SOON after coming into power, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, an apparent hawk on Pak-US affairs, spoke about a ‘re-set’ of Pak-US relations in the backdrop of Secretary Pompeo’s brief courtesy call on PM Khan. He was shrugged off and most serious policy circles especially in Pakistan considered it another gaffe by a gaffe-prone new government. One, because Secretary Pompeo was not there in Islamabad to take up a loaded agenda like a ‘re-set’ and two, the optics of even that courtesy call were not all that great. He was not offered any extra warmth that previous secretaries over the years were accorded.
But now it seems that there was at least some partial truth to what Qureshi was talking about. There are unmistakeable signs, however faint, that Pakistan military and its civilian dispensation have decided to address the concerns of world community, perhaps realising that this was the Hobson’s choice. Fortunately or otherwise Pakistan happens to have a geography that offers her immense economic opportunities and at the same time puts the country into crosshair of converging regional and geo-political conflicts. Here is the classic case of challenges waiting to be converted into opportunities. It means that Pakistan can be only guarantor of peace and stability on its eastern, western and south-western borders. If it opts, it can keep the borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran hot forever pursuing unrealistic, dangerous and catastrophic ambitions or it can play the role of a peaceful corridor of trade from India to central Asia and from China to Europe in coordination with Afghanistan. However, for far too long the country’s military decided to pick option one. They set themselves childish geo-strategic targets in a bid to upend the balance of power in the region vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan.
The world played along with these childish pursuits when it suited them and when the game was over and the child wanted to play on, it received a sharp slap. The child is being told in no uncertain manner that the game is long over and now it’s time to get back to normal routine of the day. The child of course threw tantrum and threatened to break the set furniture pieces but the adults in the room soon made him see the reality. Thus the signs of a policy shift.
Now the biggest question is haven’t we seen this behaviour before. How many times the promises were made and broken and how many times the child played deceptive thinking he was hoodwinking the adults. But this time round the probability is the child is clearly told that either he behaves and acts good fast or he is thrown out of the shelter house losing the safety net. The child still resisted weighing option of takin g shelter at a friend’s house. He asked too but the friend was kind of not as warm to the idea as the child thought he would be. Rather he was told bluntly that it was better to mend fences with adults at the house and his other neighbours who have turned hostile due to his behaviour over the years. So, realising it is a dangerous and unpredictable world out there, the child is grudgingly trudging towards home.
Then there is another problem. The child has an inner demon who basically controlled and benefited from this bad behaviour. That demon is still holding sway at the thought-process. It tells him that after all the old days were lot better when he enjoyed immense independence and impunity. He could take what he wanted and eat what he wanted through money he used to steal from home and sometimes from the neighbourhood. Now living in a certain discipline and shedding old habits seems hell of a deal. But the option two is unthinkable when the food will have to be earned and new shelter will have to be built and that too without anyone willing to lend a hand.
Leaving aside the world of fantasy let’s have a look at what are the tell-tale signs that indicate that Pakistani military is ready to play by the rules and according to the rules that define the regional and international order.
a) It’s all quiet on eastern front: the jingoistic statements from Islamabad against India and on Kashmir have decreased considerably and there are unconfirmed reports that Pakistan has conveyed its willingness to talk trade with India. The real framework could be part of comprehensive dialogue that both Delhi and Islamabad want to take up once new government in Delhi takes over this summer. This time if there are trade talks expect them as solid ones.
b) There are fewer reported LoC incursions from Pakistani side and retaliatory fires from Indian artillery. However these are very very early days.
c) Though Sushma Swaraj and Qureshi didn’t meet at UNGA New York but they didn’t have to. There are no formal talks going on.
d) On western front, the signs are even clearer. Pakistan released Mullah Ghani Bradar, Taliban deputy chief to be part of negotiations with the US reps and followed it by releasing two more Taliban stalwarts Samad Sani and Salahuddin to facilitate the round of talks Zalmay Khalilzad is conducting now
e) There are signs of sticking to old Afghan policy of fuelling the insurgency as we saw lately when Nangarhar police chief was killed in Taliban attack. But this could be understood in the context of factionalism within Pakistani security agencies and factionalism within Taliban.
f) It also clearly shows that this Bajwa-Imran dispensation needs time to sort things out at home
g) As far as Beijing is concerned Pakistan must have realised by now that its security grip which is already being challenged in tribal west is also being challenged in northern belt of Gilgit-Baltistan that borders China. The announced construction of Diamir-Bhasha dam and rallying the nation behind it can be explained as an attempt to regain sovereignty on the territory.
h) Emphasis on human capital projects in the CPEC defines new priorities which are different than the older ones of having a strategic partnership with China by awarding Gwadar port and adjoining belt
All the above signs could turn into a policy shift if the most important part of the equation is resolved. And that is how sincere and serious the Pakistani military is to pursue peace and bring prosperity and stability to the country and the region. No one knows the answer. Partly because there are internal strifes that had to be sorted out completely to pursue a unified policy. And even this biggest ‘if’ is sorted out, can they sustain this policy in the face of constant internal conflicts? We’ll have to wait and watch. And it seems that it won’t be a long wait because it’s the work in progress. – Ends