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December 6, 2014 9:07 pm

Why Can’t Neighbors Be Friends?

Loh woh bhi kah rahe hain ke be nang-o-naam hai

The reality finally seems to have dawned on Pakistan.  Although Pakistani officials and intellectuals have from time to time complained of the fickle and far from trusting nature of America, their long-time ally and fair weather friend, few have had the pluck to put it as bluntly as Defense Minister Khawaja Asif has.

“The Americans have been our friends for a long time – since the 60s and the 70s – but their reliability is relative,” he told a select audience at Islamabad’s Institute of Strategic Studies.

The minister singled out Washington for much of the geopolitical mess in the region and beyond. “American foreign policy has been disastrous for this region,” he said, referring to South Asia and the Middle East. “For all times to come, the geography of this region has been changed. The disintegration of this region on sectarian and ethnic lines is in process.”

Evidently articulating the view of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, Asif rejected the continuing US ‘disappointment’ with Pakistan’s role in the terror war saying: “This shows that despite our sacrifices, the Americans still do not trust us completely. That is sad. We are still paying the price for our intervention in Afghanistan. (Pakistan’s) intervention or interference in Afghanistan in the 80s was more of a proxy war and we were the proxy!”

This is as interesting as it gets. It is hard to disagree with the thrust of the minister’s argument though.  While everyone went home happy after Afghan Mujahideen with their primitive weapons, sheer resolve and faith–and of course moral support from the Americans and Arabs–drove out the mighty Soviet Union, it was Pakistan that was left holding the baby.

And it is still clearing the mess left behind by more than a decade of occupation, civil war and militarization of the region.

Afghanistan was seen as a good war by the US and West, a brilliant opportunity to bleed its arch rival to death. For much of the Muslim world, the valiant Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupation was jihad. It inspired and attracted sympathetic Arab and Muslims from far and wide in their droves. One of those fighters had been a certain Arab called Osama Bin Laden.

Coming back to the issue on hand, Pakistan’s defense minister did not stop with venting the long pent up frustration and ire against the reigning superpower. He he went on to drop more than broad hints that Pakistan is out looking to make new friends and win allies.

Advocating multi-polarity as ideal for a global balance of power and hailing Russia and China as ‘the two largest powers in the region, Khawaja Asif said: “We should seek solutions to regional problems from our own shores, not from across the pond. Pakistan must pursue its own national security goals.”

Interesting views and choice of words and interesting timing! But are they mere words or do they really suggest a strategic, meaningful shift in the mindset and priorities of Pakistan’s military and political establishment?

The change may not come about overnight but it appears Pakistan has at last started woken up to the need to reduce its critical dependence on America, one of the three ‘As’ that supposedly run the Islamic republic.

But it’s better late than never.  Indeed, this should be the way forward for all developing countries, especially Arab and Muslim nations, although it is easier said than done given the total global dominance of Pax Americana in all spheres.

In recent years, the Arab world, Africa and South America have increasingly looked Eastwards, building economic partnerships with China, Japan, India and South Korea etc. But obviously they have a long way to go before they could come anywhere close to reducing their excessive dependence on the West.

But the first tentative steps for a thousand mile journey, as the Chinese would put it, are being taken by countries around the world.  Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE – all US allies — and many other Muslim countries have increasingly been doing business with countries outside the influence of Western hemisphere.

Pakistan recently clinched a strategic defense deal with Russia which would allow it to purchase armaments from the Russian Federation. Although China has long been a close ally and friend with long years of economic and defense partnership between Islamabad and Beijing, this equation is set to acquire a whole new meaning and nature.

The two sides are ostensibly closing ranks against a growing US-India partnership on the one hand and an assertive, confident India looking to play a bigger role in the region and the world on the other.

The ascent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ambitious approach, strutting from Japan to America to Australia, clinching strategic and economic cooperation deals left, right and center while assiduously avoiding Pakistan, hasn’t clearly helped.

The tension at the 18th Saarc summit in Kathmandu had been so thick that you could slice it with a knife.  The cold vibes between the neighbors who not long ago were part of the same country indeed froze the whole Saarc jamboree, whose sole stated purpose has been the promotion of ‘regional cooperation’.

After a warm start in Delhi at Modi’s inauguration in May, things have unraveled at an alarming rate.  The two democratically elected prime ministers apparently did not even acknowledge each other or exchange a curt nod despite being in the same room and sitting at the same table. (They eventually shook hands amid thin, forced smiles for the benefit of waiting cameras and an anxious audience, hours before an all but doomed summit concluded!)

Seems the more things change between the South Asian twins, the more they remain the same.  Twelve years ago, at a similar summit in Kathmandu, General Pervez Musharraf instantly broke ice and scored a diplomatic coup of sorts when he walked up to a bemused Prime Minister Vajpayee to shake hands.

The Indian leader, who once argued that since you cannot choose neighbors you might as well live with them in harmony, had been gracious enough to respond with warmth and a big smile.  Incidentally, Vajpayee founded the party that Modi now represents and leads.  Yet there’s a world of difference between their view of the world.

That said, it is good that both India and Pakistan are keen to make new friends and win allies far beyond their shores.  In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, no country can afford to forever remain an island limiting its sphere of acquaintance to any particular country, especially when it has repeatedly demonstrated to be exceptionally self-serving and fickle in its relationship.

However, before setting out in search of distant friends in distant lands, shouldn’t India and Pakistan first reach out to each other and break the Himalayan wall of distrust and suspicion that separates them?

The repeat farce of the Kathmandu Saarc summit, where the diplomatic games and moves and countermoves of the Big Two drove everyone nuts, is just another example how the never-ending rivalry and antagonism of the nuclear powers is not just affecting their own people but the wellbeing and progress of the whole region.

In response to Modi’s snub, Islamabad ensured that India’s proposal for greater regional trade, connectivity and energy cooperation came up a dud.  On the other hand, Modi went out of his way to court everyone, signing series of bilateral agreements with even small players like Bhutan and Nepal, while looking straight through Nawaz Sharif.

Many in Indian media noted how the continuing India-Pakistan duel once again had hijacked the regional cooperation summit, rendering it once again merely an expensive photo op.

Will this ever change? Notwithstanding his ideological baggage, Vajpayee had had the audacity and vision to see that India and Pakistan had to make peace with each other and move on if they wanted their people to move ahead with times.

No one expects the neighbors to totally bury their troubled past, which includes four wars and constant hostilities in the past six decades, and become perfect neighbors and thick friends overnight. But they could for God’s sake at least try for a mature, sensible relationship that exists and should exist between responsible, civilized neighbors and adults. Isn’t it absurd that while they befriend and make nice with the whole wide world, they should forever remain at each other’s throats?

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. For feedback, write to aijaz.syed@hotmail.com. 

 

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