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Pakistan Reader# 265, 31 December 2021

Pakistan's Foreign Policy in 2021

Three hits and three misses

Afghanistan, China and Russia were three success stories in 2021, where Islamabad achieved what it wanted, while the FATF, US and Kashmir were three areas that Pakistan failed to, despite serious efforts.

D. Suba Chandran

Afghanistan: The year of Taliban and Pakistan
The return of the Taliban was the biggest story in Afghanistan. When the Taliban returned to the Presidential palace in August 2021, so did Pakistan's interests and trump cards in Kabul after two decades.

For the last two decades, Pakistan played a clever double game, expecting the following: 

  • the US, along with the rest of the international troops, would leave Afghanistan; 
  • the Washington-backed democratic regime in Afghanistan would fall; and
  • the Taliban would return to power. 

When 2021 began, there was an expectation that the US would leave; but none in Pakistan expected the pace at which the Ghani led regime fell during July-August, and the Taliban walked back into Kabul. It all happened, without much of Pakistan's prodding, and without much bloodshed. 

In August 2021, there was more jubilation in Islamabad and Rawalpindi on what had happened in Kabul. The Taliban backers in Pakistan's political, military and intelligence establishments felt justified for what they did and believed since 2001. The victory of the Taliban in Kabul means it is a victory for Pakistan as well. At least, that is what many in Pakistan believe. There are a few cautions – from the civil society regarding what the Taliban's return means for Pakistan. However, the above three sections feel otherwise.

The second major success story for Pakistan was strengthening the bond between Islamabad and Beijing. In rhetoric, both sides affirmed each other about a relationship that is higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans, and sweeter than the honey. The political and military establishments believe the success in Afghanistan would need China's support – both at the international and financial fronts. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is another flagship project that is being projected as a great success story for Pakistan. Islamabad was willing to get closer to Beijing, even if it meant walking away from Washington. Pakistan skipping the democracy summit organized by President Biden in early December is a case in point.

However, there are serious concerns, even within Pakistan, about the relationship with China. A section, small though, consider the relationship is rhetorically sound, but not so in terms of substance. This section questions the financial support from Beijing to Islamabad to help Pakistan meet its economic challenges outside CPEC investments. This section also fears the liabilities that the CPEC would bring to Pakistan in terms of debt and increasing Chinese influence.

The third major success story for Pakistan was the growing relationship with Russia. While the China-Pakistan relationship has been steadily built since the 1960s, the Russia-Pakistan rapprochement was recent. Since the 1970s, there was a distancing in the relationship between Islamabad and Moscow; the ISI's role in supporting the CIA in Afghanistan against Russia during the 1980s and 90s witnessed the rupturing of the relationship between the two countries. US-Pakistan bonhomie during this period also corresponded with a similar sentiment between India and Russia. During the last few years, the above equation got reversed.

In recent years, there has been a visible increase in the Pakistan-Russia relationship. Besides the political meetings, there were also discussions on defence cooperation between the two. The increasing relationship between Moscow and Islamabad also corresponded with a similar one between Washington and New Delhi. Afghanistan is in the centre of the above rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia now, if the same was the reason behind the both growing apart in the 1980s. 

FATF, Kashmir and the US: The year that was not for Pakistan
The most significant foreign policy failure for Pakistan in 2021 was at the FATF. Despite best efforts to meet the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force, getting out of its grey list could not materialize for Pakistan. The PTI government passed a series of legislations in the Parliament relating to money laundering and terror financing. Though the FATF felt that Pakistan was making good progress on the above two, it was decided in the last meeting in October 2021 to keep Pakistan on the grey list. The subsequent discussion will take place in early 2022. Pakistan has been trying to get out of the grey list since 2018.

The second major failure was to internationalize Kashmir and bring global pressure on India in J&K. Pakistan attempted three coordinated strategies on the above during 2021, as was the case in 2020

  • raise the issue at the United Nations and other international organizations;
  • pressurize the OIC and through it other Islamic countries to take a position on Kashmir; and 
  • bring China and other friendly countries (Turkey is the latest one), to create an international chorus against India.

Pakistan worked hard on the above three strategies. It raised the Kashmir issue at every forum and every opportunity. However, it could not mobilize adequate support from the US and EU. More importantly, it could not mobilize the OIC to do what it wanted. Despite a few statements supporting Pakistan's position, neither the OIC nor the big countries within the OIC, including Saudi Arabia, yielded to Islamabad.

The third major failure, which was also responsible for the first two – was the stagnating Washington-Islamabad relation. The missing phone call from Biden to Imran Khan was one of the most talked issue by Pakistan over the bilateral relationship with the US. And this says the quality of the relationship today between the two countries - Pakistan repeatedly talking about Biden's phone call, and the White House ignoring it.

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