Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently addressing the Pakistani community and students in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, not only spoke about the need for Islamabad’s market access to the Central Asian region for Pakistani commodities, he emphasized on the need for enhanced trade and increased connectivity between the two which he believed could only be possible after the restoration of peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan.
However, peace and stability in Afghanistan seems secondary to Pakistan’s strive for a friendly regime in Kabul which would not only allow and assist it in extending its sway into the Central Asian region but would deny a space to India at the same time. Pakistan seems to weigh its strategic, economic and political gains in zero-sum terms which imply the country’s strategic gains are measured with reference to India’s loss in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The concept of ‘strategic depth’ which is primarily understood in terms of Pakistan’s desire of overcoming the deficiencies of its geographic narrowness and efforts at installing a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul as a way to give Rawalpindi the much required territorial space to launch a counter-offensive from Afghan territory seems unable to capture the reality. The concept defined exclusively in military and strategic terms which projects Pakistan’s strive for gaining territorial space in case of war with India seems to have no military logic, nor does it conform to the operational policy of Pakistan.
Some experts with first-hand knowledge of Pakistan’s military and strategic policies argue that the country’s policy is geared toward defending its borders and defeating the enemy if it attempts to violate the country’s territory. Pakistan’s broader objective seems to seek an overriding economic, political as well as ideological influence in Afghanistan which would be able to deny India the ability not only to install a friendly government in Kabul at present but prevent it from extending influence into the Central Asian region in the long-run.
Pakistan’s desire in keeping Afghanistan and Central Asia away from Indian sphere of influence is evident from its resorting to the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965 in order to deny overland route to India and ensure that Afghanistan remains overly dependent on it for trade. Since 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly continued to warn that his government would close Pakistan’s transit route to Central Asia if Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs were not allowed to trade with India through the Wagah border crossing.
Of late, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s remarks suggesting the formation of an interim government in Afghanistan which could be the only way forward to take the peace process ahead was not only viewed with distrust in several quarters in Afghanistan, it attracted criticisms from among many Afghans. In this context, Idrees Stanikzai, an Afghan politician stated: “The Pakistanis are threatened by the work President Ashraf Ghani has been doing specifically on economic projects that have made us significantly less dependent on Pakistan”.
Pakistan is likely to throw its weight behind the peace process to see that the post-war governance structure in Afghanistan suits its broader strategic, economic, ideological and political interests in the country.
Experts on South Asian affairs like Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Centre, a Washington D.C., based think-tank while believe that Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban may not be as overwhelming as to compel it accept something against their willingness, he argues neither Pakistan nor the Taliban have a “strong desire to see Kabul brought into talks at this point.”
Indicating Pakistan’s continued influence over the Afghan peace process experts argue that even while Islamabad may claim that its leverage over the Taliban has declined, Pakistan will retain leverage as long as Taliban leaders continue to be based in Pakistan. On the other side, strategic experts like M.K Bhadrakumar argue that the parallel peace talks hosted by Moscow and Washington would enable Islamabad to optimally negotiate and secure its own interests in a settlement.
Pakistan’s desire for overriding ideological and political space includes strategies such as, first, invoking the commonalities of Islamic region and tradition with a view to deepening its space in Central Asia. For instance, foreign minister Qureshi during his recent visit to Bishkek stressed on the commonalities of culture, religion and traditions that could bring Pakistan closer to Central Asia. Second, it includes Pakistani efforts at strengthening its position on Kashmir by mustering overriding support from the Islamic countries on the controversial territorial issue.
Working in this direction, Pakistan has not only mooted the idea of ‘proportional representation’ of Muslim countries in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), it has also sought support from the member-states on the Kashmir issue.
Even while Pakistan is geographically better placed than India to enhance trade, cultural and energy links with Central Asia, an unstable Afghanistan with its problems of Islamic fundamentalism and drug-trafficking prevented the Central Asian leaderships from allowing an enhanced role for Islamabad. On the other side, India without a direct land access to Afghanistan being denied by Pakistan looked for alternative ways (through Iran) to reach out to Central Asia. Its continued trade, cultural and energy ties with the region made it a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) along with Pakistan.
Pakistan being located at the crossroads between Central and South Asia seems inclined to see the Gwadar port and other interlinking projects under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), serve the purpose of establishing strong ties with the landlocked energy-rich Central Asian states. Pakistan and China have also developed alternative routes to Central Asia such as Pakistan-China-Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan Transit Agreement through Karakoram Highway, Khunjerab and China.
Pakistan would like to see the revival of the Silk Route but without India being a part of it. The Silk route in the past allowed enormous economic activities between the Central and South Asian regions and the merchants from South Asia were not only actively engaged in trade with the Central Asian region using Afghanistan as a bridge, they established their outposts and stations in various parts of Central Asia. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani city of Peshawar emerged as the main trading centre and the Hindko language of Peshawar served as the common language to facilitate trade dealings between the two regions whereas trade flourished through the Samarkand-Multan to Lahore route.
Pakistan has gradually enhanced multi-faceted ties with the Central Asian region. For instance, the Central Asia South Asia-1000 (CASA) is a major cooperation project between the country and Tajikistan to overcome its energy deficit. Whereas the volume of trade between Tajikistan and Pakistan has steadily grown from the US $ 18 million in 1998 to the US $ 89 million in 2014, Pakistan’s economic relations with Uzbekistan are gradually evolving with the establishment of Pakistan-Uzbekistan Joint Ministerial Commission.
To facilitate collaboration in socio-economic and cultural fields, institutional level arrangements have been made by the country and Joint Economic Commissions (JECs) have also been established with all the Central Asian states. Nonetheless, continuing instability in Afghanistan has been projected as a major hindrance to Pakistan’s efforts at cementing ties with the Central Asian states. However, the desire for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan would continue to evade so long as Pakistan is unable to secure an Afghan government according to its preference which would not only promote its interests and expand its sway into the Central Asian region but would also help undercut India’s geopolitical interests at the same time.