Pakistan is back on the US side of the fence

Pakistan is back on the US side of the fence

imran khan and Shehbaz Sharif.

D.C. PATHAK The April 7 ruling of the Supreme Court of Pakistan delegitimising the Deputy Speaker's action of annulling the No Confidence Motion tabled in the National Assembly by the combined opposition and the dramatic course of events that followed in the House on April 9 culminating in the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan through a midnight voting on that motion and the subsequent election of leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif as the new Prime Minister -- all significantly mark the emergence of a new geopolitical profile of Pakistan. The Deputy Speaker belonging to the ruling party, PTI, had on April 3 lost no time in discarding the No Confidence Motion on the extraordinary ground that it was the manifestation of a foreign conspiracy against Pakistan, and in the legal follow up the five-member bench of the SC unanimously decided that there was no substance to that contention. What is important in all of this is the fact that a steady shift in Pakistan's international relations had been consciously brought about by Imran Khan during his prime ministership. Considering the reality of Imran Khan's installation as Prime Minister having been facilitated by the Pakistan army, it is to be presumed that General Qamar Bajwa was initially inclined towards the Prime Minister in the tussle between the latter and the opposition -- Imran Khan had repeatedly praised the Pak Army while the leaders of the PPP and PML(N) as also Maulana Fazlur Rehman were not particularly admired by the General. When Gen Bajwa and the Pak ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum met Prime Minister Imran Khan at his residence in an informal call in the midst of a fully-blown political crisis on March 30 -- some strategic analysts noted that the Army chief was not wearing his cap while entering the premises -- they evidently conveyed the Army's approach of staying neutral in the political tug of wire facing the Prime Minister. Gen Bajwa subsequently went public in reiterating this stand. It may be mentioned that the reported 'dispute' between Gen Bajwa and the Prime Minister on the appointment of ISI chief was already behind them. At a deeper level what had been happening in Pakistan is that US-Pak relations based on the traditionally close friendship of Pentagon with the Generals commanding the Pak Army, were having to reckon with the growing strategic partnership of the US with India, the assiduous moves of Imran Khan's regime to make 'adjustments' with Islamic radical organisations that considered US-led West as their prime enemy, and the impact of Sino-Pak military alliance that was steadily strengthened by Imran Khan. It is to be noted that the Sino-Pak axis primarily worked against India. It was rooted in the economic pact between the two countries symbolised by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which cut through the territory of POK unauthorisedly ceded by Pakistan to China. Pakistan Army, on the other hand, was a party to Pakistan's offer of mediatory help to the US in arranging peace talks between the US and Taliban at Doha for the purpose of facilitating withdrawal of American troops from a messy battlefield that Afghanistan had been reduced to, and it cannot be denied that in spite of a perception of duplicitous approach of Pakistan towards radical Islamic outfits, a grateful American administration still looked upon the Pak Army as an ally in geo-political terms and trusted it for ensuring that Taliban would not allow Afghan territory to be used for terror activity against the US. Imran Khan was keen to have a strategic link with the Taliban Emirate that had come to power in Afghanistan for a second time -- and also wield an effective influence on it so that he could bring about a rapport between the Kabul regime and the Chinese leadership. While the Sino-Pak alliance was gaining in strength, Prime Minister Imran Khan created a serious wrinkle in Pak-US equilibrium by persistently running down the US led 'war on terror' in Afghanistan and declaring more than once that Pakistan had committed a grave mistake by supporting the US in that combat. Imran Khan is a fundamentalist at heart, his party PTI is rooted in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa -- the home ground of Wahhabi Jehad in historical terms -- and his political thinking was shaped by his belief that the corrupt leaders of the opposition had 'sold out' the country to Americans. He pushed Pakistan deeper into the Chinese camp, upheld the cause of Islamic radicals and secured Chinese support for the Kabul Emirate through a process of 'give and take' in which Pakistan would not encourage any questioning of China's treatment of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Taliban shared a strong antipathy towards the US while Pakistan and China were together in opposing India's action of abolishing Article 370 on Kashmir. The Sino-Pak axis worked against India in Afghanistan and helped Pakistan's objective of retaining 'strategic depth' there. The US under the Joe Biden Presidency did not feel too bothered about Afghanistan after the mission of troop withdrawal from there was achieved, and kept up making only notional appeals to Pakistan to take action against Islamic extremists and radicals. The US policy makers were, however, not unaware of the geopolitical implications of China-Pak collusion that cut against the global American interests. The Pak Army had no problem with Imran Khan's softness towards Jehadis or his siding with China in the growing Cold War-like bipolarity that was setting in between the US and China, so long as its own apple cart with America was not disturbed. Imran Khan caused embarrassment to the Army precisely on that count and it is therefore not surprising that after the March 30 meeting of Gen Bajwa and the ISI head with Imran Khan at the latter's residence, the Army chief clarified that US-Pak relations were as good as ever. Imran Khan was also made to say that he had not named the US as the plotter of the opposition move to oust him, in his address to the nation on March 31. It is possible that Imran Khan, aware of the US antipathy towards his policies -- reflected in the disinclination of Joe Biden to call him after taking over as the US President -- magnified it into an American 'plan' to oust him. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, cognisant of the increasing isolation of Imran Khan, facilitated return to Constitutional normalcy in running the government and avoided doing anything that would create greater instability in the country. As for the Pak Army, its interest was served best when it enjoyed an image of being the nation's saviour against its enemies, did not fall foul of the US and did not have political rulers who would confront it in the name of democracy. Imran Khan, once a favourite of the Army, became recalcitrant towards its chief as the political balance turned against the former. As Pakistan is possibly headed towards another mid-term poll, Imran Khan can be said to have altered its political profile and established new alignments -- which deserve the notice of both the US and India. The rise of radicalism in the Muslim world is seeing a group emerging in parallel to the pro- S Saudi camp in OIC -- comprising Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia -- that would not toe the American line, would look at Islamic radicals with their call for 'revivalism' of the faith of the 'golden period' of Islam with considerable sympathy and would seek geopolitical friendship with countries outside of the US sphere of influence. In his recent speeches, Imran Khan spoke reverentially of the 'Medina model' of state set by the Prophet, called upon the youth of Pakistan to reject any leaders who accepted 'slavery' of other powers, and in his comments on Pakistan's National Security Policy, projected India -- a friend of the US -- as the prime adversary of Pakistan. He gave a new strength to the Sino-Pak axis using it as a rebuttal against both the US and India. What should add to American and Indian concerns is the fact that Pakistan had created a convergence between China and radical forces like Taliban because of their political opposition to the US and had in the process helped to enlarge the geopolitical expanse of China in its endeavour to become the second superpower. In the context of the developments in Ukraine, Imran Khan's visit to Moscow on February 24 for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- with whom Xi Jinping was fully aligned -- was an attempt to enlarge Pakistan's international role not only as a peacekeeper in Afghanistan after the return of the Kabul Emirate, but also in the geopolitical divide that was deepening between the US and its NATO allies on one hand, and the China-Russia grouping on the other. India in any case has to look out for any aggressive acts of Pakistan -- working with or without operational collaboration with China -- on its borders and elsewhere in the days to come. At the same time, Pakistan -- regardless of a regime change there -- would press for talks on Kashmir and also continue speaking up for the issues pertaining to the Muslim minority of India. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's first statement after being sworn in was to allege that 'Kashmir valley was red with the Kashmiris blood', assert that Indo-Pak peace was dependent on a solution to the 'Kashmir dispute' being found and urge Prime Minister Modi to come forth for holding talks. The successor regime in Pakistan may be the beneficiary once again of the US proclivity of making a distinction between 'good terrorists' and 'bad terrorists' as in the past, to draw a line between Islamic radicals and others -- India always found this unacceptable. The Biden administration may go along with all of this adding to the challenge Indian diplomacy would face in handling the interplay of Indo-US and US-Pak relationships. (The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)

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