Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)
The impending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has seen increased efforts being made by Russia and China to gain influence in the region. As a part of their strategy to secure its interests in Central Asia, Russia has been attempting to foster a relationship with Pakistan.
Although, the first visit by any Russian president to Pakistan seems to have been shelved for the time being, the upturn in Russia-Pakistan ties from next-to-nothing is one of the more remarkable shifts playing out in South Asia since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the relationship between India and Russia continues to remain strong, largely underpinned by enduring military sales to New Delhi. Beginning 2008, Zardari met Putin’s predecessor Dmitry Medvedev six times on the margins of regional and global conferences culminating in a state visit in May 2011.
One of the early calls that Vladimir Putin took following his expected victory in the Russian presidential election last weekend was from Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He congratulated Putin on his success and invited him to visit Islamabad in September which the Russian leader accepted, according to newspaper reports citing an official statement.
Back in 2008, even before Barack Obama was elected, Washington pundits were urging him to adopt a new regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan involving Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia and even Iran. The basic argument was that more troops alone would not solve the problems, and that the new U.S administration needed to subsume other foreign policy goals to the interests of winning a regional consensus on stabilising Afghanistan.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans to build a missile-shield in eastern Europe was motivated purely — or even primarily — by a need to seek Russian help in Afghanistan. But it certainly serves as a powerful reminder about how far that need to seek a “grand bargain” on Afghanistan may be reshaping and influencing policy decisions around the world.
When President Barack Obama unveiled his plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March, he promised to involve other countries with a stake in the region, including the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. But a major sticking point in enlisting regional support has been distrust over the United States’ long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Washington has never been able to shake off suspicions that it is using its battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda to establish a permanent military presence in the region.
In that context, Obama’s statement during his speech in Cairo that the United States is not seeking to set up permanent military bases in Afghanistan is rather interesting:
According to George Friedman from the Stratfor intelligence group the United States should forget the idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan and concentrate instead on covert operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
As has become increasingly clear, the administration of President Barack Obama faces a hard time raising its troop presence in Afghanistan without either relying on precarious supply lines through Pakistan or making political compromises with Russia to win its support for using alternative routes through Central Asia.
U.S. efforts to improve supplies for its troops in Afghanistan just had a double setback after militants in northwest Pakistan severed the main supply route for western forces and Kyrgyzstan’s president said the United States must close its military base there.
Militants blew up a bridge on the Khyber Pass, cutting the supply route to western forces in Afghanistan and underscoring the need for the United States to seek alternative supply lines. The U.S. military sends 75 percent of supplies for the Afghan war through Pakistan but has been looking at using other transit routes through Central Asia. Although Washington has been sketchy on the details of its plans, its Manas military airbase near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has so far provided important logistical support for its operations in Afghanistan. During a visit to Moscow, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the base, opened after the 9/11 attacks. Bakiyev made the announcement after securing a $2 billion loan and a further $150 million in aid from Russia.
Keeping track of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan — and the shifting alliances between them — is beginning to feel awfully like one of those school history lessons when you were supposed to understand the complex and tenuous balance of power whose breakdown led to World War One.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the latest to call for a regional solution to Afghanistan when he said this week that the United States and its NATO allies must directly engage with Iran if they are to win the war there. “If we are going to succeed in this game, we need to be playing on the right field,” he said. “And that means a more regional approach. To my mind we need a discussion that brings in all the relevant regional players: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, yes, Iran.”
Central Asia is much in demand these days, whether as a transit route for U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan or for its rich resources, including oil and gas.
So it’s worth noting that India has been hosting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as its guest of honour at its Republic Day celebrations while signing a bunch of trade deals in the process. According to reports in the Indian media, including in the Business Standard, the Week and the Times of India, India is seeking supplies of uranium for its nuclear plants and access to Kazakhstan’s oil and gas and in return would be expected to support Kakazhstan’s bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation. (India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) said on Saturday it had signed a deal to explore for oil and gas in Kazakhstan.)
According to the Washington Post, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sees opportunities for the United States to cooperate with Russia on Afghanistan. The newspaper says Gates, a longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment. ”Russia is very worried about the drugs coming out of Afghanistan and has been supportive in terms of providing alternative routes for Europeans in particular to get equipment and supplies into Afghanistan,” it quoted him as saying.
The story is interesting in the context of the United States searching for new supply lines through Central Asia into Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan before it sends in thousands more troops. “The plan to open new paths through Central Asia reflects an American-led effort to seek out a more reliable alternative to the route from Pakistan through the strategic Khyber Pass,” the New York Times said.
India is piling on the diplomatic pressure to convince the international community to lean on Pakistan to crack down on Islamist militants blamed by New Delhi for the Mumbai attacks.
According to the Times of India, “India has made it clear to the U.S. and Iran as well as Pakistan’s key allies, China and Saudi Arabia, that they need to do more to use their clout to pressure Pakistan into acting…” The Press Trust of India (PTI), quoted by The Hindu, said India had used a visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Delhi to drive home the same message.