The timing of the removal of Imran Khan from the prime ministerial position could coincide with a regional reset that the US might be looking at. Pakistan is in a serious financial crisis. A host of factors including China’s debt diplomacy, a stalling CPEC, the recent fallout with GCC nations, and persistent tensions with the different Western financial institutions, have all come together to put Pakistan in a precarious situation, and the US — as insinuated by Imran Khan just before his ouster as the key reason behind his removal — has a track record of leveraging such conditions to its advantage. On the other side, with a new premier in Islamabad, if the FATF, for instance, can be renegotiated, it might provide a much-needed breather for Pakistan.
There have been recent perceptible shifts in Pakistan’s modus operandi too. About a year ago when the USA finally went ahead with its inglorious exit from Afghanistan, the Biden administration had asked for an airbase in Pakistan. Imran Khan had refused. That the Taliban had gained power in Afghanistan with the active support of the Pakistan Army, ISI, and other establishments is no secret. That Imran Khan identifies himself ethnically with the Pashtun tribe is also well-known. There were additional factors too. With Donald Trump’s exit, the US was beginning to appear demonstrably indecisive. A series of Trump initiatives along the international and domestic arena were discarded. Among other major US interests around the world, Syria was a lost cause; Turkey was showing signs of double-play; the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel had initiated their independent course of action; the Sino-Russian alliance was getting stronger and Iran was quickly securing itself as a potent adversary in the Middle East despite the sanctions. Even the US’s longtime ally, the EU, appeared divided and indecisive. Under such circumstances, Imran Khan — and given Pakistan’s track record of taking the US for a ride for over four decades — had perhaps made the right decision, and the US had no option but to walk away.
But from there to the recent airstrikes in Kunar and Khost provinces, things appear to be changing quickly. Pakistani establishments, after August 2021, had quickly discovered that they had failed to correctly assess the Taliban despite being their mentors for two decades. But they were compelled to resort to patchwork scuffles and retaliations to stem the Taliban — mostly to diffuse issues around the Durand Line. The new government in Kabul had quickly established workable ties with Russia and China, and Pakistan, as the ‘iron-bother’ of China thus had its limitations in dealing with Afghanistan.
That is why this airstrike is significant; it marks a move of Pakistan from its earlier position. Not just that, in terms of significance, this is a strike within the sovereign territory of Afghanistan, an aspect that Xi Jinping considers quite important.
From a request for an airbase in Pakistan in an effort to continue its presence close to the Heartland rejected, to witnessing early cracks within two establishments like Rawalpindi and the Taliban: partners that have been looking out for each other through Soviet occupation of 1980s right to the US withdrawal of 2020s, it would be interesting to observe what White House does next. Halford Mackinder’s ‘heartland’ still continues to be crucial to the West. In fact, if the West can afford it, it is a priority now with two regional powers bordering the heartland – Russia and China, on the rise. The US, during its presence in the region through the last two decades, failed to build itself as an indispensable power. It failed to build relations with the post-Soviet stans. It failed in the Caucasus or Iran and had to finally give up Afghanistan in a catastrophic geopolitical move. A strategic miscalculation like that was bound to affect Washington’s Asian imperatives, and that is where this move by Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa could be equated as a delayed symbolic response to that US request made last year. One expects a palpable relief in the beltway.
What could the future look like for the region? Difficult to pinpoint, because there are many factors. However, with Afghanistan coalescing with Russia and China, India toeing an assertive line in international relations (with respect to the Ukraine crisis), a failed uprising in Kazakhstan, with no guarantees of a steady relationship with Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, this reappearance of Gen Bajwa’s Pakistan on the US radar could provide a crucial and much-needed aperture. And Washington is sure to have no issues with Rawalpindi violating the sovereignty of Afghanistan, or orchestrating asymmetric warfare in India. To Washington, regional destabilisation does not matter. In fact, the US promotes destabilisation to suit its agenda. For instance, albeit under a different garb the Biden government promotes subnational actors and sentiment in India. Add to that the recent visit of Victoria Nuland (considered to be the chief architect behind the Euromaidan crisis), and one gets a picture of the kind of stress that India could be subjected to. What matters to Washington is to regain a foothold in South Asia. And perhaps Gen Bajwa holds the key.
Who will the Pakistan Army take for a ride this time? The US, like always, or China? It would be interesting to watch.