Challenge of Isolation
Pakistan must climb out of the isolation that it has been driven into in the South Asian region and make efforts to get rid of its perceived image of a state that backs and exports terrorism.
On September 24, 2016, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while delivering a speech in the southern Indian city of Kozhikode warned Pakistan that, “we will isolate you. I will work for that. India would continue to push to make Pakistan a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. We will intensify our efforts and force you to be alone all over the world.” Modi’s outburst against Pakistan and his threat to isolate Pakistan in the region and in the world took place shortly after a terrorist attack on the Indian army camp located in Uri in its controlled parts of Jammu & Kashmir which killed 18 soldiers. India also claimed to launch what it called “surgical strikes” inside Pakistani territory to target what it called “terrorist camps.” Pakistan swiftly and vehemently denied the Indian claim and termed it as baseless and a blatant lie.
What is meant by the Indian policy to isolate Pakistan and is New Delhi capable of implementing such a policy? What should Pakistan do to cope with the challenge of isolation? These are the questions raised in the aftermath of Modi’s assertion to isolate Pakistan and the chain of events prove how serious is the Indian government about implementing such a policy. First was the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit which was held in Goa in October and was used by the Indian Prime Minister for ‘Pakistan bashing.’ But his efforts failed as Russia and China, the two key members of BRICS, refused to endorse his assertion against Pakistan and called it irrelevant and inconsistent with the agenda of that conference. Second was the successful Indian attempt to postpone the 19th SAARC summit which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November. India not only announced a boycott of the conference alleging that Pakistan was involved in spreading terrorism in India and in the region but it also succeeded in convincing three more members of SAARC, i.e. Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh to express their unwillingness to attend the SAARC summit. Therefore, when four out of eight SAARC member countries decided not to attend SAARC summit in Islamabad, it was tantamount to depriving Pakistan of an opportunity to host that summit. Technically, even if one member of SAARC refuses to attend the summit, it cannot be held. Third was the Heart of Asia conference which was held in Amritsar in early December on discussing terrorism in the context of Afghanistan which was also used by the Indian Prime Minister
to hit out at Pakistan and blame it about fomenting terrorism in the region. He was joined by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who also criticized Pakistan of promoting terrorism in his country. The hostile Indian attitude visà-vis the Pakistan delegation in Amritsar reflected the consistent Indian policy, particularly following the Uri attack, to marginalize Pakistan at regional and international fora.
Three major factors need to be examined as far as the challenge of isolating Pakistan is concerned. First, for the first time in the recent past, India, along with three countries of South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, has managed to form an informal alliance against Pakistan. While Bhutan supports New Delhi on policy matters, Afghanistan and Bangladesh hold hostility towards Pakistan for a variety of reasons. Bangladesh, during Sheikh Hasina’s regime has deteriorating relations with Pakistan because of Islamabad’s condemnation of the war crimes trial and the hanging of several political figures on account of their alleged role in genocide in the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.
Afghanistan tilts towards India since the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 and periodically criticizes Pakistan of patronizing terrorist groups. Nepal and Sri Lanka, which used to have a soft corner for Pakistan, are now neutral and don’t want to offend India. Therefore, these two countries, after the boycott of 19th SAARC summit led by India were unable to support Pakistan. Furthermore, India has deepened its influence in Nepal and Sri Lanka by providing substantial economic assistance in modernizing their infrastructure. Second, Pakistan was unable to comprehend the Indian strategy to subvert 19th SAARC summit. When the SAARC summit was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November, Pakistan should have been careful by avoiding steps which could have provided an opportunity to New Delhi to boycott the summit. For instance, on the occasion of SAARC Interior Ministers Conference held in Islamabad in August, several protest demonstrations were held against the visiting Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He was so furious with the hostile environment in Islamabad that after going back he said on record that Pakistan was not a country worth visiting.
At the UN General Assembly annual session held in September in New York, Pakistan maintained its hard position, particularly on Jammu & Kashmir, which led to a severe reaction from the Indian delegation. The tense situation along the line of control further deteriorated relations between India and Pakistan. It was in such an environment that the dates of SAARC summit were approaching. India used what it called Pakistan’s involvement in terrorist activities and the hostile environment prevailing in Islamabad against India and announced the boycott of the summit. In a seminar held in Islamabad in June on “Is Pakistan Isolated? Regional Challenges and Opportunities” organized by the Institute for Policy Reforms, the participants were divided as one school of thought subscribed to the notion about the isolation of Pakistan at the regional and international level while the other rejected that notion. It seems Pakistan fell into the trap which was hatched by India to subvert the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad. Was Pakistan in a position to remain calm and cool when the SAARC summit was scheduled and ignore things which could have provided India an opportunity to boycott the summit? Unfortunately, the timing of escalating tensions with India when the SAARC summit was to be held, backfired as four out of eight SAARC members decide to boycott.
Third, the image of Pakistan abroad that the country is patronizing banned terrorist groups like Jaish Mohammad and Jamaat ud Dawa tends to create negative opinion about the country.These two groups are banned but their leaders are allowed to address public gathering and disseminate their programmes. The message which is sent from Pakistan about the freedom given to banned Jihadi outfits is very damaging which provides an opportunity, particularly to India, to portray a negative image about Pakistan. Under the National Action Plan which was launched in January 2015, the Pakistan government had committed to rein in militant, extremist and terrorist organizations and deny them any public space. But these banned religious extremist groups appeared under a different name and are allowed to continue with their activities by preaching sectarian hatred. This means that within the establishment there are elements who have a vested interest in patronizing such groups as they think that they can be used against India in its controlled parts of Jammu & Kashmir and against the perceived pro- Indian regime in Kabul.
Pakistan will continue to face isolation in the region and outside unless it formulates a two-pronged strategy. First, normalize its relations with Afghanistan and Bangladesh so that attempts made by New Delhi to use these two members of SAARC against Pakistan are neutralized. For that matter, Pakistan must maintain a neutral stance on domestic issues of Bangladesh. In case of Afghanistan, Pakistan must pursue a policy of strict non-interference as its past policy of patronizing some Afghan groups has proved to be counterproductive. Ironically, in the past it was Pakistan which was pursuing a policy to lead the smaller countries of South Asia against perceived Indian domination and belligerence. Now, things are moving in the opposite direction and it is India which has successfully isolated Pakistan at the regional level. Second, Pakistani diplomatic missions abroad must be given the task to aggressively, effectively and rationally counter the Indian tirade against Pakistan by successfully projecting massive human rights violations by the Indian security forces in its controlled parts of Jammu & Kashmir and the anti-minority policy of Modi regime, particularly against Muslims and Christians. Principally, the world should take note of Indian atrocities in Kashmir and its intolerant policy vis-à-vis minorities and should isolate New Delhi.
Reversing the tide of Pakistan’s isolation is an uphill task because unless the leadership is clear, coherent and consistent in its approach to pursue zero tolerance vis-à-vis religious extremist groups, it will continue to face the challenge of isolation. Regional disconnect is another type of isolation as travel, trade and connectivity of Pakistan with almost all the countries of SAARC is meager. It is time on the part of the government and civil society in Pakistan to rethink domestic and foreign policy before it is too late and the country is further isolated. The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations and Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi.
Pakistan will continue to face isolation unless it formulates a two-pronged strategy.