Pakistan’s Sharif raises voice. Can Obama hear?

There is delightful irony that on the very same day that the United States Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry received the Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in Washington, Islamabad was also the venue of a hugely symbolic meeting between the Pakistani Prime Minister and a top Kremlin official – Viktor Ivanov, who holds the official position of the head of the anti-narcotic body in Moscow and is also concurrently the long-time deputy head of the presidential administration.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has invited Russian President Putin to visit Pakistan to inaugurate the Karachi-Lahore gas pipeline

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Pakistan to inaugurate the Karachi-Lahore gas pipeline

Anyone who knows the Orwellian farm would know that the army chief in Rawalpindi is ‘more equal than others’ in the country’s leadership hierarchy. The Americans definitely know, which was why they quietly encouraged Gen. Sharif to have a stopover in the US when they heard he was due to travel to the Western hemisphere to visit Brazil.

That was a smart move, because the Americans didn’t send Gen. Sharif a formal invite for a second visit within the year, while at the same time they seize the opportunity to interact with the general through a 6-day sojourn on US soil (en route to Brazil) at a time when from all recent accounts the Pakistani military has staged a ‘soft coup’ in the country.

In the event, Gen. Sharif not only met the top brass of the US military across the board, but was also received by the secretaries of state and defence as well as the vice-president – apart from meeting key lawmakers in the armed services and intelligence committees of the US Congress. The itinerary would have made military chiefs from elsewhere in the world go green with envy.

However, back in Islamabad, the civilian leadership of Prime Minister Sharif (who had visited the US on an official visit hardly two months ago) saw things differently. In a major foreign policy chief in Islamabad on Tuesday, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs (de facto foreign minister), underscored that in the backdrop of the “geopolitical realignment” in Asian and global politics, Pakistan is no longer America’s exclusive ally.

Aziz said:

  • Geo-political and geo-strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific have been moving rapidly in the recent past. The US brought greater focus on the region by launching the ‘Asia Pivot’ in 2011. The Pivot… strengthens alliances with Japan, South Korea, India, ASEAN countries as well as Australia and the New Zealand… Likewise, China has unveiled the plans to revive the ancient Silk Road…China, having surpassed the United States in terms of purchasing power in 2014, is engaged in several diplomatic initiatives to boost the economic growth of the region and create a win-win situation for all the participants.
  • This geo-political realignment has two dimensions which enhance its significance. One is the growing cooperation between Russia and China to develop trade and energy connectivity in Eurasia and second, the creation of several important new institutions like SCO, BRICS Bank, Asia Infrastructure Bank and Silk Road Fund. Pakistan is the regional roundabout located at the crossroads of South, Central and West Asia. Pakistan is uniquely located to gain from stability and peace in Asia as a whole. These expectations are based on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC… The strategic port of Gwadar is the hub around which CPEC rotates.
  • Cooperation between Pakistan and China… is not against any other country. Pakistan seeks to establish and sustain long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with the global and regional players in Asia. Pakistan has the distinction of forging and maintaining Strategic Dialogue with both the US and China. We have vibrant and robust relations with another power in the region, i.e. Russia. From Pakistan’s perspective, China together with the United States and Russia, are important pillars in the newly emerging economic and security order of the region.

In sum, Aziz signaled that Pakistan would not accept the emergent quasi-alliance between the US and India or India’s ambitions as the pre-eminent power in South Asia and Indian Ocean region. Pakistan just made available to China on a 42-year lease 2300 acres land in Gwadar, which has a naval base and where China is constructing a massive airport.

No doubt, Washington watches with profound disquiet these historic developments, which consolidate China’s strategic presence in the Indian Ocean and would render ineffectual its containment strategy against China.

Indeed, taking other trends in regional politics also into account – Russian-Iranian coordination in Syria, thaw in Russia-Pakistan relations, Pakistan’s refusal to join Saudi-led alliance in Yemen, upswing in Pakistan-Iran relations, etc. – the stage is being set for a strategic entente involving Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

If that were to happen, the entire US regional agenda in establishing military bases in Afghanistan and long-term NATO presence in the region would unravel. Therefore, Washington’s overture to the Pakistani military leadership at this juncture should not really come as surprise.

Interestingly, just ahead of the US visit, Gen. Sharif also visited Riyadh where King Salman received him with exceptional warmth and cordiality. In historical terms, Pakistani generals have been close to the Pentagon and the CIA (as well as the House of Saud) and the US’ regional strategies in the Cold War era effectively leveraged this.

In the post-cold war decades, however, the 3-way US-Saudi-Pakistani tango began losing verve once Washington’s priorities changed following China’s rise as superpower. In retrospect, Washington shouldn’t have taken Pakistan for granted and ignored its protestations regarding its concerns vis-à-vis India.

Washington hoped to maintain a ‘de-hyphenated’ approach of keeping both Pakistan and India as its key partners. But in the real world it turned out to be wishful thinking. Arguably, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi could have resolved Washington’s dilemma by reaching out to Sharif, but the Hindu nationalist groups that mentor him and the hardliners in the Indian establishment may have vested interests in keeping these tensions alive.

All in all, Prime Minister Sharif has thrown a wrench at Washington’s best-laid plans to massage the political ambitions of Gen. Sharif and leverage him to reverse the tide of Pakistani policies to bring them back to their cold-war era moorings. Without doubt, Washington knows who Viktor Ivanov is – former KGB general who goes back a long way with President Vladimir Putin to the St- Petersburg days, ace ‘Afghan hand’, and highly influential in the making of Kremlin policies.

Prime Minister Sharif disclosed during the meeting with Ivanov on Thursday that he has invited Putin to visit Pakistan to inaugurate the Karachi-Lahore gas pipeline, which is being built with Russian funding. Didn’t it come as ‘breaking news’ to Ivanov? Of course, he did. But then, Sharif raised his voice so that it is heard in the Oval Office in Washington – and understood properly.

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