The region where Pakistan is located is undergoing a transformative phase that is witnessing changes in perceptions, policies and ground realities. The region, which includes the broader Middle East as well as South West Asia, is seeing three fundamental far-reaching new realities. First, President Trump, probably the first American President since John F. Kennedy whose views are at variance with the American security establishment, has pursued a policy that can best be summed up as the retrenchment of US military power in the Muslim world. Since 9/11, according to a study by the Brown University’s Cost of Wars Project, released on November 14, 2018, the United States has spent almost $ 6 trillion in wars in the region that proved futile in the end: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, etc. Hence, it is no accident that President Trump has been firm in his belief not to get embroiled in any new land war in the Muslim world which requires American “boots on the ground”.
The American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, after signing an agreement with the Afghan Taliban on February 29, 2020, and the decision by President Trump not to use the military option either in Iran, Syria and Libya are pointers to this policy of retrenchment. Overcoming the reluctance and the resistance of his generals, President Trump has chosen to militarily withdraw from Afghanistan after fighting the longest, unwinnable war in American history and this process is likely to be completed by May 2021.
The second major reality in the region is the rise of China which, according to IMF projections, can make China the world’s biggest economy by 2024. This rise of China has not gone unnoticed in the West, particularly the United States which has launched what amounts to a New Cold War to “contain” China by projecting the “China threat”.
Interestingly, the Coronavirus crisis has brought into sharp contrast the responses of China and the United States, with the success of China in containing Covid-19, matched by the failure of the United States and the United States has then conversely blamed Beijing for what it calls the “China virus”. Led by hawks in the US administration, the trade war that began earlier this year between China and the United States is now being converted into an ideological Cold War with the United States directly attacking the Communist Party of China and also bringing legislation and other measures to pressurize China, ranging from curbs on Huawei technology to growing interaction with Taiwan plus raising issues regarding Hong Kong and Xinjiang. For a country like the United States, which, during the hey-day of the Cold War during 1945-1989, attempted “regime change” 72 times as a policy tool to advance its political interests and strategic goals, it seems that like the famous saying, “old habits die hard”.
The third major reality is that in the vacuum that has been created with the retrenchment of American military and political power in the region, new forces are in resurgence, seeking to fill the vacuum created by the American retrenchment. For example, a number of Muslim Middle Powers are now having a more proactive and assertive role in their respective regions. Pakistan, for example, has been pivotal to the Afghan peace process, brokering a settlement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani diplomacy is also centered on projecting the Kashmir cause following the annexation of Occupied Kashmir by India on August 5, 2019.
Turkey, although a NATO member, under the popular President Erdogan is flexing its political and military muscles in the region, reaching out to Russia for military equipment, supporting Qatar in its conflict with Saudi Arabia and there is now a Turkish military contingent based in Qatar. Turkey is also actively supporting the UN recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya in the civil war in that oil-rich country, where the opposing faction is supported by Egypt and the UAE. Turkey also does not hide its sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood which is being persecuted by the regime in Egypt, an empathy that is shared by Qatar as well.
Iran, despite the pressure of US sanctions, remains a major player in the Middle East and the Trump-sanctioned assassination of its Revolutionary Guards charismatic commander, General Qasim Sulemani, last January has not diluted either its proactive role or its political presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. Additionally, Iran remains the principal supporter of such Palestinian organizations as Hamas, which is ruling Gaza in occupied Palestine, as well as other militant bodies like the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and the Hezbollah in Lebanon plus the Houthis in Yemen, which makes Iran one of the key players in the Middle East.
US retrenchment from the Middle East has enabled other powers to assert their influence in the region. Israel too has been active, both in promoting its interests as well as countering Iran. Apart from being a steadfast American ally, Israel has developed a strategic relationship with Modi’s India since both have similar policies in Occupied Palestine and Occupied Kashmir respectively, primarily using demography to transform a majority into a minority in the respective occupied regions. Israel has also launched a diplomatic offensive to getting recognised by the UAE, which is its first inroad into the Persian Gulf region, although this development does not yet have a bandwagon effect, since no other Muslim country has followed suit.
While Russia also has become a key player in the Middle East with its military presence in Syria in support of President Bashar al Assad plus politically active in Libya as well, China too has built goodwill in the region linking the countries with the Belt and Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping, which is probably the single most important diplomatic and development initiative of the 21st century. China also presented a Middle East Peace Plan, for the first time in April 2017, with equally cordial relations with Israel and the Palestinians.
The most significant element in the Middle East equation is the virtual unraveling of the 70 year old strategic understanding between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which essentially boiled down to an “oil for security” deal in which uninterrupted supply of cheap Saudi oil to the United States was guaranteed in return for an American security umbrella that would protect the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the House of Sauds from all internal and external threats.
With the United States no longer dependent on Saudi oil to fuel its industrial machine, given the discovery of shale gas as a fossil fuel alternative and the fact about the retrenchment of US military power from the Middle East which was exemplified by the sudden withdrawal of American Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia in May 2020, after Saudi oil installations had been attacked from anti-Saudi rebels in Yemen, the nature of the chasm between Riyadh and Washington is evident. The American security establishment or the “Deep State” as President Trump labels it has also been sniping at the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) on a host of issues, with carefully orchestrated leaks in the American media aimed at embarrassing MBS. Trump himself also made disparaging remarks about Saudi Arabia in a famous public statement on October 2, 2018, when he said that: “If we stop supporting Saudi Arabia, their regime would fall within two weeks”. In fact, this process of distancing from Saudi Arabia had started earlier during the Obama administration when he first signed the landmark nuclear deal with Iran much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and Obama later also accused Saudi Arabia of fomenting religious extremism in different parts of Muslim world, during his famous interview with The Atlantic in April 2016. In that interview, Obama was also critical of long-standing US partners like Pakistan and Turkey, and he even floated the notion that Saudi Arabia should “share” the region with Iran, a premise that the Saudis found particularly offensive since they felt they, an American ally, were being equated with an American adversary.
Finally, like other countries in the region, Pakistan is waiting for the outcome of the November 3 presidential election in the United States which will decide either President Trump could get the second term or President Biden will take over, in which case, some key US priorities would likely to change as Biden is closer to the thinking of the American security establishment than Trump. Whatever may be the domestic faults of Trump, he got his foreign policy priorities right, better than both his Republican and Democratic predecessors. President Bush used 9/11 to promote an ideological and unilateral agenda of “fixing” the Muslim World, capped with his Iraq invasion in 2003 with disastrous consequences, spawning the beginning of the end of the “American Empire”. President Obama, despite tall talk, was too timid in foreign policy and he just gave up on the Muslim World, abandoning it half-way after his failed military adventure in Libya and flawed policy on Afghanistan. His ill-conceived “pivot to Asia” sowed the seeds of the “containment” of China.
Therefore, the US Presidential election will be crucial as it will also determine the answer to three questions that impinge directly on Pakistan and other countries in the region:
- Whether the policy of US military exit from Afghanistan will continue?
- Whether the ‘New Cold War’ with China will continue with the same intensity and ideological zeal?
- Whether the Iran-US nuclear deal will be restored?
While November 3 may see the direction of American foreign policy, the jockeying for power in the region continues with proxy wars, a looming new Cold War and other brewing conflicts, from Libya to Kashmir. But one emerging reality will remain unchanged, irrespective of whoever comes to power on November 3. There is an inescapable conclusion about America’s decline and loss of political clout with the balance of economic and political power shifting from the West to the East. The “American Century” is giving way now to the “Asian Century” in which the rise of China will remain an inevitable and irreversible reality.