Pakistan And The New Great Game
Trump is unlikely to take Modi to task over Kashmir. Not least because the new union territory of Ladakh offers an alternative gateway to Central Asia and beyond, writes Miranda Husain.
Poor Immy. A worse man would have just back-foot-and-shot that un-quiet American. For being audacious enough to steal the show even before he had touched down in New York; on a certain murderous Crown Prince’s plane, no less. And, now, just when he should be the belle of the ball — Kaptaan risks turning into a pumpkin.
Pakistan’s prime minister, as everyone and their cat knows, had anticipated using the General Assembly powwow to showcase his country’s role in securing Afghan peace and, in turn, the US exit strategy from the other side of the Durand Line. All the better to paint India’s Modi as the mother of all scallywags and garner support for the Kashmir cause. Yet that was before Donald Trump tweeted about unilaterally pulling the plug on talks with the Taliban. That Islamabad only found out about this via the newspapers may say something about the prowess of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) social media team. As well as the supreme breach of diplomatic etiquette between allies.
Thus as things currently stand, Imran Khan is left with little option but to urge Trump Town not to forsake the region. And he did just that in his presser on the sidelines of the UN where called on Washington to rethink sealing the deal with its erstwhile nemeses. Moreover, he found the gumption to not unfairly accuse the world powers of turning a blind eye to Kashmiri suffering; placing trade opportunities over human rights. Until now, the response hasn’t extended beyond the repeated presidential offer of Indo-Pak mediation. Though it currently appears that this may be conditional upon Islamabad interceding on Iran.
So far, so good. Sort of.
Except that what is in the American interest is not necessarily to Pakistan’s benefit. Especially when the US insists on viewing the neighbourhood exclusively through the CPEC prism. Which may or may not explain why Trump scuppered the Taliban accord at the eleventh hour. Add to this the fact that the US National Defence Strategy 2018, the first in a decade, identifies “growing threats” from “revisionist powers” China and Russia as overshadowing those posed by terrorist outfits.
An Afghanistan at peace with itself and others is largely dependent on ending the foreign occupation; possibly including surrendering military bases. Were this to happen, Washington would lose its foothold in resource-rich Central Asia. Not to mention posturing capabilities against Tehran. Yet for all his contrived swagger, it seems that the most powerful man in the world is leaving nothing to non-strategic chance. Indeed, Erik Prince — of Blackwater infamy and, by his own admission, an informal adviser to Trump — is re-floating the idea of privatising the Afghan war. Thereby allowing the “stable genius” to come good on his pre-election pledge of extricating the US from the quagmire of its own making while maintaining regional influence. The good news is that Kabul is refusing to play ball.
But no one puts Trump in a corner. Naturally.
As is highlighted by his refusal to talk tough to the leader of the world’s largest democracy over his unilateral annexation of held Kashmir and the subsequent creation of two new home territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The latter, a mere 20 kilometres from Tajikistan, is well poised to become a gateway to Central Asia — home to oil, gas and uranium reserves — South Asia, China and the Middle East. CPEC undoubtedly enjoys the shame regional connectivity; especially with Saudi Arabia joining the project with a commitment to building a $10-billion oil refinery at Gwadar Port. But this is of no import to the US, which sees the Corridor as a direct challenge to its waning hegemony.
The objective, therefore, is to use India as an alternative route to secure access to these areas; particularly if Afghanistan proves an unreliable launchpad given the power struggle between the Taliban and ISIS in the eastern parts of the country. Thus, when seen through American eyes, Iran’s decision to export gas to China via Pakistan and the so-called Peace Pipeline is anything but cricket. Speculation is mounting that increased sanctions are aimed at decimating the Iranian economy to the point of regime change from within. As an additional safeguard, White House voices are upping the ante for this to be done militarily by claiming that Tehran — not the Houthis of Yemen — struck Saudi oil facilities. Regardless of whether true or not, the last thing the region needs is another US-backed war. And Washington can hardly afford one. Hence the overture to Pakistan on the Iranian front may be seen as a cost-cutting exercise. Or else, a bid to control the logistics of how the world’s largest gas reserves reach the broader neighbourhood.
If India is to make its own inroads into Central Asia and take advantage of energy connectivity, overland access will have pass through China’s Xinjiang province. Where more than one million Uighur Muslims are being effectively and arbitrarily held in re-educations centres — concentration camps by another name — and are coerced into renouncing Islamic tenets in favour of Communist Party diktats. In addition, Uighur women have gone on the record for BBC documentary China: A New World Order, to confirm that during incarnation they were injected with or made to drink an unknown substance that severely disrupted menstrual cycles. This is ethnic cleansing. Pure and simple. But still not enough to put off Mr Prince, who pocketed a staggering $1 billon from the GWOT. His new venture, Frontier Services Group (FSG), a Hong Kong-based security and logistics firm, is reportedly setting up a security training centre in Xinjiang. And while he denies this, it does suggest a commonality of interests between the US and Beijing on this front. Or at least a carrot with an equally large stick.
That being said, Washington is too smart to rule out the possibility of an expanded insurgency in the autonomous region in the face of ongoing Chinese state brutality. And while analysts have long pointed to American designs in exporting the chaos in Afghanistan to Beijing via Xinjiang, unrest there, coupled with the growing international spotlight on human rights violations play to the US advantage in the short-term. Especially given the current trade war between the two economic giants. Thereby repositioning Ladakh as a viable and secure alternative trade route to Central Asia and beyond. With the added bonus of discrediting the status of Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Pakistan and thus the entire CPEC project which runs through the territory. It is possible that a forward-looking Trump will not be averse to digging deep to develop Ladakh; believing the juice to be well worth the squeeze.
All of which means that Imran Khan has his work cut out in delivering the right message to the UN later this week. He will, of course, continue to unequivocally highlight Indian rights abuses as well as recent extra-judicial manoeuvres in Kashmir. But this will be insufficient if, that is, the Prime Minister truly means business. For human rights can never be a pick ‘n’ mix affair. Yet Kaptaan continues to enjoy travel perks and cash bailouts at the hands of a bloodthirsty regime in Riyadh — known for locking up and torturing feminists and fatally cutting journalists down-to-size — as well as waging war on one of the world’s poorest nations: Yemen. And as long as he keeps shtum on these and other Saudi and Chinese atrocities — he unwittingly opens himself up to the same criticism he levels at the world powers over their silence on Kashmir.
Elsewhere, too, the PM needs to stand resolute. This means linking any requests for mediation on Iran to a final peace deal in Afghanistan. For the US has acted recklessly here; changing the rules of the great game whilst calling on Pakistan to secure its exit from Kabul. Thus severely undermining any leverage Islamabad might have had with the Taliban. While reminding everyone — man, woman and cat alike — that Washington is a dishonest broker for peace. Something that the Iranians know a thing or two about after Trump sashayed away from the multilateral nuclear accord. Though Tehran has now indicated that it might be willing to revisit the pact if sanctions are lifted.
One thing is clear. American geo-strategic ambitions in this region are becoming more entrenched; not less. But it is not Pakistan’s job to deliver these. Rather, the country must independently prioritise its own interests; security and economic. All the while spotlighting human rights abuses committed by both friends and foes; at home and abroad.