Faltering on the World Stage

By: Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Ghulam Mustafa
Published: July 1, 2017
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The weight of a good or bad decision rests squarely on the shoulders of the men and women who are tasked with the toughest challenges. And leaders are forged by trials of fire.

“A leader is a lonely man and the moment of decision is the loneliest,” wrote Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower after giving the go ahead for the Allied invasion at Normandy in June 1944. His decision to launch the operation across the English Channel, during World War II, was despite advice to the contrary because of very inclement weather. But it paid off and the rest is history. But it could also have failed and history would have been very different.

There is always a downside to every decision. When an event is analysed, we discover our common heroes and villains. But the examination of actions by individuals or personalities creates subjective narratives where either a personality is demonised as the devil incarnate or idealised as a virtual angel.

General Zia-ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are two such examples, evoking extreme emotions depending upon one’s perspective. The fact is that very few people are ever totally evil or wholly good. Just by looking at Pakistan’s immediate past, we can see that these two men also had their share of positive and negative facets to their personalities and actions that impacted decisions in the1970s, which has brought us to the current situation in the country.

It isn’t surprising that to prove Bhutto a hero, Zia has to be pilloried and held responsible for everything which ails us today. He might well be, but then our historical context has to be seen correctly. Deliberately introduced distortions have helped no one, least of all the people of Pakistan. If anything, our younger generations have developed a warped sense of what Pakistan is all about.

If anything, our younger generations have developed a warped sense of what Pakistan is all about

We do acknowledge Bhutto’s brilliance which changed the political landscape of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East. But we fail to acknowledge another one of his accomplishments, which was weaning Afghanistan away from Soviet and Indian influence. Consequently, from a two-front war, Pakistan had only its eastern borders to guard for the very first time in its short history. A hostile Afghanistan, the hotbed of conspiracies against Pakistan, started cooling down.

The downside is that the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan as a jump-off point to reach the Indian Ocean, their dream since the 14th century. They understood that the 21st century would belong to whoever controlled the Indian Ocean. So did India and the American-led European juggernaut.

Unfortunately, political observers in Pakistan, even with 20-20 hindsight, fail to acknowledge this, actually running down Bhutto’s genius; never mind Zia’s tenacity. These detractors just need to look at key strategic initiatives to see why Pakistan was on the mark in its policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

To examine the entire evolving scenario, it is important to consider each individual strand of the complex tapestry of world affairs today.

The Chinese-sponsored, Russian-backed One Belt One Road (OBOR), has received Gwadar on a silver platter.

After becoming firmly entrenched in Africa, China has been moving quietly into Eritrea and Djibouti, with the strategically placed Bab al-Mandab in its cross hairs. Whoever controls Bab al-Mandab will control a significant shipping lane.

The Indo-US Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA) gives access, to both countries, to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refuelling and replenishment. The agreement will cover port calls, joint exercises, training and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The hypothesis of the string of pearls around China which suggests China will try to expand its naval presence by building civilian maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery.

Finally, the Chinese made Kra Canal through Thailand linking the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean, eliminating the most dangerous choke point at the Straits of Malacca.

The successful Iranian Revolution in 1979 turned the historic Arab-Iran competition into an open confrontation. Iraq was chosen to spearhead the Arab world’s war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, during which both sides fought themselves to exhaustion. Despite this devastating war, Iran continued expanding its influence or exporting its revolution if you will.

We were directly affected; becoming the battleground for a sectarian-based proxy war. Pakistan was in a bind – leading a war to halt Soviet expansionism on one hand, helping the Saudis with a fairly large troops’ presence on the other and expected to join the Arab war against Iran as well. We didn’t.

We became the victim of our own half-baked policies in the nineties and in the first decade of the new century

We became the victim of our own half-baked policies in the nineties and in the first decade of the new century, abdicating a lot of space to anti-Pakistan elements inside Afghanistan.

And with the attacks of 9/11 in the United States, Pakistan was hit even more. Terrorism, drug trafficking and the gun culture are just a few of its fallouts. Where does this leave us?

Conflict and competition has reached the Indian Ocean, with China and, by extension Pakistan, in the big league.

Relations between Pakistan and Iran are strained and Afghanistan continues to be a festering wound, once again becoming the safe haven for anti-Pakistan elements.

Terrorism within has achieved greater impetus with a hostile Afghanistan, an irate Iran a more than eager India, and the US lurking in the shadows as the back-up.

Not to be outdone by Iran’s adventurism in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; Saudi Arabia went after the Houthis in Yemen while already backing anti-Assad forces in Syria under the US umbrella.

Iran has the backing and physical support of Russia and, to a lesser extent China, in its bid to save the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS or Daesh, the only terrorist outfit with a territory of its own, though now being increasingly besieged in Mosul, remains land-locked, but has continued to franchise its brand of terrorism to all parts of the world. Iran in the Middle East and the Taliban in Afghanistan are the only ones really fighting it.

Feeling threatened by ISIS and because of Iran’s ambitions in the region, Saudi Arabia has come up with the idea of an Islamic Alliance, somewhat on the lines of NATO. Ironically, without actually becoming part of it openly, Pakistan sent one of its most respected former army chiefs to head this force which has further soured our already turbulent ties with Iran.

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Iran-bashing in his address to the heads of 54 Muslim countries, has firmly placed this alliance in the anti-Iran category. We were present and didn’t object.

The subsequent challenge to Qatar from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others has polarised the region, with Turkey and Iran stepping up to Qatar’s assistance.

Pakistan now faces grim choices, with increasing US pressure likely to be applied by the Trump administration.

The absence of an all-encompassing national narrative and consequent fault lines in our society tops the list of problems we face. Lack of effort on this account is even more worrisome.

Political forces have shied away from this challenge and appear to be content with the Charter of Democracy only. But is this an end in itself? This should have been part of the charter of Pakistan. No wonder we are squabbling about everything. There is no central thread running through any of our undertakings, other than a desire to win the next election at any cost. It becomes painfully apparent in our superficial endeavours to eradicate extremism from our midst.

The Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies (LEAs) are doing their very best in fighting terrorism which constitutes just about ten percent of the whole war effort. The rest has to be done by what goes for our government. Unfortunately, the war against terrorism is hamstrung because of this crucial void. Rhetoric aside, our leadership either hasn’t grasped the nature of this war, or is reluctant to step forward for a variety of reasons, with political expediency topping the list.

How can one win a war as complex as this one, without applying our full effort into the complex mix? Afghanistan, currently being used as a safe haven against Pakistan isn’t the real enemy. It is as much a victim of its internal complexities as a failing state can be. India is the root cause. Its machinations have to be defeated before we can start claiming success.

Contrary to very tall claims, our economy continues to flounder. The ever increasing debt burden is breaking our fragile back. It is sad to realise that we are hostage to the lending powers and our benefactors, which is clearly evident from the manner in which we have acquiesced to become part of American-sponsored, Saudi-led Alliance of Muslim States. Are we back to the future once again? Assuming of course that we actually ever got out?

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been presented as the solution to all our problems. It isn’t; at least not in the way it is being managed or handled. OBOR, of which CPEC is just one part, is China’s brainchild. Being marketed as a concept for economic linkages, it fools no one.

OBOR is a unique geo-strategic move with an inbuilt economic wind fall, which logically stands to benefit larger economies more

It is a unique geo-strategic move with an inbuilt economic wind fall, which logically stands to benefit larger economies more. Ours, weak at best, risks being gobbled up when almost every control appears to be with Beijing. China’s world view doesn’t exclude India or Iran. Given the existing and future trade volumes with China, both are ideally suited to be its part. Where will it leave us then?

More importantly, is there something being kept secret from us? We conceded as much publicly, acknowledging the absence of any master plan of this all important concept. The Chinese don’t work like that. We may not have one but they certainly would. India and Iran becoming part of it is not an issue.

Its impact on Pakistan needs evaluation. Are we destined to be just the facilitators? Can we afford to abandon Kashmir or sell the idea to the Saudis just to make OBOR work?

We have mastered the art of converting every opportunity into complex challenges and declaring victory halfway through the race. If that doesn’t work, we bring in non-existent threats to invisible democracy. Perpetuate power and win the next election, seems to be sole purpose of politics in the country.

Our methods of achieving this objective, as well as our political thought, have refused to evolve beyond the 80s. Our approach to issues of national importance, archaic at best and downright selfish at worst, has landed us in a mess of massive proportions. We are lost for options, not surprising for a people who seem to be waiting for a messiah.

This may be our biggest challenge – a nation not ready to challenge old mindsets, too lazy to take control of their own lives and content with drifting along.

Sharp politicians are taking full advantage and doing what they do best; promoting self and family in all possible ways. Take care of this and we would have taken the first and most crucial step towards redemption. Otherwise, with the non-system at work in Pakistan, our issues have just begun to multiply.

About the Author
Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Ghulam Mustafa
The writer is a leading defence analyst and commentator. He was the commander of the Army’s Strategic Force Command and has also served as the Mangla Corps Commander