The roller coaster ride of US Pak relations seems to be following a new trajectory, with positive signals emanating from Pentagon and US State department. As reported by Dawn as well as American press, two key US officials Defence Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen Joseph Dunford will visit Pakistan soon for seeking Islamabad’s cooperation in war against the Taliban. Gen Dunford is expected early next week while Secretary Mattis will arrive in the first week of December, exact dates of their visit could not be disclosed for security reasons. The expected arrival of James Mattis and Dunford in coming weeks would allow Pakistan to not only clarify her position on thorny issues of Afghanistan and Indo Pak tensions, but also enhance the recently found cordiality to a new level.

But before venturing into the matrix of US Pak relations, it may be important to review the geostrategic environment in the region and its immediate neighbourhood.

As the Middle Eastern quagmire becomes thicker and instability touches a new high; simmering sectarian fault line across the Persian Gulf are now becoming visible flames.

The Russo Iranian alliance has pushed ISIS out of Levant and KSA’s southern flank in Yemen stands exposed. Qatar-Saudi feud brought in Turkish influence into the equation and US allies in the region appear to have been outsmarted by Iranian manoeuvres.

The inner front in KSA and ensuing power struggle within the royal family has exposed another fault line in Saudi system; giving more space to US and Israel. The region is ripe for next big thing; a gigantic Persian Arab contest with potential for a catastrophe. President Trump with hawks in State and Defence departments and an open push from Israel could produce a ‘Now or Never’ strategy against Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the other hand; the emerging Eurasian colossus of Russia, China, Iran and Turkey supported by some Central Asian states could make it very hard for US to strangulate Iran. Turkish help to Qatar during her standoff with Saudi regime is a case in point; most probably, this move had tacit support from Russia. For any ‘Now or Never’ strategy, US will have to shape the regional environment before venturing into any military action against Iran and her allies.

It has to isolate Iran by securing alliances within immediate neighbourhood i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Oman, Turkey and fend off any support from Russia and Iranian allies in the region. In non-kinetic domain Iranian inner front has to be destabilized; especially in the Arab, Kurd and Baloch communities targeting Sistan o Balochistan, Ahwaz, Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces

This matrix would also require that KSA remains stabilised and firm and there is no challenge to the emerging crown prince Muhammad Bin Salaman. This would warrant additional military and technical support to KSA. The stakes are too high for all major players in the Gulf region and their foreign sponsors.

Russo-Iranian momentum built up in Syria through defeat of ISIS and her sponsors in the West has given a new sense of confidence to Iran that she can now defeat any US sponsored manoeuvres against her, after all in diplomacy and use of military instrument, freedom of action is the name of the game.

The Duginist school of thought in Russian think tanks led by Alexander Dugin; who want the Transatlantic power of US to be pushed back across Atlantic, think that Persian Arab contest has to be won at all cost to set the rules of new game. No wonder Russian diplomacy in Afghanistan, her bonhomie with Pakistan and even wooing KSA during King Salman’s recent trip to Moscow indicates that future of global power play will be decided in the Persian Gulf.

The United States has recently increased her military presence in Afghanistan and has a total of 14,000 troops on ground, add another 2,000 additional troops from its NATO allies, it could give her some military capability to contest Taliban offensive on one side and create a strategic base on the Western flank of Iran for any new adventure against the Islamic republic.

While US strategy to coerce Taliban to hold peace talks with the Afghan government by through military means, which has already failed in the past may be a compulsion, the deployments are also a signal to Pakistan that US is ready to do her part of do more in Afghanistan, something that Gen Bajwa has highlighted recently. US defence officials are likely to ask Pakistan to take action against Taliban restricting their ability to sally out and strike Afghan and US forces.

On Afghanistan, Pakistan has already made it clear that she has done her part within Pakistan, an effective border management is need of the hour, and Pakistan will take actions against all terrorists within Pakistan and would expect the same from Afghanistan and US allies within Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to emphasize that Afghan soil is not only being used by TTP and JuA but also by terrorist outfits like BLA and BRA, who get their moral and financial support from so called Baloch dissidents and their supporters like Congressmen Ted Poe and Dana Rohrabacher who appear to be more Indians then Americans. Can Trump administration close her eyes to law makers of US congress like Dana Rohrabacher who openly meets or supports terrorists and dissidents like Altaf Hussain and Brahamdagh Bugti?

Pakistan’s place in this entire gambit could be of a balancer with unprecedented strategic weight. Her military capability and demographic potential could tilt the balance in favour of major Gulf players. Taking a cue from Turkey on how she manipulates her military capability and diplomatic weight in the Gulf; Pakistan needs to occupy the centre stage in the region.

Pakistan should weigh her options critically and move on a trajectory which brings peace and stability in the region. While Pakistan has become a whipping boy of the powers that be, and has been found succumbing to international pressure due to internal political instability and challenges related to governance and economy, it must be appreciated that the regional dynamics is ever-changing and Pakistani politicomilitary leadership will have to take some hard decisions to draw maximum benefit out of changing scenario.

While not venturing into the domain of Foreign Office, we have one advice; today all major powers like US, Russia and China need Pakistan more than Pakistan needs their support. With this bottom line, it’s time to take a centre stage in stabilizing the Persian Gulf and West Asia region as all roads to peace and war pass through Pakistan.

The writers are freelance columnists.

The region is ripe for next big thing; a gigantic Persian Arab contest with potential for a catastrophe.