Written By: Vice Admiral Taj M. Khattak (R)

Pakistan has been confronted with the issue of contested borders since its independence from the British rule in 1947, but the challenges faced by the country as a result of the constantly changing regional and global kaleidoscope have rarely been more serious than at present moment. While searching for an answer as to why Pakistan wanders into a tight spot every now and then, I came across some interesting categorization of external environments experienced by nation states, which has been spelled out as either convulsive, deliberate, spirited or habitual.

Convulsive environments relate to major changes in a country’s strategic environment leading to drastic changes in its foreign policy. Deliberate environments pertain to the altering of environments by a country in a deliberate manner through exerting external influence so as to achieve its national interest. Spirited environments refer to a low level of strategic change while habitual environment is the normal strategic environment. It is evident from the reactive nature of our policies and periodic high level shifts at regional and international level that in the past seven decades, we have had anything but normal strategic environments. It can be argued that, in a complex world like today, can a developing country realistically expect normal strategic environments. Perhaps not, but then have we ever really responded appropriately to the challenges faced by our country.

An apt illustration of our spasmodic foreign relations would be our recognition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before 9/11 – even lobbying with other countries to follow suit – and literally the next moment post 9/11, we were partners in fighting the U.S. war. The blowback from this action is all too obvious to be repeated in this space. Going further back in history to the 1950s era, we joined the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) against the spread of Communism in this region, from which Pakistan faced no real threat. That cost us dearly in 1971 when former Soviet Union and India signed a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation which provided India with what it needed to break-up Pakistan.


The point to note is that Pakistan has all the elements of national power such as economic output, military capability, strategic purpose, territory, national will, a hardworking population and nuclear deterrence against any existential threat. However, there is a need to exploit and employ these elements properly to achieve larger national objectives

These days we have joined the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) and, at the very least, we may well have unnecessarily overstretched our already long list of ‘core national interest’. The point to note is that Pakistan has all the elements of national power such as economic output, military capability, strategic purpose, territory, national will, a hardworking population and nuclear deterrence against any existential threat. However, there is a need to exploit and employ these elements properly to achieve larger national objectives and gradually move towards an environment other than mostly convulsive so that we do not have to be in a reactive mode all the time.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa has done well to visit Tehran to strike a delicate balance in its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has been made ample clear that Pakistan-Iran relations should not be viewed with the prism of alliance/animosity vis-a-vis any other country. Being neighbours, Pakistan places special attention and focus on important relations especially given that peace and close cooperation between two countries is of vital importance. Tehran is again taking center stage regionally and globally, both as a target and a player in the context of murky proxy wars. There is a strong perception in Iran that U.S. and Saudi Arabia seek to destabilize the regime in Tehran, just as Riyadh feels that militias supported by Iran in Yemen and Lebanon are encircling the Saudi Kingdom. Recently, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced dismantling of terrorist teams affiliated with ‘global arrogance’. Earlier, it had announced clearing up an area in West Azerbaijan that borders Iraq and Turkey. Some months ago, it said it had disbanded some 100 terrorist groups in south, southwest and southeast of the country.

If Iran’s concerns remain unaddressed, it may well balance its threat and extend its support beyond Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to Talibans in Afghanistan. This will not augur well for Pakistan and hence the need for the two neighbors to be on the same page. But we must remember that for a robust and long lasting relationship with Iran, military-to-military relations will have to follow political relations between Tehran and Islamabad and not the other way around. Our political relations with Iran must take the lead so that we break the barrier where our mutual relations are stuck in a grove for the last so many years.

The COAS had earlier paid a visit to Saudi Arabia and Iran felt apprehensive about Pakistan joining the Saudi-led coalition. There is a difference in perception as Pakistan feels that the coalition will help fight terrorism while Iran fears that it might further widen the sectarian divide in the Muslim world. Iran has allowed Indian shipments of wheat to Afghanistan from Chabahar. If it was for trade alone, Pakistan would have had no issues, but we can’t be too happy with the Indian presence so close to our western border. Especially when till only recently, the nabbed Indian RAW agent, Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav (an active service Indian Navy Officer), had been operating from Chabahar and was responsible for numerous incidents of terrorism and subversion on Pakistani soil.

Indian Navy ships patrol the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy missions which are notified by New Delhi as ‘National Tasking’. Recently marine commandos (MARCOS) from one of its ships boarded a merchant ship which was the third such incident in recent months. It was hyped up by Indian media as hijacking attempt by pirates although authorities in Combined Task Force (CMF) in Bahrain, who co-ordinate and monitor anti-piracy activities of Combined Task Force (CTF) 150 and from which India has withdrawn some years ago, has not acknowledged these incidents as acts of piracy. So what’s happening? What is Indian Navy up to and with what purpose in mind? Our security establishment should view this with seriousness that it deserves.

The recent resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia, is a disaster in the making with implications for Pakistan. It has escalated Saudi-Iran tensions with firing by Yemeni Houthi rebels of a ballistic missile at Riyadh international airport. There has been publication of a blueprint to destabilize Iran using Pakistan’s soil and flow of funds to militants in restive Balochistan province. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hasn’t helped matters much by his statement about the fight with Iran to take place inside Iran. This doesn’t augur well for peace and harmony in the Muslim world. How General (Retired) Raheel Sharif, Commander of Islamic Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), copes up with this brewing storm, only time will tell.

President Trump’s announcement not to re-certify the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement signed in 2015 and imposition of punitive sanctions, and Iran’s response not to cut back on its missile program, is spawning a new set of convulsive external environments with obvious implications for Pakistan. In Afghanistan, there is no end in sight for the 16 years old war although both Pakistan and Afghanistan are beginning to realize that the time has come to take practical steps towards creating an atmosphere of mutual trust. It was with this goal that COAS recently visited Kabul and held fruitful discussions with President Ashraf Ghani which covered regional security, bilateral relations, peace and stability, the war on terror, commerce and transit between the two countries.

But this mutual Pak-Afghan desire for peace in the region and for an Afghan-led peace process is likely to remain overshadowed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s new South Asia policy, which is an open-ended commitment to war in Afghanistan and is void of any universally acknowledged definitions of targets or timelines for withdrawal. NATO also plans to increase its presence from 13,000 to 16,000 in 2018. Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, during a press talk in Brussels, has again blamed Pakistan for undermining the stability of the entire region. He was generous enough to concede that Pakistan has fought hard and suffered heavily against those terrorists focused on its government and now ‘we are asking them’ to focus on the terrorists that are attacking Afghanistan and attacking the coalition.

How could General Nicholson overlook so evident a fact that Afghan Taliban control more than half of Afghanistan where they enjoy support of the local population and they do not need any sanctuary in Pakistan. From the frequency and success of an ever increasing number of ‘Intelligence Based Operations’ (IBOs), it is clear that the insurgency in FATA does not enjoy local support which is so crucial for guerrilla warfare. On numerous occasions, Pakistan has taken U.S. delegations to FATA to see for themselves how it has acted against the scourge of terrorism but the moment they step on U.S. soil, they chant a different mantra. In these circumstances, it is natural for Pakistanis to conclude that if there ever was an adult version of Aesop’s Fable with the moral ‘Tyrants need no excuse’ – this is it.
So peace will remain elusive largely due to continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, not so much to fight terrorism as the U.S. claims, but with an eye on its rare earth metals. These minerals are critical for cutting-edge technology for the future. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s famous election cry – ‘It’s the minerals, stupid’ and not any terrorism which is keeping U.S. in this region. In fact, just as Trump was announcing his South Asia policy, there were discussions going on in the White House with renowned mineral extracting firms. And Afghans, as the world knows, have the resolve to fight till end of time to throw out occupational forces from their land. The best Pakistan can therefore hope is for some improvement in the situation after completion of its ambitious border management program which includes fencing of a long and torturous border.

A silver lining on the horizon is Russia’s willingness to finance a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Gwadar ignoring opposition from U.S. which has fiercely opposed laying down of an Iran-Pakistan pipeline. This will give a boost to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to which U.S. is opposed but the project is a huge opportunity for economic development of the region. Russia controls huge reserves of gas in Iran and fears loosing western gas market over its differences with the EU over the annexation of Crimea and, thus, the new found enthusiasm for two South Asian starved countries – India and Pakistan. India, too, is keen as it needs energy and laying down a pipeline in Iran or Oman south of Pakistan’s EEZ (now extended) has monumental technical challenges and exorbitant cost.

The Chinese joke amongst themselves about their government having made only one good friend in the entire world (Pakistan) in the last 70 years – something which Pakistanis may also be wondering. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to South Asia left no doubts that he is determined to contain Sino-Russian axis in the global struggle for economic and military supremacy. China is Pakistan’s time-tested friend and our relations with Russia are picking up fast. The world is a place full of opportunities as the recent U.S.-Vietnam collaboration has shown. But we must tread our steps very carefully and not repeat mistakes of the past.


The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy and and eminent expert on national security issues.

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