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Pakistan: Statecraft and Geopolitics in Today’s World
By Shahid Javed Burki
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-070426-1
390pp.

Going by his book Pakistan: Statecraft and Geopolitics in Today’s World, Shahid Javed Burki is an optimist.

He begins his monumental book by quoting scholars who consider Pakistan the “pivot” of the world and a “hard country” as defined by Anatol Lieven — “hard” because it has been facing crises after crises but has been able to deal with them since its social, political and economic life was managed by “a system of patron-client relationships.”

Burki believes Pakistan is among the very few Muslim countries that are succeeding in developing social, political, and economic systems that are likely to produce long-term stability.

The most significant quote that must jolt Pakistan-baiters worldwide is from Russian political analyst, author and journalist Andrew Korybko who, in an article titled ‘Pakistan, the Global Pivot State’, says, “Pakistan’s economic potential, international connectivity capabilities, and unparalleled geostrategic location, combined with [a] world class military and proven diplomatic finesse over the decades, could turn the country into the global pivot state of the 21st century.”

Shahid Javed Burki’s latest book is a cornucopia of Pakistan’s geopolitical history and foresees a bright future for the country in spite of today’s bleak scenario

He adds: “As astounding as it may sound to most observers, the global pivot state of the 21st century isn’t China, the US, or Russia, but Pakistan. The South Asian state regrettably has a terrible international reputation as a result of the joint Indo-American info-war that has been waged against it over the past few decades, but an objective look at the country’s geostrategic and domestic capabilities reveals that it is in a prime position to influentially shape the contours of the coming century.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that China had the foresight to partner with it decades before anyone else did, but great powers like Russia are finally awakening to its importance, and this in turn is making Pakistan the most strategically sought-after country in the world.”

Burki ends his book 305 pages later by coming to the same conclusion, after taking the reader through an encyclopaedic history of a country whose greatest achievement is not only survival but a survival that flaunts nuclear epaulettes.

The book dwells at length on Pakistan’s relationship with its neighbours, with a chapter devoted to each, the one rightly getting the most attention being Afghanistan. Although repetitive, no doubt, the details about Afghanistan make the reader wonder, admire and perhaps loathe the ambience that develops out of the interaction of the ethnic and political forces that make Afghanistan an unconquerable country, a baffling phenomenon, a graveyard of foreign armies. The country tempts and traps.

There are valuable facts about the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), its ability to operate on both sides of the Durand Line, and the ingenious ways of concealing and camouflaging its strategy and tactics, coupled with astonishing physical strength.

During a meeting with Burki in 2015, Sartaj Aziz, a former foreign minister, spoke of the “complex infrastructure” TTP groups had built in Miranshah, the capital of the North Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the military had declared it safe following an anti-terrorist operation.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the most important part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative | AFP

The main problem in fighting the TTP terrorists, according to Aziz, was that, even after they were routed, they were able to recruit more fighters for their cause. As Aziz explained, “Much of the living and work was done underground; some of the structures they had built were several stories deep, some of them were built under the mosques in the area. There were factories for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices [IED] deployed against both Afghan and foreign troops.”

The same Aziz, however, said something most profound and painful that must make all Pakistanis sit up and think. Burki quotes him as saying the political process in Pakistan has suffered enormously from the lack of a culture of tolerance and the important democratic traditions of respecting dissent.

This has led to a highly polarised and personalised pattern of politics and the recurrent breakdown of the democratic process. Relations between the government and the opposition, said Aziz, had sometimes been so tense that their members did not even attend each other’s social functions.

The book dwells at length on India-Pakistan relations, which he says have been in a near-war situation following the Pulwama incident. (For the uninitiated, the Pulwama incident occurred in India-occupied Kashmir in February 2019, when an attack on a military convoy left 40 Indian soldiers dead.)

The incident provided Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindutva fanatic, the pretext he was looking for to take a series of anti- Pakistan and anti-Muslim steps, which included the withdrawal of the ‘Most-Favoured Nation’ trade status for Pakistan.

Modi then upped the ante by sending its air force on a mission that turned out to be a disaster for India, when two Indian air force planes attacked a non-existent terrorist base near Balakot in KP: one of the planes was shot down and the pilot taken prisoner, while the other turned tail and crashed in occupied Kashmir.

At the diplomatic level, Modi demanded action against alleged terrorist groups in Pakistan and recalled its high commissioner to New Delhi for consultations. Pakistan did the same. More regretfully, Modi and his supporters seemed to have no regrets about turning their anti-Pakistan feelings into blatant prejudice against Muslims.

In December 2019, Indian lawmakers enacted a Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. It gave citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but excluded Muslims.

The malignant degree of prejudices against Pakistan can be seen in an example given by the author. In 2001, Burki had a meeting with an Indian businessman through a Pakistani journalist friend. The Indian tycoon said that he was in charge of a large business that worked in a number of Asian countries, but not Pakistan.

“I told you that I hate Pakistan and any involvement by my business in that country would be over my dead body,” he said, despite knowing that Burki was from Pakistan.

Burki then gives reasons why Pakistan needs to “keep a close watch on India.” The first is India’s success in building a representative system of political governance, which influenced other South Asian nations but was “now on a downward spiral.” If it goes too far in “negating a democratic set-up”, it will have consequences for the rest of Asia.

The second concern is the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. For various reasons, the nationalist fever that is knocking down political systems in the West has, according to the author, caught on in India as well. If the trend is not arrested, he says, it will spread to other parts of the Subcontinent.

The third concern is that the ‘India first’ approach in policy-making in New Delhi will retard progress in South Asia at a time “when the importance of physical connectivity is being recognised in other parts of the region.”

The author says there is a growing belief among the Hindu nationalists that Islam doesn’t belong to India and that it has spread through military intervention — a view that goes against the consensus among historians that it spread because of the influence of various Sufi orders. The teaching of Sufi saints converted millions of people to Islam. The followers of Hindutva believe that their descendants should revert to Hinduism.

On Pakistan’s symbiotic relationship with its north-eastern neighbour, Burki considers the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) the most important part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its global dimensions are mind-boggling. Through this plan, China plans to invest $1-3 trillion over the next 30 years or so in 60-70 countries, to build six road and railway corridors in Asia, Europe and Africa. Any move by any future Chinese government to abandon it has been preempted by the Xi Jinping regime’s decision to make it part of the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution.

The author believes what is now a considered opinion among China-watchers, that China is likely to overtake America in economic and military strength.

Because India is now America’s military ally, by virtue of its membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that also includes America, Australia and Japan, Islamabad has to face US pressure. According to Burki, “navigating the rough waters created by the growing American hostility towards China” is a challenge for Islamabad.

Though repetitive, the book is a cornucopia of Pakistan’s geopolitical history and sees a bright future for Pakistan in spite of today’s bleak scenario. The book can have a shorter edition if it avoids countless repetitions.

The reviewer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 3rd, 2023

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