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US and Pakistani Relations and Impacts in South Asia

Aug. 25, 2017 Senior Analyst Kamran Bokhari walks us through the underlying forces dictating the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship and outlines the different roles and interests of other major stakeholders in South Asia. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this!

Geopolitical Futures Podcast – U.S. and Pakistani Relations and Impacts in South Asia- Aug 25

Allison Fedirka: Good morning, I am senior analyst at Geopolitical Futures Allison Fedirka and I am here with our other senior analyst Kamran Bokhari to talk to you guys today a little bit about the U.S. policy in South Asia. That was a major announcement this past week from the U.S. administration and there’s been a lot of talk about Afghanistan with a notable shout out to Pakistan.

And really what we’d like to do at least in the beginning of this conversation is Kamran, I would be very interested in hearing from you what is Pakistan’s role in this? How does it align with the broader U.S. strategy? We’re constantly hearing about you know Pakistan and Afghanistan being lumped together in this U.S. strategy for South Asia but it kind of stops at well Pakistan harbors terrorists, we don’t want them to do that anymore.

Which seems like a very oversimplification of what’s probably going on there so I was wondering if you could just kind of bring us up to speed on what is actually happening in Pakistan and get into some more detail that is often overlooked when we’re talking U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Kamran Bokhari: Hi Allison, so yeah let me begin by saying that what we’re seeing right now in terms of the escalating tension after President Trump announced his new strategy on Afghanistan is not new. So, the Pakistanis and the Americans have been here before and many times.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this situation was never resolved. It’s something that’s been lingering. It’s an old thing and I remember writing an article with George in 2003 on the title U.S. Pakistan tensions or something like that. Now that was 2003. Now we’re in 2017. So you can see that this is a continuing problem.

So, what’s at the heart of the problem? Well I think that there’s a critical divergence of interests between Washington and Islamabad. And what do I mean by that? From the American point of view, the key objective in Afghanistan is to make sure the forces that we’re responsible for 9/11 do not once again coalesce, do not find safe harbor and the ability to launch trans-national terrorist attacks definitely not at the United States. So that’s the American goal.

Now to achieve that goal, the United States had to go in militarily and topple the Taliban regime. While al-Qaeda, the original organization that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks has pretty much been decimated, degraded over the years through sustained U.S. intelligence and military efforts. The Taliban that are part of the Afghan national fabric have only grown stronger. And the United States finds itself caught in a situation where it wants to bring an end to the longest running war in American history but it does not have the tools to do that.

Now where does Pakistan come into all of this? Well the expectation from the Pakistanis has been well you guys have been allies of the Taliban since the mid-90s. Yes, you joined the effort against jihadists after 9/11. But you’ve sort of had one foot in this camp and one foot in the other camp and we need you to make a clear decision. And that’s not new. What President Trump asked the other day of Pakistan is not new, that’s a demand that goes back to the Bush administration.

So from the Pakistani point of view, they look at it and say ok you the Americans will one day leave Afghanistan either when your mission is accomplished or when you are saying it’s no longer in your interests to be in Afghanistan. We have nowhere to go. We have to live with these Taliban and somehow negotiate with them and live with them because geography matters, we’re next door to Afghanistan and in fact because we joined the war against al-Qaeda and jihadists, that was has spilled over into our own borders. So that’s the Pakistani view. And it’s kind of like frozen where neither the United States can back off from its imperatives and it’s locked in to its constraints and the same is true for the Pakistanis.

AF: So you mentioned this idea of Pakistan’s always going to be next to Afghanistan. You can’t pick it up and relocate it. And it sounds like they have the long game in mind in terms of how they are relating with the United States. What is gonna happen with the U.S forces in Afghanistan in terms of this idea that Pakistan is trying to wait them out, wait for the U.S. to leave either because they’ve lost interest for strategic reasons or perhaps some type of military victory?

Is that end goal of having the U.S. leave the region a possible, is it a viable action that could happen in the next few years? That would actually give Pakistan what’s it looking for or is this something that’s going to continue for another fifteen, twenty years?

KB: It’s not really clear what the goal of the Pakistanis is. It’s not really clear that they actually want the United States to leave. In fact I would go so far as to say that it’s not in the interests of the Pakistanis that the Americans would withdraw all of the sudden and leave a vacuum and force them into try and manage the situation on their own. Or compete and cooperate and/or cooperate with the Iranians, with the Russians, with the Chinese, deal with the Indians. In other words, the Pakistanis while they can’t you know accept the demands of the United States, at the same time they don’t want the United States leaving Afghanistan abruptly either.

So, it’s a very complicated situation and so I don’t think that they’re trying to wait the Americans out. I think that that’s the goal of the Taliban and the reason that I say that is the days when the Pakistanis would tell the Taliban jump and the response would be, sir how high? Those are long gone. And one of the things that happened to the Pakistanis as they joined the coalition against the jihadists after 9/11 and sided with the Americans, even if you know half-heartedly, was that they lost influence over the Taliban.

And the Taliban has evolved over the years into something very different than what it was. It’s much more diffuse as a movement, there’s too many internal factions and it’s no longer a coherent entity. So the Pakistanis actually don’t control the Taliban the way they do. So there’s a Taliban interest in the U.S. leaving as soon as possible, there’s an American interest to wrap up the war as soon as possible and there’s a Pakistani interest that don’t force us to do something that we cannot do but don’t leave us alone either.

AF: Gotcha, that makes sense and it definitely underscores this idea of it being much more complex than saying well we’re gonna leave or we’re gonna stay. You mentioned India and that’s another pairing in South Asia that we hear in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we often hear India and Pakistan paired up with one another in terms of antagonistic relationships. And again, in the speech that Trump gave, he did call on India to be a strong ally with the United States and to assume some responsibility with the region and trying to take on some of the responsibility there.

And it fits with our broader idea of U.S. strategy here at Geopolitical Futures where the U.S. is looking to kind of share the burden regionally with other allies so that way it doesn’t have to be the main party responsible with all the resources for caring out different types of missions especially related to military missions which get very costly very fast. Where are the Pakistan and Indian relations right now? And is what Trump is asking for, where do you see that going? How do you see that playing out in terms of trying to use India in the region along with this complicated relationship with Pakistan that both India and the U.S have for dealing with Afghanistan?

KB: So from an Indian point of view, pressure on Pakistan is a good thing and American pressure on Pakistan is certainly a good thing. Especially now that Pakistan is also tightening its alliance with India’s other rival China. And the Indians have always wanted the Americans to press Pakistan enough such that Pakistan based entities, terrorist entities that attack India and operate on the Indian side in Kashmir, they are brought under control or it allows New Delhi to better manage that threat.

Now, what happens here is a bit of another complication which is that from the American point of view, the Pakistanis should deal with their Western border as a priority. From the Indian point of view since India does not have a border to Afghanistan, India’s interest is that the Pakistanis control their border with them. So there’s a bit of a complicated relationship here.

And so, the way I understood the President’s reference to India, it wasn’t really about India a whole lot. It was actually pinging the Pakistanis, telegraphing them that look if you don’t work with us the way we want you to and we can go to India, we can broaden our relationship with them and I am sure you don’t like that so it’s in your interest to cooperate. So it was a signal to the Pakistanis.

And here again, how is it received in Pakistan? From what I’ve been able to gather, on one hand the Pakistanis are looking at this and saying this is bad and it really brings to light you know their fears of American/Indian alignment against them. That said, the Pakistanis see this as not necessarily as just a threat. It also hardens the position in Islamabad where if you are going to bring the Indians into the equation, then all bets are off.

So we’re getting mixed signals from the Pakistanis right now. On one hand, they are maintaining a hard line and there is an argument to be made that if you bring the Indians in, then that doesn’t do the trick. It doesn’t produce the desired behavioral change in Islamabad. So and then there’s the broader effort of the Indian or at least the Americans wanting the Indians to play a larger role in Afghanistan.

Now that’s difficult for India for a couple reasons at least. One, India doesn’t have a border and even if India did have a border with Afghanistan, why would it get involved in such a messy situation where you know it has more to lose than to gain? So yes, the Indians have been economically helping the Afghan government building infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars but that’s about it. The Indians don’t want to get caught in this quagmire.

And from the Indian side, it’s a difficult balancing act. On one hand, if Pakistan is in trouble because of its western border, that’s a good thing for India. A Pakistan preoccupied with its western border is less likely to support terrorists that attack India. In theory, that works. In practice, it’s difficult to sort of keep that pressure and state of weakness in Pakistan because India doesn’t control it.

And there’s no guarantee that Pakistan will solely be focused on its western border because the way the Pakistanis have placed the conventional forces and their overall strategic focus, the way they distribute that or do a division of labor here is that they never take their eye off the Indian border. So again, we’re talking the Indian angle bringing India into the equation, just adds to the complexity that is Afghanistan.

AF: So adding to another layer of complexity there, we’ve talked about the American relationship with Pakistan and their interest and goals in Afghanistan, the India/Pakistan relationship you’ve also just now mentioned that China is looking to tighten its relationship with Pakistan, where does that stand? How does that fit into this mix?

We’ve seen China and the United States in places like the Philippines becoming a little bit more confrontational in starting a tug of war with strategic countries. Is that something that’s going to start developing here in Pakistan or is that going to play out in a different type of scenario because it’s a fundamentally different region with different interests going on?

KB: The Chinese are looking at Pakistan and specifically the Pakistani disconnect with the United States as leverage for themselves. So they’re dealing with the United States in multiple regions as you just mentioned, the South China sea, there’s North Korea, there is the bilateral trade, there are a lot of levels with which Beijing and Washington could connect and disconnect with each other.

So Pakistan here is a small piece of the puzzle but not trivial. It’s a significant piece of the puzzle, the Chinese know that the Americans are stuck in Afghanistan. They see the Pakistani resistance to American demands as something that’s good for them. Because it creates more problems for the Americans and brings leverage to the Chinese.

Now there are two other aspects here to this and one is directly related to how the Chinese have been dealing with Afghanistan and then how the Chinese have been dealing with Pakistan. So on the first, the Chinese government has a relationship, a very close one with the Afghan government. At the same time, the Chinese have been developing their relationship with the Taliban. It’s not a new relationship, it’s many years old but recently we’ve seen Taliban delegations go to Beijing for peace talks, for negotiations and broader discussions about regional security.

On one hand, China doesn’t want the Taliban to undermine Chinese interests. So for example, the Chinese do not want the Taliban to have any relationship with their own Islamist militants of weaker ethnicity that are active in Xianjing province. On the other hand, from the Chinese point of view the Taliban are a reality and that the Chinese need to factor in terms of their outlook to Afghanistan. So that’s the Chinese view towards Kabul.

Now the Chinese view to Islamabad has come far larger in recent years and the biggest manifestation of that is what is called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also known as CPEC. The Chinese have invested up to about $50 billion dollars in an infrastructure project that is basically revolves around a land corridor that runs from the Pakistani Chinese border all the way through Pakistan towards the southern city of Karachi and you know ends at the Arabian sea.

And then of course the Chinese are also developing the new Pakistani port of Gwadar which also is not too far from Karachi along the same coastline, the southern coastline of Pakistan. And then there’s Chinese investment in developing energy infrastructure that’s been really battered over the years because of the insecurity and the mismanagement and just sort of the overall economic downturn that the Pakistanis have experienced. And so the Chinese now have a very heavy footprint in Pakistan.

And so from the Chinese point of view, this is all good because what it does is that when the United States squeeze the Pakistanis, the Pakistanis can come and tilt towards them. The Chinese and the Pakistanis and the Americans, all three of them know that China is not a substitute for America from the Pakistani point of view. But it’s still something that the Pakistanis can rely on.

And this is what we’re seeing right now in Pakistan is that, there is this if you will gravitation towards China. And the Pakistanis and their resistance to American pressure has a lot to do with the fact that they feel that the Chinese are on their side. In fact, the Chinese have come out in a statement backing Pakistan after the President gave his speech the other day.

AF: So just to clarify something you just said that Pakistan realizes that China is not a perfect substitute for the United States. $50 billion dollars of infrastructure investment is a hefty amount when you consider that they’re not equal substitutes, do you mean in terms of military action in the region of economic support, of ability to influence neighbors in the region? In what ways does China not match up to the United States?

KB: In a number of ways. So first and foremost, the United States is a sole superpower. The United States if it decides to, can create a lot of problems for the Pakistanis. So, the United States has tremendous influences in the World Bank, has tremendous in the I.M.F., two institutions that the Pakistanis consistently do business with. It could become a problem for the Pakistanis to procure loans and aid from those sources. The United States has a lot of weight in the United Nations Security Council. The United States has a lot of influence around the world, in other countries particularly Europe and Britain which is another partner of the Pakistanis.

So if the Americans decide to put the squeeze on Pakistan, the Americans have a lot of tools to do that. The Chinese on the other hand, well they can throw in $50 billion dollars and yes they’re also helping the Pakistanis and working with them jointly on the military front. There’s an aircraft that a few years ago that, a fighter aircraft that the Pakistanis and the Chinese rolled out. But by and large, the Pakistani military relies on American platforms and nothing will change that anytime soon.

So yes there’s a slow tilt towards China and a lot of people inside the Pakistani state who are saying this pressure from the Americans may just be a blessing in disguise because it will force us to not rely so heavily on the United States. Of course, this is a gradual process. But at least we’re going to be put on that road to less and less dependency to try to live without the United States. It’s a hard thing to do and it’s not a convincing argument but nonetheless, that’s sort of the thinking inside the Pakistani civil military elite.

AF: Gotcha. Yeah and definitely something that sounds like something like that would be a longer-term process rather than anything that could be realized in the near-term future. One last question and that is, we’re looking at Afghanistan and where the U.S. stands with Pakistan and that relationship and the U.S. plans for dealing with the security issues in that region, is there anyone else besides the United States at this point that could step in or increase this role or presence in the region to either support the United States or assume some of the responsibility be it an ally of the United States or not? Who in the region can get involved in this conflict either more or start involvement that perhaps isn’t participating as much right now as say the United States?

KB: So two players stand out, so we already talked about the Chinese but in addition to the Chinese, they’re two other players. One is Russia, Russia as you know has historical ties to Afghanistan. During the waning years of the Soviet Union, as over 100,000 Soviet troops were in Afghanistan for 10 years trying to support the Communist government of the time there. And so there’s history there, there’s connections. The Russians have long had relationship with the Taliban, which they’re upgrading or at least appear to be upgrading in recent years. And so, in other words the Russians have several horses in this race. And they can use that in very much the same way that they’re trying to use Syria.

Now I am not saying that the Russians will deploy military assets anytime soon or at all even in Afghanistan, they learned a very bitter lesson back in the 80s. They’re not gonna go there but nonetheless, it’s another tool in the hands of the Kremlin to try and have leverage over the United States in their broader dealings. So that’s the Russians. And then of course along with the Russians, the Russians will operate through the three Central Asian republics that border Afghanistan Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Then there’s the big other power besides Pakistan that has a long border with Afghanistan which is Iran. And in many ways because of ethnic, linguistic, sectarian ties to Afghanistan, Iran has a disproportionate amount of influence in that country. And it used to be that Iranian interests align with those who are    the opponents of the Taliban. But after 9/11 and after the United States, and in fact after the Iranians helped the United States topple the Taliban regime and then Iranian and U.S. relations soured and the competition and cooperation in Iraq, the Iranians begin to develop their own relationship with the Taliban.

So they have their hand on both sides of that conflict. They support the Afghan state. They are very close to many of the warlords, the regional warlords and on top of that, they have their own close relationship with the Taliban. They’re not necessarily the same people who the Chinese are dealing with or the Pakistanis but nonetheless the Iranians have a relationship with the Taliban. And so these are the other two players along with China and Pakistan that is something that the United States has to factor in its calculus. I am pretty sure that they’re already doing that, it’s just that neither Iran nor China nor Russia were mentioned by the President in his speech the other day.

So Afghanistan is a mess. And that mess is getting further messier and there gonna be way too many stakeholders all operating at the same time especially if the United States and my gut tells me that if I understood the President’s speech correctly, what he’s basically saying is that you know one hand people can say that well this is an open-ended commitment and this is not very different from what was happening under Obama or Bush and the United States is not going to leave Afghanistan any time soon.

I think that this administration will likely slowly begin to withdraw, pull out. There’s not going to be one day where we’re going to announce that we’re leaving Afghanistan. But slowly, I think that the United States will find its exit from the country. And when that happens, all these players are going to be forced to do heavy lifting. And to what extent they do that, remains to be seen.

AF: Understood. Sounds like this is not going to be the only time that we will be talking with you to find out the status of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the power players like the U.S. and to a lesser extent Russia, Iran and China in the region. But for now thank you very much for kind of giving us a rundown of what Pakistan reaction has been to the U.S. policy in South Asia and also really doing a great job of outlining the aligning interests, the diverging interests all the different players in the region. Like you said, it is no small task and it is a very complex situation with multiple aspects all interplaying at the same time. So thank you and we’re looking forward to kind of maybe meeting up again here in a few more weeks as we have a better understanding of how things are playing out.

KB: I look forward to it Allison, thank you.

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