The end of Cold War meant a significant shift in the threat perceptions of not only the two principals, but also pretty much every other country. Subsequently, 9/11 caused another dramatic change. The outrage caused by the attack resulted in near unanimous support for the US in dealing with the perpetrators. However, in the second stage, the traditional rivalries such as between Pakistan and India, Shiites and Sunnis, and Arabs and Israelis became intertwined with the war on terror. In the third stage that is presently unfolding, the actions against Islamists have also merged with the tussles of the global powers.
Transforming Threat Perception of Middle East
Before the initiation of the campaign against extremists, the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine had been a central theme defining the politics of Middle East. The Sunni and Shiite states, had over the years attempted to outdo each other in their zeal to be the liberator of Palestine. While as a result of the Camp David Accords in 1978, Egypt accepted Israel’s right to exist; many others still refused to accept the reality created by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The resulting enmity shaped the threat perceptions of both Israel and the Arabs. However, the demise of Soviet Union meant that countries such as Syria and Egypt could not longer count on its support.
Consistent military, economic and diplomatic US support for Israel enabled the Jewish state to withstand much larger Arab neighbors. On the other hand, the Sunni oil rich monarchies, for the most part, were also dependent on Western backing and security assistance to continue their rule. The West needed the Arab oil and these rulers needed security and legitimacy. However, over the years these dynamics severely curtailed Arab credibility to back their rhetoric against Israel with substance.
The September 11 attacks changed not only the threat perception of the US but also that of Israel and the Arab countries. Al-Qaeda threatened not only the West but also the Arab monarchies, and thus, all of a sudden, they shared a common enemy.
As the war on terror spread, the fall of Saddam Hussein stimulated another unexpected result: the resurgence of Iran. As a result, the balance of power in the Middle East shifted alarmingly and Sunni Arab states, especially the Gulf countries became more exposed, and further dependent on US for protection against the Shiite dominance. If this was not enough, the viral Arab Spring has added another dimension to the risks faced by these Arab countries. Thus, the threat from Israel to these regimes shifted to the danger from Iran, extremists, and their disgruntled domestic populace.
The Changing Threat Matrix of South Asia
On the other hand, another transformation of the threat perception was underway in South Asia. This one had to do with the Pakistan-India rivalry over issues that include Kashmir. Since independence, the defense and security policy of Pakistan have been largely India-centric, while it never perceived of any threats emanating from its western borders. India was considered more than a match for Pakistan, had it not have to worry about its northern border, and the danger it faces from China.
After September 11, Pakistan had to increasingly shift its focus to FATA and to counter Al-Qaeda and many other formulations of extremists that came to reside in the Tribal Areas. In addition, it had to cooperate with NATO in an unachievable task: to stop the flow of extremists across the long and porous Pak-Afghan border. Overtime, the country came under considerable pressure from US and NATO to revise its traditional national security premise; away from India and towards dealing with extremists. The Mumbai Incident served as a proof that the danger Pakistan faced was not external, but internal. Therefore, it should move troops from its eastern border to carry out operations in FATA, including North Waziristan.
However, the nation’s military establishment, considered being in charge of Pakistan’s defense and security policies, never appeared fully convinced with this line of argument. Moreover, the above version also stood against the narrative that is held by Pakistani nationalists and religious parties. According to them, US, Israel and India were conspiring against Pakistan and its nuclear capability, and the war against terror was actually a ploy to destabilize Pakistan towards achieving that goal. Their apprehensions were validated through the Afghan-India strategic deal, Raymond Davis incident, the unilateral operation in Abbottabad, Memogate, and now the NATO attack causing the martyrdom of about 24 Pakistani troops.
As pointed out in previous columns, in Europe as well as in Asia Pacific, the security and nationalistic concerns are triumphing over the potential benefit that economic cooperation may bring. The same trend appears to be holding true in the region. As a result, in Pakistan, the direction of the threat perception now appears to have shifted in favor of the religious and nationalist sentiments. It’s this fervor that caused the country to boycott the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan.
Had it not been due to the US and Israeli defense cooperation and shared concern over Iran’s nuclear program, from the American perspective, this would have been an opportune time for US-Iran détente. Speaking at the Brooking’s Saban Forum on December 2nd, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta laid out the three central pillars of American policy for Middle East: the security of Israel, the stability of the region and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, this centrality overlooks that by alienating both Iran and Pakistan, the Afghan solution is ever more inconceivable. From the angle of Pakistan, this strategic mistake only increases its leverage.
If the shift in the balance of power in the Middle East were to offer any lessons to Pakistan, it would be that it has made the Arab countries, especially the Gulf States, increasingly vulnerable. It has exposed these nations to both the traditional and contemporary threats, and increased their dependence on the Western support to mitigate them.
It is this dismal prognosis that is unlikely to convince Pakistan to act against the Afghan Taliban. Additionally, the global powers such as China and Russia are coming around to realize that while Osama is dead, the emerging world order is being reshaped in a manner that does not bode well for their future. Escalating Russian response to the US/NATO Missile shield, situation in Syria, and continued American presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 reflects this mood. Similarly, the Chinese reaction to the increasing American focus towards Australia, Myanmar, and the Pacific realm generally, also represents this sentiment.