The finalisation of the nuclear deal with the US by the end of next month is going to alter the balance of power in the Middle East and its contiguous areas, and pave the way for Iran’s ascent in the international echelons of power
Of all the times in Pakistan’s history
when it has been pertinent to not mess up, the next couple of years are going to be the most crucial and will largely determine where Pakistan ends up as a result of its own actions. There have been a number of domestic and regional developments that have significantly raised the stakes for Pakistani policymakers and they will have to think long and hard about the intended and unintended consequences of their decisions in the days to come.
Amidst much fanfare, the foundation for projects comprising the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been laid and the ruling government is now busy selling the deal to politicians and the public alike. The CPEC holds much potential for Pakistan if executed properly but, besides the political disagreements that need to be smoothed over, there are other contingencies that can delay or even derail the entire process. Among those, the security situation in Pakistan is of utmost importance, but seeing the way things are going with the National Action Plan (NAP) so far, it will take a lot more effort to successfully open the doors for the Chinese. The carnage in Mastung has laid bare the magnitude of the threat we are facing and, despite the recent advances made in the way of containing the terrorist threat through the counter-insurgency operation, the threat is showing no signs of ending anytime soon.
But domestic issues aside, the successful implementation of the CPEC is not entirely independent of the regional context as well. The way our neighbours react to the massive Chinese investments flowing our way will have a bearing on the implementation and completion of the CPEC’s projects. There are a multitude of external factors that can end up dictating the outfall of benefits from the CPEC and the next few paragraphs will shed some light on a few important ones.
In the case of Afghanistan, it is now common knowledge that the futures of militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan are inextricably linked in a complex, confounding web of secret alliances and hidden agendas. The old guerrilla resistance against the Soviets has mutated into a multi-faceted menace, threatening the very existence of state infrastructures in both countries. Realising the importance of stability and its consequent benefits, a landmark memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed just days after Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan between the two intelligence agencies, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Keeping in mind the level of mistrust between the two states and the insecurities borne out of ethnic tensions, the deal strives to break from the past in a number of ways. Not only does this new understanding extend the scope of cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan through intelligence sharing and coordinated operations, it also directly links the most vital stakeholders — the security agencies — with each other as joint partners. Partial credit for progress in this regard must be given to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for breaking his predecessor’s pattern of overt animosity towards Pakistan and realising that Pakistan has to be part of the solution, if there is going to be one in the near future.
Sensing the deal’s potential to undermine militancy strongholds, the Afghan Taliban have upped the ante and have begun targeting nationals of Pakistan and other countries working in Afghanistan. Fighting season is in full flow in Kabul and its adjacent territories, and the Afghan security apparatus is constantly on the lookout to prevent future attacks. Such attacks are meant to disrupt the ongoing reconciliation between Pakistan and Afghanistan and, in all honesty, will test the will and dedication of both countries to the cause of cooperation in the region.
Over in Iran, decades of sanctions and adversity have forced hardliners to retract and allow for moderate voices to resonate among the halls of power. The finalisation of the nuclear deal with the US by the end of next month is going to alter the balance of power in the Middle East and its contiguous areas, and pave the way for Iran’s ascent in the international echelons of power. This possibility has had the Saudis and their allies in a twist so far and the recent military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen — who allegedly have limited Iranian support — has been nothing but a reckless venture without any positive results so far.
To the east, India has also been keenly observing the ongoing changes in the region and is actively seeking support among Iranian, Afghan and Chinese governments. Prime Minister (PM) Modi wasted no time in inviting the Afghan president to India and he himself flew to China soon afterwards. Besides investments in Afghanistan and China, India is currently busy in putting the final touches to a sea-port deal in the Iranian territory of Chabahar despite US warnings to the contrary. Desire for peace between India and Pakistan notwithstanding, the potential of the CPEC is too much to ignore for the Indian government and any and all steps will be taken to counteract the fallout of Chinese investments in Pakistan.
In the light of such regional developments, it is most important that Pakistan consider the long-term repercussions of its domestic and foreign policy. If we are to cement Pakistan’s place in the region as a levelheaded, responsible state that wields actual influence, we will have to cooperate with Afghanistan over the militancy issue and seek joint solutions for the malaise that has found solid footing in the region.
Moreover, Iran’s entry into global politics will also have to factor into our decisions from now on, and added coordination over border disputes and the gas pipeline project will pave way for further cooperation. In order to safeguard our national interests, Pakistan will have to prove to its neighbours that the country is adept at managing its own affairs. In the past, Pakistan lost out on crucial opportunities but there is no room for half-measures anymore. Any steps taken in the future will have to be taken with clarity of vision, something that has lately been missing from the Pakistani corridors of power.
The author is a freelance columnist with degrees in political science and international relations