The topic of political developments in and around Pakistan (remember, a de facto nuclear power!) was left in a state that can be characterized by a few key points.
First, the struggle between the faction led by the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which came to power in April this year, and the sidelined faction led by the Movement for Justice continued. The struggle between them was exacerbated by a change of government in a parliamentary vote that ended with a minimal margin in favor of the PML (N). Although the ousted prime minister (and MfJ leader), Imran Khan, had proposed a solution to the worsening political crisis by holding general elections ahead of time (one year before the calendar deadline).
Second, the use of such a procedure by the victors lent credibility to Khan’s claims that the very triggering of the crisis, and the nature of its “resolution”, had taken place with the substantial involvement of “external forces”, by which the US was meant. Some contacts with top government officials in Washington and London in recent months by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Javed Bajwa, also supported such claims. This, incidentally, has led to speculation (very premature in the author’s view) about a shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy towards a “generalized West” in general, but mainly towards the US and the United Kingdom.
Third, the long-standing problem (typical of most Third World countries, by the way) of servicing foreign debt has worsened. For this purpose, just over one billion dollars has to be found urgently (“somewhere”). The same J. Bajwa was probably guided by such “mercenary” considerations, rather than any principled political ones, when he established contacts with Washington and London. All the more so as there are increasing references to his intention to run for president after his expected resignation in November this year.
Fourth, the danger of another conflict with India, with the same unresolved Kashmir problem, has not disappeared. This is despite the fact that the new Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif took the initiative to regulate bilateral relations as soon as he took office. Contrary to the popular expectation regarding the rise of the Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) to power in Afghanistan, the situation on the border with that country is also becoming more difficult.
Finally, all these internal and external political squabbles were compounded by a catastrophic natural disaster caused by seasonal monsoon rains of unprecedented proportions. The Indus River system spill affected more than 30 million people (about 15% of the total population!) in varying degrees, of whom about 1,500 died and 12,000 were injured.
This last factor remains the main one, and its negative impact on the situation in the country only reinforces the effect of the others. As well as the ongoing confrontation between the main political factions hampers the handling of the consequences of an unexpected natural cataclysm of catastrophic proportions. Its various consequences can hardly yet be even fully calculated. The first estimate of total “material” losses was around $13 billion.
But these are of course only the most tentative figures, which will only increase as the uncertainties become clearer. Of these, the issue of the sowing campaign, which in Pakistan begins in December, is potentially the most important. For some six million hectares of agricultural land have been submerged. It is unclear whether it will be gone in two months and what will be left behind.
In addition, outbreaks of diseases characteristic of unsanitary conditions, as well as those caused by increased soil and air moisture, have already been reported. This encourages the rapid spread of insects, which are vectors of all kinds of infections.
And against this background, again, inter-clan intrigues continue and the acuteness of the internal political situation is described by some experts as a “vendetta”. This gives critical importance to the factor of retaining power by the current ruling faction and blocking the possibility for political rivals to gain it.
The recent situation in Punjab, a province in Pakistan that is home to more than 40% of the country’s population, is of particular significance in this respect. In the July 17 local parliamentary by-elections, the MfJ party, together with its ally from the (K) faction of the once united PML (which now opposes the government’s PML (N)), won a landslide victory. In doing so, the MfJ and the PML (K) took control of the Punjabi parliament. This was the first major electoral success for I. Khan personally since his ouster as Prime Minister of the country.
However, a week later in the election of the Punjab head of government, the victory was literally “credited” to Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the local PML (N) branch chief, who is the son of the current Prime Minister. The results of these latest elections were contested by I. Khan’s supporters and suspended by a court ruling.
Apparently, his nephew went to meet the de facto exiled Nawaz Sharif (who had once had a falling out with his younger brother, the current Prime Minister) in London in early August to work out a moving forward strategy. It should be noted that the elder of the Sharifs has himself served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister three times, and his name is precisely the name of the now ruling PML (N). H.S. Sharif was in London for three weeks due to a publicly stated need to treat his daughter. There can hardly be any doubt that either through his uncle or (and most probably) directly, H.S. Sharif also had contacts with British officials.
And here we come to the aforementioned theme of the role of “external factor” in recent Pakistani events. This cannot but be present in view of Pakistan’s place in the game unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region. The main component in this “factor” is, of course, not London, but Washington.
In what is already termed “humanitarian diplomacy”, the US was among the first (along with the PRC and the Russian Federation) to allocate a variety of assistance to Pakistan. Of course, in quantitative and qualitative terms, it can only be used for the highest priority purposes and does not even come close to matching the possible overall needs of Pakistan. But it is also badly needed in the country right now. Receiving such assistance was the main thrust of Prime Minister Sharif’s speech at the recent SCO summit in Samarkand. It is notable that among the US agencies involved in providing such assistance was the US Department of Defense’s “Central Command”.
But the main point that commentators have drawn attention to Washington’s activism on the Pakistani front under the new government relates to the announcement in early September of the White House’s intention to provide a variety of equipment to the Pakistan Air Force’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets, worth about $450 million.
It should be noted that US behavior in assisting in keeping Pakistan’s F-16s combat-ready has varied depending on a variety of circumstances, mostly political. In 2016, the Obama administration responded positively to Pakistan’s request to sell additional F-16s. However, two years later, a similar request was rejected by the Trump administration, which has sharply strengthened the (longstanding) trend of rapprochement with India.
In this regard, New Delhi’s negative reaction to the aforementioned White House announcement, the practical implementation of which is fraught with serious implications for Washington’s overall foreign policy strategy, has drawn attention. The main component of this strategy is to get India on its side in the current Great Game.
In this regard, commentators on the last SCO summit pointed out that although the Indian and Chinese leaders attending it did not hold a bilateral meeting in Samarkand, they stood side by side at the concluding photo-op ceremony. This has important positive symbolism, which fits in with the current process of defusing tensions in the highland section of the bilateral border.
Overall, however, the recent conclusions about a “radical turn to the West” in the new Pakistani government’s foreign policy are, to repeat, very premature. Despite obvious attempts by that same “West” to push the country’s leadership to do just that.
In a cordial atmosphere, S. Sharif had a meeting with V.V. Putin in Samarkand, during which the Russian President praised the state of bilateral relations and acknowledged the assistance already provided by Russia, as well as his intention to continue providing it. S. Sharif is reportedly planning to visit Russia and China soon.
The Russian Federation should maintain constructive and mutually beneficial relations with any Pakistani leadership, not interfering in the country’s internal squabbles and, where possible, facilitating resolution of problems in its relations with its neighbors. Above all with India and Afghanistan.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.