In this episode of the Contours podcast series, Nicholas Heras discusses the tumultuous state of Pakistan with two globally recognized experts on the country: Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali and Raza Rumi Ahmad. They discuss the social and political fallout from the removal of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the geopolitical ramifications of Khan’s ongoing effort to weaponize anti-Americanism. The experts also offer a path forward for an uncertain U.S. policy approach to Pakistan and India, and to meet the rising tide of Chinese power on the Indian subcontinent.
Nicholas Heras: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for this segment of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast series. My name is Nick Heras, and today we will be discussing Pakistan’s tumultuous politics and a rising tide of anti-Americanism in Pakistan that will seemly shake the geopolitical order in South Asia. I’m joined today by two world class experts on Pakistan, Dr. Syed Mohammad Ali and Raza Rumi Ahmad. Dr. Mohammed Ali is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities. He is a noted expert on Pakistan, South Asia, and the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent.
Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and author. He is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media and teaches in the Journalism Department at Ithaca College. He is widely published and is particularly noted for having quite excellent analysis on Pakistan, its foreign policy, Pakistan-Indian relations and the geopolitics in the Indian subcontinent. Mohammad Ali, Raza, thank you for joining us for today’s discussion. Raza, I want to start with you. What are the long term implications of the current political chaos in Pakistan?
Raza Rumi: Thank you so much for having me. I think there are some very serious consequences, both in the short-term and in the long-term, but before I answer your question, I mean, let me also make a quick comment that what is happening in Pakistan currently in terms of political instability and all the economic difficulties is something not unusual for Pakistan.
For more than seven decades of its history, this has been a consistent pattern, domestic political instability, squabbling elites, intra-elite factionalism, and these struggles for power and an aid dependent economy. And that is pretty much what we are facing even in 2022, where you have a change in the government. There’s a former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who’s now in the opposition, has vowed that he’s not going to let this government function in peace and he’s threatening laying siege on the capital, holding long marches, street agitation, and really, really inflammatory and toxic political narrative, which obviously does not really engender invested confidence or provide ways for building consensus on some of the long-pending hard economic reforms that Pakistan needs.
NH: Thank you very much, Raza, for that detailed explanation. Mohammad Ali, I want to turn to you. What do you think are the long-term implications of this current situation in Pakistan?
Syed Mohammad Ali: So Nick, I think that Raza has very aptly highlighted the implications of the political upheaval in Pakistan, but I want to add to this discussion by taking a deeper analytical view of the prevalent situation. Let me first reiterate that Pakistan is facing at present a Catch-22, if you will, where the current government, which is a coalition of opposing parties, if it implements stringent austerity measures, it’ll hurt its own chances of rewinning elections, which are scheduled for next summer. And it’ll be in a particularly precarious situation if those elections are held earlier because of Imran Khan’s pressurizing and demanding that earlier elections be called. So the current predicament of Pakistan offers no easy solutions. However, now, letting me pull back a bit here, again, I do agree with Raza that this is not the first time that Pakistan is in turmoil. Pakistan has experienced much social, cultural and political upheaval during its 70 plus years of existence. And while it is counterproductive to continue pointing fingers at others for its varied failures, it is also unfair to adopt an ahistorical and a narrow view of what ails Pakistan at present.
Pakistan has aptly been described as an overdeveloped postcolonial state, which adopted an authoritarian bureaucratic legacy, which was originally created to rule over a distant colony to primarily extract resources and wealth rather than provide representative governance. The local elites found it convenient to use this top-heavy model of governance after independence, which also enabled the military to have a major say in the country’s political economy. Which too, by the way, has a colonial precedent whereby the British had lavished military personnel and local influential military recruiters for the British Raj with large land grants, especially in the Canal Colonies of Western Punjab, which is now situated in present day Pakistan. And it is not only colonialism, right? But subsequent trickle down morals of economic growth pushed on the country by Harvard-trained economists under the military regime of Ayub Khan in the ’60s, which created 22 wealthy families, but failed to address the glaring deprivations of the have-nots. Subsequent neoliberal morals of economic growth favored by entities like the World Bank and the IMF, which have a long history of lending to Pakistan have further exacerbated the inequalities in the country in the name of market-based efficiencies, while at the same time, having severely constrained the ability of an already struggling public sector to cater to the needs of the citizen.
While Imran Khan is using his self-style brand of populism to come back to power by trying to undermine his mainstream contenders as being corrupt, let’s remember that Imran Khan too had won the 2018 elections with the help of local electables, who keep switching political parties in order to continue furthering their own vested interests. The Pakistani military is now reluctant to come to the fore again, lest there is serious deterioration of the security environment in the country. But it’s attempt to create a hybrid government by supporting the preceding Imran Khan government also failed to deliver adequate governance. While the military has recently parted ways within Imran Khan due to several reasons, including his misgovernance and ad hoc foreign policy decisions, the political future of the country remains uncertain. Pakistan is facing serious security and economic challenges and it desperately needs political stability to avert the financial chaos that is unfolding in nearby Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan.
NH: Very interesting, Mohammad Ali, and I think this is a perfect segue to a question I want to turn to Raza first, which is, we see a lot of contestation of civil society and the politics of social mobilization right now in Pakistan. And so I want to ask you, Raza, what are the challenges confronting civil society and the freedom of expression in Pakistan at present?
RR: You know as Ali just gave you a very detailed overview of the historical trends, so sadly in Pakistan, when the country was created, its political institutions and its civic institutions were very weak as opposed to the colonial state, which has also been called the overdeveloped state pieces, where the military and the police and the bureaucracy were strong and the political institutions were really weak. And sadly, that has also been the trend after independence where political parties in today’s Pakistan still remain weak. They have internal contradictions, they are not democratic enough. They also are frequently booted out of power, and resultantly, long spells of authoritarian rule have also made the evolution and strengthening of civil society and a free media rather difficult. That has generally been the trend, though in the past two decades, we have seen how private media has increased in its reach. It has mushroomed and with the arrival of social media and digital technologies, there certainly has been some dent to this long-term historical perspective.
The last government under Imran Khan was notorious for turning a blind eye to restrictions on the freedom of expression, on muzzling of dissent and dissenting voices. And the new government has barely there been for a month, although it is paying a lot of lip service to freedom of expression, et cetera, but let’s see how they behave once they actually face some challenges. Thus far, they have avoided following the earlier policies of complete blackouts, taking TV channels off air, firing journalists who are critical of the government and locking people up if they express their dissenting opinions about state or politics. But overall it is still fragile and what is really needed is a deeper democratization, consolidation of civic freedoms, and more importantly, a functional and a robust parliament, which again, in the last four years has become somewhat irrelevant. The biggest challenge that Pakistan’s democratic freedoms and democracy overall faces is, how do we bring back the parliament right at the center of national debates, policymaking as well as articulating asceticism, grievances and concerns and influencing the Executive to correct their behavior. And that still is a long way to go given the political turmoil, which shows very little signs of abating, at least in the short-term.
NH: Thank you very much, Raza. Mohammad Ali, how would you respond to this dilemma facing civil society in Pakistan today?
MA: Look, Nick, I mean, again, Raza has provided an insightful assessment of challenges confronted by the media and civil society today in Pakistan. Clearly there are several red lines, which both civil society and the media need to be wary off, including criticism of the establishment or the situation in Balochistan. Civil society and media, in fact, they’ve faced an uphill battle to carve out a space for themselves within Pakistan during repeated military regimes and also during the tenure of very authoritarian civilian government. It is however important to also note that the media in Pakistan is heavily dependent on business conglomerates, which also undermines its ability to criticize structural causes of inequality which plague the country. Civil society formation on the other hand in Pakistan is also not an entirely organic process. Many NGOs working in Pakistan are a product of donor funding whose neoliberal policies call for a squeeze on public spending on the one hand, and then use NGOs to propagate market-based strategies such as the provision of high interest microfinance schemes in the attempt to alleviate poverty without being able to address lingering inequality caused by structural forms of marginalization.
Nonetheless, NGOs and other civil society actors have faced an increasingly precarious security environment in Pakistan, especially after 9/11 as humanitarian workers have become convenient, soft targets for extremist groups. The irresponsible action of external actors has also worsened the situation. Consider, for instance, the CIA-orchestrated vaccination campaign to confirm Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts which helped fuel conspiracy theories of extremist groups claiming that vaccination drives are American or even Israeli ploys, aiming to make Muslims sterile. Attacks on polio and other health workers spiked in Pakistan after the Osama bin Laden raid, and the government was compelled to deploy security personnel to provide cover to its vaccination drives, which further increased the cost of immunization in the country where a significant proportion of children still lack immunization against preventable diseases.
Pakistan is a country where the security apparatus has been soaking up most of the resources other than, of course, the looming and ever-growing debt crisis, which leaves a scant amount of finances for investment in the human development sector. And the ways in which that human development strategy unfolds is very influenced by the broader neoliberal imperatives, which repeatedly fails in addressing inequalities and civil society struggles. There’s been an NGO-ization of civil society in Pakistan. In the media, there’s a lot of sensationalism drawing at eyeballs to the television screen, and this kind of deeper analytical lens is needed. It’s not to say that you don’t have committed journalists in the country or committed development practitioners, but they are working with these, jostling between these fragilities, insecurities and inefficiencies, the sort of repeated pouring of old wine in new bottles that neoliberal prescriptions call for.
NH: Mohammad Ali and Raza, I want to turn to you to tackle this issue that we see now rise in US-Pakistan relations, which is the fact that Imran Khan is trying to weaponize anti-Americanism against his internal opponents inside Pakistan. I wanted to get both of your senses on what this means moving forward for Pakistan’s internal politics, as well as its relationship with a critical ally, the United States. Raza, I want to give you the chance to answer this first. And I know Mohammad Ali has been writing a lot about this.
RR: Thank you so much. I would also like to learn from Mohammad Ali. Let me just respond to the earlier discussion on media and civil society. I think the problem is that there’s a global media crisis. Civil society restrictions are also pretty much regional, at least in the case of Pakistan in South Asia. So I just wanted to make this small point before I go on to Pakistan-US relationship. So Pakistan-US relations, I mean, they have been on the downhill for years now, I mean, particularly in the context of the war in Afghanistan, where the two, quote unquote, allies were not on the same page and they had mutual distrust of each other’s intentions. Anyway, we are over that particular phase. And with the takeover of the Taliban in Kabul, the game now has entered into a different phase where obviously the US does not have a direct security interest because its troops are no longer there. I mean, most of its troops have withdrawn.
But the issue really, is that what happens to Pakistan and US relationship? The big question which has been asked time and again, is it a transactional relationship and will remain so? Or is there a possibility to make it more strategic, more long-term? And I think that’s a question which is still unresolved. Part of it has to do with the fact that under the previous government in Pakistan, no major headway could be made with the Biden Administration. In fact Imran Khan and his ministers made a public spectacle of the fact that President Biden had not called the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan. This was even cited in the international media and much was made in the local media as well. And then of course comes the regime change earlier this year and Imran Khan had been upping the ante, so to speak on the anti-Americanism, as you rightly said, weaponizing that, which has been a favorite pastime of various political and non-political elements in the Pakistani context. Since the 1990s, there’s a considered view in Pakistan that the United States is not a reliable ally, that Pakistan does more to deliver on the US interest in the region, whether it was the cold war or the first war in Afghanistan, the so-called jihad against Soviet Union and later the war on terror. And in return, the US always dumps Pakistan when it’s immediate, transactional interests are served or over.
And this has been further complicated by the fact that Pakistan also views most of its relationships with the world through the prism of the longstanding India-Pakistan rivalry, including the Afghanistan issue, and because India and the US are now not only strategic partners, they have a peaceful nuclear deal. I mean, India is an emerging trading and investment partner of the US private businesses, et cetera. So there’s a lot of misgiving in general within the Pakistani public spaces and politicians like Imran Khan whipped that up, instead of fixing it or finding ways to find new avenues for corporation and further engagement, they use it for domestic politics, as you rightly said. Imran Khan has been citing a so called US conspiracy for which there is no evidence whatsoever. And he has said it so many times following the classic propaganda model where you repeat a lie so often that it becomes almost a truth. And this is what his supporters actually believe and a lot of people who don’t even support him go back to the history of Pakistan-US relations and say, “Well, Imran may have a point. He may be right.” And this includes very sensible and educated people from within Pakistan’s intelligentsia. So that is a major, major challenge as we speak, in terms of fixing this relationship. But having said that, I would say that Pakistan and the United States still have a lot to engage with each other.
I may also add the US remains the largest single destination, as a country, for Pakistani exports, all the financial assistance, economic assistance that Pakistan needs from the IMF and World Bank and the ADV and so on, requires some measure of goodwill from the Pakistani side. Let me also add that I think Pakistan also has to rethink, and I suppose the US as well, that how does this historical and important relationship gets out of the securitized mold and turns more on to economic cooperation, trade investment, technology transfer, people-to-people contact. And those are some big areas which still have to be explored and deliberated upon. Some good headway has been made by the new Foreign Minister who visited the US, met Secretary of State, Blinken, and some warm statements were also exchanged. But those were just sort of diplomatic efforts at this stage, and we really don’t know how this particular relationship and how the future cooperation will take place given this troubled history and the domestic political turmoil within Pakistan.
MA: Now, Pakistan has had a troubled, yet a very longstanding relationship with the US, which dates back to these Cold War alliances like SEATO and CENTO. Pakistan then, sided of course, with the US twice in Afghanistan, first to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan and then to support the American-led war against terror. The decision to work with Saudi Arabia and the US during the 1980s led to the pouring of significant military and economic aid to Pakistan. But it also led to the entrenchment of a decade-long military regime of General Zia. Zia may have thwarted suspected Soviet ambitions to push into Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in order to access warm waters of the Arabian sea. And Zia did certainly help catalyze the demise of the Soviet Union as well because of what happened in Afghanistan. However, ordinary Pakistanis had to pay an enormous price for Pakistan’s Afghan policy in the 1980s. It led to the influx of around 4 million Afghan refugees, which Pakistan was ill-equipped to host despite UNHCR and other international support.
Heroin and kalashnikovs poured into Pakistan during the 1980s too and jihadi outfits mushroomed during this time. The creation of the holy warriors, many of whom subsequently mutated into the Taliban, was aided and abated by Saudi ideology and even the provision of military support and even pedagogical materials like the alphabet, the infamous Alphabet of Jihad Literacy formulated by the University of Nebraska at Omaha according to various more recent media reports, and this infusion of jihadi culture into the madrassas. Zia did not only help promote a myopic vision of Islam, which could be weaponized against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He promoted similar intolerance at home via his attempts to Islamize Pakistan. His infamous Hudood ordinance criminalized, not only adultery, but also rape, severely undermined women’s rights. Such attempts did catalyze homegrown resistance to Zia, but it also fermented resentment against the US for having used Pakistan and for having supported General Zia to achieve its own strategic goals. Once the Soviets left, Pakistan was left to its own devices, and the nuclearization of the Indian subcontinent in the late ’90s led the US to play sanctions on both India and Pakistan.
However, President Clinton decided that it was about time that the US built up its relationship with India individually, considering it’s got the largest market and this burgeoning population. And at the same time relations with Pakistan remained frosty and particularly so because Pakistan then again had experienced another martial law regime come to the fore, President Musharraf. However, the relationship between Pakistan and the US changed quickly after 9/11, when General Zia claimed that he had been threatened to either side with the US in the global war on terror or else be ready to be bombed to the stone ages. General Zia’s regime got significant military and economic aid from the US again for its role in facilitating the American intervention in Afghanistan, by providing logistical support, intelligence support, et cetera. This aid helped General Musharraf to stay in power for almost a decade as well. However, despite being designated a non-NATO ally, this was a very tense period in the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US.
Pakistan felt that the US was unappreciative of the outfall of the American intervention in Afghanistan, which had led to a rise of terrorism within Pakistan causing tens of thousands of deaths and enormous economic losses due to foreign investment being scared away and a lack of economic growth tied to the insecurity prevalent within the country. The US, on the other hand, continued pressuring Pakistan to do more against Taliban alongside the Afghan government itself. Pakistan was however, quite uncomfortable with the Afghan government’s close relationship with India, and this partially explains its reluctance to sever ties with the Taliban. Pakistan feels that despite having brokered the peace deal between the US government and the Taliban, Pakistan is being made a convenient scape goat for American frustrations in Pakistan. The Pakistani government’s ambivalent stance on the use of drones, the American secretiveness in the Navy Seals’ operation to kill OBL further added to feelings of Pakistani frustration with the US. There is a prevalent feeling in the country that the US is only interested in a transactional relationship with whoever is in power in Pakistan to achieve its own strategic interest irrespective of the long term cost for ordinary Pakistanis. Public polls indicate that anti-Americanism is both significant and persistent in Pakistan since the past two decades now, and it certainly shows no signs of abating in the near future, especially now that Imran Khan is continuing to tap into this resentment and whipping it up for his own political purposes.
NH: Thank you, Mohammad Ali for that detailed answer on how the politics of anti-Americanism as pushed forward by Imran Khan are impacting both inside Pakistan, but as well as its external relations. Raza, I want to turn to you, because you had some very interesting thoughts you relayed to us earlier in the discussion on pathway forward for Pakistan in its foreign policy. So I wanted ask you, if you were advising the current government, what should be Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities and how would you advise Pakistan to pursue those priorities from this point onward?
RR: Well, that’s a really challenging question, for if I were advising the Pakistani government, the top most priority, as I mentioned earlier, has to be the fact, how can we increase the exports from Pakistan and rework some of the trade barriers, direct and indirect, and enhance that particular cooperation. I mean, the US is a big market. We already have a lot of exports there. How do we further enhance that? And I think that should be the top priority for Pakistan. The other thing that Pakistanis did in the military in the recent years has been undertaking is a tight rope walk in terms of balancing Pakistan’s long term relationship with China and its imperative cooperation with the United States. Now, that’s a tricky one for any government in Pakistan or any military of a country, which relies on both these powers. One is a regional and emerging global power, the other is an established sole super power. And how can Pakistan maximize the fruits of cooperation with both. Now, that is going to be the most important challenge in the medium to long term when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign policy. And frankly, that is where one would actually argue for focusing more on the economic cooperation, both with the US and China and not getting embroiled in the factional or the camp politics reminiscent of the Cold War.
Because Pakistan was an allied ally since the ’50s, right to the fall of Berlin Wall, and that would be impossible for Pakistan to repeat when it comes to the US-China growing tension or global rivalry, because Pakistan has really strong relationship with China, which the Pakistanis are not going to give up that easily. However, they can do a particular balancing act. So I think that would be another important area where some fresh thinking, some fresh input would be required. And then of course, the third, most important dimension of this particular relationship it has to do with technology transfer of expanding the cooperation in the education sector. Over time, the number of Pakistani students in the US universities and colleges has been declining and that trend would have to be reworked as well because there’s a lot that Pakistan’s civil service, its technical experts and other members of different segments of society have to learn from and acquire the kind of skills and come back in Pakistan and apply them. So I think these are the kind of broad areas, if you know what I mean, but I think in this particular context, some rethinking is also required on the US side. Whereas I argued earlier, the relationship with Pakistan is purely seen from the lens of security needs, what are the security goals and aims and needs of the US in the region in Western Asia or South Asia and accordingly the relationship with Pakistan is fashioned or refashioned. I think it needs to also break that particular mold. Pakistan after all is the fifth largest country population wise. It’s one of the few nuclear powers in the world. It has a lot to offer in terms of Pakistani goods and services. Pakistan has a big diaspora in the United States, which is serving such as the Pakistani doctors in the US, they are found everywhere in every rural area. In every under-serviced area you will find a Pakistani doctor working in the US. So how can these areas also become a focus of a dialogue and extended long-term cooperation without restricting Pakistan or viewing Pakistan as some kind of a security ally in the region?
NH: Actually, I have a quick follow up, Raza-
NH: … related to your comments that I think is important. And I have noticed from the media in New Delhi and Mumbai over the last several weeks, a big focus on dynamic now inside Pakistan, in regard to what Imran Khan has talked about in terms of this fear of the de-nuclearization of Pakistan and the division of Pakistan into three different regions. And notice there is, rather than a celebratory or mocking mood, a type of consternation from the Indian side. And I’m wondering, you mentioned earlier in this discussion about delicate diplomatic dance that the United States has between India and Pakistan, these two countries, two nuclear powers, two of the largest countries in the world in terms of population, two countries that have enormous geopolitical importance and also two countries that serve as a type of master key to the United States in its broader competition with China through Eurasia.
So I wanted to get your perspective on, are there proactive ways that the United States can try to engage with Pakistan and India in a trilateral manner in this moment and in the near term to try to improve both the situation in both countries, as well as to advance US objectives in regard to strategic competition with China?
RR: I think, that’s a great question actually, but let me just add one particular aspect here that the Pakistan-India relationship has also taken a real hit. I mean, particular during the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who started off by welcoming Prime Minister Modi’s reelection in India and saying on record that he would be good for the peace, but then because of what happened in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan believes is under Indian occupation, and still requires a legitimate resolution. Imran Khan and the Pakistan government were really tough on calling Prime Minister Modi a fascist, et cetera, et cetera, and that hasn’t really helped unfortunately. But having said that, the US has been nudging both countries. A lot of back channel diplomacy has US support and I think the US has a very important role to play in this. The problem is that the Indians think that it’s a bilateral relationship and no other country should be meddling in this relationship. If you remember even when President Obama was campaigning for his first term, he said that the road to peace in South Asia lies through Kashmir, that was his famous sentence.
But then when President Obama came into power, he also realized how difficult the structural and other factors were in securing some kind of peace in this region. So I think that it is, again, a very tricky balancing act of the US, and the US has been trying to do that, to give some credit to the US successive administrations. But it is still a major insight to Pakistan. I mean, since it’s inception, again, things… Whenever you talk about Pakistan, one has to revert to the historical roots of these issues. Since Pakistan’s creation, there has been this element of insecurity vis-à-vis India, and a lot of Pakistan’s foreign policy, domestic politics, its military buildup, even its nuclear program has all been responses to that continued perennial state of insecurity. I guess that we would have to… US would need to rethink that particular dimension and as before, needs to organize and engage with both countries in the way. As regards to China, I really don’t know. I mean, I think what happens in Washington DC due to the protracted Cold War hangover, post-Cold War hangover, everything is seen as if there’s a new Cold War on the horizon. But the economic realities, the global realities are majorly different than what we saw during Cold War.
I mean China is no longer that hardcore ideological adversary. I mean, China has gone capitalist itself. So it’s more of the trade wars that we’ve seen and the continued quest for economic dominance that we are practicing now. So what shape would it take in the coming years? I really don’t know. I am an optimist. I don’t think it’ll go to the extent of the Cold War, but yes, it is something… It’s a big question for both India and Pakistan and for the US to consider when you are tackling South Asia. And one last thing I would like to add, you can see how both India and Pakistan and even Bangladesh responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where they have been hesitant to call out Russia and boycott or whatever, impose sanctions, despite the fact that both countries, that Indians are firmly in the US camp and Pakistan has always been a wannabe US camp member, they have hesitated to outrightly go against Russia. That’s just a little hint I’m throwing in.
NH: Thank you very much, Raza, for that detailed explanation on a potential policy path forward for the United States as it engages in South Asia and tries to manage strategic competition with China.
RR: I would like to just make a final parting note, if I may call it that, which is basically that I think given what is happening within Pakistan currently, I think both the economic and the political crises are feeding off each other and have become intertwined. So at this stage, what would perhaps be in the interest of the global community and in particular, the US as well, that Pakistan’s economic stabilization process, where the International Monetary Fund is playing a leading role should be backed by the US. Of course, Pakistan should not be given a free pass all the time that it can not undertake no reforms and yet there’s assistance available always. But I think at this critical juncture, we saw what has happened in Sri Lanka when it defaulted and all the turmoil, which is continuing. And I think that situation has to be avoided for Pakistan because it won’t be good for the country, for the region. And by extension, for the global communities.
NH: Mohammad Ali, I want to turn to you now. What do you think Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges are? Which ones are most pressing? And how can the US help Pakistan?
MA: Nick, besides trying to become a geo-economic power, which in itself is a lofty goal that Pakistan has recently articulated and been trying to aspire to, Pakistan faces several other more traditional foreign policy challenges, which linger. Foremost amongst them is managing its rivalry with India, then the emergent frailties within Afghanistan, neighboring Afghanistan. And then also trying to repair its fraught relationship with the US and other Western countries, while at the same time trying to balance its relations with China and the US in the context of the unfolding great game, if you will, new great game or great power competition in South Asia. And Pakistan needs to be humble in terms of what it can ask of a world power like the US, especially now that the US has pulled out of Afghanistan. Grandiose aspirations, like facilitating rapprochement between China and the US are farfetched and irrelevant aspirations actually, given the current geopolitical scenario.
However, Pakistan can convince the US that its relationship with China is not a zero sum game. If Pakistan can manage to put its relationship with the US back on track, that would in fact, also help it avert increased dependency on China. Pakistan also needs to be open. And I mean, it takes two hands to clap, but Pakistan should at least be ready to be willing to jointly address some of the urgent emergent human security threats, right? Be it future pandemics and the inevitable multifaceted threats of climate change, especially in terms of addressing them in a more cooperative manner with a hostile neighbor like India, with which it shares trans-border natural resources like water coming out of the Himalayas and given the Himalayan glacier melt. I mean, rather than water becoming another bone of contention between India and Pakistan, with climate change, it could offer a prospect for environmental diplomacy. But that will require both countries to think out the box, right? To think of security beyond this traditional conventional militarized approach.
Now, when it comes to the US itself, I think America also needs to rethink its relationship with Pakistan. Despite lofty rhetoric, nation states, we realize, invariably pursue their own interest, and this is the way our imperfect world works. Yet there are many issues which serve the mutual interests of both Pakistan and the US. What the US and Pakistan need to do is create a right-sized bilateral relationship, which is less likely to trigger disappointment on either side. The US needs to avert isolating Pakistan, which will make its feared dependence on China a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US also needs to be sensitive to Pakistan’s regional insecurities, and it should not bolster Indian capabilities against China in ways which undermine Pakistan’s insecurities or further escalates the ongoing arms race in South Asia. The US also needs to have an evenhanded approach. When it speaks about freedom of expression or religious intolerance in India and Pakistan, India being described as the largest democracy in the world, despite the evident ethnonationalism of the Modi government, undermines American credibility within Pakistan.
Pakistan remains a country of particular concern in terms of religious freedom, but the State Department has been reluctant to categorize India as a similarly problematic country, despite recommendations made by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which itself is a government entity. The US generally has increasing the uphill task, proving its credentials to act as a champion of democracy and human rights globally, given its own domestic challenges. And it has certainly lost much credibility within countries like Pakistan. Pakistan, in fact, used to think of the US as a neutral arbitrator, which had enabled the US in the past to play a significant conflict management role in the Indian subcontinent. However, America no longer enjoys this neutral status, which used to, in the past, enable it to referee major crises in the subcontinent and avert them from spinning out of control. This is not good news for South Asia and for, of course, the rest of the world. And these are issues that the US, whether it likes it or not, will have to continue engaging with as being one of the foremost or perhaps the foremost power in the world.
NH: Thank you, Mohammad Ali and Raza for an excellent discussion on Pakistan’s tumultuous politics and what those politics mean for stability on the Indian subcontinent and the US-Pakistani relationship as we get deeper into an era of strategic competition between the United States and China. Thank all of you for joining us today. And we here, at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, will continue our deep dive studies on events on the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, and the broader geopolitics that affect all of us. All the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.