Today, Pakistan is troubled by the obligation of self-diagnosis it simply can’t allow because of the long road it has travelled with wrong policies. Its new army chief seems to have acted with urgency to stop the fallout of these policies but the burden of correction is too big. Adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, says it will trigger a blowback Pakistan can’t afford.
But reaffirming postures that have brought Pakistan to the brink also trigger international isolation. This is what happened last month when Afghan guards on the other side of the Torkham border shot and killed a Pakistani major. Defence Minister Khwaja Asif thought he should fling a warning and show Pakistan is capable of striking back. But when he said the death would be avenged, he mentioned “enemies” who would be punished, not Afghanistan. The word covered Afghanistan, India and — after the Modi visit to the US — America. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry addressing the senate couldn’t resist including the US which was “probably upset over the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project (CPEC)”.
Islamabad journalist Imtiaz Gul caught the reaction of a “Chinese friend” after Chaudhry’s strategic gem, thus: “Is the US really upset? And if it is, do Pakistani officials really need to state this so publicly? Pakistan should have the confidence to stand on its own two feet. Why does it have to present CPEC as a life-jacket?” Clearly meant for internal consumption, the statements described Pakistan making up for regional isolation with bravado.
If Pakistan thinks it can stand behind China and avoid self-correction, it may be mistaken. What bothers President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and all the neighbours are Pakistan-based elements that also bother China. The Chinese contractors working on projects in Pakistan have been murdered in all parts. The isolation, now obvious enough to hurt the common man, can’t be tackled by leaning on China. It is not global strategy that is delivering the new blows to Pakistan’s stability but Pakistan’s internal problems.
The traditional excuse that no one should rebuke Pakistan for internal developments is no longer valid. The Chinese complained about the abduction of their nationals in Islamabad in 2007 by terrorists hiding in Islamabad’s Red Mosque, an al Qaeda watering-hole, but Pakistan was unable to punish the leader of the mosque. Later, the same al Qaeda-backed cleric defied the Pakistan army saying he wouldn’t call its soldiers martyrs to Islam if they fell fighting the Taliban. The same cleric was allowed to become one of the arbiters in Pakistan’s abortive attempt to agree peace with the Taliban.
The truth is many troublemakers in Pakistan postpone coming back into the orbit of state sovereignty because they see the nonstate actors still calling the shots in policymaking. They can do this because the policymakers continue to be scared of being targeted and killed.
Strategy is based on the realities facing the state. It is important to first settle the kind of state one is talking about. Is it a powerful state surrounded by weak states? Is it a mid-level state that can use leverage, if any, to make up for its unequal status? Let’s accept that in all cases the big equaliser will be the national economy and its global connections; which is why strategy has to be decided by its civilian leaders. It becomes particularly relevant if the state is unequal in many respects but has developed a revisionist posture against the status quo. Unfortunately, Pakistan has favoured the identity of a warrior state articulated mostly by nonstate organisations bemused by the state’s reluctance to wage jihad.
What Afghanistan is doing on the Durand Line these days is not an act of hubris on the part of a small state but a measured response of a neighbour sensing aggressive isolationism on the part of Pakistan. If Pakistan is looking for a way out of this predicament it must look closely at China. The rise of China in the world was not hinged on adoption of isolationism but radical rejection of China’s historic introversion through the adoption of free market and economic development.