Using militant groups as proxies to attain foreign policy objectives is not new for Pakistan. It is widely believed Pakistan used militant proxies in the Soviet-Afghan war and Kashmiri struggle in the 1990s. While Pakistan has faced international isolation for its support of militant groups, the problem persists. However, some recent indications suggest Pakistan may be prepared to move away from this policy and take concrete steps towards ending support for these groups. These changes are perhaps the result of evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region, in which Pakistan can no longer expect U.S. forbearance on the issue of support for militant proxies. Likewise, even Pakistan’s budding partnership with China may not shield it from pressure to take strong steps against such groups.
U.S. Criticism of Pakistan and Alternative Partners
In a press conference earlier this month, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, said “a new paradigm” in Pakistan’s foreign policy was emerging. In Asif’s characterization, this new paradigm demands that relations with the United States will be driven by Pakistan’s interests. Several days beforehand, Pakistan also asked U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, to reschedule her to visit to Pakistan.
These actions can be seen as a response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia last month. While the speech acknowledged Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terrorism, it also sharply criticized Pakistan for sheltering organizations that work against the American and NATO-led efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Trump’s words, “we have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.”
Do these indicators signal a true shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy away from the United States? Maybe. However, this is not the first time Pakistan has tried to distance itself from the United States’ policies in South Asia. We have seen such attempts since the Raymond Davis episode, in which a CIA contractor killed two people in Lahore, and the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, both in 2011.
While U.S.-Pakistan relations have suffered numerous blows, relations with Russia and China are becoming increasingly close. In the past year, Pakistan became a full member of the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc, held joint military exercises with Russia, and further opened itself up to Chinese investment via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a multi-billion dollar Chinese trade corridor that could lead to a two percentage point jump in Pakistan’s GDP growth.
The presence of alternative partners may seem attractive to many Pakistanis who view Pakistan’s alignment with the United States as problematic and doing away with the partnership would resolve all of Pakistan’s problems. But Pakistan’s most pressing issue right now is not breaking away from American influence; it is breaking away from a legacy of using militant proxies in light of waning international patience for this damaging policy.
Waning International Support
President Trump’s speech was distinct from previous presidential admonishments of Pakistan’s support for militant groups in that President Trump called these terror groups a threat not just to Afghan stability or U.S. forces, but a threat to “the region and beyond.” While unspoken, this reframing bolsters India’s position that Pakistani support for militant groups has a fundamentally anti-Indian nature. Namely, the problem is not just the Haqqani network or groups operating in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan, but also the organizations that are hostile towards India. At least this is how the Indian government and media interpreted the usage of the term “region and beyond.”
Importantly, however, this disapproval of Pakistan’s support for militant groups is not limited to India and the United States. Similar concerns were also raised in the recently-concluded BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China. In the Xiamen Declaration, the five member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) expressed concern over the activities of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba, both Pakistan-based outfits that are active in India and have carried out high-profile attacks against India. This declaration is significant because it included China, which is normally cautious in condemning these groups. Indeed, it was China who twice vetoed a motion in the United Nations Security Council to list Masood Azhar, the head of JeM, as a designated terrorist.
The BRICS statement indicates China may have had enough. According to diplomatic sources inside Pakistan, China has already communicated to Pakistan its unwillingness to stall another United Nations resolution against these anti-India groups next time around.
As such, the international community is losing patience with Pakistan’s support for militant groups. Recently, there have been indications that Pakistani officials understand the breadth of the challenge. Asif recently explained in an interview that Pakistan needs to put its own house in order by curbing the activities of JeM and LeT. On the other hand, former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, condemned Asif’s remarks and referred to it as the narrative of Pakistan’s enemies. These two conflicting viewpoints from two politicians in the same party expose the divide inside Pakistan. In October 2016, a leaked National Security Council meeting revealed the current Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, informed civilian and military leadership that Pakistan should take action against militant outfits or it will garner international isolation. The incident also highlighted the civil-military divide in Pakistan as military leaders called the leak a “breach of national security” and forced the government to oust several high-ranking information officials.
These political challenges speak to the difficulties of taking action against militant groups. This is Pakistan’s real challenge. The negative consequences of failing to alter its policy of overlooking or supporting some militant groups threatens Pakistan with international isolation and perhaps even targeted strikes from the United States as U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, alluded to in a recent press briefing. As Asif has said regarding Pakistan’s support for militant groups, “we need to break our false image. We have no stake but there is baggage. We need to accept the history and correct ourselves.”
Image 1: GovernmentZA via Flickr.
Image 2: USAID Pakistan via Flickr.