On December 9 and 10, 2021, two events took place. The first event was “Summit for Democracy 2021”, hosted by the US State Department. The summit was attended by more than 100 countries, including Taiwan. The notable absence from the Summit was Russia, China and Pakistan. The second event was organised in Pakistan by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, named “Islamabad Conclave 2021.” The theme of the conclave was “Peaceful and Prosperous South Asia”. In his inaugural address at the conclave, Prime Minister Imran Khan was seen defending Pakistan’s non-participation in the US Summit. He stated that he does not want Pakistan to get trapped in a potential new Cold War developing between the US and China. He offered to mediate between the US and China to bridge the growing distance between the two. His comments came a day after Pakistan pulled out from President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit, asserting that the engagement with Washington on the issue of democracy will happen “at an opportune time in the future”. Imran Khan had been aggrieved and upset about two issues. Firstly, US President Joe Biden’s decision not to ring Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan since taking office and secondly, the invitation of Taiwan to the summit while ignoring its all-weather friend China. The decision not to attend the summit was intended to send a strong message to Washington about Pakistan’s objections to the absence of high-level engagement between the two countries, especially after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has survived as a nation by taking sides. Since independence, Pakistan has looked for reciprocal economic favours from the West for toeing their line. It was part of the anticommunist blocs of Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954 and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), originally known as the Baghdad Pact, 1955. U-2 intelligence flights over the Soviet Union were flown from the bases in West Pakistan while the airfield at Dacca was used for operations against the Chinese over Tibet. The US brokered these agreements by promising military and economic aid to the participating country. For quite some time, Pakistan was run by three As — Army, Allah and America. The famous Yahya Khan-led backdoor diplomacy in the late 1960s helped the US and China establish diplomatic ties. The adoption of UNGA resolution 2578 on October 21, 1971 paved the way for China to unseat Taiwan from the security council. Pakistan was hoping for immediate support from its allies during the December 1971 Indo-Pak War for the Liberation of Bangladesh. However, instead of getting help, it faced humiliation when more than 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Indian Army and East Pakistan was liberated as Bangladesh.
Post the defeat of 1971 and turning to democracy, Pakistan failed to get the US and Chinese support. It had to wait till 1979, when Russian forces invaded Afghanistan. Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq was struggling to shore up the ailing economy after imposing dictatorship and hanging Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan’s People Party (PPP). He took the event as a strategic opportunity and allied with the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the proxy war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Ten years of Soviet incursion in Afghanistan gave Pakistan the required military and economic aid to build its war chest. It undertook fourth generation warfare in Jammu and Kashmir as part of its revenge programme. However, the death of General Zia in 1988 and political instability brought about by the frequent dismissal of the elected government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and Nawaz Sharif in 1993 affected the economy badly. The opposition of the people of Pakistan against the Pakistan Army participation in Gulf War 1 in 1991 as the US ally also dented the US-Pakistan relationship. The 1992 Pressler amendment against Pakistan nuclear development also dried up the economic aid. Pakistan was subjected to sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests. The Kargil misadventure by General Musharaf in 1999 embarrassed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But before he could remove his Army Chief, he was sent packing to Saudi Arabia under exile.
When President Bush on November 6, 2001 demanded that there was no room for neutrality in the war against terrorism and urged that “a coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy, a coalition partner must perform”. General Parvez Musharraf, who had taken over the reins of Pakistan in October 1999, was left with no choice but to side with the US invasion plan of Afghanistan. He dumped the Taliban, which the ISI of Pakistan so far nurtured. The constant US pressure ‘to do more’ to curb terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil and the US drone attacks within Pakistani territory soured the US-Pakistan relationship.
The pressure on General Musharraf to reinstall democratic government and the US 2009 Enhanced Partnership for Pakistan Act (known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill) led to further deterioration in the US-Pakistan relationship. The strains in Pakistan-US relations started showing signs once Pakistan was put under greylist by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2008. The relationship got further strained on the revelation that Pakistan was hiding Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief, at Abbottabad. The economic squeeze and the stoppage of military aid by the Pentagon to Pakistan were seen by the Pakistan Army as an attempt by the Pentagon to squeeze its sovereign space.
The 2013 elevation of Xi Jinping as the new Chinese President and his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, commonly known as CPEC, was seen as a panacea to the Pakistani’s woes. Pakistan since then has drifted towards China and is willing to act as a strategic counterweight to India. China’s economic and military aid has helped Pakistan weather difficult economic situations created not only because of Chinese Covid-19 but also due to poor diplomacy with Suadi Arabia. The US 2018 National Defence Strategy and Indo-Pacific strategy clearly outline Sino-US rivalry. The Biden administration has continued with the Trump administration policy on engagement with China. The US and the West’s boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns in China have further strained the relationship.
Pakistan, staring at an economic crisis, needs an IMF bailout. The euphoria over the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is giving way to the realisation of humanitarian catastrophe brewing up in Afghanistan. The unfreezing of the Afghanistan fund is the only way to prevent refugee influx in Pakistan. The government of Imran Khan and the people in Pakistan may not like the US, but they know they have fewer alternatives. Pakistan has made its side clear by not participating in the “Summit for Democracy 2021”. How long can it avoid the temptations of not siding with the US? To be or not to be, that’s Imran Khan’s dilemma.
(Vivek Verma is the former Deputy Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and has authored “Non-Contact Warfare: An Appraisal of China’s Military Capability”)
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