The Game-Changers

(Image via video stream)

With US President Trump scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions, the possibility of conflict in the region has increased dramatically. From being the US “policeman” in the Gulf, Iran has become the acknowledged target of the US and Israel, egged on by the so-called “Sunni Coalition”. Iran’s ally Hezbollah having won the elections in Lebanon, and the Shia-leaning parties likely to do well in Iraq, the question is not will Israel act but when? For the record Trump’s NATO allies do not agree with him, the EU was quite emphatic!  Indeed, given this distinct possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s suspected nuclear sites, will India take advantage for an adventure against us in coordination with its new military ally?

Turkey’s relations with the US has cooled considerably, the latest being US military hardware being possibly denied to a NATO ally.  The Pakistan Armed Forces have outfought and uprooted the militants from their safe havens in the only successful counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign in the world at this time. Losing over 6000 dead and 25000 soldiers injured, Pakistan is still vilified for not doing enough to counter terrorism.

Memories are selective when it comes to national interests. Despite massive US military aid to shore up India after it was humiliated by China in 1962, India remained firmly in the Soviet Camp during the entire cold war. After the Soviet Union’s break-up, India continues its “strategic relationship” with Russia, in a virtual “Houdini act” as a possible replacement for the “Shah of Iran” in the region?   CENTO was a shield for the oil-rich Arab monarchies, now flexing their armed muscle UAE and Saudi Arabia have been actively supporting the “Hadi regime” in the civil war in Yemen fighting the “Houthi” rebels being materially supported by Iran.

While Pakistan will certainly not countenance Iran’s extra-curricular activities, can we afford to support armed hostility against our neighbor? During the EastWest Institute (EW) 2018 Spring Board Meeting in Amman this week, I remembered our soldiers dying in bloody battles fighting alongside the Jordanian Arab Legion protecting King Hussain (and Jordan) in 1970 from being overthrown by the PLO, which incidentally had its HQs in the Hotel Intercontinental Amman. Our soldiers’ sacrifice was in vain, very few Jordanians remember our soldiers being the only ones to die for their country, we do not even figure in their list of “close friends”. Our emotions should not dictate our decision-making. Committing to the Arab monarchies that we would send our soldiers to Yemen, former PM Nawaz Sharif had to renege on his promise. The adverse public reaction in Pakistan forced his own dominated National Assembly (NA) to pass a binding resolution against it. Not committing our ground troops in Yemen angered the Saudis and UAE. With their casualties in Yemen multiplying, the UAE particularly would rather have Pakistani troops as “cannon fodder”!

While the vestiges of the “Islamic State” (IS) have been uprooted in Pakistan and to an extent from Iraq and Syria, “Daesh” is now real in Afghanistan. Militarily the Afghans cannot sustain whatever gains US and NATO troops make on the ground with great sacrifice, their battlefield performance has been pathetic.  The Afghan rank and file being mainly Tajik blame Pakistan for the assassination of their leader Ahmad Shah Masood just before 9/11, they target Pakistan to hide their own abysmal failure. There is a sharp decline of about 35000 military personnel out of about 330000 in one year alone. The growth of insurgency is influencing many Afghan soldiers to leave the service. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports that since 2005 the US has spent US$72.85 billion on the Afghan Armed Forces. SIGAR’s Head John F. Sopko told CNN, “The Taliban knows what is going on. The Afghan govt knows what is going on, the only people who do not know what’s going on are the people who pay for it, the American taxpayers”. The Afghans will probably blame this also on Pakistan! Realizing the Daesh threat both the Afghan govt and the Taliban could even be edging towards a political negotiation to end the armed conflict.  A political and economic interdiction is the answer instead of a military solution.

The prime game-changer in the region is economic, it is neither political nor military as being propagated.  To keep its trade routes open, China formalized the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) concept, this initiative is annunciated by President Xi. While important for China’s own national security imperatives, for Pakistan the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a national security game-changer viz (1) building up its transportation and power sectors with its resultant economic fallout (2) the foreign direct investment (FDI) will have a force-multiplier effect on employment and (3) development of many poverty-stricken areas. Having the potential to change the face of this region the way the oil did for the oil-rich countries in the 70s and 80s India should not oppose this but be part of this game-changer for the whole of South Asia. For mineral-rich landlocked Afghanistan Gwadar gives tremendous access.

With Russia and China supporting a possible Turkish, Iranian and Pakistani bloc the danger is that potentially a “Baghdad Pact” in reverse can happen. The three countries have the largest non-Arab Armed forces battle-hardened and intact, does it make sense to push nuclear Pakistan into such an alignment?  Pakistan could be put into a situation where it certainly does not want to be, would we be comfortable with Chinese economic hegemony if it happens?

Those targetting Pakistan at India’s behest should ask themselves why has a non-Arab general, former Pakistani COAS Raheel Sharif, been chosen to head the “Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition” (IMCTC) forged by the galvanizing Saudi leader Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS)?  Everyone and his uncle knows the Army Chief in Pakistan controls the ISI, the “villain” supposedly “supporting terrorism”, could MBS have selected Raheel to be Islam’s point man in countering terrorism if he did not admire and trust the professionalism and performance of the Pakistan Army fighting terrorism? Would he do that if we were supporting terrorism as alleged by Modi, his family, and friends, both within and outside of Pakistan?

While Pakistan can never be part of any bloc that threatens another Islamic country, can we continue our “Mr In Between” role and not be pushed at India’s behest into the other camp?  Pakistan has, unfortunately, a very ambiguous role. If push comes to shove, that could happen!

This is the third in a series about US-Pakistan relationship by Ikram Sehgal, a defense and security analyst.

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