In August 2021, when the United States had to expedite its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the supposed leverage it had over the Afghan Taliban, came to the forefront as a saviour for many a foreign nationals stuck in the country. Later that year and in the March of 2022, Pakistan hosted two OIC conferences to direct attention to the plight of the country, albeit for the sake of its good, as any trouble in Afghanistan meant a trickle-down of great miseries, both human and economic, upon Pakistan as well. There was scepticism about Pakistan’s alleged role in empowering the Taliban regime, a narrative that India deranged for losing the anti-Pakistan ally in the Ghani government has been successfully lobbying and that Pakistan, with its gesture to extend support to the west, at that crucial time, was able to diffuse to a large extent. Pakistan, at a time when the world was eager on establishing itself as a major culprit behind the US’s failure in Afghanistan, created a soft corner for it not just in the world but in neighbouring Afghanistan, which was in dire need of humanitarian support. Pakistan remained relevant for good. This, though was not the first time that Pakistan established its relevance in recent history, and neither was it meant to be the last time.
Soon after, war broke out between Ukraine and Russia, putting Pakistan in rough waters as the then Prime Minister Imran Khan happened to be visiting Russia on the same day as the attack. Though tensions were brewing at the time the visit was finalized, it was caught off guard by the timing of the attack, where postponing the visit meant another long spell of winter over the two countries’ relationship, at a time when one of them was keen on outside support and the other desperate to get hold of essential commodities right before a looming threat of a commodities Supercycle. Those who know Russia know that winter is predictable and brutally cold in the country unlike most of the west, where winter would merge with spring unexpectedly any day. Hence Pakistan chose to remain “neutral;” “partner in peace and not in war,” as the Prime Minister maintained. From there on, however, and despite the recent revelations of Pakistan providing arms to Ukraine against Russia, contrary to its initial stance, Pakistan has only lost relevance in the global sphere.
It had successfully put Kashmir back on the global agenda in the aftermath of India’s illegal annexation of Jammu and Kashmir. Led the way on regional connectivity through Pakistan China Economic Corridor taking in the loop the heart of central Asia; effectively navigated its path on the green map in the efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and was becoming a significant force in the region leading the humanitarian efforts on Afghanistan. Today, the world is going about its business while Pakistan appears isolated despite recurrent visits of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister abroad. The PM made multiple visits to the Gulf and Türkiye yet the crucial support the country requires to overcome its economic issues is unachievable so far. The iron brother China is cold towards the country, and the gateway to BRI’s flagship project CPEC was to “change the game” for Pakistan is in a stalemate.
There have been significant developments in the region in the past year; a momentous one, being Saudi Arabia and Iran resuming diplomatic ties with the help of China. Earlier, Pakistan had offered to mediate between the two Muslim countries but it remained irrelevant to the process, rather oblivious to the progress being made in its backyard.
In September, New Delhi will be hosting a G-20 summit. While the invitees include Bangladesh and Nigeria among others, Pakistan did not make it to the list. What shall worry Pakistan the most is that in May, for the first time in over 70 years, the Indian Occupied Kashmir will be made host to a meeting of an international scale. A meeting of the G-20 will be held in Occupied Kashmir. In attendance would be representatives from the G-20 countries, including China and Türkiye. Earlier, the two countries had strongly voiced their reservation over the illegal annexation of the Occupied Territory in 2019 and the gross human rights violations at the hands of the Indian government. No resistance to the idea from any quarter is a clear failure of Pakistan’s diplomacy on Kashmir.
Losing Afghanistan again is one major blow to the country, serious implications of which are already becoming evident. Until last year, Pakistan was enjoying a significant influence over the new government and creating goodwill for itself with the people; spearheading global relief efforts for the poverty-ridden country. Today, Afghanistan is an even more frightening security threat to Pakistan with the government’s patronage of the TTP fugitives. While the Taliban government seems least interested in neutralizing the threat they hold to Pakistan’s security, the government even issued press statements contradicting Pakistan’s version of the recent incidences of terrorism in the country. The use of the porous border for smuggling commodities and foreign currency from Pakistan is adding up to Pakistan’s economic woes. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s government appears to be equally non-serious in dealing with Afghanistan, where the foreign minister has, despite the importance of the country to Pakistan, not made a single visit to Kabul in the past year. More so, last month, Pakistan skipped the multilateral talks on Afghanistan hosted by Russia.
The only somewhat success Pakistan had in the past year is maintaining a soft image on the climate front with the establishment of a loss and damage fund leading the negotiations of the G77 at the COP-27 in Sharm el Shiekh last November. Four months later, any practical output of even that is yet to be seen.
Pakistan needs to seriously reevaluate its foreign policy approach over the past year. Pakistan, with its internal problems (from terrorism to food insecurity, climate, economic and governance issues), cannot afford to lose global attention. Climate change is a recurring formula. Last year, Pakistan experienced one of the worst floods recorded globally. While pledges were made for the rehabilitation efforts, Pakistan needs to push its case for long-term reparation.
The country has lost over 80,000 lives to terrorism with large-scale economic losses. Cross-border terrorism is seeing a return to the country and serious efforts shall be made in Pak-Afghan relations to find a way to deal with the TTP fugitives operating from their safe havens in Afghanistan. The smuggling of commodities and foreign currency from Pakistan to Afghanistan is another critical issue that needs to be dealt with.
Significant developments in Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood including the resumption of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, however pleasant, have caught Pakistan off-guard. The country has been long manoeuvring its foreign policy regarding Iran to suit its relationship with the Kingdom. How can Pakistan use the lowering of tensions between the two to its benefit needs to be explored. More so, the fact that the deal has been brokered by Beijing requires Pakistan to critically reevaluate its increased inclination towards the western block. Even Saudi Arabia is shifting its weight east.
Regaining China’s confidence is crucial for the country today. Acknowledging the western wishes to distance itself from China and Russia has reaped little to no benefits for the country over the past 12 months. CPEC holds the key to Pakistan’s economic problems. It can not only support the industrialization of its dying agricultural economy and give value to Pakistan’s exports but also provide employment opportunities. We have also seen how China’s backing helped Pakistan in blocking India’s ambitions at crucial international forums as well as supported the Kashmir cause that many in the west were unable to condemn owing to Indian influence in their power quarters.
The power dynamics in the region are fast changing and Pakistan’s oblivion to these changes and insistence upon following the old beaten path is only pushing the country further to the wall. For a country with a geostrategic location like Pakistan, isolation can become an existential threat; more swiftly than those at the helm of affairs can anticipate. Pakistan needs to reclaim its position in the world today more than ever.
The writer is a Research Associate at Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad.