Donald Trump, during his televised speech to the US nation on his administration’s Afghanistan policy, accused Pakistan of providing support to the militants operating on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
As expected, there were strong reactions from civilian and military leaders. Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab CM and brother of former PM, Nawaz Sharif expressed displeasure on Trump’s statement and said, “The exaggerated comments being made in the national and international discourse regarding the US aid to Pakistan are tantamount to rubbing salt into the wounds of Pakistanis suffering from terrorism, poverty and backwardness.”
He went to the degree of saying that Pakistan should stop accepting any assistance from the US. “It is time for Pakistan to politely and gratefully close the chapter on the US assistance so that the bilateral relationship can be freed from the shadow of repeated contemptuous taunts,” said the chief minister.
Relief for Pakistan came from Iran, Russia and China. While China’s support for Pakistan did not come as a surprise, Russia and Iran too firmly defended Islamabad.
Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov criticised Trump’s new Afghan strategy, saying “Pakistan is a key regional player to negotiate with. Putting pressure (on Pakistan) may seriously destabilise the region-wide security situation and result in adverse consequences for Afghanistan.”
Similar views were echoed by Iran as well, which asked the US to end interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi lambasted Washington’s “opportunistic strategies and unilateral policies, coupled with its interventions, have only intensified chaos and tension and spread terrorism and extremism across the region.”
Pakistan’s foreign minister Khwaja Asif also decided to do a damage control visit to China, Russia and Turkey and cancelled his scheduled visit to the US. According to the Pakistani foreign ministry, he will hold detailed discussions, with these countries on the new US policy about Afghanistan and South Asia.
Islamabad would do well to remember, however, that these are all short term reactions. Iran may have come to Pakistan’s rescue for the time being, but it has had differences with Pakistan. Tehran has been accusing the Pakistan army of supporting militant groups which have targeted Iran.
In May, the Iranian army chief, Major General Mohammad Baqeri had warned of entering Pakistani territory and hitting militant bases, after 10 Iranian border guards were killed by Sunni militant groups operating from Pakistan.
Baqeri said, “We expect the Pakistani officials to control the borders, arrest the terrorists and shut down their bases. If the terrorist attacks continue, we will hit their safe havens and cells, wherever they are.”
It would also be pertinent to point out, that both Iran and India have strong ties in the economic and strategic sphere. Iran has assisted in Phase 1 of the Chabahar Project, which will provide India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
While the Pakistan-Russia defence relationship may cause some discomforts in New Delhi, there is a realisation that the New Delhi-Moscow ties are time tested in the strategic and economic sphere. This year both countries India and Russia celebrated the 70th anniversary of relations.
According to Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of Rostec, India import’s defence equipment and supplies of around $2 billion every year. Russia and India signed an agreement to build two new reactors at the Kudankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu, with Russia agreeing to provide a loan of $4.2 billion to India, for its construction.
Pakistan’s foreign policy options
While Pakistan in the short run has no choice, but to remain in the Chinese camp — at the cost of annoying not just businesses, but non-Punjabi provinces who feel that the CPEC project is benefitting Punjab. Islamabad already shares a healthy relationship with Turkey which is closely involved in Pakistan, and Erdogan shares a healthy relationship with PML-N especially the Sharif’s faction.
Pakistan will also try to exploit the anti-US sentiment in countries like Iran, Russia as is evident from the visit of the foreign minister. Even with the US, Islamabad will publically make noises, but neither will Pakistan let go easily nor will the State Department will not let go so easily, whenever there has been the talk of reducing military aid, State Department has vehemently argued against such a move.
Overtures by the civilian government in Pakistan to India cannot be ruled out, a clear indication of this was the statement of the newly appointed Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who stated that Pakistan wants to work in close cooperation with India. However, of course, nothing can be expected till the next elections in Pakistan in 2018.
In conclusion as of now, Pakistan is far from being isolated, but in the long run, it needs to come up with a foreign policy which is more representative of public opinion. Apart from changing its approach towards India, Pakistan also needs to reduce its dependence on China, and look at other alternatives for its economic growth.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.
Sandeep Sachdeva is an independent policy analyst.