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Pakistan After Hostile Cartography

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP

The incumbent government would be best served by focusing on internal reform rather than moves that hurt ties with ‘friendly’ nations

Last year, India updated its official maps to include the “disputed” Jammu and Kashmir territories as part of its territory. This year, Pakistan followed suit, saying its first “political map” now included the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, and also for good measure, Junagadh in Gujarat. Earlier in May, Nepal had set the ball rolling by claiming on a map about 335 square kilometers of the entire Kalapani region as its own.

As this new spate of one-sided cartography envelops the region, Pakistan has looked around for support among its “friends” in the Islamic world. The articulator of this “search” was Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, as usual going overboard with his aggressive rhetoric, which some have likely found totally disproportionate to Pakistan’s standing as a state power.

He went down well with some Pakistanis habituated to losing their cool over India and letting loose vituperation that Pakistan, as a nuclearized military power, simply cannot afford. He roared in Parliament as bemused lawmakers looked on, then overstepped his diplomatic brief by challenging Saudi Arabia over not convening a session of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) dedicated to Kashmir. “If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris,” he warned.

This was too much for Saudi Arabia to take. It asked Pakistan to return $1 billion of a $3 billion loan that was part of an overall aid package that included $3.2 billion oil credit facility. Qureshi didn’t say that the Saudis had lost their cool but unthinkingly commented on the financial “hard times” the Saudis were facing after the fall in oil prices and therefore needed the money back, which Pakistan then borrowed from China to “come to the help of Saudi Arabia in its hour of need.” Was Foreign Minister Qureshi doing this after consulting with the prime minister or was he getting “prime ministerial” with an ear cocked to any sounds coming from the “powers that be”?

Why did Qureshi take on the Saudis—this includes the U.A.E., too, which in fact is more openly hostile to Pakistan’s Kashmir policy—when he knew that Pakistan would be hurt by his outburst? He is a bad speaker and looks like he is choking with emotion as he lends emphasis to points made against India. Was it time for riling the nation against odds that no one believes are in Pakistan’s favor? How can Pakistan convene an “Islamic summit” of its own against India? But maybe he got his cue from what Prime Minister Imran Khan has been doing in the realm of foreign policy?

After India annexed its part of Jammu and Kashmir, Imran Khan thought Saudi Arabia would join Pakistan in condemning it, but it didn’t. Instead of looking at the extent of Saudi involvement in India—there are more Indians working in the Gulf states than Pakistanis—he perhaps focused on Pakistan’s special military presence in Saudi Arabia “for the protection of the holy places” and looked to Turkey and Malaysia to hold a parallel OIC in Kuala Lumpur instead. Khan is expected to love anyone who defies the West in general and America in particular, and Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Erdogan doubtlessly appealed to him. Weren’t the Arabs too “slavish” towards the United States in spite of the latter’s support of Israel against the deprived Palestinians?

But the “OIC” in Kuala Lumpur didn’t materialize and even Imran Khan’s “defiant” Pakistan didn’t attend it under pressure from Riyadh. Then as luck would have it, the United States under President Trump decided to take on Iran even beyond the point where he had dumped his predecessor Barack Obama’s Iran policy; and likely signaled to India to get out of Iran and its Chabahar project. Iran then turned to China—already involved in Tehran’s ambitious road-building projects—and signed a 25-year deal worth $400 billion. This came as good news for Islamabad, already complaining that India was doing mischief in Balochistan through Iran and Afghanistan where Chabahar had given it a firm foothold. Khan then undertook the mission of a peacemaker between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the Iran-China deal, however, the Arabs are more scared than before and would hardly listen to a cash-strapped and politically unstable Pakistan.

The failure of the Kuala Lumpur summit was a foregone conclusion but Islamabad didn’t grasp it; it also didn’t realize the worry President Erdogan is causing to the Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, in the Mediterranean and its old colonies of the Ottoman times. Since Turkey has taken on Saudi Arabia and its allies in the U.A.E. and Egypt, one could have assumed that Iran would be silently beholden to Turkey; but that was not to be. Iran’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, resented by Sunni Arabs, is also resented by Turkey, which doesn’t treat its own Shia very well. Its policy in its neighboring Syria is opposed to Iran’s direct participation in the civil war there. Hence, Pakistan’s “diplomacy” with either Turkey separately, or together with Iran, is clearly a nonstarter.

Iran is overstretched in its policy of “coming to the help” of Shia communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and bothers the Arabs in the region and therefore restricts Pakistan’s room for action. This is in contract to India, which has a major economic presence in the region. Delhi is also close to Israel, which offends the Arabs less than Iran and Pakistan these days. The contest is between India and China; and Pakistan doesn’t figure there at all. After all, India is an economy where the Arabs can invest now that America is getting ready to leave the region; and China is a major buyer of Middle Eastern oil—after the U.S. became oil-surplus—in addition to its domination of the consumer goods market in the Gulf. Pakistan’s room for maneuver is restricted and, given its long-term economic difficulties, it is even less equipped to stand up to a “post-Kashmir” India now equipped with the weapons-carrying drones the Americans not long ago employed to pick out the Taliban leaders of north Waziristan.

This is not the time to let Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi lose his cool and be “prime ministerial”; rather it is time Pakistan gathered itself after years of internally destabilizing adventurism and learned to buy time for internal reform and economic trouble-shooting. Big leaders sitting on top of small, unstable states can be dangerous for their people and for their neighbors.

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