ussia and the Western powers are embroiled in a conflict that could trigger nuclear war. The Western economies are in the throes of an unprecedented recession and inflation that is hurting people. Saudi Arabia and OPEC are refusing to succumb to American pressure to increase oil output and reduce energy prices. And yet US President Joe Biden finds it opportune to make a devastating remark about Pakistan, seemingly without provocation, describing it as “one of the most dangerous places in the world, nuclear weapons without cohesion”.
President Biden was talking in the context of a changing global situation that warranted dynamic American responses. And Pakistan, as everybody knows, has been in international headlines recently, and not at all for the right reasons. It has gone begging for Western aid to help over 30 million destitute people rendered homeless by unprecedented floods due to climate change. It has been hovering on the brink of financial default for months owing to inexcusable economic mismanagement and pleading with the IMF and the Paris Club to bail it out. But it has also refused to support the Western powers led by the US in censuring Russia at the forum of the United Nations, provoking resentment and anger. And it is still dragging its feet over a key American demand: overflight rights to CIA drones targeting IS and allied terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
If there may have been reasons for Washington’s estrangement, the prickly reaction in Islamabad – pulling out the US Ambassador and slapping a “demarche” on him -- is also understandable. President Biden’s “negative” remark came in the wake of “successful” meetings between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar with their top American counterparts in Washington, and wiped the gloss off them. It also gave a fillip to rampant anti-Americanism in the country when the PDM government and Miltablishment are desperately trying to repair relations with the US soured by Imran Khan and his “regime change” conspiracy theory.
It is, of course, not uncommon for top American leaders to burst out indignantly against Pakistan from time to time. President Donald Trump was inclined to use harsh words about Pakistani “betrayal” and “double-crossing” in Afghanistan as was Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman JCOSC. President Biden refused to say hello to Imran Khan after the latter lauded the Taliban for overthrowing the “yoke of American slavery” and called Osama bin Laden a “martyr”.
At the root of this bickering US-Pakistan relationship lies history. For four decades – 1947-87 – US and Pakistani interests coincided during the Cold War. Pakistan was a member of various US sponsored pacts and alliances against the Soviet Union and received military and economic grants and aid from the US, culminating in US-Pakistan backed Islamic jihad that drove Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in 1987. Then the USSR broke up, the Cold War ended and the Americans did a U-Turn in the 1990s on Pakistan by sanctioning it when it refused to “freeze, cap and roll back its nuclear program”. The ensuing bitterness in Pakistan was reflected in growing anti-Americanism in state and society. But 9/11 provided Pakistan with an opening to transform an American threat (“You are either with us or against us”) into an opportunity to renew relations. In exchange for over USD20b over the next decade or so, Pakistan provided logistical support to NATO against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But this time, unlike in the past, such support wasn’t unequivocal – Pakistan never abandoned its own long term strategic interests with the Taliban in Afghanistan which were sometimes opposed to short term American objectives – and the war dragged on with mounting American casualties, culminating in a Vietnam-type defeat for America last year and provoking bipartisan American cries of “betrayal” by “double-crossing” Pakistan.
During these two decades, Pakistan’s self-interest motivated it to move closer to China even as America was beginning to worry about the economic and political challenge posed to its global hegemony by Beijing and was edging into a strategic partnership with India to counter it. This has now acquired confrontationist proportions between China and America. The war in the Ukraine has pushed Russia and China closer and Pakistan finds itself squeezed in between. Pakistan has inextricable and overwhelming trade and aid links with the West. Nearly 10 million Pakistanis are working in the West and allied Middle Eastern countries, remitting over USD30b every year to prevent the Pakistani economy from sinking. But China has invested nearly USD20b in Pakistan’s economy and the Pakistani military is dependent on it for upgrading and replenishing its hardware. It has also used its veto power in the UN to stop India-sponsored moves backed by the West to sanction Pakistan for sponsoring armed resistance in India-Occupied Kashmir. So, when push comes to shove at any international forum, Pakistan tends to vote with China against America.
Pakistan’s new National Security Policy framework outlined by the Miltablishment stresses geo-economics instead of geo-strategy in the region because Pakistan desperately needs trade and aid to buttress its failing economy and society. The problem with this formulation is that Pakistan’s geo-economics is dependent on America and the West whose geo-strategies Pakistan is unable or unwilling to support. China’s CPEC initiative for regional connectivity is stalled, partly because the gateway to Central Asia – Afghanistan – is highly unstable and Iran is tightly sanctioned by America. The rise of militant Hindu majoritarianism in India that has diminished prospects for conflict-resolution on Kashmir has also blocked avenues for Pakistani connectivity with a growing powerhouse.
Pakistan’s ruling civil-military elite-establishment is caught in a web of contradictions and misplaced concreteness. Externally, its economics is tied to America and its Western allies but its politics is tied to China, making its shift to geo-economics connectivity a non-starter. Internally, its politics is blatantly undemocratic, its divide and rule hybridity creating political instability and economic uncertainty.
Ishaq Dar, the embattled finance minister, admits he is seeking rescheduling of about USD27b in bilateral debt, mostly from China and Western finance institutions. He is also petitioning the international community, mainly the Paris Club, for billions of dollars in grants to defray the loss to the economy from the devastating floods. The dismal state of the economy is reflected in a downgrading of business confidence from B to C by Moody’s Investors Service and a forecast of only 2-3% GDP growth by the World Bank, coupled with a rising yield on Pakistan’s international bonds for 2024 and beyond, that reflect a high risk of financial default.
At 75, Pakistan faces the spectre of internal economic collapse and political instability in an international environment of alienation and isolation, sparking fears about the safety of its nuclear arsenal. Our continuing tragedy lies in making matters worse by destabilizing “long marches” for regime change without policy prescriptions for radical reform of foreign and economic policies that lead to a viable restructuring of state and society.