For Pakistan to triumph over its internal security crises, improving ties with key regional players is a must.
The last decade in South and Central Asia has demonstrated dramatic ebbs and flows in bilateral and trilateral relations. When unpredictability becomes the new normal, leadership is forced to confront each development no longer in isolation, but in relation to largely held principles. A reflective recalibration is thus needed to define those very principles and diplomatically map out the desired endgame.
The calculus of transformational change is very much in process, with varying degrees of success. Pakistan and Afghanistan are working to reboot relations, and the thaw seems to be genuine. President Ashraf Ghani has put considerable political capital on improved ties with Pakistan, and has demonstrated his commitment by calling for the sharing of intelligence matters, accepting the long-standing offer to send Afghan cadets to train in Pakistan, suspending a request for weapons from India, and hosting Pakistani’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. Pakistan has banned the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, which has carried out countless high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, and has pledged to do what it can to crack down on cross-border terror activity. These efforts at finding convergence appear to show two capitals at a crossroads. President Ghani faces particular pressure to show results of this practical orient to his policy vis-à-vis Pakistan, which starkly differs from that of his predecessor. The longevity of this trajectory depends on the results he can procure with a helpful Pakistan.
Pakistan and India, meanwhile, have not made much progress on a whole host of outstanding issues, including Kashmir. After a shaky three years of trying to smooth ties, dialogue is all but suspended. While the Indian government has just approved a cricket series between the two countries, a resumption of bilateral dialogue is nowhere in sight. In offering condolences to the horrific attack on May 11 that killed 44 Ismaili Shias on a bus in Karachi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognizes the distressing security situation Pakistan has to contend with, for which it has lost countless lives and untold promise. Islamabad needs a New Delhi that can recalibrate the equation and move forward, not one that weakens the overall stability of the region. This persisting stalemate threatens any real chance of critically needed bilateral talks, specifically with regard to economic cooperation, never mind the fact that high tensions between these two nuclear powers are always worrying and should be de-escalated.
Navigating the immediate region is a full foreign policy docket on its own, yet Pakistan also finds itself being pulled into Gulf conflicts. In creating its coalition to go into Yemen and defeat the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia expected the manpower and resources of the Pakistani army to join. Any decision to take sides in the Yemen conflict will have disastrous consequences for Pakistan, a reality its lawmakers were keenly aware of when they passed the resolution committing to neutrality. This decision, rooted in Pakistan’s democratic system, drew an angry response from the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the UAE Defense Minister saying Pakistan would “pay a heavy price” for this decision. This level of strong-arming is not helpful. Pakistan’s foreign policy hands have to do a better job of articulating the country’s reasons for staying out of the wider regional power game, and its allies are going to have to acknowledge the Pakistani situation, the concerns Islamabad has within its own neighborhood before calling it into a far-off and complex theatre, potentially bogging Pakistan down in the “Salman Doctrine” – that is, countering any unrest in Arab states that threaten the status quo of allied Arab leaders.