A window of opportunity for Afghanistan and Pakistan
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The Saudi-US alliance has served as an anchor of stability in the Middle East and a key source of support for Pakistan and Afghanistan during successive rounds of the Afghan war. The recent friction was an exception, coinciding with the US exit from Afghanistan. The two countries lost an important channel, the Kingdom’s good offices, to persuade the US to remain engaged in mitigating the consequences of this war.
The current US outreach in the Gulf is, therefore, a good opening for them. If this visit by US President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia paves the way for restoring the strategic US-Saudi relationship, Pakistan and Afghanistan can hope to renew US interest in post-war stability in the region. The history of their overlapping interests testifies to this.
The fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan is intertwined with the Gulf nations through common bonds of geography, religion and culture, and, by extension, with the US — the traditional security guarantor of the energy-rich Gulf and its strategic sea lanes — which have led to four major wars in the Gulf and Southwest Asia since 1979.
The Gulf is the single largest source of foreign remittances for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their Muslim populations share a deep affinity with Saudi Arabia for hosting Islam’s holiest mosques and hold its leadership in high esteem. Saudi Arabia is the principal source of oil imports for Pakistan. The Kingdom has also helped Pakistan in difficult times, by providing oil on deferred payment and shoring up its national reserves.
The Afghan wars have imposed a heavy cost on Pakistan. Extremism and terrorism emanating from these conflicts have also hurt the Gulf region, particularly Saudi Arabia. Therefore, Pakistan and the Gulf nations have a common interest in a peaceful Afghanistan. Hence, they want the US and its Western allies to join hands in dealing with its current humanitarian crisis, which, if not addressed quickly, could spiral into another conflict and wave of transnational terrorism.
Pakistan and Afghanistan share another vital concern with the Gulf nations: Iran’s aggressive role beyond its borders. Pakistan and Iran have supported opposite sides during various stages of the Afghan conflict. They also accuse each other of sponsoring cross-border ethnic separatism. Pakistan avoids open hostility with Iran, but stands with the Kingdom on regional issues.
So does the de facto regime of the Taliban, as it seeks the support of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE. After all, these were the three countries that recognized the previous Taliban regime and are also proactively engaged in the current humanitarian relief effort. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has set up a trust fund for the purpose, with the largest contribution from the Kingdom.
On Iran, Pakistan-Afghan and Saudi-Gulf interests have overlapped with US strategic priorities, except during the Obama administration, when the US sponsored the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the current administration, which made a failed bid to revive it. Each time, the purpose was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — but not to constrain its ballistic missile capability or proxy wars in the Middle East. That is how US appeasement has ended up fueling Iranian militarism.
Recently, though, Iran has come under pressure from the Abraham Accords, which have brought Israel into the Gulf security equation; the normalization of Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE; and, more recently, the Saudi-mediated cease-fire in Yemen. The current US outreach in the Gulf will further isolate Iran, especially if the traditional Saudi-US partnership is restored.
This probability has already pushed Tehran toward Moscow, as is apparent from its reported deal to provide Russia with drones and its bid to join hands with Russia against Turkey in northern Syria. Unlike Russia, despite signing a strategic economic deal with Iran, China may prefer to preserve and promote its operational investment stakes in the Gulf rather than be part of Iran’s zero-sum game.
The Iranian regime has played this game all along. It survives internally by sustaining the bogey of external danger, while expanding its deadly agenda abroad. How it will respond regionally in the face of its current isolation — more aggression out of desperation, or a facade of diplomacy with its Arab neighbors — remains unclear.
Whatever the case, a globally isolated Iran at least relieves Pakistan and the Taliban rulers from a major spoiler of peace in post-war Afghanistan. They will also be able to serve Saudi-US interests in dealing with Iranian exploits in Southwest Asia. Beyond Iran, the resumption of the Saudi-US partnership could have several probable outcomes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
First, it is clear that Afghanistan’s grave economic and humanitarian crisis cannot be managed unless the US takes the urgent step of unfreezing Afghan assets worth $9.5 billion being held in American and European banks. Qatar has been the venue for US-Taliban talks for years, including for this financial row. Given its own stake in Afghan humanitarian relief, Saudi Arabia can play a more important role in resolving this matter through its good offices with the US. Social reforms give the Kingdom a distinctive ability to also persuade the Taliban leadership to address US political and human rights concerns, in return.
Second, counterterrorism in Afghanistan is a shared regional and international interest. The Islamic State-Khorasan province terrorist group poses a real danger to Taliban rule. For now, the Daesh affiliate or the remnants of Al-Qaeda do not threaten Gulf-US security. However, if allowed to nurture support and regroup, they can act beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Counterterrorism is also a value proposition that Pakistan can offer to regain US interest. In this respect, it can count on US re-engagement in the Gulf, especially with Saudi Arabia.
Third, Pakistan’s peace with India and recognition of Israel could be two other propositions over which Gulf-US interests coincide. The prospects of the former ultimately rest on the willingness of the two nuclear nations. The US will be more receptive to the latter, but it is way off: The taboo subject surfaces publicly from time to time, but instantly inflames passions.
Finally, the stability of Pakistan itself is in question. Its new government is struggling to overcome an acute economic crisis by meeting tough conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. This has caused severe inflation. Pakistan expects Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China to additionally shore up its national reserves, once the IMF deal is in place. This should not be an issue. Saudi Arabia could also act as a via media for Pakistan’s economic and security re-engagement with the US. Given its own interest in China’s investment and trade, the Kingdom could even help to assuage US concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a lifeline for the South Asian nation.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.