Pakistan’s response to India’s West Asia Hegemon Ambitions: Do or Die

Posted originally on Eurasia Future.

Fledgling states located in regions filled with ideological, religious and ethnic strife, territorial disputes and various unfinished agendas have very little margin for error if they wish to preserve their security. The conception of security by such states must be dynamic and multifaceted and allotted a geospatial and chronological dimension of planning. Long-term investments must be made by the state and sustained alongside short-term and reaction-based policies. Inactivity in overcoming basic economic issues such as power crises and infrastructure, failing to galvanize diasporas abroad for pushing the state’s interests, a willing ignorance of global and regional alliance-shifts and deeper ideological motivations of states, using ‘diplomacy’ where it is clear it has failed and using soft measures against subversive elements; such are the various shortcomings that comprise a comprehensive failure of a state such as Pakistan to ensure its survival. Faced with India’s ambitious path toward Asian hegemony, the pressure on Pakistan to aggressively counter-act India’s designs is great.

The scope for a comprehensively tailored and constructed Pakistani response, however, to this threat in the modern day is considerable despite of Pakistan’s history of slow and stagnant foreign policy. Independent of anything Pakistan does or has done, there exist certain factors, realities and entrenched dynamics and hazards along India’s well-planned roadmap to hegemony which present pitfalls to India’s political, economic and strategic expansion and can thus be used by Pakistan to contain it. These factors are concentrated most heavily in the part of the sprawling Indian economic, trade and strategic expansion plans covering Pakistan and its neighbouring states.

Afghanistan: an important yet shaky, volatile and disruptable node along India’s NSTC expansion framework

            Operationalized in recent years, India’s North-South Trade Corridor began as a way to achieve shorter land-and-sea routes to Russia via the Arabian Sea to Iran and onward through Azerbaijan. Reducing transport distance and time for millions of tonnes worth of Indian goods heading to the Eurasian market, the plan was conceived by India, Iran and Russia in the early 2000s and gradually gained the interest of numerous states with considerable participation by Central Asia. A long-term, serious investment by the Indians, it found extension in October 2018 as India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a trilateral agreement on transit of goods between the 3 via Iran’s Chabahar port.

There’s little Pakistan can or needs to do about India availing demand for mass-produced goods in the markets of Russia, the Baltic States and Central Asia, but it can and needs to do plenty to lay waste to India’s Afghanistan ambitions. As Afghans optimistically note, Pakistan’s historical dominance of the Afghan market has been falling since 2014 with the share of India rapidly rising. By itself, this means little, but considering the uncompromising hostility of the Afghan government – as has historically mostly been the case – to Pakistan, a lessening of whatever can be deemed Pakistani leverage over it will encourage both it and India’s Hindutva elites to pursue anti-Pakistan designs with greater vigour. The ethno-nationalist Pashtuns of Afghanistan have long found the existence of Pakistan loathsome (non-recognition of this fact on Pakistan’s behalf throughout history has been one of the many obsolete positions of its foreign policy). Their rapport with the RSS-BJP ideologues who rule India officially and who have dominated its society with regard to Pakistan for much longer than the Modi tenure is thus natural and needs to be treated as a threat.

India invests heavily in enhancing exports to Afghanistan and also providing it trade routes alternate trade routes to the Pakistani border which Pakistan can shut down to pressure the Afghan side. India constructed a highway from Delaram city to Zaranj town on the Iran-Afghan border in 2009 with the goal of connecting Iran to Afghanistan’s Ring Road, the major connecting road for the biggest Afghan cities. The highway is also connected to Zabol in Iran which in turn is connected by road to Chabahar port. Coupled with other similarly large transport projects in Iran involving Chabahar, the vision is plain and clear: India wants to become the dominant foreign trading partner for Iran as well as Afghanistan.

What is the importance for India of these two Pakistani neighbours? Is Iran – ever under threat of US sanctions so hard-hitting they target any non-US entities who sell to or buys from Iranian sources – a market vital for Indian exports and India’s energy supplies that doesn’t have ample replacements available in the rich Gulf States?

Needless to say, Afghanistan is far from the ideal source of reliable purchasers for India, regardless of the value of the goods the former is importing. Even with Indian industrial exporters being allotted Special Economic Zones in nearby Iran near the transit corridor to export goods to Afghanistan, there are numerous easy-to-imagine hazards that could affect the ability of customers in Afghanistan to sustain their imports from India and prevent Indian exporters looking to more stable markets. The profits scenario does not quite add up when one studies the extent of Indian investment in Iran and Afghanistan, especially the latter.

Furthermore, is Iran geopolitically and diplomatically ‘safe’ enough for Indian investment to the tune of billions in setting up large infrastructure given how close the US and India are? Are not the un-sanctioned Gulf States better partners for India to purchase oil from on a long-term basis? Considering the US granted a sanctions-waiver for India’s oil imports from Iran, for Indian companies to continue their Chabahar port activities, for the in-progress Chabahar-Zahedan railway project financed jointly with Iran and even Kabul’s imports of Iranian petroleum products, it can be said that India’s policies in Iran and Afghanistan have the USA’s blessing.

All of this indicates a strong strategic dimension of the eastern side of India’s NSTC which seeks to prioritize ‘encircling’ Pakistan and ‘isolating’ it over profits for Indian traders. Vitally, it is also clear that the USA (or at least parts of the US establishment, which often is at odds with President Trump) approves its anti-China partner India’s games in the region. Given how zero-sum the US tends to be when it comes to any state’s relations with Iran, exemplified by the fact that its sanctions are designed to target anyone and everyone trading with Iran or even obtaining visas for visiting Iran, it is clear that it has agreed with India’s presence there because it sees the strategic dimension and agrees with it. It is also clear that India knows of this tacit US support and that this knowledge spurs on and encourages India’s heavy investment in Afghanistan despite the dangers present there.

In what is of special interest to Pakistan, the Taliban with or without a US troop withdrawal are extremely powerful in Afghanistan. They have demonstrated the ability unilaterally block and seize highways and transport infrastructure vital for India in nominally Kabul-controlled places and have decimated the Kabul government’s forces at an alarming rate in combat.

Given that situations in war-torn countries following sustained negotiation and peace processes often involve some manner of ‘decentralization’, it would be wise for Pakistan to hedge its bets with the Taliban as a political force especially in the Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan. In the situation of a broad détente with elections including the Taliban in the UN-recognized government, having their members in senior police, military or government posts in such provinces would best ensure a joint watch on on the Af-Pak frontiers. Knowing that Pakistan has their back in Afghanistan’s domestic politics, the Taliban will likely reciprocate with strategic ‘favours’. Using the Taliban’s intelligence capabilities to detect, pursue and eliminate targets working for the Indian secret services would be a necessity for Pakistan.

Should there be no such political process applied in Afghanistan, the Taliban will thrive amidst the chaos in any case.

India’s proxy war against Pakistan from Afghanistan: Turning the tables

            Police in Sharjah, UAE, recently busted a BLA network with cooperation from Pakistani security agencies. Coupled with the assassination in Kandahar of BLA commander Aslam Acchu in Kandahar in late 2018, who had masterminded a BLA attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, this means India’s proxy war against Pakistan in Balochistan is in disarray.

There is ample opportunity for Pakistan, which knows the Taliban fairly well, of negotiating action by its own forces to destroy Baloch separatist presence on Afghan soil or hand over BLA members to Pakistan. This would also apply to the other India-backed anti-Pakistan terror group in the TTP who have a history far bloodier and deadlier than that of the BLA and are now in the ranks of ISIS in Afghanistan as well.

The threat to India from this, however, arises out of the consequences of and not merely out of the eradication of anti-Pakistan proxies unto itself (such groups lost most of their strength years ago). With Pakistan having to dedicate less resources and troops to vigilance on its long western borders, which it is fencing despite Kabul’s protests, it can divert more to the eastern front with India where cross-border firing and shelling is frequent.

India has not only the Kashmiri insurgency in the extreme north to deal with, but the Maoist insurgency spread across the ‘Red Corridor’ which comprises large swathes of central and eastern India. With an uptick in the Kashmiri insurgency, which will spur on other anti-India armed movements, India will find focusing its security policy on the dangerous Afghanistan part of its NSTC more difficult. This because of the spreading thin of India’s military and intelligence across India itself to combat the insurgencies as they take cue from the Kashmiris and increase their activities accordingly. It will be all the more difficult and impractical to sustain so much investment into such substantial projects as roads, schools, dams and so on in Afghanistan.

Pakistan-Iran alliance: ideologically compatible, a practical necessity and a checkmate to India’s West Asia ambitions

            It does not register among Pakistan’s pessimistic intelligentsia as of yet, but India-Iran relations are not built on foundations that are durable unto themselves and severe faultlines lie in them which may be exploited by Pakistan if it abandons its overly-defensive strategic posture. Considering that the issue of Kulbhushan Yadav was followed not by a souring of Pakistan-Iran ties but an improvement in the degree of communication followed by a general uptick in economic, socio-cultural and even military ties in 2017-2018, the will from both sides for good relations is apparent. Iran did not corroborate India’s claims that Pakistan had kidnapped the spy Yadav from Iranian territory and its foreign minister recently defended Pakistan’s credentials as a counter-terror force in the region during an interview in India.

Iran has also repeatedly assured Pakistan that Chabahar is not a rival to Gwadar – but it is not the positive stance here that Pakistan’s analytical minds should be noting. The Iranians, one of the world’s most heavily targeted nations in terms of sanctions, covert warfare, information warfare and so on, are prickly about their security and sovereignty. The gestures to show Pakistan that Chabahar is not a ploy against it, however, possibly betray ignorance on the part of Iran – who remains preoccupied in the Middle East as opposed to West and South Asia – as to the significance of Chabahar for certain states that seek its downfall.

Iran with proper awareness about India’s ambitions and the US backing for them, best epitomized by its willingness to waive sanctions for India’s Iran activities, will begin to look at economic ties with India in a new light. The push for this prompting for Iran to reconsider India’s sprawling, risky economic plans for the eastern side of the NSTC must come from Pakistan. This venture, an easy, inexpensive and potentially extremely fruitful move from Pakistan, would instantly appeal to Iran’s security-obsessed leadership which would pay more heed to the issue of India’s subversive activities in the region.

Iran would under no circumstances hold economic ties with India above its security along the Balochistan region and Afghanistan especially when the US and Israel have been known to support anti-Iran elements such as Jundullah there in the past. Iran has economic relations with India, but not strategic relations; India has no direct role in the Middle East theatre where Iran is heavily involved in indirect warfare against Israel, the US and the GCC.

Even in the economic realm, Pakistan can potentially replace India as a trading partner for Iran. Given that Iran is compelled to sell its valuable oil to India for Indian rupees it then uses to purchase foodstuffs, Pakistan can seek to replace the Indian exports to Iran in this regard especially rice where Pakistani quality is renowned. Moreover, the ever-present risk to India of replacement by Chinese companies in the Iranian market compounds this fragility for Indo-Iranian economic ties. Iranian trade with Pakistan would also benefit from shorter travel distance as the two are neighbours compared to trade with India. The development for both Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan provinces will be an added bonus and the much-needed completion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline by Pakistan could help the latter greatly considering its gas shortage woes the brunt of which Pakistan’s fast-growing residential sector has been bearing.

There is, additionally, one potentially explosive ‘lobbying card’ Pakistan can play to cement a strategic dimension to Iran-Pakistan relations is by highlighting the fact that not only the US but Israel also supports India’s regional ambitions. Iran is very much aware of how US tensions with it have been built inch by inch by the Israel Lobby and that it was AIPAC who not only essentially drafted the first major Iran sanctions legislation in 1996 but also pioneered the concept of secondary sanctions to attempt isolate Iran completely. The Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (OTFI) of the US Treasury Department, introduced in the neoconservative-infested George Bush Jr administration in 2004 after lobbying efforts by AIPAC and WINEP (major Israel Lobby organizations with a historical record of spying for Israel as well), is responsible for applying sanctions on behalf of the US. As Grant F Smith of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy documents in this article, the institution has managed to continuously stay staffed by ideologically Zionist officials with close ties to the Israeli state (some being dual nationals) as well as to the aforementioned lobby organizations. It also practices the secondary-sanctions method, compiling databases of target individuals and entities and checking on banks and US persons to ensure they do not have any manner of dealings with them.

That the OTFI didn’t sanction India over Chabahar may hint at Israeli approval of India-Iran economic relations, which will mean that Israel sees potential harm to Iran accruing from India’s ambitious expansion plans ‘making up’ for the economic benefit to the heavily sanctioned state. The aggressive Zionist entity, which is hostile to Iran enough that it repeatedly lobbies for the US to attack it, would not stand by the opportunity to use its dominance over the USA’s sanctions policy to sabotage Iran’s trade with India if India and Israel did not have some manner of agreement over the issue. Knowing Israel, it likely involves designs detrimental to not only Iran but Pakistan as well. Common ground between Iran and Pakistan and an alliance of common interest against their mutual ideological foes can be realized much quicker if the Israeli-Indo closeness is used as a unifying factor.

As I document in this article, India does have a past record of compromising ties with Iran in favour of deepening ties with Iran’s rivals and itself bears certain characteristics at odds with Iran’s political ideology. The divide between the two is inevitably but must be accelerated by Pakistani diplomatic efforts and engagement with Iran. Additionally, outreach to Iranian domestic factions more likely to be sensitive toward Muslim Pakistan’s overtures compared to pro-Zionist India can be a useful tool as well. It is undeniable fact that pan-Islamism is rooted in the Pakistani spirit and also that a considerable element of it has been maintained in Iranian foreign policy since 1979, exemplified by the continuous support to armed resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine regardless of their sect. Within Iran, the ‘hard-liner’ faction will currently be riding a wave of momentum compared to the ‘reformist’ faction, to which the current government belonged, as the former were vindicated over their scepticism about the nuclear deal with the West that lasted from 2015 to 2018 and bore Iran little to no benefit and would be more positive toward Pakistan now than in previous years.

Iranian state-run media such as Press TV and IRNA has also been noticeably positive in its tone toward Pakistan as of the last year or so and has been increasingly vocal in its condemnation of Indian atrocities in Kashmir. Even the most ‘hard-line’ of Iranian media, such as Kayhan, urge Pakistani closeness with Iran and have not attacked Pakistan as a ‘NATO puppet’ or ‘Saudi stooge’ as they may have done in the past when regretful incidents on the Iran-Pakistan border take place.

Thus, the means of Pakistan pulling Iran closer to itself are abundant, but they require Pakistan to abandon over-obsession with diplomacy when its enemies are actively engaging in geopolitical power-play and to ensure its ties with Iran are not influenced by external states either, be they the GCC or the US.

Proactivity and tactfulness the way forward

            It is thus apparent that Pakistan has many opportunities to exploit the weaknesses in India’s roadmap to hegemony and apparent even more so that should Pakistan continue its trend of a slow and lethargic foreign policy it will suffer the consequences. Rather than isolate itself into a strategic cul-de-sac by continuously extending olive branches to regional actors uncompromisingly hostile to Pakistan, Pakistan must realize the ample opportunities for effectively defeating its primary rival India’s ambitions which are built, in typical Indian fashion, on shaky foundations.

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