Relaunching NAM: time for a new Bandung Conference -Express Tribune

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The USA and its allies continue to blame Pakistan for its role in their defeat in Afghanistan. Pakistan is said to have always played a double game — pretending to help with the war on terror but at the same time providing safe haven to the Taliban, training and supporting frontline fighters, and even intervening directly in the Panjsheer Valley, the last redoubt of the anti-Taliban forces.

Whatever truth there may be in all this, it cannot hide the fact that the USA got itself into a war that it was incapable of winning; supported a sham election of a sham president who ran at the first sign of trouble; built up a sham army that disappeared overnight with equipment and ammunition worth hundreds of millions of dollars; and spent taxpayers money worth trillions, most of which ended up in the pockets of military suppliers and contractors, and in the foreign bank accounts of corrupt Afghan officials.

In allocating blame to Pakistanis, it is conveniently forgotten how much the country has suffered during the war in Afghanistan. At his speech to the UN General Assembly, PM Imran Khan quantified some of these impact — 80,000 Pakistanis killed, 3.5 million refugees and $150 billion of economic losses. Moreover, Pakistan got no thanks for its continuous efforts to bring about a negotiated solution which would bring peace and development to a country which has seen only war and mayhem for forty years.

But of course the experts in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and in Washington think tanks know this. So why the blame game?

There are two reasons. The first is domestic. All defeats and setbacks need a scapegoat and it is so much better if it is a foreign one, about which the US public knows little, and which can be easily demonised. Pakistan fits the bill perfectly. Few American would be able to point out Pakistan on a map or name its neighbouring countries. What they do know however is that it is a Muslim country, one where Osama bin Laden was hiding for years next to a major military base, and where Afghan Taliban used to spend winter months. This is enough to cast it in the role of the villain. Needless to say, it does not help that Pakistan has a Prime Minister who often leads with his chin — for example with his “breaking the shackles of slavery” speech.

But it is the second reason that is more important. A war with China looms on the horizon. In this war the USA needs allies, and India, with its longstanding differences with China, is a natural partner. But an alliance with India requires that the USA distances itself from Pakistan.

If this analysis is right, there is nothing much that Pakistan can do to change the US stance. The USA will certainly not be willing to build a “broad-based relationship” with Pakistan, and likely try to turn Pakistan into a pariah state. They will also do their best to push their allies in Europe, the Middle East and Australasia into also distancing themselves from Pakistan.

Fortunately for Pakistan, we no longer live in a unipolar world where the USA is the only source of strategic support, financial help and military equipment. Pakistan already has a relationship with China. But putting all ones egg in one basket may be unwise.

As a first step Pakistan should expand its strategic alliances with countries such as Iran, Russia, Turkey and Qatar that are important players in the region. But Pakistan needs to go further and build links with the other countries that are unhappy with the USA’s and China’s obsession with each other. Countries such as France that feels stabbed in the back by the recent nuclear submarine deal, and the many smaller countries in Asia and Africa who are fed up with US bullying but also wary of an emergent China.

Maybe it is time to talk about a new Non Aligned Movement (NAM) — a movement of countries that do not wish to completely side with China or the USA. Maybe a good place to launch such a movement would be Bandung (Indonesia) where in 1955, as many as 29 countries met to talk about their role in the cold war and their decision not to side with either of the two superpowers of the time — the USA and the USSR.

Pakistan was one of the countries that helped organise the 1955 Bandung Conference. Maybe it should take the lead once more.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2021.