , Foreign investment , Foreign policy-Pakistan , Gawadar port , Iran port , Taliban , Diplomacy , Kashmir , Afghanistan , Pakistan , United States , Saudi Arabia , Balochistan , China , Kabul , Quetta , India , CPEC