It has been a breathless week, huddled in the shadow of the simmering, bubbling, politico-religious volcano that is Imran Khan’s Pakistan.
And this week’s multi-faceted developments may just signal seismic shifts in Pakistan’s internal and external relations for the foreseeable future.
Before moving on to bloodier matters, let’s start with the “Mr. Khan Goes to China” episode – essential for reviewing all aspects of what is enthusiastically described by both sides as the “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership”.
Xi’s financial lifeline for Khan?
Prime Minister Khan, leading a fresh government elected in July and facing a range colossal challenges, set the tone from the start. He did not mince words.
“Countries go in cycles, they have their high points, they have their low points,” he said. “Unfortunately, our country is going through a low point at the moment with two very big deficits, a fiscal deficit and a current account deficit. And so we, as I’ve said, have come to learn.”
Arguably few teachers beat Chinese President Xi Jinping, praised by Khan as a role model. “China’s phenomenal achievements are worth emulating,” Khan said. “No other country has tackled poverty and corruption the way China has tackled it.”
The lynchpin of the strategic partnership is inevitably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of the New Silk Road, or Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). Before his stint as guest of honor of the First China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Khan met a crucial player in Beijing for CPEC financing: Jin Liquan, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Right from the start, Pakistan’s new Planning Minister Makhdoom Bukhtiar was confident that Islamabad would not need to reschedule around $2.7 billion in Chinese loans due for repayment in 2018. Instead, what’s in the cards is an improved economic package centered on taking CPEC to the next level.
A financially stable Pakistan is absolutely crucial for the success of BRI. A Pakistani audit of projects approved by the previous Nawaz Sharif administration called for streamlining CPEC, not curtailing it. Now, Team Khan does not subscribe to the notion of CPEC as a debt trap.
With Saudi Arabia and China stepping in with cash, Islamabad may avoid becoming further indebted to the IMF and its trademark “strategic adjustments”- widely dreaded across the Global South for producing a toxic mix of austerity and inflation.
Pakistan juggles China, Iran, Saudi, Turkey
Pakistan is all about its prime geopolitical location, the crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia.
For Beijing, Pakistan as a key BRI node mirrors its new role as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As Khan has clearly identified, this interconnection can only turbo-charge Pakistan’s geo-economic position – under the institutional framework of SCO. The Xi-Khan partnership may actually center around an economic win-win for Pakistan and the SCO.
Of course, myriad challenges lie ahead.
Take for instance Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Lu Kang having to clarify that “all the cooperation between China and Pakistan has nothing to do with territorial disputes.”
Kang was referring to the hoopla surrounding the fact that a Pakistani company launched a bus service from Lahore to Kashgar via Islamabad; essentially the northern CPEC route via the Karakoram Highway, which skirts Kashmir. China does not want any interference whatsoever in the ultra-volatile Kashmir dossier.
Saudi Arabia is also making some not-too-subtle moves. Islamabad’s official position is that Riyadh’s recent financial offer came with no strings attached. That’s unlikely to be the case; Saudi traditionally casts a long shadow over all matters Pakistani. “No strings” means Islamabad should keep closer to Riyadh, not Tehran.
The House of Saud – paralyzed by the fallout of the bloody Istanbul fiasco – will go no-holds-barred to prevent Islamabad from getting closer to Tehran. (Or Ankara, for that matter). A possibly emergent, long-term, game-changing Turkey-Iran-Pakistan alliance was the talk of the town – at least during the first part of this week of weeks.
That brings us to the crucial visitor Khan received in Islamabad before his trip to China: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Last month, 14 Iranian border guards were kidnapped by the Pakistan-based Jaish al-Adl Salafi-jihadi fanatics. Pakistan security forces have been helpless so far.
Khan and Zarif talked about that – but also talked about Khan’s offer to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in trying to find a solution for the tragedy in Yemen. The fact is, a Tehran-Islamabad rapprochement is already a work in progress.
That is the sophisticated geo-political game Khan must play. Meanwhile at home, he has to get down and dirty as he gets to grips with violent domestic religious turmoil.
‘Go legal – or else…’
I’ve been in Islamabad since Monday – right on the lip of the volcano, and enjoying the privilege of being part of one of the most extraordinary geopolitical conferences in recent times, something that in the current polarizing dynamic could only happen in Asia, not the West. But that’s another story.
While I was parsing elaborate analyses of this geopolitical chessboard, reality intervened.
Or – perhaps – it was a graphic intimation that Pakistan may just be changing for the better.
Street blockades paralyzed key nodes of the nation because Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman laborer, in jail for nine years, was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of spurious charges of blasphemy. There are less than 4 million Christians in Pakistan out of a total population of 197 million.
I was with a small group on the motorway to Peshawar, prior to taking a detour to Taxila – Alexander-the-Great land, where I planned further research on ancient Silk Roads – when suddenly we were halted.
A mullah was blaring his hate through a loudspeaker. A couple of his minions blocked all circulation.
Why the police would not dislodge this small group is the matter of all matters in Khan’s arguably new Pakistan. The highway standoff embodies the high-stakes grapple underway between the state and religion.
Back in Islamabad, as he led me around the campus of the National Defense University, Timoor Shah, a bright young man at the Center for Policy Studies, gave me a crash course on the nuances.
What a global audience should understand is this. On one side stand the state, the military and the judiciary. (Accusations continue to be hurled that Khan was privileged in the July elections by the military – the top institution in Pakistan – and an activist judiciary.) On the other side, stand fringe religious nuts and an opportunistic, discredited opposition.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a minor extremist political party whose only platform is to punish blasphemy, has issued death threats against the three Supreme Court judges. Pakistan could do worse than import a strangle/bone-saw/dissolve-in-acid Saudi execution squad to deal with such groups.
It’s instructive to consider what the director general of the PR arm of the powerful intelligence service, ISI, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had to say: This is a legal matter and the Pakistan Army should not be dragged into it. Ghafoor also stressed, “We are close to winning the war against terrorism and our attention should not be diverted.”
Ghafoor told politico-religious parties protesting against the Supreme Court judgment – quite a few of which were firmly on the lunatic fringe – to go legal or else. Amid this, TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi swears that that the Army has threatened to “destroy” his party.
The military sent a delegation, including ISI officials, to talk to the religious protesters. Ghafoor was careful to stress that the ISI is an intelligence department that reports to the prime minister.
In the end, the government caved in. Despite knowing that Aasia Bibi faces fundamentalist wrath and her only path to safety would be a one-way ticket out, they agreed to put her on something called the “Exit Control List.” Even that did not prevent TLP fanatics from threatening “a war if they sent Aasia Bibi out of the country.”
‘Taliban Godfather’ killed
As if all this were not toxic enough, on Friday evening Maulana Samiul Haq – the fabled “Godfather of the Taliban” – was stabbed to death in his house in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city.
Haq led the sprawling Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrassa, or religious school, in Akhora Khattak, near Peshawar, founded in 1988. The madrassa graduated none other than Mullah Omar, as well as other Taliban notables.
Haq embodies a torrent of turbulence in modern Pakistani history – including his stints as senator during the Zia ul Haq and Nawaz Sharif administrations. He also tabled a notorious Sharia bill during Sharif’s last term.
But for me, the story was personal. In a tortuous way, Samiul Haq saved my life – courtesy of a letter of introduction he had signed after I visited his madrassa to follow a Talibanesque indoctrination in progress.
When, along with my photographer Jason Florio, we were arrested by the Taliban at a military base in Ghazni in the summer of 2000, we were only released from waiting six months to be tried as “spies” because of Samiul Haq’s letter.
This obviously pales when compared to the high-profile, principled move by the Pakistani Supreme Court to save Aasia Bibi from a death sentence.
But it could be the first salvo in a Khan-era Pakistani war against religious fundamentalism.