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The next five years

Judging by the number of Western media and analytical queries I have received over the past two weeks, there seems to be a growing interest in Western capitals in the potential implications of the elections on Pakistan’s foreign policy orientation.

The interest is perhaps triggered by Pakistan’s self-acclaimed and much-touted ‘strategic shift’ that has continued to receive attention in Western capitals (and in New Delhi and Kabul for that matter). At best, the shift is only partially understood and there is no sense of whether it is likely to have any longevity.

Therefore, the very basic question: what should we (external watchers) expect from the next five years?

One can answer this with some confidence since, perhaps driven by Pakistan’s acute internal challenges, the establishment and the three major political parties (the PPP, PML-N and PTI) seem to have converged on the key markers — not necessarily in terms of the pace with which things should move but at least on the broad directionality of the key foreign relationships.

The continuing civilian-military disconnect on a number of foreign policy questions notwithstanding, the convergence began to emerge during the last PPP government. At its core, it entails a subtle recalibration of the country’s regional outlook coupled with a status quo approach on relations with China and the US. The next five years are likely to see a consolidation of this.

Conceptually, as far as I can decipher, there are six major pillars of this outlook. First, positive movement with India: The inevitable vocal and perhaps violent challenge from the right-wing notwithstanding, the leadership of the three major parties seem to be fairly sanguine on the options.

We’ll have to find the right political jargon and face-savers to pursue this fully but the bottom line is set: the way forward is trade. Jaw-jaw will continue on Kashmir in parallel but it won’t hold the rest hostage. The establishment has found this difficult to swallow but it is also aware of the internal compulsions. The pace of movement will remain up for discussion but the directionality will not.

Second, hedging on Afghanistan: The Afghan policy can take one of two very different directions depending on what transpires in Kabul post-2014. The current desire is to see Pakistan reduce its reliance on hardcore Islamist Pakhtuns and open up with the northern factions. Behind-the-scenes efforts to reach out to the north have been ongoing for some time. The desire for greater attention to the economic aspects of the relationship is also part of this thinking.

Quite to the contrary, a return to civil war in Afghanistan will inevitably trigger the good old proxy game with Pakistan falling on the side of the hardcore elements and the traditional supporters of the northern factions reviving their erstwhile ties. Pakistan will find itself squarely on the wrong side of global opinion if this outcome transpires.

Third, rebalancing of the Sunni-Shia divide — read, the Saudi-Iran equation: For years, Pakistan has been firmly in the Saudi camp with all its attendant economic benefits and ideological repercussions. This has begun to undergo some correction for two reasons.

First, the ideological repercussions seem to have caught up with us fair and square. Among other fallouts, the ‘Arabisation’ of the Pakistani religious right’s mindset and its ability to intimidate its opponents has quite obviously exacerbated the Sunni-Shia divide in Pakistan. The state, with the history of tilt towards the Sunni crescent, is increasingly finding it hard to pledge neutrality. It is quickly losing control of the situation.

Second is energy where the Pakistani decision-making enclave seems to be taking the Iranian option far more seriously than one thought it would given the Western opposition. President Zardari’s last visit to Iran had both goals in mind. Admittedly, the PML-N government with its closer links to the Saudi royals may be less sympathetic to this recalibration but again, it could tamper with the pace, not directionality. The latter seems to be coming out of a deeper realisation that the traditional policy has run its course.

Fourth, consistency on China: There is zero dissent on this all-weather friendship despite the clear Chinese signalling that it will not get into the business of bailing Pakistan out with free handouts on a regular basis. The attachment to China however is almost reflexive. The future policy will continue seeking Chinese investment and increasingly also use Beijing as a buffer against the geo-political squeeze Islamabad feels it is under. The Chinese presence in Gwadar ought to be seen in this light.

Fifth, more of the same with the US: For all the seesawing and finger-pointing we have seen from both sides over the years, the bottom line is that neither can afford to alienate the other completely. Pakistan worries Washington and this will not allow it to walk away. Islamabad realises it has been treading on thin ice and cannot afford isolation. There will continue to be a lot of lip service to decreasing dependence on the US (especially from the likes of PTI). It won’t happen though — neither the establishment nor the political parties wish to forgo the assistance that flows from Washington. So there will be angst; there will be mudslinging; but the relationship will continue.

Sixth, more outreach to the traditionally neglected. Efforts to reach out to Moscow over the past two years are examples of efforts at diversification of foreign policy options. None of these are likely to be consequential in the foreseeable future. Net positive or negative? It depends.

The best case implies improved ties with the region without losing out on Western engagement. A more realpolitik analysis on the other hand suggests a major problem: continued outreach to Iran may well be non-negotiable in Riyadh and Washington. How Pakistan manages to deal with this challenge will determine the fate of the reorientation.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C

Moeed Yusuf, "The next five years," Dawn. 2013-04-08.