Global power shift gives Pakistan options
By Khuram Iqbal
The elimination of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 heralded the end of an era in global geopolitics. For more than a decade the world was haunted with invisible enemies disguised in layers of religious and political ideologies. The US, the world's only remaining superpower, led the global war on terror that had successfully safeguarded the homeland against any major terrorist attack after 9/11 but also diverted its attention from more pressing issues at home and abroad. While the Americans became too obsessed with al-Qaeda and overstretched their resources in this war, China emerged, Russia resurged and Iran recuperated.
For Pakistan, the decade-long war on terror caused unprecedented instability and social disorder. The government lost control over large portions of territory in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa and Balochistan. More than 30,000 civilians, personnel of military and law enforcement agencies, leading religious scholars, politicians, journalists and international cricket became the casualties of war on terror. A whole generation lived under fear of bomb blasts resulting in indiscriminate killings. Pakistan's international image suffered and it was labeled the most dangerous country on the planet earth.
The US, India and Afghanistan were not the only countries blaming Islamabad for not doing enough against terrorism, a number of friendly countries including China and Iran also joined the chorus. The chaotic Western flank provided an opportunity to Islamabad's adversaries to fish in Pakistan's troubled waters by supporting unrest in Balochistan, Kurram Agency and Gilgit Baltistan. Memories from this subjugation at the hands of internal and external adversaries during a decade of humiliation - stretching from 2001 to 2011 - will have a profound impact on Pakistan's future strategic outlook.
From May 2011 onward, with the exception of retaliatory attacks to avenge Bin Laden's death in the immediate aftermath of Operation Neptune Spear in Abbottabad, the number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has significantly declined. Various factors contributed to the relative calm in the country, which suffered more suicide attacks than Afghanistan and Iraq during 2007 and 2008.
Terrorist infrastructure in the tribal region has been extensively damaged during the military operations by Pakistan Army. The US drone strikes targeting the top leadership of al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) complimented Pakistan's ground offensives in FATA and squeezed the militants. The state's apparent anti-American posture after the Salala friendly fire incident absorbed rampant anti-Americanism that has been previously manifested in form of increased terrorist violence targeting the security force and other state institutions. The radio intercepts of Pakistani Taliban in FATA clearly indicate Pakistan government's assertive stance vis-a-vis America is effectively dissuading anti-state fighters from terrorism.
By the end of 2014 when the international forces depart from Afghanistan the threat of terrorism will persist in Pakistan but with reduced intensity. Islamabad will also attain the advantage of launching counter-terrorism operations on its own time and pace without any pressure from the American forces stationed in Afghanistan. However, the departure of international troops from the neighboring country does not mean the end of "Great Game" at our doorsteps. As soon as terrorism goes off the world's radar, Pakistan will be confronted with different strategic challenges.
Before disengaging from Afghanistan, the US has already outlined a policy that lays greater emphasis on Asia. The American pivot in Asia, specifically focusing on the Asia-Pacific, is intended to rebalance the global power structure that tilted largely in favor of China, Russia and Iran during last decade.
The recent speech of the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore set the tone for America's renewed focus on Asia-Pacific region. Panetta stated that the US will expand its military power and presence in support of "a deeper and more enduring partnership role" in the Asia-Pacific Region. He also announced that 60% of US Naval forces will be based in the Pacific by 2020.
Rhetorically, Americans have been very careful to avoid intimidating China in their greater military focus on Asia. At the Shangri-la 2012, Panetta attempted to allay Beijing's apprehensions over strategic rethink and dismissed claims it poses a threat to China. However, Beijing appears skeptical. For instance, a recent article in the PLA Daily, an official media outlet of the People's Liberation Army of China, suggested the strategy reflects Washington's growing concern about the erosion of its superiority in the world. The same article stated the Pentagon is returning to a threat-based planning model that increasingly emphasizes China.
The US strategy and Chinese response indicate that the Pentagon is actually on the course to confront rather than engage one of her largest lenders, the People's Republic of China.
At present, Islamabad, seen as a traditional Chinese ally, does not shine too brightly in the new American strategy in Asia. However, due to its geographic proximity and history of relationships with China, India, Iran and Central Asia, Islamabad will inevitably be plunged into the new great game that may be called a rebirth of the Cold War, involving the US but with China replacing the Soviet Union. The country is located at the crossroads of China, an emerging superpower, India, the American counter-weight to China in South Asia and Iran, the permanent headache for powerful Israeli lobby in the US and for the Arab world.
With the dawn of the "China threat" in the American policy circles, Pakistan's options are limited. Prevalent anti-Americanism on the societal level further squeezes Islamabad's space to maneuver between a superpower and an aspiring one. The recent history of Pakistan-US relations suggests that the former is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of the Cold War and the "war on terror" by supporting an unpopular contestant for global supremacy.
Khuram Iqbal is the co-author of Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero. He is also a researcher and PhD student at the Centre for Transnational Crimes Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Australia
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