Recent interviews of President Trump’s National Security Adviser HR McMaster sound like alarm bells for Pakistan. While talking of an Afghanistan strategy packaged in a regional collaboration context, McMaster resonated a White House desire for a ‘change in behaviour.’ And this desire singles out Pakistan.
“This is Pakistan in particular that we want to really see a change in — and a reduction of their support for these groups,” he said. “I mean, this is — of course, you know, a very paradoxical situation, right, where Pakistan is taking great losses.” “They have fought very hard against these groups,” McMaster argued, “but they’ve done so really only selectively.”
During her recent visit to Islamabad, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ms Alice Wells conveyed more or less the same message, once gain resonating expectations in Washington that Pakistan needed to change as a peace enabler.
The crux of her official and unofficial meetings was hardly different from that of McMaster’s. That is why a number of analysts and ‘unnamed officials’ are cautioning Pakistan of an impending US policy on Afghanistan which will likely hit Pakistan it more than ever before.
Beyond doubt, this thinking reflects the conflation of the Indo-American-Afghan views on Pakistan. Nothing new indeed. Although politically embattled, Pakistan requires a lot of coordinated steps with courage and confidence to counter and turn around the negative international narrative on it.
Most outsiders overlook the internal confidence and indirect diplomatic strength that the Chinese strategic embrace has lent to Pakistan through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Beijing has literally pulled Pakistan out of a generally hostile international environment through the CPEC. The continuous barrage of ‘do-more’ out of western capitals — coupled with the extremely negative loaded Indo-Afghan narrative had reduced the country’s image to a nation that abets terrorism and is solely responsible for the troubles of its eastern and western neighbours.
CPEC’s unravelling in fact almost coincided with the rise to power of Narendra Modi in India who put together a team of Pakistan-centric hawks over two years ago to deal with Islamabad in a non-conventional way. President Xi Jinping and his premier, however, were thinking to the contrary; they picked up Pakistan for the One Belt One Road flagship initiative i.e. CPEC. Essentially envisioned as an economic development and regional connectivity project, CPEC provided Pakistan an immense break both economically and diplomatically. That is why it is, meanwhile, attracting regional traction too. This is playing out positively for Pakistan.
But is the state of Pakistan cashing in this advantage? Not really. Lot of rhetorical commitment to and appreciation of Chinese support to the country but are various arms of the state of Pakistan are addressing systemic flaws that impede good governance and quick implementation of projects?
A whole-of-government approach — as far as transparency, efficiency and quick coordinated decision-making is concerned is still missing. Chinese officials for instance sound pleased with the raising of the special security division for their protection in Balochistan but are wary of the slow response to critical issues. Gwadar, the crown of CPEC, for example, is still struggling for water and power because of the Islamabad-based vested interest against it.
Outsourcing of visa facilities in Afghanistan also illustrates the tardy decision-making that only brings bad name to Pakistan; the idea of outsourcing visa to Afghan contractors (to avoid rush and possible mishandling of applicants at the Kabul embassy and four consulates) first popped up in early 2016. Meanwhile, in June last year the government made visa compulsory for all Afghans crossing the border, resulting in convergence of over 2000 people daily at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. And given limited human and technical resources, the mission struggles daily to handle applicants as decently as they can. Humanly it becomes almost impossible to deal with everybody and thus we hear so much negative stories on how applicants are treated.
The final decision on the short-listed contractors for visa facilitation, we hear from Kabul, is stuck with the ministries of interior and foreign affairs.
While the Liaqat Ali Khan University in Mazare Sharif has turned into an icon of Pakistan’s contribution to the Balkh province’s education sector, the Fatima Jinnah Hospital in western Kabul, under construction since 2007, stands out as a sad story because of the complicated conventional procedures (petty audit objections, bureaucratic hiccups, corruption at various levels of the federal institutions involved, variations in dollar exchange, security excuses — sometimes legitimate and sometimes otherwise).
Whereas such ventures should deal with utmost urgency and priority, they have turned into white elephants on the one hand, and a bad reference for Pakistan’s image.They also often overshadow the over 3000 scholarships for Afghan students.
Unless Pakistan adopts a swift, non-conventional whole-of-government, single window approach to its political-security policy, reconstruction assistance and economic cooperation with Afghanistan, its socio-economic and political influence will remain challenged by an extremely pro-active Indian policy that also guides and enriches the US approach to Pakistan.
The writer Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad.