US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Airfield in the first major military operation ordered by Donald Trump. In addition to the serious consequences of deteriorating situation in Syria, this attack highlights the reality that international alliances are not as simple today as they were during the bi-polar Cold War when one was aligned with either American or Soviet side. For Pakistan, the Syrian crisis could have serious consequences, including for our involvement in the controversial Islamic Military Alliance.
One of the greatest concerns about involvement in the Saudi-led military alliance was whether Saudi and Iran would be able to overcome differences and adopt a common policy. Members of the Islamic Military Alliance supporting the attack include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Bahrain. However, Iran has condemned the attack as “dangerous, destructive and violates the principles of international law.”
Russia has also opposed the American missile strike, while China has stayed neutral. The question facing Pakistan now is, how do we fit this reality into our new alliances? Do we support American intervention along with Saudi and Turkey and other Islamic nations? Or do we oppose the American aggression along with Iran and Russia? Or do we try to sit on the sidelines along with China? Is that even an option?
Unfortunately, military alliances are not as simple as slogans about “all weather friendships.” Each nation is going to do what is in its best interest, and unless we are going to be a vassal state who follows a lead whether right or wrong then we also must determine what is in our own interest instead of making decisions based purely on convenient alliances and imagined shared ideologies.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Are we doomed to repeat past mistakes with China? We believe we have turned a new corner by shedding our reliance on America and becoming closer to our neighbor to the East, but will that allow us to continue past behaviours without facing similar consequences? These are questions that require immediate attention if we are to enjoy the full benefits of CPEC and our strategic alliance with China, and current events warn of looming problems.
On the strategic side, Nawaz Sharif appreciated China’s support in the fight against terrorism, a critical issue during a time when terrorist attacks have once again sky rocketed in Pakistan. Only yesterday there was another suicide blast in Lahore, showing that the militants have much more ability than official statements give credit for.
However if we ask whether China is actually on the same page as our own civil military leadership when it comes to terrorism, there is reason to worry. Chinese authorities have continued passing tighter restrictions on Muslims including banning long beards and burkas. Chinese officials are worried about infiltration of extremist ideology, a problem that the Chinese have blamed Pakistan in the recent past. There is also the question of China’s international anti-terrorism fight. It is also becoming clear that China is secretly working with Kabul in fight against Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, our position is less clear. We are united against ‘terrorism’, but we are not united about who is a terrorist. While there are question marks around how Osama bin Laden was able to live outside PMA Kakul without being detected, Sartaj Aziz has famously admitted that we hosted Taliban leadership in Pakistan. Pakistani militants have been killed fighting alongside Taliban in Afghanistan, and JUI-F General Secretary Abdul Ghafoor Haideri on Wednesday even invited Taliban to join his party.
We have not forgotten the past, but our memory has become cloudy and confused as incidents and actions have been buried under decades of conspiracy theories and ‘narratives’ invented to retell history in a way that favours what we want to believe. In the past, we wanted to have close relationship with America, but support Taliban also. Eventually, this destroyed our relationship with the Americans who saw us as playing a double game. Now we have replaced US with China, but we have kept the Taliban as our ally. However, China also sees Taliban as a threat just as America does also. Will our unwavering support for Taliban destroy our relations with China also?
By appearances, Pakistan China relations have always been beyond any doubt. When Chinese dignitaries have visited Pakistan, they have been welcomed like brothers returning home. China too has always supported Pakistan whether by supporting our interests in international forums like the UN, giving stern reminders to neighboring countries not to overstep boundaries, or the $50 billion investment in Pakistan’s economy. However same as brothers can have some buried issues between them, there has been a cloud hovering over our relations with China. At most times it is so small it can be missed as simply shade, but now and again it shows itself as a gathering storm. This storm has always broken before it hit, but once again the clouds are gathering and we should take note.
It will be no surprise that the darkness hanging over us is the cloud of militancy. China has given subtle warnings before that the menace of extremism must be cleaned up, and agencies have even put on a show of taking action against their most favoured militants. While there is no sign that China is displeased with our efforts till date, we could soon find ourselves in a familiar situation due to increasing threats of militants against China. According to reports, militants in Xinjiang have threatened to unleash ‘rivers of blood‘ in the country.
In the past, China has placed the blame for militancy on our doorstep and demanded that we take action against militant camps. In response, some actions have been taken, but the threat still remains. Statements by state officials including PM’s Advisor on National Security Sartaj Aziz suggest that certain militant groups have been spared if they did not pose a direct threat to Pakistan. Such sentiments were confirmed when DG ISPR admitted that agencies had been showing ‘restraint‘ for certain militant groups.
Now we once again find ourselves in a familiar place. Our greatest allies are facing threats from militants who get training and support from inside Pakistan. We can say that these groups do not threaten our interests, but we should have a better understanding of what our interests are. Already we are on the edge of losing America as an ally, if we have not already lost them. Our back up plan was China, but now they are facing the same threats also. Will we tell the Chinese, like we told the Americans, that these groups are not our enemies and taking action against all militants is against our national security? No. Our national security has been weakened and nearly destroyed by this backwards thinking. If we are to avoid total isolation in the world and becoming next North Korea, we need to give up the failed policies of the past and clear the dark clouds before we are hit with a storm we are unprepared to weather.
The surprise arrest of Jamaatud Dawah Amir Hafiz Saeed sent a clear message that military and civilian leaders were serious when they said that extremist groups would be handled with no preferences given. However, as they saying goes, the proof of pudding is in the eating. Having taken the decision to arrest Hafiz Saeed, the state’s credibility is now at stake in how the case is handled.
China, who according to military insiders is the one who pressured for the arrest, will surely be watching how the case is handled. If it is another example of saying one thing while doing another, or if the state has actually turned a corner from differentiating between ‘Good Taliban’ and ‘Bad Taliban’.
Already there are signs that the JUD chief is being given special treatment. Who can forget the infamous raid of Nine-Zero and the treatment of MQM workers by agencies?
Compare to case of Hafiz Saeed who day after his arrest was releasing videos on social media.
When agencies raided MQM HQ, leaders were taken into custody and remanded for months on end where they were even tortured to death. When Hafiz Saeed was arrested, his own house was declared sub-jail so that he does not face any inconvenience.
Most importantly to note is that JuD has already pulled the same trick that it has always used by getting ‘banned’ to appease some foreign ally and immediately reemerging under a new name while continuing exactly the same activities. Does GHQ believe Beijing is as stupid and blind as America to fall for this trick also?
DG-ISPR officially stated that the arrest was ‘in the national interest.’ This is important because what happens next will speak volumes about how seriously institutions are taking ‘the national interest’ or whether it is nothing but another code word for telling everyone to shut up. So far, there is not much to be hopeful about.