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Imran’s travels: More than meets the eye?

It couldn’t have been easy for the PM to break his vow to stay put for at least the first six months. Within weeks he was touching all four corners of the region: Malaysia to Turkey, Saudi Arabia to China. It must have taken some ‘persuasion’.

‘Fund raising’, his forte, is the perceived wisdom. The results have been impressive, allowing Asad to thumb his nose at the IMF. But does it explain it all? How does Turkey, for instance, fit in? Pacifying Karkey (who have an almost billion dollar award against us) was a non-starter, and Turkey has enough financial woes of its own to contribute to the hat being passed around.

How does one explain the frenetic movements of the Foreign Minister, more often than not accompanied with the Foreign Secretary – departing from the SOP of both Minister and Secretary not being abroad at the same time? If the PM’s visits were only for fund raising why does the FM have to tag along?

And is it a mere coincidence that the PM’s visit is so often preceded by that of the Army Chief? What do you make of so many Excellencies from around the world trooping to GHQ? There is nothing startling in their wanting to have an audience with the man who matters; it is the rapid-fire visitations that makes one want to scratch the surface.

Then there is Uncle Sam. How the Trumpian thunder given way to a parting of clouds, quick on the heels of a twitter-duel between the two black belts of U-turns! It has been a spectacular volte face – reading out the riot act to IMF yesterday to talk of an FTA today.

You don’t have to do a semester of foreign policy 101 to know that there is no way for the House of Saud, or for that matter the House of Nayhan,to dole out billions without a wink and a nod from Uncle. Shall we then thank Uncle, not Khashoggi, for this largesse?

The missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle is why would Uncle, who stopped all financial assistance to us, including the outstanding CSF dues, bless the KSA/UAE loans. What is in it for him – and for us? And let us not kid ourselves: all relationships are fundamentally transactional.

Should we be thanking the Taliban for this change of heart? In wanting to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan Trump needs Pakistan to make the exit less messy? Even if Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban has its limitations, it has to be courted;as an absolute minimum prevented from becoming a spoiler?

Or, is Afghanistan only one part of the larger ‘grand design’ for the region? How does one frame China, Iran, and India within it? And if there is a grand design what does it portend for Pakistan? Are there enough tea-leaves to be read?

Clearly, it is in Pakistan’s interest to have improved relationswith the US. The ‘geo-strategic’ nonsense does not hide all our vulnerabilities. We can’t affordto be on the wrong side of the super power. It may be a self-centred power, demanding new favours fast as it forgets old ones, but it is the crocodile in the pond. You don’t mess with it.

Beyond Afghanistan what are US interests in the region? Iraq has been punished enough and with North Korea they are having a conversation. Iran is the only survivor of the ‘axis of evil’ – just about. It still needs to be ‘walled’, the regime isolated internally and externally.

India is important to the US. It has outpaced China in economic growth, has a growing market, has more saleable democratic credentials, has a powerful American-Indian lobby, and it aspires to be a regional power that syncs with US worldview.How does India see US overtures towards Pakistan? What price its measured restraint?

China is a threat. It’s about a lot more than trade. It is the technological supremacy, where China is fast narrowing the gap. It is Chinese investments in the developing world. It is BRI, billed to reach out to Europe. It is about a budding challenge to the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of having the dollar as world’s trading and reserve currency.

China must be stopped in its tracks.

It appears under the new Army leadership there has been a nuanced shift in Afghan-Taliban policies. We do not see a Taliban takeover to be in our interest, would rather have a broad-based government in Afghanistan, and want the US to stay engaged in post-war Afghanistan. In the elevation of Mullah Baradar one can see Pakistan promoting moderates in the Taliban hierarchy.

Thesepolicy adjustments coincide with Trump’s plans for an orderly exit. He can be expected to give assurances of a contained Indian role, not just in Afghanistan but Balochistan too, along with help vis-vis IMF and FATF. A win-win – so far.

What happens post-Afghanistan? Will America move on, mission accomplished? Or, are we heading towards a much greater convergence; a realignment of goals that will keep US interest in us alive?

If we are inching towards a ‘strategic’ partnership with the US what will it do to our higher than the Himalayas relationship with the Northern neighbor? We may want to maintain both relationships, but what kind of leeway would we have if the US interest in the region is premised on containment of China?

Is our facilitation with the Taliban, for which we have been quick to take credit, enough of a payback? Or there is more to it than meets the eye?

While the Saudi/UAE bailouts will keep us going for some time, in a sense they add to ourvulnerability: the loans are of a short duration and deferred oil payments can be suspended without notice. There is an eerie hint of ‘deliver or else’. ‘Deliver what?’ is the enigmatic question.

The ultimate in Foreign policy is to have your cake and eat it too. It rarely happens. What business calls a risk-reward equation is called reciprocity in diplomatic parlance. It is a delicate balancing act – resolving the immediate without compromising the future; cuddling up to one without upsetting the regular partner. Flirtation often ends up with unintended consequences!

Too many question marks here. Mouse dancing with the elephant can get out of step?


Shabir Ahmed, "Imran’s travels: More than meets the eye?," Business Recorder. 2019-01-31.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Fund raising , Foreign policy , Economic growth , Pakistan , Afghanistan , US

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