The Pakistan card

Published : Oct 14, 2000 00:00 IST

ISLAMABAD had toed the American line for as long as anyone could remember. And it seemed appropriate as the Soviets definitely were on India's side. Those were the days of the Cold War. But nearly a decade into the post-Cold War era, power equations have changed worldwide, as they have in the subcontinent. Today, the United States can be seen to be distancing itself from Pakistan but Islamabad is yet to start grappling with the shifting scenario.

Where does the Islamic state stand vis-a-vis Moscow? The visit of Russian special envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky to the south Asian country and President Vladimir Putin's acceptance of an invitation to visit Pakistan have not helped clear the picture much. In fact, the bonhomie displayed by Putin in New Delhi and his categorical statements about Pakistan there, leave much to be read between the lines.

A 'frontline' state of the U.S. in South Asia until 1990, Pakistan is faced with a peculiar situation in the unipolar world. The visible tilt of the U.S. towards India, with an eye on the huge market it represents, has only accentuated Pakistan's dilemma . It is against this backdrop that Pakistan is seriously looking at its foreign policy options, although the effort at the moment is half-hearted. After all, the foreign policy strategists of Pakistan cannot be expected to give up a 50-year-old habit. Ye t an attempt is being made. Hence what was unthinkable a few years ago - extending the hand of friendship to Russia - is being considered an option today.

In recent weeks, Pakistan has initiated moves to reach out to Russia. And for a variety of reasons Russia is more than willing to grab the opportunity. Although both have a definite agenda of their own, they are convinced that they stand to benefit by en gaging each other. Obviously, the progress in the relations between the two countries would depend to a great extent on the perceived gains by each other in the game of engagement.

For the military establishment in Pakistan, an improvement in relations with Russia could mean gain on more than one count. To begin with, it would help the Pervez Musharraf regime emerge out of the international isolation the country is faced with afte r the Kargil misadventure in 1999 and the military coup that followed. Getting into the good books of Russia may not exactly compensate for the loss of its status as an ally of the U.S. but it is some consolation.

Pakistan has ambitions of leading the Muslim-dominated Central Asian Republics that have emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is little chance of Pakistan achieving its goal as long as Russia continued to harbour suspicions abou t the role of Pakistan in encouraging Islamic fundamentalist groups to foment trouble in Central Asia. Pakistan would have to allay the apprehensions of Russia on this ground.

The Pakistan connection to the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan is well known. Unmindful of the concerns of the rest of the world on the nature of the Taliban regime and its dogged pursuit to "Talibanise" the whole region, Pakistan has been c onsistently advocating its cause. Russia has serious concern over the developments in Afghanistan.

Trade is another area of interest that may drive Pakistan to forge fresh ties with Russia. With the vast untapped reserves of natural gas and other natural resources in the Central Asian region, Pakistan sees enormous potential for trade. At the moment, the value of estimated trade between Pakistan and Russia vary between $60 million to $80 million. There is a consensus in both countries on the scope for enhancement of economic cooperation. However, this would be possible only if the fundamental politi cal problems between the two countries are resolved.

As for Russia, its first and foremost concern in the Asian context is the challenge posed by the Taliban, which is knocking on the doors of Central Asia thanks to the successful military campaigns in recent weeks. The closer it gets to its target of taki ng complete control of Afghanistan, the greater is the discomfort for Moscow. Latest reports suggest that the Taliban is now in control of 95 per cent of the Afghan territory and that is too close for comfort for Russia.

Russia, like the U.S. and several other countries, seriously believes that the Taliban is propped up by Pakistan and therefore amenable to Islamabad's influence. Moscow wants Pakistan to prevail upon the Taliban to stop exporting its brand of jehad and c lose down camps to train the 'holy warriors' fighting in the name of Islam. Russia claims to have provided proof of the involvement of Islamic militias trained in Afghanistan in the war in Chechnya. No doubt Russia believes that Pakistan could play an im portant role in containing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

It was Pakistan which took the initiative to explore the possibility of a new relationship with Moscow. The military government set the ball rolling some time in August when it dispatched the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahme d, to Moscow to discuss issues of mutual concern. By all indications, the ISI chief had a fruitful visit.

Why was the ISI chief chosen for what is essentially a political mission? By sending the ISI chief, the military establishment was sending a clear signal to Moscow that it was willing to address the concerns of Russia on issues of terrorism and drug-traf ficking. The ISI is a powerful state institution under the direct control of the Army and is considered to be the mastermind behind all the Islamic militant organisations.

The discussions between Lt. Gen. Mahmood and his interlocutors in Moscow paved the way for the one-to-one meeting between Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations millennium session in New York in Se ptember. As a follow-up to the parleys and on the specific request of Musharraf, Putin sent Yastrzhembsky as his Special Envoy to Islamabad, on the eve of his India visit. This raised a lot of hope in Islamabad. Yastrzhembsky was armed with a special mes sage from Putin to Musharraf. The Special Envoy said the message articulated the 'concerns and hopes' of Russia vis-a-vis Pakistan. There was no ambiguity in the message, although the Pakistan establishment and the press sought to make much out of the vi sit.

Yastrzhembsky minced no words in suggesting that a new chapter in Pakistan-Russia relations hinged on Islambad's response to Moscow's concern over terrorism and drug-trafficking. He handed over a list of five camps run in Afghanistan to train militants t o fight in Chechnya and other Central Asian Republics.

The Pakistani leaders talked about the convergence of views on all subjects barring the Taliban regime. That Russia was not convinced about the sincerity of the military rulers was evident in the course of Putin's visit to New Delhi. A report from Moscow went out of its way to clarify that Putin has no plans in the immediate future to visit Islamabad.

The Musharraf regime played a card cleverly during the Special Envoy's visit by extending an invitation to Putin, and Moscow was left with little option but to accept it. The Special Envoy announced at his press briefing that dates for Putin's visit woul d be decided through diplomatic channels and yet Moscow felt it necessary to clarify that the President is in no hurry to travel to Islamabad.

That Russia continues to entertain serious misgivings about Islamabad's role in encouraging fundamentalist groups was clear from Putin's speech to the Indian Parliament. "The same people are organising terrorist attacks from the Philippines to Kosovo, in cluding Kashmir, Afghanistan and Russia's north Caucusus..." The inclusion of Kashmir in the same category dashed all hopes in Islamabad of any real change in the attitude of Russia. The plethora of agreements that followed between India and Russia only strengthened its apprehensions on this count.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said Russia would think twice before responding to Pakistan's overtures and the risking alienation of the Indian markets. Improvement in relations between Pakistan and Russia depends on Russian concerns being diminish ed through concrete actions by Pakistan.

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