A stronger Pakistan is emerging, and now it can take stock of regional dynamics from a position of enhanced confidence. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement and America’s clearance of Foreign Military Sale of Viper Attack Helicopters and Hellfire II Missiles to Pakistan have been major contributory factors to this profile. Moreover, upward trajectory in Pakistan-Russia relations has culminated in a Defence Agreement and procurement of MI-35M helicopters is on the cards. Careful avoidance of direct military involvement in Yemen crisis is likely to pay off in the long term, while a dip in relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is likely to be temporary. Afghanistan’s well thought out foreign policy shift towards Pakistan has brought respite in cross border attacks. If the P5+1 and Iran seal the nuclear deal, then Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project would become a reality. China has already offered to construct this pipeline and has committed to sell eight submarines to Pakistan as well. Economist has released a very promising report about Pakistan’s economy, indicating a growth rate of 4.7 percent. Negative media projection of Pakistan at international level is on the decline..
The US-Pakistan arms deal delivered a strong message to India that if it continues to shop from everywhere then America too can sell arms to countries of its choice. As a consequence, it has walked away from purchase of 126 Rafael fighter aircraft from France, just like it had walked away from Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline a few years back. Now in all likelihood, India could go for an American warplane—may be F-16.
The brash India of Modi’s early days is likely to mellow down. Together Pakistan and India could achieve more for their countries . The erratic impulsive behavior by Indian policy makers often reflects belligerent and aggressive mindset, which, though is more of a nuance than substance but has been disrupting bilateral dialogue and has often scuttled meaningful peace initiatives by Pakistan. An arrogant India is certainly a source of regional instability; it habitually ferments trouble in the neighbouring countries by accentuating their otherwise benign fault-lines.
Now Pakistan’s sensitivities about Afghanistan are better understood in the US strategic calculus. America has reconciled with the possibility that it could be replaced in Afghanistan by China with the help of Pakistan. China already has a considerable economic presence in Afghanistan. It will now concentrate on energy-rich Iran that shall emerge much stronger after its nuclear deal and in the backdrop of the recent events in the Middle East and North African Region. Russia, with its growing understanding with China is emerging as an important regional player looking up to revive its stalled S3000 missile deal with Iran. It the UN sanctions are lifted Russia shall deliver Advanced S3000 Missiles Defence System to Iran. China has also just agreed to build nuclear power plants for Iran.
President Ashraf Ghani has completed the first trip of the capitals which matter in the future political and economic settlement of Afghanistan. During his visit to India he expressed the desire to “make Afghanistan a graveyard of terror” and for this looked up for help from India, Pakistan and other neighbours. Indian analysts feel that New Delhi may be losing influence in Afghanistan because of Ghani’s efforts to forge closer ties with Pakistan and China; however, it is because India has disappointed Afghanistan on many counts, especially its promises of providing hi-tech military equipment. Modi said that India should join an existing Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit agreement to allow goods to flow by land from Afghanistan to eastern India and back. “We believe that Afghanistan’s direct surface link to India and the rest of South Asia, and increased connectivity to sea, could turn Afghanistan into a hub that connects Asia’s diverse regions and beyond,” Modi said. As of now Afghanistan is poised to benefit enormously by joining CPEC. Ghani said: “Our vision today is to be guided by that potential where the energy of Central Asia will flow to South Asia where pipelines, fiber optics, railways, and connectivity, air, ground and virtual will connect us.” And this is what CPEC offers. However no agreement was signed during this visit between Afghanistan and India.
India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement, but the contour of the relationship has changed. Ashraf Ghani has visited China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (twice) and the US before coming to India. In China he frankly spoke of Afghanistan’s new external priorities indicating relegation of India to the outermost circle. He has also decided not to pursue the request for defence equipment from India that has given a jolt to the relationship politically.
Afghan president feels that he must engage Pakistan vigorously and obtain its cooperation. Ghani has also started sending officer cadets for training at the Pakistani military academy to offset the earlier pattern of Afghan officers being trained exclusively in India. He is also counting on China- Pakistan synergy to actively promote the reconciliation process, and providing economic and other requisite support to help transition Afghan economy from war to corporate economy. He has concluded that India’s capacity to help is limited and Pakistani and China could be more productive partners. China has expressed its willingness to help in the reconciliation process. The CPEC project indicates far-reaching Chinese plans to bring this region into its economic integration, from which Afghanistan would benefit substantially.
However, Afghan polity is not unanimous on Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan and the Taliban. There is a suspicion that Ghani is seeking to strengthen the Pashtun elements in the polity at the expense of other ethnic groups. Accommodating the Taliban in political structure of Afghanistan is likely to meet resistance from other ethnic groups,.
Despite setback, India is not likely to reconcile with its relatively lower profile in Afghanistan, even if it has to take-on a spoiler’s role. Hence, India may take the trajectories like: coax Iran and paly repeat role of 1980s and 90s for destabilizing central government by provoking ethnic minorities especially Uzbeks and Tajiks; support Iran in playing its sectarian card; go solo and reactivate Dostum card; crate fissures between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. India is likely to follow a composite strategy drawing from all these options.
Pakistan needs to follow a prudent policy to capitalize on the advantages that are visible now. Some of these are transient while some others are fragile. A time bound effort is required to benefit from transient ones and comprehensive strategy should be evolved to secure the fragile ones.