A regional strategic doctrine with any degree of coherence and undercut by well-defined objectives and principles is something Pakistan has never quite had before in the past. The weak position under which Pakistan entered the 21st Century vis-à-vis its immediate neighbourhood was cemented by the Benazir-Nawaz era disregard for managing national strategic interests in Afghanistan properly and exemplified by the over-concessions made to the US during the Musharraf era. The granting of military bases, lack of any real opposition to the USA’s drone-strikes (a ploy designed to create chaos and strife, as was being replicated in Yemen at the same time) and creation of massive unpopularity for the country’s vital institutions among the people for cooperation with a hated foreign hegemon bore no conceivable benefits for Pakistan. This failure has certain underlying weaknesses and has a number of visible, lingering symptoms a major one of which is Pakistan’s troubled neighbour to the west being utilized by anti-Pakistan forces to inflict hybrid warfare upon Pakistan.
The conditions for establishing a coherent set of strategic foreign policy objectives are available
Internal disarray and strife between the major state institutions has long been a primary issue in Pakistan when it comes to devising foreign policy. Terrorism in Pakistan does not possess the same intensity as it did before. This is owing to the Pakistani military’s counter-terrorism successes via its large-scale operations waged from 2009 onwards against the major tool of Pakistan’s foreign adversaries, Takfiri terrorist groups and separatist ethno-nationalist groups. A degree has of success has been achieved in fighting corruption and breaking the power monopoly of the PPP and PML-N and the new PTI-led government has demonstrated visible sincerity in attempting to tackle crucial issues pertaining to the state of the country’s economy thus far. Karachi, the country’s economic hub, has cause for optimism as the Mafioso politics and urban terrorism of the MQM are a thing of the past. Moreover, the military and civil government have no major quarrels with each other the way the military had with past governments throughout, effectively, the history of Pakistan and this in itself is a significant factor.
A comprehensive new Pakistani approach to strategic foreign policy objectives must be considerate of the broader regional and global blocs and alliances and the reality that conflict, particularly hybrid warfare, is inevitable. The historical obsession with observing pointless formalities not even graced with lip service by Pakistani rivals must end. Regional realities are darker than what one would glean from Pakistan’s contemporary tone and policies. Inertness and inaction cannot be allowed. Moreover, Pakistan’s approach toward particular states and actors must be crafted in consideration of not only their apparent meaning for Pakistan alone, but their importance to other states as well especially those with overlapping interests with Pakistan. Sorting out Afghanistan can only be achieved with such an approach.
The Afghan Taliban: the party to engage with
The current scenario in Afghanistan stands much different to what it was when the US invaded in 2001. The past few years have seen the Afghan Taliban rise in stature with constant contact and diplomatic exchanges with regional states. The co-existence of the Afghan Taliban with Pakistan over the years is difficult to deny, as well as the fact that the deadly enemy of the Pakistani state in the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is not part of the former as indirectly stated by its political representatives on Russian television recently. There is little reason for Pakistan’s political elites and media to treat relations with the Taliban as a matter of embarrassment and something to vehemently deny through naïve statements such as the ‘scapegoating of Pakistan for the USA’s failures’. Pakistan should be as proactive, if not more, than states such as Russia and Iran – countries with the majority of their time spent busily in different regions to Afghanistan – in hosting and talking to the Taliban. That it is not so is further testament to Pakistan’s all-round failed foreign policy in the post-US invasion era. The Taliban are also far from a ‘Wahabi organization’ the way ISIS or similar groups are, and reports by Iranian media even state that they have outlawed the practice of Wahabism in parts of Taliban-held Afghanistan since it spreads chaos.
The soft policy toward the Kabul regime brings Pakistan nothing and has never made practical sense. Dispatching large amounts of food aid to Afghan government-held territory and training Afghan National Army cadets at Kakul – the same army that has shown willingness to fire at Pakistan while it conducts border fencing despite its own incompetent haplessness in combat – must be ceased. Goodwill in diplomatic terms is always a resource and should be spent where it can yield reciprocity. Moreover, treating what is essentially a failed state which has lost more than half its country to the Taliban as a serious actor despite its hostility and rapport with India demonstrates Pakistan’s astonishing ignorance of the need to project influence beyond its own borders.
Adopting a tough stance concerning anti-Pakistan terrorists on Afghan soil
The hybrid war waged by the US-Indo alliance, bolstered heavily with several large pacts and agreements over the last few years, against Pakistan and CPEC utilizes Afghanistan’s government-held areas as a base. Baloch separatists and the ISIS/Jamat ul Ahrar/TTP extremists do not have any considerable infrastructure left inside Pakistan but rather are fostered and protected in Afghanistan. Given the power the Taliban possess across huge swathes of Afghanistan, Pakistan can incentivize the group toward assisting in eliminating anti-Pakistan terrorists inside Afghanistan.
The usage of direct military force in the form of strikes inside Afghanistan to destroy anti-Pakistan terrorist infrastructure, must continuously be an option. The Afghan side lacks the capacity to handle the Pakistani military and the Afghan military is little more than cannon fodder to NATO.
The bigger picture and golden opportunity for Pakistan in Afghanistan: neutralize hostile states’ influence and establish a regionally significant strategic coalition
Accurately analysing the geopolitical agendas of the various actors concerned with Afghanistan will reveal an opportunity forming for Pakistan to achieve a strategic victory in Afghanistan it likely would not have expected before. To put it simply, the stars have aligned in a way they never have prior to before, and Pakistan should it awaken from its slumber will find itself well-equipped to deal mortal blows to its enemies’ plots and designs against it. There are several ongoing regional and global dynamics relevant to Pakistan’s stake in Afghanistan which Pakistan can utilize to its maximum interest and which demand a closer inspection.
The benefactors of the Kabul regime are India and the US, neither of which have direct borders or entirely safe supply routes to it. The major rivals of the US in the region, however, are much closer: Iran borders Afghanistan as do Central Asian Republics firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. US-rival China has shown an eagerness to invest in economic projects within Afghanistan for some time now, with the obvious security risks coming with it indicating larger geopolitical motives for the Asian powerhouse. The Kabul regime grows ever weaker as its armed forces suffer increasingly unsustainable losses against the Taliban and the USA has no real bargaining chips to use against Pakistan that outweigh the advantages of pursuing a pro-Pakistan, pro-regional, pro-CPEC strategy in Afghanistan.
Russian interests in Afghanistan: common ground with Pakistan
Russia’s outreach to the Taliban began a few years ago and has featured several public diplomatic interactions with the faction which has also visited Russia-aligned Central Asian Republics numerous times whilst the Kabul regime has spent its own time losing territory and spitting venom at Pakistan. Coinciding with the Taliban diplomacy has been Russia’s rapid rapprochement with Pakistan, involving joint counter-terrorism military drills, Russian investment in the Pakistani energy sector and a generally thriving bilateral relationship.
Russia and the USA are geopolitical foes across serious theatres of conflict such as the Middle East and all along Russia’s borders with European states where Ukraine acts as a point of serious escalation of conflict. The entry of the new US-Russia ‘Cold War’ to Afghanistan has been inevitable and the timing is fortuitous for Russia considering its firm ties with several regional states and the USA’s strained relations with Pakistan.
As was the case with Russia’s Syria intervention, a major factor in driving Russian policy is the aggressive posturing of NATO and its military build-up along Russia’s frontiers. For example, Russian military relations with several states throughout the Middle East and even Africa have been geared toward providing them with an alternative to US military supplies and cooperation against terrorism. The now-stabilized Syria continues to host a vital Russian-owned Mediterranean sea naval port in Tartus, major Middle East actor Turkey’s tilt away from NATO has been facilitated by Russia’s S400 sale agreement with it as well as its support for Erdogan during the 2016 coup attempt, GCC-Russia relations expand in the energy and military spheres and now the Russia-Pakistan rapprochement dovetails with the deterioration in US-Pak military ties as well. It is safe to say that Russia would be actively interested in any coalition of states with direct stakes in Afghanistan to meet and discuss a cutting down to size of US influence there, by whatever means.
Russia also has its own cudgel with Takfiri groups, considering the problem vis-à-vis radical extremists it has had in the past in Chechnya, Dagestan and other locations who also have considerable representation among the ranks of Takfiri groups in Syria. This creates further common ground with Pakistan as well.
While Russia has excellent relations with India even presently, it would not be considerate of the US-Indo shared views on Afghanistan (Pakistan-centric, in India’s case) with the potential bonus of downsizing the US in Afghanistan at stake. The prospects of Russo-Pakistani cooperation in influencing the politico-military situation in Afghanistan are thus bright.
Chinese interests in Afghanistan: common ground with Pakistan
Afghanistan is no exception when it comes to China’s BRI ambitions and heavy-investment in foreign economies with the vision stated by President Xi when he announced the sprawling set of infrastructure projects and trade corridors China sought to build. Relevant enough to have China officially declared alongside Iran and Russia as a major rival to the US, BRI seeks to open new markets for the burgeoning Chinese productive economy and also to help China’s ever-increasing demand for energy supplies by constructing new pipelines and securing new trade routes. The Chinese rivalry with India across their borders and with the Indo-US partnership across the Indo-Pacific region makes China very much a competitor to India’s fragile plans to construct a trading node from Chabahar port in Iran through to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Given the reckless tendencies of India when it comes to Pakistan, in the form of openly sympathizing with Baloch separatism despite how the powerful Chinese feel about groups such as the BLA especially after the consulate attack in Karachi, the generally non-hostile Chinese will be eager to listen if approached with a plan to counter the Indo-US alliance in Afghanistan. Additionally, China has interests regarding anti-state militants in its Xinjiang region possibly shifting base to Afghanistan as the TTP did when Pakistani military operations destroyed their infrastructure in the tribal areas. An Afghanistan dominated by friendly forces will help avert such problems.
Iranian interests in Afghanistan: common ground with Pakistan
Things get somewhat complex when it comes to Iran-Pakistan relations. The love-hate rhetoric between the two since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 coupled with the lack of any serious bilateral cooperation in areas of vital importance to both (the issue of the stalled Iran-Pakistan pipeline for example) until relatively recent times presents a sad picture. Despite a good pace of uptick in Pakistan-Iran relations as of late 2017 or so, an amplification of the closeness of the countries in strategic terms if necessary and it is difficult to find the sort of rhetoric from the Pakistani side which indicates cognizance of this necessity.
It has never been in Pakistan’s interests to compromise relations with Iran due to pressure from the USA or Saudi Arabia, the world’s chief funders and promoters of radical Wahabi terrorism which hit Pakistan long before it hit Syria where its most renowned representatives such as ISIS and al Nusra operate. The long-term benefits to be gained by forging close ties with Iran are not just immense for Pakistan for domestic reasons, but also go a long way in strengthening in on a long-term future basis against hostile foreign designs.
Constraints assumed by Pakistanis vis-à-vis obstacles in Iran-Pakistan cooperation in Afghanistan also tend to be a result of flawed perception, for example the idea that the Iranians would be averse to dealing with the Taliban who were enemies to Iran in the 1990s. Iran has been hosting Taliban leaders at Islamic unity-themed events in Tehran and maintains regular contacts with the group as well. Moreover, Iran-India ties do not possess any serious strategic dimension (it should be remembered that Kulbushan Yadav’s second confessional video featured information of a planned RAW bombing of a Pakistani consulate in Iran; something Iran would never be foolish enough to tolerate). There are virtually no excuses for the Pakistani foreign policy-makers to not strategically engage Iran especially now that the highly pro-Gulf Nawaz Sharif government is gone and even mired in domestic corruption crises.
India’s downgrading of previously cordial ties with Iran based on trade relations due to US sanctions on Iran is reminiscent of the fragility of what Pakistanis have tended to overrate as good Indo-Iranian relations. Examples of this fragility have been witnessed before, unfortunately unexploited by Pakistan’s defunct-as-always foreign policy management. India’s abandonment under US pressure of the Iran-Pakistan-India Peace Pipeline in 2009 and voting against Iran at the IAEA in 2005 in exchange for an illegal US incentive to enhance nuclear cooperation with it (India is a nonsignatory of the NPT) as well as its ideological affinity for Israel based on mutual anti-Muslim sentiment are such examples. Indo-Iranian interests in Afghanistan do not align, but have not historically clashed either due to Iran’s lack of involvement in Afghanistan prior to recent contacts with the Taliban who are mostly viewed negatively by India. The incentive for combating anti-Iranian forces in Afghanistan – who are also anti-Pakistan – is far greater than anything Iran gains from facilitating an Indian entry into the Central Asia market via Chabahar and then the problematic Afghanistan land route. India’s support for disruptive elements in Balochistan itself is contradictory to India’s Chabahar ambitions, and thus India-Iran relations are frail enough for a competent Pakistan to overcome.
To add to the exaggerations of Pakistan and Iran’s mutual suspicions of each other, the Pakistani military was the one which initiated the late-2017 rapprochement with Iran. The issue of the Indian spy, Kulbushan Yadav, apprehended in Pakistan in 2016 after crossing over into Pakistani Balochistan from Iran, seemed at first potentially disastrous for Iran-Pakistan relations but nothing big came of it. Yadav had been based out of Chabahar, Iran, which recently suffered a terrorist attack by an extremist group based in the wider Balochistan region. He had a valid Iranian visa on his Indian passport, which bore a fake Muslim name and he had been tasked with disrupting the progress of CPEC and the Gwadar Port. His arrest was followed by large networks of Baloch insurgents being busted by security forces and also increased contact and talks of enhanced economic, security and cultural-religious ties between Pakistan and Iran.
Iran also has good relations with Pakistan’s ally China, is a major venue for Chinese investment (in competition with that of India) and has lately expressed much positivity in its rhetoric regarding Pakistan in the wake of enhanced economic-military relations compared to the dull period of the early 2000s. Goodwill gestures trickle through between Iran and Pakistan, with Islamic unity a central theme. Indian-occupied Kashmir has been mentioned after a long hiatus in speeches by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in recent times and Iran made a notable gesture to Pakistan on 14 August by celebrating the day with Pakistani flags hoisted on banners in Tehran displaying the Indian-occupied part as part of Pakistan.
Baloch separatism as a means of threatening both Iran and Pakistan has been proposed by prominent American strategists and anti-Iran terror groups inside Pakistan are even covertly supported by Israel’s MOSSAD. Parts of Afghanistan act as a sanctuary for such terrorists.
Both nations have also invested large amounts of resources in successfully combating Takfiri terrorism; Iran in the Middle East against terrorists backed by its US-Gulf State-Israeli foes and Pakistan at home against deadly terrorist groups backed by India, the Kabul regime and by the CIA/Blackwater as well in the years leading up to the deterioration of US-Pak relations in 2011. ISIS has faced defeat across the Middle East and Levant and the US currently follows a policy of relocating ISIS proxies to Afghanistan as Iran has noted to Pakistan in the recent past.
Present advantages for Pakistan as part of a joint regional coalition to counter Indo-US interests in Afghanistan
- Close proximity of major powers Iran, Russia and China to Afghanistan compared to US
- Intense geopolitical conflict between Iran and USA and Russia and USA thus making Iranian support for anti-Indo-US moves by Pakistan worth counting on
- Inherent brittleness of India-Iran relations and the contradiction between the anti-Pakistan Balochistan strategy of India with its plans for trading with Central Asia vis Afghanistan and Iran using Chabahar Port
- Firm Chinese interest in investing along similar model to CPEC across Afghanistan and rivalry with Indian Afghanistan and Central Asia ambitions
- Powerful Sino-Russian influence over Central Asian Republics thus ensuring broad regional coalition to effectively manage Afghanistan’s internal affairs
- Erratic Indian regime willing to make reckless moves thus endangering its ties with regional powers and directly benefitting Pakistan
Practical steps to take in light of these factors
Pakistan is in a position to shut down NATO routes to Afghanistan passing through the Karachi port and Pakistani territory and thus compel NATO to take other more costly routes to deploy troops and resources to Afghanistan. The severe blow this would constitute in material and strategic terms to the US would mean heavy backing by Iran and Russia and probably China as well. The increased fragility of the US-protected Kabul regime would mean the subsequent reduction of Indian strategic depth in Afghanistan as well as potential losses to India’s heavy economic investment there. The Taliban should be worked with for militarily countering anti-Pakistan foreign proxies such as Baloch separatists and ISIS and the policy of appeasement toward the anti-Pakistan Kabul regime abandoned altogether as completely fruitless. American attempts at getting back in Pakistan’s good graces, as demonstrated by the recent Khalilzad visit, must not be entertained as siding with the USA’s rivals bears much more benefit to Pakistan and will turn it into a regionally powerful state.
This manoeuvring must, suffice to say, be handled by the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus since the current Pakistani government is as ignorant of foreign affairs as previous ones. Foreign Minister Qureshi’s unfortunate statement about ‘Indian cooperation’ being necessary for resolving the Afghan situation seems to play into a larger theme of the new PTI government centered around an almost juvenile fascination with the outside world as a fancy party to attend with Pakistan on its ‘best behaviour’. The perplexing ‘we will lead a world campaign against the defamation of religions’ suggestion from the Prime Minister Imran Khan and the curious emphasization of Pakistan’s past subservience, a matter of shame in truth, to the USA’s wars as a ‘service’ that merits ‘acknowledgement’ makes it look even more as if the new Pakistani government understands strategy as little as past ones.
All in all, inertness must be abandoned and strategic interests pursued aggressively. Pakistan and Iran in particular can act as two immediate neighbouring countries to Afghanistan with a more direct involvement in the domestic political affairs of the country utilizing religious and ethnic factors to help broker power-sharing deals among Afghan factions. Solutions to various issues previously ignored or even worsened by the inept Afghan NATO-backed regimes will find more efficient problem-solving mechanisms in the plethora of regional initiatives taking form such as the SCO and other multilateral platforms. The synergy between Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China will also prove highly effective in managing what has been a war torn country for decades.