Over the past two years, Indian and pro-Indian commentators have argued that Pakistan is “diplomatically isolated.” This claim has less to do with reality and more to do with the fact that isolating Pakistan is an Indian foreign-policy goal.
In September 2016, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, referring to Pakistan, declared: “We will isolate you. I will work for that.” Within weeks, op-eds appeared asserting that Pakistan was diplomatically isolated. Declaring “mission accomplished” is, of course, the fastest path to “victory,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one actually has won.
In reality, Pakistan was never quite diplomatically isolated. And it certainly isn’t today. Bilateral relationships go through ups and downs, especially in the present topsy-turvy world order. With the breakdown of unipolarity, it’s actually quite hard to isolate a country. There are just too many options in this era of diplomatic free love.
For its part, Pakistan has been adept at pivoting between various regional centers of power, building relations with Russia, bolstering ties with China and Turkey, and developing partnerships with important regional players like Jordan and Qatar. Pakistan’s move toward diversification in a post–American world order is reflected in its military hardware acquisitions (and, to a lesser extent, sales) and in its diplomatic ties.
Moscow and Islamabad: A New Eurasian Friendship
Since the downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations in 2011, Islamabad has actively sought to diversify its foreign partnerships. Perhaps the most successful of these ventures has been Islamabad’s relationship with Moscow, a historical ally of rival New Delhi. As the United States progressively closed space for military aid to Pakistan, Russia lifted a ban on military sales to Pakistan, enabling the sale of attack helicopters. Sales of additional advanced hardware could be on the horizon. The policies of both countries toward Afghanistan have also converged.
The visit last week of a ministerial-level Pakistani delegation to Moscow—including Pakistan army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and a representative from Pakistan’s space program—roughly coincided with the departure of a delegation from Saint Petersburg from Pakistan, where multi-sector economic cooperation was discussed. Sanctions on Russia have slowed energy sector cooperation, but defense and diplomatic cooperation has steadily grown, including joint military exercises. Russia has recognized Pakistan as a “geostrategically important country.” These are important words for Islamabad to hear after being treated as a mix of a failed state and war on terror subcontractor by Washington.
From ‘Yes, but . . .’ to ‘No, but . . .’
For much of the post–9/11-era, the U.S.-Pakistan dynamic has involved American officials telling Islamabad that it must “do more” to combat terrorist networks and their Pakistani counterparts replying with something to the effect of: “Yes, but . . .” U.S. officials came to see the qualified “yes” as a reflection of Pakistani confusion or duplicity. But the lack of clarity was at least in part the byproduct of asymmetry. Pakistan was responding to the United States from a position of weakness and had little strength to provide a downright refusal. Multipolarity has not only empowered Pakistan to say “no” to more powerful countries, it’s also enabled it to publicly articulate and adhere to a more clear and consistent foreign policy.
Take the case of Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Islamabad denied Riyadh’s request to deploy combat troops for its Yemen campaign. Pakistan said that it would assist with the security of long-time ally Saudi Arabia, but would not deploy its troops outside Saudi territory as part of such an effort. Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took a hit as a result of Islamabad’s refusal — a decision that turned out to be prudent given Pakistan’s history of sectarian conflict and the awful way the Saudi-led campaign has turned out.
But Pakistan’s answer of “no” to Saudi Arabia’s request to aid in the Yemen war is not the end of the story. Islamabad not only clearly defined the limits for military cooperation with Riyadh, it has also since patiently demonstrated that there is much that can be done within that space.
Last year, Pakistan’s former army chief, retired Gen. Raheel Sharif, assumed leadership of a Muslim counterterrorism alliance led by Saudi Arabia. Since then, bilateral and multilateral air, land, and sea exercises involving Pakistani and Saudi forces have also accelerated. And this March, the Pakistan Army announced the deployment of additional troops to Saudi Arabia on a “train and advise” mission. According to Pakistani defense minister Khurram Dastgir-Khan, the new deployment of around one thousand Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia would be on top of the 1,600 or so personnel in the country.
The rehabilitation of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia ties has not resulted in Islamabad siding with Riyadh in its regional wars. Pakistan has maintained neutrality in the Saudi-Emirati dispute with Qatar. And it has also improved ties with Iran, stepping up cooperation to secure their porous border. Before Pakistan formally announced the new deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia, the Pakistan Army chief Gen. Bajwa informed Iranian, Qatari and Turkish officials of the move.
While Pakistan has been mindful of Iranian sensitivities, it has neither given it a veto power over its Mideast policy, nor has it shied away from engaging Tehran more assertively when necessary. For example, in 2016, Pakistan exposed an Indian spy operating a network targeting Pakistan from Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. The Pakistani announcement coincided with the visit of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to Islamabad. Amid the tumult in the Middle East, Pakistan’s foreign policy toward the region has been pursued through nonexclusive bilateralism as it avoids siding with a particular bloc.
‘No’ to Endless War in Afghanistan, ‘Yes’ to Peace and Stability
Just like with the Saudis, Pakistan has learned to say “No, but…” to the United States. The broader message is the same: we can help you, but only in ways that don’t hurt us.
Since the announcement of Trump’s “South Asia strategy” last year, Pakistani officials have consistently said that the Afghanistan war “cannot be fought on Pakistani soil.” This is a clearer articulation of a statement in 2015 by then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which he told a U.S. audience that Pakistan “could not bring the Taliban to the negotiating table ‘and be asked to kill them at the same time.’”
Pakistan, in clearing most of its territory of anti-state jihadist networks—contributing to a massive decline in terrorism on its soil after 2013—has reduced space for Afghan insurgents operating in Pakistan, who have been moving to Afghanistan, where they control or contest roughly half of the country. Last October, Pakistani journalist Tahir Khan reported that Taliban commanders linked to slain Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour had moved to southern Afghanistan. And this January, Sayed Hamed Gailani, an Afghan leader from a prominent Pashtun family, said that “most” of the Talban leaders are in Afghanistan.
Much of the Afghan Taliban insurgent leadership likely still resides in Pakistan. However, it should be noted that the main anti-state jihadist networks targeting Pakistan are sheltered in Afghanistan and provided cover fire by Afghan forces as they launch attacks on Pakistani border posts. In fact, Mullah Fazlullah—he’s not only the most prominent anti-Pakistan militant leader, but also ordered the shooting of Malala Yousafzai—has been based in Afghanistan since 2009.
Insurgents, alongside Afghan families, laborers, students and traders, move back and forth across the chaotic border on a daily basis. CIA drones and JSOC raids won’t provide an enduring solution to the cross-border, bidirectional flow of militants. U.S. policy remains incoherent and overly dependent on kinetic action. It is intensifying a counterproductive air campaign in Afghanistan and pumping in military hardware, much of which is seized by the Taliban and then used to kill U.S.-backed Afghan security forces in record number.
Pakistan has prioritized border management and refugee repatriation—the Afghan Taliban live among Afghan refugee populaces in Pakistan—as structural solutions to the problem of the Afghan insurgency. Recent statements by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and others suggest that Afghan and U.S. officials may be taking these issues seriously. But Afghan forces show greater fervor in targeting Pakistani border posts than in combatting Afghan Taliban insurgents. And U.S. officials seem to want Pakistan to kill senior Taliban figures, rather than push them into the dialogue process.
In February, it was reported that the United States has essentially demanded that Pakistan kill “a dozen top militants.” Since then, there have been conflicting indications about U.S. flexibility vis-à-vis the “kill list.”
For its part, Pakistan has, according to a former senior Talban official, “increased pressure on the Taliban” and “detained some senior Taliban leaders” to push them to talk to the Kabul government.
Pakistan has good reason to stand its ground. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani recently made an admirable, comprehensive offer of talks to the Taliban. But it may be too late. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely tenuous. Elections scheduled for this year and next are rife with uncertainty and will likely reignite ethnic tensions that have temporarily eased. It makes little sense for Pakistan to commence hostilities with the Afghan Taliban, especially as Washington has yet to demonstrate its seriousness about talks and that it will be a good-faith negotiator.
The recent past is not encouraging. In July 2015, Pakistan hosted talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul government through a quadrilateral framework that included Chinese and U.S. observers. By the end of the month, Afghan officials revealed that Mullah Omar was dead, derailing the process. Still, in February 2016, Afghan and American officials were able to meet the Taliban once again in Qatar. But in May of that year, the United States killed Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who had consented to both rounds of talks.
Another cause for concern: there is no senior-level ownership of the Taliban talks within the Trump administration. The process is run by a mid-level State Department official who is unable to meet anyone above Pakistan’s foreign secretary. It’s unclear whether she speak on behalf of the U.S. president or if he even knows her name.
As a form of chastisement, the Trump administration has relegated its engagement with Islamabad to mid-level personnel, largely denying Pakistani officials access to senior U.S. officials. Though military-to-military dialogue seems to be improving, there is no way for Islamabad to ascertain whether the U.S. government as a whole is on board with dialogue with the Taliban or whether the specter of talks is simply being used a means to gain tactical advantages in the war and prolong it.
The Pakistani position on Afghanistan today is not the same as it was in 1997 or even 2007. For roughly a decade, Pakistan has deployed almost two hundred thousand troops to its Western front, actively combatting jihadist insurgents. Thousands of Pakistanis security personnel have sacrificed their lives in this long war.
Pakistan doesn’t want to fight another jihadist insurgency on its soil. It is looking for ways to either insulate itself from the mess in Afghanistan or contribute to a sustainable resolution to its neighbor’s forty-year war. Pakistan’s desired end state involves not a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, but the inclusion of the insurgent network into a political framework that does not allow Afghanistan to be a home to anti-Pakistan militancy. This is reasonable and attainable, and actually dates back to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani’s tenure as army chief, when Pakistan first embraced the doctrine of counterinsurgency, gave up the notion of a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, and came to terms with the U.S. presence as a temporary stabilizing force.
However, a political settlement in Afghanistan is contingent upon demonstrated U.S. ownership of a nominally Afghan-led process and a successful political transition in Kabul over the course of the next year. Pakistan has helped and can continue to help with the former. But achieving the latter is all on America and Ghani. And the indications so far are far from good.
America and Pakistan, Beyond Afghanistan
Multipolarity—and, specifically, Pakistan’s finesse in leveraging multipolarity in its own favor—may actually help U.S.-Pakistan ties in a number of ways.
One, it could give space for both countries to set realistic expectations for bilateral relations, based on clearly articulated goals.
Two, it should remind American policymakers with limited or no historical memory that Pakistan is not simply an extension of Afghanistan—it’s an able regional diplomatic and military power that has defeated a jihadist insurgency and could serve as a potential partner in an unstable greater Middle East. And despite growing macroeconomic risk, the Pakistani economy is home to a growing middle class and a potential market for American investors in the consumer goods, energy, materials, real estate and retail sectors.
Three, it allows Pakistan to fully explore the limits of other relationships and revisit the value of the United States. America has afforded Pakistani immigrants—including my own family—a combination of civic agency, religious freedom, and upward mobility unattainable in most places. It’s hard to see a replication of the Pakistani American diaspora—a prosperous community of 500,000 with a median income of $66,000—in countries like China. While the China-Pakistan relationship will continue to grow economically and strategically, it will lack this social dimension for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, Washington seems stuck on pursuing behavioral modification through tweets and nonlethal punitive actions directed at Islamabad and Rawalpindi. One hopes that saner minds keep the relationship in a holding pattern, allowing for a gradual takeoff if and once the Afghanistan imbroglio stabilizes.
Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides political risk analysis on the Middle East and South Asia. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Image: A Pakistan fan waves their flag. Reuters / Lee Smith