The US is here to stay in the SCAR/APR. Its compulsions to do so include occupying the most central position in the region, Afghanistan, thus acquiring unchallengeable strategic reaches into West, South and Central Asia. This position also gives it unprecedented oversight into China’s CPEC/OBOR initiatives as well as into Pakistan and Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Russia’s and CARs drive towards the Arabian Sea, the planned regional North-South and East West trade routes and oil-gas pipelines networks, the fossil fuel riches of the ME/Iran and the CARs, the mineral wealth of Afghanistan and Pakistan (Balochistan) etc. Afghanistan also provides ideal positions for current and future US military bases, intelligence gathering and communication posts, radar stations, missile bases et al.
These geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-strategic realities make the US’ stay in the region an irrevocable and foregone compulsion for it.
US’ presence, its disillusionment with Pakistan and its nomination of India as a strategic partner for the 21st century, Afghanistan’s instability and India’s and terrorism’s imprint therein, China’s ingress and Russia’s renewed interests in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, India’s juggernaut of spies and terrorists foraying into Pakistan from Afghanistan and Iran, etc are defining the geopolitical landscape of the region. Newer alignments and partnerships are gradually crystallizing, morphing into competing albeit mutually exclusive poles and irreversibly polarizing the region. We have the US-India Combine on one side and the China-Pakistan strategic alliance on the other with Russia, Iran and Turkey (CRIPT) inclined towards the latter. Include the CARs with the latter grouping and we literally have the SCO pitched against the US-India Combine. India within the SCO could play The Trojan Horse for the US and the SCO will have to remain mindful of this possibility. However, these developments must force the SCO out of its slumber to acquire meaningful economic and military dimensions in addition to its political one only. It must expand its sphere of influence up to and beyond the Arabian Sea, reach into Africa and Europe and present options other than the US to the countries of the Greater Middle East Region and Africa. Furthermore, as a declared bloc policy the SCO must totally own, participate in, reinforce and protect the CPEC/OBOR initiatives! Such an amalgamation of political, economic and military power has the potential to move the world towards viable multi-polarity again and bring about a modicum of balance in regional and global affairs.
By virtue of its presence in Afghanistan, the US has virtually become a neighbor of Pakistan; which now shares proximities and borders with not one but two global powers- the US and China. It also finds India, an aspiring regional power on its eastern flank which in partnership with the US in Afghanistan is literally encircling Pakistan and by default the CPEC as well. A naval blockade of Gwadar and the Mekran Coast would complete the dragnet being laid out for it. Any threat to the economically vital CPEC will assume existential dimensions for Pakistan and will attract China’s ire as well.
This complex regional environment is now creating fantastic challenges for Pakistan. It will be up to it now to convert these into opportunities and maneuver itself in to a position whereby it not only safe guards its vital national interests but also furthers its relations with China and the US. It must walk the tightrope skillfully balancing its relations with both. The challenge: it must at the least retain its strategic alliance with China, safely shepherd the CPEC/OBOR projects to fruition and keep the war on terror out of its territory without prejudice to its relationship with the US.
Pakistan must also remember that the war on terror and the APR do not define the total relationship between itself and the US. It is a much broader and multidimensional relationship with a very wide frame of reference. Divergences here must not be allowed to affect the overall relationship disproportionately. Both the US and Pakistan must go into damage control and salvage it. Both need one another.
The CPEC is a vital national interest for Pakistan and it will brook no threat to it. However, to ensure that it becomes irreversible Pakistan must not only gain time for it to reach fruition but must also ensure that in the meantime there are no military ingresses from across the Pak-Afghan border under any pretence whatsoever. This will apply to LOC/WB as well. The CPEC will be protected come what may. The Chinese would also have a stake in securing their massive investments.
The US and Pakistan must avoid a military clash. The US must respect Pakistan’s territorial integrity and accept Pakistan’s offer. Pakistan has asked it to provide actionable intelligence on the “so called safe havens” and that it would take action against them. Furthermore, only coordinated military and intelligence based operations on either side of the Pak-Afghan border can be conducted. No US or any other foreign boots will be allowed on Pakistan territory. If a cross border raid by the US forces is contested by Pakistan and leads to casualties on either side, then its ramifications will put the whole region on fire. If in the process some Chinese nationals (uniformed-?) become casualties then the implications will become even more serious and far reaching. The US will do well to ensure that the Chinese do not get sucked into the conundrum, particularly militarily! Pakistan must also ensure that the war on terror is not restarted on its territory again. The fencing and mining of the Pak-Afghan border must be carried out expeditiously and the anti-terrorists trench in Balochistan must be patrolled and maintained for effectiveness. An effective Border Management System must be enforced and the Afghan Refugees returned home, honorably.
The threats to the CPEC are real and must be neutralized. The China factor will come into play at one time or the other. Pakistan must launch a diplomatic offensive to not only safeguard the CPEC but most importantly to improve relations with the US.
Well planned is half the battle won. Pakistan must keep its powder dry, nevertheless!
The author is a retired Brigadier and is currently on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).