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The Pakistan Sandwich



By Mosharraf Zaidi

February 19, 2014

What is the worst sandwich in international relations? Many countries’ leaders would name their own country in the middle, pressed up against the proverbial rocks on one side and difficult, hard to manoeuvre places on the other.

This is but natural for politicians. Victimhood is their instinctive first response to challenges that seem complex and insurmountable. Some politicians develop a mastery of leveraging victimhood as an instrument of policy. Afghanistan’s evergreen President Hamid Karzai is one such master.

Examples of less successful peddlers of victimhood? The dearly departed Ahmedinejad of Iran – whose performance as a leader in Iran not only inspired electoral defeat for his vision, but also helped steer his country away from the isolationist and irrational rhetoric he pursued to the more pragmatic and decidedly charming tone his successor in Tehran has adopted.

Ultimately, claiming victimhood is a poor substitute for policy. If a country doesn’t have creative ways of dealing with its difficulties, that country is in big, big trouble.

What is happening in the geopolitical and geostrategic spheres that Pakistan sits at the centre of is nothing short of cataclysmic change. How well prepared are we to deal with these changes? It doesn’t look good.

To start with, the current mindset among reasonable Pakistanis that refuse to be blinded by nationalism to the urgency of the situation is one of victimhood. I put myself squarely within that large galaxy of Pakistanis. I also think almost all of our political and social leaders are in the same camp. We’re overwhelmed by the confluence of institutional challenges and underwhelmed by the quality of our collective response.

Even the prime minister, otherwise an assured, self-confident man after his big electoral victory last year, exudes a worried, pained persona of a leader unsure whether we will be able to overcome. I’m with him. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis are victims of circumstances, history and spiralling institutional dynamics that don’t seem to be heading anywhere pleasant. It is well enough for us to say that we are in this hole because of the cancerous mistakes we have made as a country. But contrition is a poor strategy for progress.

To complicate matters, we have little other than contrition and dependence to offer in response to the cataclysmic changes taking place in the world, and particularly in the region and the broader Muslim world. As a result, we are seeing some very dangerous signs emerge. Things can and will get dramatically worse unless the prime minister evolves his leadership style very dramatically and suddenly to steer Pakistan out of this mess. Consider three key factors.

First up? Iran. Iran has all kinds of new swag. This self-confidence, a product of roughly 18 months of some of the highest quality public and private diplomacy that we’ve seen in recent memory is going to come at a cost for Pakistan. This was known all along. Why? Because Pakistan happens to be the headquarters of some of the most violent anti-Shia organisations in the world. These groups are enjoying a major resurgence of relevance and power in recent months.

Iran is a Shia majority country with growing global influence, and an economy on the cusp of being released from a series of crushing international sanctions. It has a port named Chabahar that could nullify Pakistan’s long-held geostrategic advantage. And Iran harbours wounds from the consistency with which it feels Pakistan has been a bad neighbour to it. This is a bad combination on its own, but much worse when combined with the second factor.

The second factor? The House of Saud’s rediscovery of Pakistan. Ever since last year’s UN General Assembly, which was really the Rouhani & Zarif Show, and subsequently, the successful détente between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva, Saudi Arabia has roared often but meekly, like a wounded lion. Its pride has been ravaged by the thought of a normalised Iran on the international stage. All that Persian culture, all that Isfahani charm, all deployed against the Bedouin fierceness and petrodollar magic that has defined Saudi Arabia on the international stage for decades.

Saudi Arabia has found the going difficult, if not impossible. American dependence on crude oil is waning, and so is Saudi Arabia’s Texas charm – not just in Washington DC, but everywhere. Everywhere it seems, except one place. That one place is Islamabad. In Nawaz Sharif, the Saudis believe they have a Pakistani leader that they can trust and work with – at least more than they trusted Generals Musharraf (all variants), or former president Asif Ali Zardari.

But the question that very rightly keeps the prime minister’s foreign policy team up at nights is simple. What is the short- and long-term cost to Pakistan of explicitly aligning with Saudi Arabia at this time? Domestically and internationally. Before we answer that question there is a third factor to consider.

Third, and finally, is momentum. Not so much the momentum that seems to favour Iran, or the one that is driving these high-level Saudi visits to Pakistan, but really the momentum of Pakistan’s internal troubles, and the steep decline as a power in the region, and in the Muslim world. It is useful to remember Pakistan’s place in the world as it was conceived by Quaid-e-Azam, the rest of the founding fathers, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Pakistan, with its syncretic and diverse mix of sects and practices, its geostrategic location and the modernity of its elite was designed to be the singular pivot for the Muslim world, the sharp, witty front end of Islam on the global stage. Its diplomats were trained in a specific way, consistent with that vision and its policies.

Until the early 1980s Pakistani diplomacy reflected the sophistication, nuances, ambition and competence that was necessary to stake out that place. Pakistan’s decision to be a surrogate mother to the Afghan jihad destroyed a lot of things in this country – and that vision was one of them.

Iran’s new swagger, Saudi Arabia’s insecurity and Pakistan’s freefall have produced two warning signs that serious observers of foreign policy should be shuddering at.

One, the Iranian threat of hot pursuit into Pakistani territory, to recover Iranian soldiers kidnapped by allegedly Pakistan-based terror groups.

Two, Pakistan’s implicit endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s interventionist policies in Syria.

Can Pakistan really afford to have a neighbouring country hurl threats in the manner that Iran’s interior minister has? Not really. But this country specialises in being antagonised and victimised by its immediate neighbours and then responding in the worst way possible. Poor us.

Can Pakistan afford to abandon its neutrality (and Chapter 7 reservations) with respect to Syria, no matter how much pressure we receive from the combined bank accounts and charms of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Not really. But this country specialises in putting the interests of other countries, for small sums of money, ahead of its own (see US, China, Saudi Arabia over and over and over again since the 1950s). Poor us.

The world’s worst sandwich is the one that finds Pakistan, marinated by its own incompetence, and lack of creativity, stuck between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.

If the only response we have is to claim victimhood in this uncomfortable position, we are destined to remain locked in it. It may work for Saudi Arabia and for Iran, but it has never, and will never work for Pakistan.

Mosharraf Zaidi is an analyst and commentator.