Internationally, the Pakistani government of Imran Khan is feeling rather cheerful at the moment. Pakistan emerged in surprisingly good shape from the crisis with India that followed the attack by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohamed on Indian troops at Pulwama in Kashmir. The Indian air force appears to have bombed a non-existent target in response and it lost at least one of its planes in the process.
The Pakistani government then managed to look responsible and diplomatic by returning the pilot, thereby helping to bring the immediate crisis to an end. In the process, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent also justified itself. Essentially, for the past twenty years and for the foreseeable future, India’s military response to attacks by groups based in Kashmir faces the same dilemma. Anything stronger than largely symbolic military action risks nuclear war.
The Pakistani establishment may be deceiving itself however. With national elections due in India in May, the Modi government cannot afford to look weak a second time. With the Islamic State defeated in the Middle East, and the Afghan conflict (hopefully) moving towards a settlement, Islamist extremists also have the strongest motive to try to stir up the Kashmir conflict and cause trouble between India and Pakistan. The cost to Pakistan, and to humanity, would not of course concern them.
China, Russia, the USA, and the European Union therefore need to talk urgently about co-ordinating an approach to this conflict. Despite the dangerous domestic consequences, Pakistan needs to do a great deal more visibly to restrict the activities of militant groups on its soil. India on the other hand should not be allowed to maintain the fiction that its repression in Kashmir does not fuel this conflict, or that this is purely an Indian internal matter.
The risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan may be a relatively small one, but its existence makes this issue one for the international community as a whole. Unfortunately, precisely this kind of co-operation between the great powers has been gravely undermined by the gleeful rush of the US security establishment towards a “new cold war” with China and Russia. Leading members of that establishment have declared that the terrorist threat is now a secondary one for the USA compared to rivalry with other great powers. One of these days, they may be in for a very nasty surprise.
The Pakistanis for their part are also delighting in a new book by the Dutch journalist Bette Dam, claiming that Mullah Omar did not flee into Pakistan after the overthrow of the Taliban but in fact lived out his days in a village in Zabul province, only a few miles from a US military base. This pleases them so much because it provides a very good refutation of US criticism of Pakistan for hosting the Afghan Taliban leadership and for the fact that Osama bin Laden lived a few miles from a Pakistani military base in Abbotabad.
I am not at all sure that Dam is right – it is obvious why her Afghan interviewees would make this claim, and I myself heard from multiple sources about Mullah Omar receiving medical treatment in Pakistan. But it certainly makes a good story from the Pakistani point of view.
More importantly, after a period of bitter US criticism early in the Trump administration, Pakistan is now of great importance again to that administration as it tries desperately to extricate itself from Afghanistan and claim a foreign policy success before the next US presidential elections. If the Pakistani government can help broker a deal in which the Taliban get a major share of government power and control over their core areas of support in the South and East, then it will have gained a central objective of Pakistani governments over the past 15 years, and a really significant diplomatic and strategic achievement –though whether such a settlement could possibly survive for long is of course another matter.
Finally, Pakistan is conducting a rather successful balancing act when it comes to raising money abroad. The latest fiscal crisis has been warded off by dollops of money from Saudi Arabia and China, on top of the $52 billion in investments promised by China for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other projects (including a massive expansion of electricity generation and the rehabilitation of Pakistan’s extremely decayed railway network).
Assuming that terrorists do not succeed in provoking a war with India, Pakistan has some reason for confidence in its international position. Assuming that the Chinese economy does not crash as a result of the gathering trade war with the USA, the support of a rising China gives Pakistan an advantage that it has not enjoyed for many years, without the pressure that came with US aid. Chinese friendship also gives Pakistan additional protection against Indian attack – though the Pakistanis would do well to remember that China has never in fact gone to war to help Pakistan, and has no desire to do so in future.
The Pakistani security establishment also needs to remind itself at least three times a day that = quite apart from the risk of war with India - if a Pakistani-based terrorist attack ever carries out a major terrorist attack on the USA, the US response would endanger the very existence of Pakistan. Actually, Pakistani generals do remember that, which is why part of the price of extremist groups like Jaish-e-Mohamed (responsible for the Pulwama attack) and Laskar-e-Taiba (responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008) being allowed to go on operating in Pakistan is a promise not to carry out terrorist attacks in the West. For the same reason, even in the worst days of US-Pakistani relations in 2011, Pakistani intelligence went on quietly passing on information to the CIA about Pakistani militants travelling to the USA.
I wish that I could say that all this makes me feel more cheerful about Pakistan’s future, and to a degree it does. But in the end, a successful future will depend on successful domestic reform. Over the past four decades Pakistan has managed a number of external successes while at home one half-hearted (or entirely unserious) reform effort after another has failed, the economy have barely bumped along, and the population has soared.
Chinese investment will also depend heavily on domestic reform. Because of its strategic importance to China, Pakistan can expect more generous terms than Beijing extends to African countries, for example; but the Chinese have made it very clear that they are not going to follow the Americans in providing general support for the Pakistani budget, and that Pakistani will have to demonstrate that they can make Chinese projects pay before they receive further investments. A deep distrust of Pakistani state capacity is one reason why the Chinese are so determined to keep a lot in their hands.
The government of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (Pakistan Tekrik-e-Insaf, or PTI) came to power last August with an impressive sounding reform programme, but so far implementation is lagging badly. In particular, the government – like all Pakistani governments for the past 50 years - has backed away from vital but unpopular measures like cutting bloated employment levels in state-owned enterprises, shaking up the decayed, corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, and imposing effective penalties for the massive tax evasion that is crippling the Pakistani state’s ability to build infrastructure and provide services to the population. Instead, actions so far have had a depressing resemblance to those of previous governments during their first months in office: a variety of populist measures, combined with an anti-corruption campaign directed at members of the previous government.
Imran Khan himself appears incorruptible (which is saying a great deal in Pakistan), but this cannot be said of all his government. The PTI cabinet does not inspire much confidence (with the partial exception of the Finance Minister) and the PTI like previous governments has been very bad at attracting expertise back from abroad. Those who come often leave frustrated after a few months.
On the other hand, the PTI government of the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa from 2013-2018 was a great deal less corrupt than its predecessors and relatively (though only relatively) successful at certain limited reforms in policing and infrastructure. It was rewarded with greatly increased vote at 2018 elections, which is saying something given the constant underlying anti-incumbent feeling in the Pakistani population. So clearly Imran does have something to offer; but of course governing Pakistan is a much more complicated proposition. Even on police reform, the PTI government of the province of Punjab has already managed to disgrace itself by coming to the defence of police who killed an innocent family and then attempted to cover it up.
Pakistan’s future development may be determined by its place in the “new cold war” developing between the USA and India on the one side and China on the other. Pakistan is one of the Asian states most at risk of worsened internal divisions if the new cold war in Asia intensifies and the USA and China seek rival political proxies within Pakistan. On the face of it, Pakistan’s course would seem to be clear. Until recently, China seemed to hold the best cards (except – and it is a huge exception – for the role of the English language and the appeal of the USA as a place of emigration). The USA made itself bitterly unpopular by its actions elsewhere in the Muslim world, its invasion of Afghanistan, and forcing Pakistan to support that invasion with disastrous internal results for Pakistan.
China by contrast was portrayed as an “all weather friend”. China also made available something like five times the money given by the USA, though in the form of investment not aid as such. China has been making assiduous efforts to teach younger middle class Pakistanis, including to teach them Chinese. In the long run, this could produce a new generation looking to China not the West, and opposing domination by the existing Pakistani elites.
In recent months however Beijing has greatly undermined its position by its totalitarian moves against the culture of the Uighurs and other Muslim peoples within China. The wider suppression of Islam has also naturally affected and been noticed by Pakistani students in China, who may come back severely disillusioned. From a mixture of pressure from the military and self-censorship by the Pakistani media, these Chinese actions have been very little discussed within Pakistan, but inevitably more and more of the population is slowly becoming aware of them. Together with the Chinese tendency to keep the economic developments it supports under its own control and largely for its own benefit, this suggests that Chinese influence in Pakistan will remain within certain limits. This is also not a real “alliance”. China has never fought for Pakistan, and Pakistan would only fight with China if China had first defeated India.
A struggle to dominate Pakistan is therefore not one that either the USA or China can “win” – but they can do terrible damage to Pakistan in the process. By the middle of this century it is predicted that Pakistan will have some 340 million people, up from 210 million today. Of all the countries with such huge populations, Pakistan is one of the most endangered by climate change. It also contains some of the most formidable terrorist groups in the world, even if in recent years (Pulwama notwithstanding) these have been reined in by the Pakistani military. And of course Pakistan has nuclear weapons, as well as a huge army and immense stocks of conventional weapons. Again and again during the last cold war, competition between the USA and the USSR for influence over countries was disastrous for those countries. The ruin of Pakistan would be a disaster for mankind.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and author among other books of Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011).