Russian-Pakistani relations, historically somewhat frosty, have recently improved. Little wonder then, that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Moscow has attracted so much media attention. He met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev twice during a four-party summit also attended by the presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The intrigue surrounding his current Moscow meeting lies in the crisis in relations between Pakistan and its main patron, the United States.
When al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s hideout was located 800 yards away from Pakistan’s Military Academy, Washington accused the country of double dealing. Pakistan’s leaders refuted the accusation, responding that U.S. Special Forces had conducted operations in their country without even notifying them.
Pakistan itself is mired in political crisis and mutual trust, which was already running low, has been dealt a heavy blow.
Moscow’s interest in Pakistan has a certain logic to it, as the situation around Afghanistan, which determines the atmosphere in Central Asia, is becoming increasingly unpredictable. U.S. strategy there is vague, the situation inside Afghanistan is unstable, and the possibility of coordinating efforts with neighboring states remains unclear.
The killing of the world’s most wanted man has only deepened uncertainty in the region. President Barack Obama now has a solid reason for pulling U.S. troops out, as the mission set a decade ago has been accomplished. But even if the pullout decision is taken (not everyone in Washington supports it), the United States will need Pakistan’s assistance to maintain control in Afghanistan, something that now looks increasingly unlikely.
Afghanistan’s position is also shrouded in ambiguity. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly said that Afghans must assume responsibility. After the operation in Abbottabad, 75 miles from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, he said it is no longer Afghanistan that is at the epicenter of the threat.
But these are politically motivated statements. From a security standpoint, no one is confident that the Afghan authorities are capable of maintaining law and order without NATO and U.S. assistance. Afghans don’t want to see a repetition of what happened in 1992-1996, when the Soviet departure and the removal of the pro-Moscow Najibullah government left the country at the mercy of the Taliban. It became the scene of a bloody war in which everyone, including Pakistan, had some involvement.
To Afghans, this is a worse option than continued occupation. This is why the idea of maintaining a reduced U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, as Washington is considering, has engendered both disappointment and a sense of relief in the country.
Neighboring countries don’t want U.S. bases permanently deployed in Afghanistan. Russia, China, India and Iran have all supported a vague “regional” solution, advocating a reliance on Kabul rather than on Western troops.
Zardari’s Moscow trip, made immediately after the strategic China-Pakistan consultations in late April and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s visit to Moscow last week, is expected to boost the discussions.
One of Moscow’s ideas for a regional solution involves an enhanced role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the most representative organization in the region. During the upcoming SCO summit in Astana in June 2011, SCO states are expected to lift the unofficial moratorium on the admission of new members that was imposed in 2006. India and Pakistan are the most likely candidates. The group has refused to consider Iran’s admission request because the country is shackled by international sanctions.
The possible admission of India and Pakistan is a delicate issue because of their tense bilateral relations. Russia would like to see India become a full member, while China prefers Pakistan. However, Moscow will only agree to that if India is also admitted.
The Afghan question is perceived as something that has the potential to unite the SCO member states. The interests of India and Pakistan in the region are unlikely to coincide, but a multilateral format could ease their bilateral tensions by introducing external factors. Besides, if relations between Pakistan and the United States continue to deteriorate, Islamabad could be forced to be more active in diversifying its contacts.
The interests of the army, religious and ethnic groups, and political leaders are all different pieces in one puzzle. They can fit together only if all sides join forces to create a sense of balance in Pakistan. But ever more people in Washington are urging that more pressure be put on Islamabad to force it to up the ante in its fight against the radicals.
The United States has good reason to mistrust its Asian partner. At the same time, their policy toward Pakistan since fall 2001, when former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the United States would bomb Pakistan “back to the stone ages” unless it joined the fight against al Qaeda, has only served to undermine traditional ties and deepen instability in Pakistan.
The Pakistani leadership’s efforts to reduce external pressure by diversifying its international contacts have provoked ire in Washington. At the same time, the United States has not offered it any other option and so Pakistan needs a fundamentally new paradigm to help it escape from this vicious circle.