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Monday, February 17, 2014

Pakistan & geopolitical realities

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s place in the world was discussed at great length at the KLF. Compared to the year before, when impending national elections loomed over discussions, and a tired relationship with the United States as usual held court, this year the focus shifted to Pakistan as a potentially powerful player in the region.
It was urged time and again that Pakistan needs to take steps to make decisions necessary for the stability of the state and consequently the region. As stipulated by Maleeha Lodhi in a session titled ‘Afghanistan 2014: Consequences for Pakistan,’ the tyranny of geography sets Pakistan in a position where it cannot “wish Afghanistan away.” Another sentiment was echoed by Ishrat Hussain: if there is no “Af” what is to become of “Pak” in the Af-Pak equation, as referred to by the US.

The impending drawdown of Nato-led forces in December 2014 was therefore a prime topic of discussion, as foreign relations experts and diplomats weighed in on the region’s history and the road ahead.

In a session titled ‘Geo-Political Equation: Pakistan in the World,’ senior diplomat Zafar Hilaly pointed out that peace in Afghanistan only stands a chance if “underpinned by both the US and Pakistan,” urging that Pakistan cannot afford to continue on its path of disassociation with an erratic ally. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, former ambassador to the US, set out an even more dire scenario, putting Pakistan’s “dysfunctional state of affairs” into focus from which one cannot possibly develop a “coherent foreign policy.” With Pakistan’s population to reach 350 million by 2050, less than 50 per cent education rate, precarious food security and encroachment by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are only part of Pakistan’s problems.

Dr Hussain set out the scenario of Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the US dating back more than 60 years, in a session with US Ambassador Richard Olson titled ‘The US-Pakistan Relationship: Will it Endure?’ Ambassador Olson, who assured audiences of the importance of Pakistan as a regional ally, specified that the US has a vested interested in Pakistan not based on just 2014 but 2050, when Pakistan will be the world’s 4th most populous nation and an important player in the region. The ambassador, although reassuring overall, remained reticent and evasive regarding pressing issues, giving no specific response about aiding Pakistan to become economically independent via trade.

What was notable, though, were the audiences who not only came out in droves to packed sessions, but asked bold and scathing questions that spelt out US intentions far more lucidly. The sanctions on Iran were stipulated as paramount — more so than Pakistan’s dire energy needs — while high tariffs (roughly 18 per cent) on Pakistan’s textile exports were not looking to be lowered anytime in the foreseeable future. Both these points were brought up by the audiences, overpowering moderators who generally kept the discussions well-moderated.

What made the discussions different from last year were the ground realities spelt out for Pakistan following the drawdown. The possible influx of more than two million refugees due to a porous border and lack of bounds to the strategic depth created by the TTP in Pakistan’s northwest province, are some of these realities. In fact, Pakistan was urged by Riaz Mohammad Khan, former foreign secretary, to repel becoming “custodians for spokespersons for Taliban.”

Additionally, problems within Afghanistan were also highlighted, with unemployment, poverty and the possibility of civil war among them.

What made it a crucial year to discuss the drawdown was that the effects of 1996 still resonate strongly in the minds of officials and civilians alike. In the session ‘Afghanistan 2014,’ Lodhi urged officials to approach interlocuters of the Taliban in order to avoid a violent takeover by the Taliban in 2015. How to avoid that power vacuum was one of the other burning questions discussed during the session.

But what speakers succeeded in setting out for the audiences, they were unable to offer solutions for. For example, thrown into the mix of the drawdown is the High Peace Council that President Hamid Karzai has created, but has no faith in. The bilateral security agreement, central to a peaceful drawdown, is also not expected to be signed by Karzai. In fact, according to news reports, Karzai is said to have been in talks with the Taliban for months, trying to chart out his own deal with them, thus his reluctance to sign the peace agreement, leaving again US relations with Afghanistan in a lurch and US drawdown at a standstill. Above all, as mentioned by Qazi, the peace talks with the TTP were challenged as a farce, set up by the government and parties as “designed to go nowhere.”

What audiences did find respite in, however, was the acknowledgement by Ambassador Olson of the US playing a role in the “seeds of 9/11”. A little too late, though, with Pakistan already a hotbed of militant regrouping.
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