Spurned by Washington, Pakistan Looks East

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s upbeat claims about defeating terrorism, continuing military operations in both urban and rural Punjab and new operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) show how the menace of terrorism continues to defy solution through a straightforward application of military force.

Part of the problem is that the jihadi infrastructure remains intact, and so does Pakistan’s own ambivalent anti-terror policy. While Islamabad claims to have targeted all terrorist groups indiscriminately, the Trump administration seems to think otherwise, and has accordingly stopped reimbursement of US$300 million because of what the Pentagon says is Pakistan’s inability, or lack of will, to take sufficient action against the Haqqani network, operating against the US and the Afghan government in Afghanistan.

More than a case of Pakistan’s deliberate dualism however, the decision seems to be rooted in the ever-increasing gap between Pakistan and the US, manifested in the way India is closing in on the US-Israel alliance and Pakistan is increasingly sliding closer to Russia and China not only in economics but also in geostrategy and politics.

The decision to stop aid reimbursements has as such not occurred in vacuum. This is a part of the new “regional approach” the US is in the middle of developing as part of new Afghanistan strategy. Within this revised strategic vision, Pakistan strongly appears as a negative element, working to the US’ disadvantage in this war.

It was made absolutely clear in a recent report, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2016,” issued in April, by the State Department that said that Pakistan, despite targeting a number of anti-state elements in its own ‘war on terror’ and despite favoring political reconciliation of the Afghan conflict, is not doing enough to target the militant forces which are based in Pakistan – such as Haqqani – but are involved in various attacks inside Afghanistan.

USSecretary of Defense James Mattis’ argument for building the case for stopping the military funding echoes what has been pointed out in the report. Besides that, however, the US-Pakistan gap is increasing due to India’s increasing tilt to the US. The State Department report claims that Pakistan has not taken enough steps against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), two outfits that India has repeatedly particularly accused of terror attacks inside India and the India-held Kashmir region.

To Pakistan’s satisfaction, not all the countries in the world, particularly in the region, share the views expressed in the report. China has repeatedly blocked India’s moves in the Untted Nations to blacklist JeM chief Masood Azhar, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin does not seem to think that Pakistan is exporting terror to India.

In an exchange with Indian journalists, Putin not only refused to take sides, saying that it was not for him to decide whether Pakistan was fuelling terrorism in India-held Kashmir, but that he believed that “Pakistan is taking immense steps to stabilise the situation in the country."

As such, while the country has found allies in the the East, the West is full of troubles as the charge sheet seems too long to allow for smooth development of political relations with the West, or even with Pakistan’s immediate neighbors in the east and west, India and Afghanistan.

Relations with its neighbor in the east, India, have deteriorated considerably in the past two years and there seems to be no new opening. On the contrary, Pakistan’s incumbent government, led by Nawaz Sharif, which is known as an advocate of a soft and business oriented approach to India, is itself in big trouble.

The so-called Panama Papers, which detailed the operations of the Mossack-Fonseca law firm in Panama City in setting up international tax dodges, raised allegations of corruption and money-laundering on Sharif’s part through three British Virgin Islands-based companies, Nescoll Ltd, Nielsen Enterprises Ltd and Hangon Property Holdings Ltd, which are said to have been used to channel funds to acquire foreign assets, including apartments along Park Lane in London's Mayfair area.

Not all quiet on the Eastern-Front

While within Pakistan there is no big concern that the prime minister’s disqualification would lead to sweeping changes in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy orientation, India is certainly concerned that Sharif’s probable disqualification would strengthen the hands of the military and the establishment, which in turn would prove instrumental in furthering distance between the both countries.

Unsurprisingly, fears surrounding Sharif’s possible fall seem to be shaping perceptions both in India and the US. While the Pakistani military is usually considered to be the main architect of the country’s policy towards Kabul and Delhi, it is also feared that Sharif’s exit would allow the military to adopt an even tougher approach to India and Afghanistan.

For India, this seems to imply an opportunity for her and her chief ally, the US, to adopt tough approach to Pakistan and force it into adopting a rather non-discriminating approach to terrorism in the region.

Pakistan, of course, does not see eye to eye either with India or the US and has rejected the allegations levelled in the US State Department report.

Notwithstanding India’s fears, there is no gainsaying that the distance between Pakistan and the US, as also India, is likely to increase regardless of the Sharif family’s stay or exit from power. This is also evident from the way the US is concerned with Pakistan’s absence from the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition.

There two primary reasons for this absence: 1) Pakistan continues to believe that the IS, unlike in Afghanistan, doesn’t have any infrastructure in Pakistan, although there is one group, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, which has declared its affiliation with the group, 2) Pakistan is in the middle of aligning its anti-terror, anti-IS and Afghanistan policy with China and Russia, aggressively using the platform and security paradigm provided by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the brainchild of the Chinese to forge a regional pact.

Needless to say, one reason for the US’s increasing displeasure with Pakistan’s performance vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban groups is its emphasis, very much in tune with Russia and China, on settling the conflict through negotiations than through military means.

For the US, a military solution continues to retain primacy. But there are few countries in the region who seem to favor a longer US stay in Afghanistan. Pakistan is certainly not one of them, for a militarized Afghanistan, and perennial war on the border continue to undercut Pakistan’s ambitious plunge into China’s Belt and Road Initiative.