US-Pakistan Relations at Another Fork in the Road – A Conversation with South Asia scholar Shuja Nawaz

Shuja Nawaz

In the eighth segment of the NESA Interview Series, Professor Hassan Abbas interviews Mr. Shuja Nawaz, a political and strategic analyst who is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Earlier Mr. Nawaz served as the Director South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. In the past, he has worked for the New York Times, the World Health Organization, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2nd edition 2017). He is also the principal author of FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS, Washington DC January 2009), and Pakistan in the Danger Zone: A Tenuous US-Pakistan Relationship (Atlantic Council 2010). For more information on his publications visit: www.shujanawaz.com

HASSAN ABBAS: Congratulations on your latest book, The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighborhood. It is a fascinating read I must add. Borrowing from the titles of your last two chapters ‘Pakistan’s military dilemma’ and ‘choices’ before Pakistan as well as the US, can you kindly share with our readers what you believe to be your most important conclusion and recommendation for both Pakistan and the US?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Both countries base their relationship on their enlightened self-interest. Hence the hedging and mutual suspicion. But the constant mistrust needs to be replaced by mutual respect and honor so that what has been seen as a transactional and transitional relationship becomes a substantive one. The United States needs to see Pakistan as a strategic hub in the Muslim World and at the same time as an integral part of a greater South Asian economy that can be a partner for the United States in keeping the region stable and directly or indirectly make South Asia a countervailing force to China’s rising power and reach. My book presents a number of choices for both Pakistan and the United States in terms of signature investments in infrastructure and education projects and greater people-to-people contacts, including greater business and trade partnerships. I also advise the United States to come up with a medium or long-term regional policy in which Pakistan is not seen simply as a corollary to the US’s Afghanistan policy.

HASSAN ABBAS: The economic and geopolitical influence of China in Pakistan (and the greater South Asia region) is a growing topic of discussion. The China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) is indeed a massive undertaking in this direction. To what extent should we consider the impact of increasing Chinese influence on local communities and politics in Pakistan and how will it impact Pakistan’s economic security?

SHUJA NAWAZ: China has been investing heavily in building relationships in Pakistan and the region. Although Pakistan has remained front and center as a long-term friend, China has diversified its external portfolio by investing in Afghanistan and Central Asia. More recently, it has expanded its relations with Iran by promising some $400 billion in long-term infrastructure projects with Iran to build energy pipelines and trade routes connecting China to Iran and to the Gulf. Hence, Pakistan will not be the sole corridor for China to the Arabian Sea and beyond.

The potential for Pakistan to develop its energy infrastructure with Chinese investments is great but a lot depends on the nature of the deals made with Chinese businesses and Pakistan’s own ability to come up with counterpart funding and implementation of individual projects on time. Security issues also loom, especially within reach of the Western Corridor that may be susceptible to attacks by Islamist militants. A hidden issue will be the Uyghur issue that is becoming discussed globally as a human rights matter but on which the Muslim World and especially Pakistan is maintaining a studied silence.

The rise of Chinese scholarships and language training inside Pakistan, even as the United States closes some of those doors to Pakistani students, may over time mean greater societal links between China and Pakistan, similar to what used to be the US-Pakistan relationship. However, Pakistan needs to create millions of new jobs at a time when it is losing jobs. I discuss in my book that China will be looking to export many of its lower-level manufacturing jobs as it shifts more to the services sector itself. It has been looking to South East Asia and even India. Pakistani experts dream of capturing 85 million new jobs from China. But that is wishful thinking. Pakistan will need to create the education and training base for such labor before it becomes a viable target for Chinese job exports.

HASSAN ABBAS: Moving now to the developing situation in Afghanistan, how do you view the prospects of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban? Have the Taliban changed in terms of their political and ideological worldview over the years? Can they be part of a democratic Afghanistan?

SHUJA NAWAZ: The short answer is “no”. The Taliban have a consistent and longer-term view of their effort to displace the US-favored government in Kabul. Once the US troops exit and US air support is no longer available, I see the strong possibility of a vicious but short campaign to capture some provincial capitals in Afghanistan to either topple the Kabul coalition government or take some commanding ministries in a new transitional set-up. The extent to which the United States and its allies can promise economic aid to Afghanistan for the medium- to long-term will determine its ability to influence the shape and nature of the transitional government. No such economic plan has been mentioned as yet.

Pakistan may be tempted to renew its old ties with the largely Pakhtun tribal or former Mujahideen leaders like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. However, Pakistan’s ability to control its erstwhile allies in Afghanistan has always been limited. Secretly, even the Pakistani military fears a strong Islamist regime in Kabul that might turn its eyes to the East, to Pakistan’s border lands to extend its influence.

HASSAN ABBAS: In my recent interview with Indian scholar Amitabh Mattoo, he argued that ‘What is needed [in India] is for the Subedars, the Saudagars and the Sufis to come together and shape a new Pakistan policy.’ What do you think needs to happen in Pakistan to develop a more constructive India policy?

SHUJA NAWAZ: Professor Mattoo is right but I am afraid we may be swimming against the tide now. Pakistan is in the hands of self-serving elites and coalitions of self-dealing parliamentarians who see government as a way to enrich themselves and their relatives or tribes. The government is not formed by the idealists who flocked to Imran Khan, the crusading incorruptible campaigner. It is formed by turncoats from the discarded governments of discredited former dictators or dynastic parties.

The economy of Pakistan is in dire straits and likely to remain difficult for a decade or so. This is fertile ground for societal conflicts. The Islamist forces have made enough deals with politicians and growing numbers in the increasingly conservative military in Pakistan to create divisions in Pakistani society. An extreme right-wing Islamist bloc may well emerge. Though it is small as yet. Meanwhile, the rise of Hindu nationalism inside India will produce a powerful reaction in Pakistan, strengthening the hands of the right-wing Islamists who thrive on dividing society and specially the Muslim majority into sects and ethnic groups. Schisms between Sunnis and Shias, and even within the Sunnis among various sub-sects threaten Pakistani society.

So, Pakistan needs to improve governance, involve the people in decision making, and tamp down the forces of divisions that feed the centrifugal forces that threaten to tear the country apart. An open economic system is the best kind of centripetal force that will tie the country together. And the emergence of connectivity with neighbors in all directions will likely benefit Pakistan and make even India dependent on Pakistan for access to Central Asia. In return Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India would benefit from cheap energy from Central Asia and even Iran, over time.

HASSAN ABBAS: To what extent do you see significant changes in how the US perceives its role in South Asia and how Pakistan perceives the US’s role in the region?

SHUJA NAWAZ: At present, there is no hint of a new US policy for the region or Pakistan. After the US elections, it is possible there will be a redefinition of US interests. But it will be critical for there to be a medium-term vision for Pakistan within a well-defined regional policy, with economics and trade at its basis. For the short run Pakistan would need better trade access to US markets and tariffs reduced at the very least to the level of the European economies. Even for items such as textiles, Pakistan could increase its share of US imports but it would be at the expense of China and not to the detriment of US producers. The US Administration needs to do a better job of selling that on Capitol Hill.

Shuja Nawaz speaks about the Pakistan Report in 2009

Pakistan tends to see the US’ military role in the region as a means to building relations and also sees the United States as a source of quality military hardware. The current hiatus in military aid may well cure Pakistan of that viewpoint. It also views with suspicion US interests in retaining bases in Afghanistan or elsewhere near Pakistan, as a means to launching some sort of moves into Pakistan to secure its nuclear assets. The US must convince Pakistan that it is not poised to invade Pakistan for that purpose. A hard sell.

In brief, I do not see any major changes emerging in how the United States and Pakistan view each other in the next year or two. If a Biden Administration emerges and rethinks its role in Central and South Asia, there may be opportunities for a renewed and proper dialogue instead of talking past each other. The United States will need to enlist multilateral aid organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank, as the vanguard of their efforts to help Pakistan reorder its systems and economic priorities. There is not likely to be a great appetite on Capitol Hill to provide bilateral aid to Pakistan in the near term. Most important, there will be the need to alter this misalliance into a partnership based on mutual respect. Both sides need to learn from the history of this tortured relationship.

HASSAN ABBAS: How do you see the future of the internal misalliance between the civil and military inside Pakistan, especially in light of the relatively more cohesive arrangement between the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military?

SHUJA NAWAZ: The external misalliance is mirrored in the unequal marriage between the current fractured civilian government and the powerful military in Pakistan. The military has increased its reach into the machinery of government and its parastatal organizations.  It has also broadened its economic footprint and further deepened the Culture of Entitlement that has made it difficult to divest its capture of the state and its enterprises from an inept and often incoherent administration run by whimsy more than debated and well-crafted policies. Prime Minister Imran Khan gets along with the current army chief whom he gave a second term. He thus ceded any advantage as the titular head of government. The army chief now sits in key meetings on security and the economy. His nominees hold key positions inside government and in the expanding enterprises run by the Army Welfare Trust and the Fauji Foundation. There was no prenuptial agreement governing this relationship. It appears that the military unilaterally chose to tilt the scales in the last elections in favor of the new horse in the race, Imran Khan. Sector Commanders of the ISI in the provinces and their subordinate colonels may well have been the secret sauce to the success of the election of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf. That may explain the large number of defections from other parties who ran as independents and then swiftly declared for Imran Khan in return for cabinet slots. The magic of the political marketplace triumphed in Pakistan, yet again.

Poor governance in Islamabad means that anyone domestic or foreign who wishes to get things done heads to army headquarters in Rawalpindi. This is not a recipe for success for any civilian government. The increasing dependence of the Prime Minister on the army chief and the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence has created a downward spiral for the Prime Minister. The opposition parties see this as an opportunity to destabilize his government, in advance of the March 2021 senate elections that might give him greater control over parliament and an ability to pass laws. As illustrated in my new book, street agitation, sometimes with a nod and a wink from army headquarters or the ISI, has often served to weaken or topple governments in Pakistan. But, given the poor and undemocratic track record of the dynastic leaders of the major opposition parties and the discredited Islamic parties who failed at the last polls to garner large shares of votes individually, the army may well decide to stick to the devil they know. This is Imran Khan’s best bet. Unless, of course, the economy tanks and the only option is for the military to move from behind the curtain to “save the country” and thus make Pakistan an “Egypt on the Indus”, hoping that the US would be preoccupied with some other crisis around the globe or has decided that it does not care enough about Pakistan for the time being. The political forecast is cloudy with the threats of storms.

Be sure to read the earlier installments of the South Asia Series:

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.