Anwar ul-Haq Kakar became temporary leader of the Islamabad government in August. His main mission is to help ensure that Pakistan holds new elections, which have been tentatively scheduled for january. (This being Pakistan, it is always suspected that the military have the last word.) Kakar was in New York last week to address the UN General Assembly. In an interview, he told me that Pakistan is charting a path designed to avoid getting caught up in the competition between the West, Russia and China.
Pakistan intends to remain “neutral” in Russia’s war with Ukraine and views China as its “all-time friend” and “strategic partner,” he said. To Washington’s ears, that sounds a lot like choosing sides, especially since Pakistan is technically an important non-NATO ally of the United States and has been its military partner for decades. But Pakistan has no intention of compromising with either side in the growing rivalry between the United States and China, he said.
“Every nation for itself,” Kakar said. “Why should we care about this competition? It is between two great powers, two great civilizations and the implications (affect) more than 150 countries. And Pakistan is just one of them.”
On the American side, there is certainly some bipartisan criticism in Congress over Pakistan’s growing closeness to China, including economic deepening, military and diplomatic ties. But Kakar said countries like Pakistan have no reason to apologize for resisting Western efforts to contain China.
“It is not a Cold War. There is no Iron Curtain here. It’s not so opaque. “Everyone sees what is happening,” said the prime minister. He says the West is “too obsessed” with efforts to contain China.
Similarly, Pakistan’s “neutral” stance on Ukraine (at least in public) reflects the country’s general desire to keep its options open, he said. For example, Pakistan is taking advantage of Europe’s shift away from Russian gas and oil to import cheaper energy. These new trade relations with Russia will last long after the current crisis is over.
“So this crisis is creating challenges and at the same time it is creating opportunities also within the region, and we are looking at it both ways,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Washington there is frustration that Pakistan appears to be going backwards democratically. The Biden administration has remained largely silent as the Pakistani military has cracked down on the political opposition, media and public dissent following the ouster and imprisonment of Imran Khan, the former prime minister. Human rights groups have criticized Pakistan’s decision. use of military courts For civilians, the escalation of violence against minority groups and missing of journalists.
Kakar defended the arrests and denied the alleged abuses. He compared Pakistan’s actions to the arrests in the United States of those who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
“Arrests are being made for illegal actions, someone who is involved in arson or vandalism,” he said. “This is not the type of behavior that any liberal democracy promotes or advocates. So why is Pakistan even expected to tolerate such behaviour?”
He said there is no impediment for any political party to exercise freedom of expression or criticize the government or the army. But Human Rights Watch reported that the Pakistani police arrested more than 4,000 protesters over the summer and detained several members of the political opposition. An American citizen, Khadijah Shah, has been jailed for more than 100 days without bail. The prime minister said she and everyone else would receive due process.
Some speculate that the US government is looking the other way because Pakistan is allegedly covertly supplying urgently needed ammunition to the Ukrainian military. The Intercept, for example, says he has documents showing that the Biden administration pushed for a recent six-month loan for Islamabad from the International Monetary Fund after the Pakistani military secretly agreed to move large quantities of ammunition to Ukraine. Other media have reported that Britain has made transfers easier to Ukraine from Pakistani weapons sold to third countries.
Kakar strongly denied these allegations. The fact that Pakistani ammunition has been found on the battlefield in Ukraine it is due to the black market, he told me.
“We have not made any sales that were intended directly for Ukraine, nor any type of transaction,” not even through a third party, he said.
Of course, if the arms deal were a secret, that’s exactly what Kakar would say. It certainly wouldn’t be the first secret arms deal between the United States and Pakistan. And other countries (see South Korea) are also playing timidly while increasing its indirect ammunition exports to Ukraine.
In Islamabad, there is frustration that Pakistan is always seen in the United States as a subordinate factor in more pressing foreign policy issues. By siding with the West against the Soviets and again after 9/11, Pakistan paid a heavy price and did not get proper credit, Kakar said. “Over the past 30 years, the West has treated Pakistan unfairly,” he told me.
Unfortunately, this dysfunctional dynamic between the United States and Pakistan, with each nation blaming the other for declining ties, appears more entrenched than ever. Policymakers in Washington should redouble their efforts to engage Pakistan’s leaders and make good on old promises to care more about Pakistan’s democratic and economic development.
Without such rapprochement, Pakistan will have no choice but to move closer to Beijing’s authoritarian model. But such an outcome is not entirely inevitable. In the end, Islamabad’s leaders know that total dependence on China is also not in Pakistan’s interest.
Given “the kind of global-scale challenges we face, I don’t see any power or group of powers being able to respond to those challenges alone,” Kakar said.