Pakistan at the crossroads

Saqib Akbar
THE situation in Afghanistan is indeed complex and confusing. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif also recently said that IS (Daesh) was being brought to the already war-devastated country. It goes without saying that as a neighbour, we suffered more than any other country in the region, due to horrendous events that gripped Afghanistan since 80s. And, this requires us to play our cards with utmost care and caution in future. Pakistan just can’t afford to see the repeat of those bloody events, spread over three decades. Analysts and observers appear to be reaching a conclusion that the real challenge for those, who matter in Pakistan, will be to take right decisions at right times. Though strong statements are coming from foreign minister and other government functionaries and even Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi which, hinted at ending Islamabad’s reliance on the United States.
Pakistan will have to take difficult decisions unlike in the past, as it finds itself in perhaps one of the most difficult times of its existence. In the past, Pakistan remained US ally and the bilateral relations have been marked by ups and downs and difference of opinion. These statements from the Pakistani leadership are good to the ears and reflect the popular sentiment of all Pakistanis. But the real test will be to have a review of our foreign policy. The US President Donald Trump has already articulated his policy towards this region, with particular reference to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, giving a lead role to New Delhi, which no way is acceptable to Islamabad. Whatever policy the United States adopts in the region, shall we toe its line. The era of ‘you are either with us or against us’ is over…though it may be too early to say so.
There are three choices before Pakistan: to again become part of the US policy; remain neutral or go against what Washington plans to do with reference to Afghanistan. Obviously, US will want us to remain its ally even at the cost of losing regional support or even Russian backing. Major question, which arises here in the given scenario is, are we prepared for the coming challenges? It took the Foreign Office 16 hours to issue its reaction to the much-discussed speech of Trump that he delivered on August 21 in which he called for continuation of India’s role in Afghanistan’s overall development. At the same time, he hurled veiled threats at Pakistan, evoking sharp reaction from Pakistanis, representing different sections of the society.
In the same way, Khawaja Asif during his recent visit to the United States, also called a spade and spade and asserted the tone and tenor by the US administration was not acceptable. Then he explained how complex the situation was across the border in Afghanistan, where Kabul government writ was confined to not more than half of that country. He also mentioned the fact that certain doable things needed to be done to restore peace, which included early repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, still living inside Pakistan and significant number of them residing close to Pak-Afghan border. He noted that the presence of Afghan refugees near the border inside Pakistan, could give militants, including Haqqnis and others access to their camps.
The minister made it clear that it was because of the US war, refugees had to take cover. Referring to recent statement of Indian air chief of striking key installations in Pakistan, he cautioned that none should expect Pakistan not to resort to retaliation. During his interaction with media in the US, the minister also spoke on a long list of failures of the US and Afghans over the years.
He went on to assert that if it was correct that Pakistan was providing safe heavens to terrorists, then who was involved in drug trafficking and corruption and supplying weapons to Taliban and giving up regions to militants in Afghanistan. He also asked who was bringing the so-called Islamic State militants to Afghanistan and arming them. As regards Trump’s tirade against Pakistan, a country, where already there is so much anger against the United States, the latest development has added fuel to the fire. And, now not only religious circles, but also politicians and other segments of the society have called for a complete review of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the face of emerging new realities and alignments.
There are reports about growing presence of IS in Afghanistan at a time, when Pakistan is looking for new friends and cementing its relations with the old ones. The joint military war games with Russia and warming up of relations with this extremely important country are quite significant. This can be seen as Islamabad’s bid to show to the US that the world is fast becoming a hub of several power centres and the era of US being the one super power is over. Perhaps, time is up for Pakistan to stick to its old policy and push for a new innovative approach in its relations with not only the regional countries but also with other important nations, including Russia and Turkey. Bold and difficult decisions can lead to rise of a new sun, which may bring along hope and self-reliance, coupled with peace and stability. A shift in foreign policy may invite wrath of the US but this may not be the price, Pakistan paid while remaining its ally and friend.
— The writer, Deputy Secretary General of Milli Yakjehti Council, is based in Islamabad.
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