Aaron Ellis 7.30am
British foreign policy in Central and South Asia is in a bit of a bind.
The goals we pursue are incompatible due to the geopolitical rivalry of India and Pakistan.
Rather than recognise this and make tough choices about our regional priorities, ministers either deny a problem exists or offer democratic politics as a solution to geopolitics.
David Cameron and William Hague believe they can achieve their goals in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan if the cause of the enmity between the three – Pakistan – becomes a genuine democracy. She should end her support for the Taliban, as well as her decades-old conflict with India. Thus Britain, the former colonial power, would not have to make tough choices and pick sides in Central and South Asia, as everyone would inevitably be on the same side.
If they really want Pakistan to become a genuine democracy, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary must resolve Pakistan’s disputes with her neighbours, as these have often been a catalyst for her lurches from democracy to military rule and back again.
This is especially important for regional and global security, as both civilian and military governments in Islamabad have traditionally used insurgents and terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir as legitimate means of resolving these disputes in their favour.
Yet it is unlikely that Mr Cameron and Mr Hague will try to resolve them because it would mean doing what they specifically do not want to do: make tough choices and pick sides. This reluctance stems from their lack of a grand strategic vision for Britain’s role in Central and South Asia. Unless they come up with one soon, they will not achieve any of their goals in the region, as its geopolitical rivalries will continue to undermine them.
Britain wants a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and has signed up to a strategic partnership with Pakistan. Individually these goals make sense, but it is hard to fit them together into a single regional policy, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. Both Islamabad and New Delhi believe that stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other and that the price of their cooperation is helping to restrict their rivals’ presence in the country.
Just a few months before Afghanistan and India signed a strategic partnership last October, a survey of Pakistan’s foreign policy elite showed many worry that India’s involvement in the country goes beyond economic development, and has become a real security concern.
“Pakistan wants the international community to set certain limits on India’s involvement”, regional expert Farzana Shaikh has said. It is the “minimum that [it] might be prepared to settle for to ensure its co-operation” in ending the war in Afghanistan.
Yet acquiescing to India’s involvement may be necessary for a “special relationship” with New Delhi.
In an email exchange with a former Indian intelligence chief, I asked what the UK would need to do for India vis-à-vis Afghanistan to help build the kind of relationship that David Cameron envisages between our two countries. “Accept India has a role [there], encourage this and not let Pakistan have a veto”.
Thus British policy in Central and South Asia is in a bit of a bind.
Ministers are denying a problem exists. When I put it to Philip Hammond in December that India and Pakistan regard stability in Afghanistan as coming at the expense of either one or the other, the Defence Secretary rejected my assertion.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, believes that democracy can save us from Pakistan. If the civilians truly directed national security policy, not the military, they would not support the Taliban or terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), because democracies just don’t do that sort of thing.
Mr Cameron has always drawn this contrast between a democratic Pakistan that is a peaceful actor in the region and an authoritarian, terrorist-supporting Pakistan. “We have to make sure that [they] are not looking two ways” about exporting terrorism to their neighbours, he once said. “They should only look one way, and that is to a democratic and stable Pakistan.”
His faith in the power of democracy to resolve great power rivalry is a manifestation of the Liberal half of his self-described “Liberal Conservative” approach to foreign policy. Speaking in Pakistan just weeks after the country’s dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced from office, Mr Cameron stated that democracies “tend not to go to war with each other” - an old Liberal belief.
This faith is misplaced as far as Pakistan is concerned, as successive civilian governments have used insurgents and terrorists to further their goals in Central and South Asia.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of the late Benazir Bhutto, waged a proxy war against Afghanistan in 1975 using Afghan exiles. Ms Bhutto herself helped the Taliban to take over the country in the mid-1990s. Her successor as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, shielded them from American pressure to hand over Osama bin Laden because of the al-Qa’ida leader’s help in fighting the Indians in Kashmir.
In the spring of 2010 the current president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, allegedly told senior Taliban prisoners: “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.” A few months later, his government angrily rejected Mr Cameron’s claim that their country “looked both ways” on terrorism in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
It is not the constitutional make-up of the Pakistani government that determines its use of terrorism therefore, but its geopolitical rivalries, and it is only by resolving them can we hope to bring about a true change in the country’s behaviour. Yet the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are unlikely to do this, as they are reluctant to pick sides and have no grand strategic vision to guide them.
Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary, William Hague ruled out involving Britain in Indian-Pakistani disputes. “It will not be our approach to lecture other countries on how they should conduct their bilateral relations,” unlike his Labour predecessor David Miliband, who upset the Indians by bringing up the Kashmir dispute the year before.
Mr Hague’s approach may help build a special relationship with New Delhi, but at the expense of our relations with Islamabad, which he also regards highly. In September, the Foreign Secretary said:
We will stand by Pakistan as it addresses the challenges it faces and build a durable relationship that we know will stand the test of time. We can be confident of doing so because ours is not a new relationship founded on a narrow set of interests.
Britain wants to have her cake in Central and South Asia and to eat it too, yet this policy is unsustainable in the current geopolitical climate.
David Cameron and William Hague must decide which of their goals are important and which of them must be discarded. If they do not do so, they will not achieve anything in the region.
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