In the face of mounting pressure from the U.S. over Afghanistan, Islamabad has been quietly sending feelers out to Turkey and other nations in a bid to counter Washington’s apparent new approach.
According to a senior Pakistani Foreign Ministry official, approaches have been made to Turkey, Russia, China and Iran to widen support for Pakistan following the Trump administration’s more confrontational approach.
Last month, Trump announced a new phase in the 16-year campaign in Afghanistan, which, while short on detail, pledged further U.S. military involvement against the Taliban.
He also criticized Pakistan for providing “safe havens for terrorist organizations” and called on Pakistan’s regional rival India to become further involved in Afghanistan.
The apparent switch from Pakistan, a long-standing U.S. ally, to India led to the cancellation of three high-level meetings with U.S. officials by Islamabad and the passing of a resolution in parliament criticizing Washington's new policy as hostile and threatening.
“The so-called U.S. strategy for south Asia, which seeks a bigger Indian role in Afghanistan, has left us with no other option but to look for a new regional alignment to counter it,” the Foreign Ministry official told Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media.
“Pakistan is in contact with Russia, China, Iran and Turkey to counter this strategy, as it is not only against Islamabad but also against the interests of the four regional powers.”
The official cited recent statements in support of Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts by the Chinese and Russians as evidence that Islamabad was winning support elsewhere.
Initial contacts had been made, the official said, and Pakistan had received “positive signals from their leadership”.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif is due to visit China on Sept. 8, followed by trips to Moscow, Tehran and Ankara in mid-month, ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria confirmed.
The U.S. call for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan has stoked Pakistani fears that New Delhi could use the opportunity to stir unrest in its tribal areas and mineral-rich Balochistan province, which is also a gateway to the $51 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
- New regional alignment
Trump policy switch has also seen Washington attach further conditions to a $255 million military aid package, namely doing more to eliminate terrorism on its soil.
Washington claims to have provided around $33 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2002 -- a claim rejected by Islamabad. Laurel Miller, a former U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told The New York Times newspaper last week that the amount was much less.
Some local analysts foresee new political and strategic alignments in the region following the new U.S. strategy and Pakistan’s “rare” reaction.
In particular, improved economic ties to China and increased diplomatic and military exchanges with Moscow could favor Pakistan.
“If Trump had announced this policy [a few years ago], which according to my opinion, is an arm-twisting tactic rather than an actual strategy, it would have worked,” Jabbar Khattak, a Karachi-based political analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
“But some recent developments, including increasing economic stakes of China in Pakistan in the form of the CPEC, and improving military ties with a previously hostile Russia, have completely changed the regional dynamic.”
As well as improved links to other regional powers, Islamabad also controls many of the supply routes into Afghanistan that would be needed to support the renewed U.S. campaign.
“A surge in troops means a surge in supplies,” Khattak said. “There’s no other suitable supply route to Afghanistan except Pakistan.
“Pakistan is playing its cards wisely, keeping its importance with regard to Afghanistan and recent regional developments in view.
“That's why its reaction to the proposed U.S. strategy was harsh and somehow unexpected for not only Washington but for many in Islamabad as well.
“Washington wasn’t expecting this reaction because of the poor track record of Islamabad. Trump was expecting Islamabad to bow to his threats, as it did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“But he forgot that things have changed, and there is no longer a unipolar world.”
- China's role
Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, predicted a greater role for Beijing in Afghanistan.
“China, I believe, will be calling the shots vis-a-vis Afghanistan in the near future as peace in the war-torn country is essential for its multi-billion-dollar one road-one belt project,” he said.
Trump’s strategy, which seeks a broader Indian role in Afghanistan, might push Pakistan into China’s camp, Mohmand added.
Dismissing Trump's strategy as “old wine in new bottles”, he said such threats were nothing new to Islamabad.
“The U.S. has been using its stick-and-carrot policy for Pakistan since 2002,” the former diplomat, who served in Kabul from 2002-2005, told Anadolu Agency.
“There is nothing new in the new policy except the rude way it was explained. It doesn't make sense that when over 100,000 foreign troops couldn’t contain the insurgency in Afghanistan, how would these 4,000 additional troops accomplish this task?”
Mohmand also railed against the widely held opinion that Pakistan held any sway over the Afghan Taliban.
“This is a misimpression. The Afghan Taliban don’t trust Islamabad anymore because they think that it can shift its loyalties under pressure and can’t stand up to America.
“Whereas, they will be comfortable dealing with China, which not only has huge stakes in the region but also has the potential and capability to stand up to the U.S.”
Washington, Mohmand claimed, is fully aware of this view but has urged Pakistan to deal with the Haqqani terrorist network, which operates separately from the Taliban and is said to have ties to Pakistan’s security establishment.
“This, too, is blown out of proportion,” Mohmand said. “Have U.S. forces ever caught or killed a group of the Haqqani network or Taliban members while crossing in or to Afghanistan?
“The answer is no, otherwise the U.S. or the Afghan government would have presented them before the world media.”
By Aamir Latif in Karachi