The media hype created around the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to Islamabad in the wake of the Pulwama attack over-emphasised tactical aspects of state policy while obscuring the challenging strategic environment confronting Pakistan. Pakistan’s policy makers, historically speaking, often have been guilty of neglecting strategic realities while responding to developments which were tactical in nature. We need to correct this dangerous tendency which can lead to a situation where we may be celebrating victory in a battle while losing the war.

There is no doubt that MBS’s visit to Pakistan from 17 to 18 February was a success as it enhanced mutual understanding between the two countries on various issues including terrorism and Afghanistan, paved the way for Saudi investment amounting to $20 billion in Pakistan over the next few years, and called for increase in mutual trade. These commitments following earlier Saudi financial assistance in the form of $3 billion dollar worth of Saudi deposits with the State Bank of Pakistan and permission for the purchase of oil from Saudi Arabia on deferred payment basis were a source of considerable support to Pakistan’s economy in meeting its pressing foreign exchange requirements and increasing foreign investment in the country. Happily, the joint statement issued at the end of the visit also contained some complimentary remarks about the potential of CPEC for regional development and prosperity.

While the MBS’s visit did help in providing renewed strength and vitality to the bilateral relationship, it would be an exaggeration to characterise it as harbinger of a qualitative change. This would become clearer when one notes that because of the Indian sensitivities, there was no mention of the Kashmir issue or the Indian atrocities against the Kashmiri people by the Indian forces in the joint statement issued at the end of the visit. Further, MBS announced during his visit to India from 19-20 February that Saudi Arabia would invest $100 billion in India over and above the already committed investment of $44 billion in an oil refinery. However, one must appreciate that Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir during an interview in India refused to blame Pakistan for the Pulwama attack of 14 February.

Pakistan’s strategic environment is shaped more by India’s hostility towards it and the latter’s hegemonic designs in South Asia than anything else. The available evidence, especially the growing appeal of Hindutva in India, suggests that tensions and strains in Pakistan-India relations will persist for the foreseeable future. India views Pakistan as a major obstacle in the fulfilment of its designs to impose its hegemony in South Asia. Pakistan’s refusal to kowtow before India is the fundamental cause of Indo-Pakistan tensions. Kashmir, Siachin and other disputes add to the animosity between the two countries. Islamabad must carefully assess the long-term threat posed by India, prognosticate as accurately as possible India’s likely steps to implement its hostile designs towards Pakistan, and prepare its own plan of action to counter the anticipated Indian moves. In the face of Pakistan’s credible nuclear deterrent in the military field, it is likely that the real Indian challenge to Pakistan will come in political, economic and cultural fields, that is, by destabilising it politically, weakening it economically, and undermining its cultural identity.

At the regional level, Pakistan also faces formidable challenges on its western border. The continued armed conflict in Afghanistan has not only caused enormous sufferings to its people and destabilised the whole region. It has also adversely affected Pakistan’s security, political stability, economy and social cohesion. Restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan through an intra-Afghan dialogue is an inescapable necessity for regional and even global peace. How skilfully Pakistan handles the task of promoting such a dialogue in close coordination with other regional countries and major powers, especially the US, China and Russia, will be the test of its diplomacy.

Iran, which was the first country to recognise Pakistan after its birth, poses strategic problems of a different nature. Besides deep historical and cultural relations between the two countries going back over centuries, security and economic well-being of Pakistan and Iran are closely linked. Both countries benefitted when they cooperated with each other. The lesson of history is that both of them suffered when they worked at cross purposes as they did in Afghanistan in 1990’s. It is, therefore, in their mutual interest to strengthen their friendly relations and cooperation, and not allow their enemies to succeed in their efforts to sow seeds of discord between them. Pakistan’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries should not be at the expense of its relations with Iran and Turkey, and vice versa.

Regional and global strategic realities have deepened Pakistan-China friendship and strategic cooperation over the past six decades. Washington’s policy of containment of China has brought it closer to India, thereby, providing further impetus to the process of growing strategic partnership between Pakistan and China. CPEC and the resultant Chinese investment exceeding $60 billion in Pakistan are the byproduct of this process which must be preserved and promoted by Islamabad. Pakistan should not allow the Indo-US lobby to create hurdles in the development of Pakistan-China cooperation in various fields, while maintaining friendly relations with the US. Simultaneously, Pakistan should focus on developing mutual understanding and cooperation with Russia.

GOP deserves credit for its efforts to defuse the crisis created by India in the wake of the Pulwama attack through active diplomacy at bilateral and multilateral levels. Being nuclear powers, the two countries cannot afford an all-out war. Even a surgical strike by India can spiral out of control. Islamabad wisely took a conciliatory but firm stand in the face of the unjustified threats from the Indian side. While stressing its resolve to defend Pakistan’s security at any cost, it reiterated its determination to combat terrorism and offered full cooperation in the investigation of the Pulwama attack. Its task was facilitated by the welcome unity demonstrated by the full spectrum of Pakistan’s politics. Islamabad’s message of restraint, conciliation, dialogue and peace has been generally welcomed by the international community forcing PM Modi to lay emphasis in his address to the public on 23 February on diplomatic and economic means rather than the use of military force for confronting Pakistan.

Pakistan-India tensions still remain high and the possibility of adventurism on the part of India cannot be totally ruled out. In any case, Pakistan’s strategic challenges remain undiminished. The most important of these challenges is its virtually stagnant economy. As against India’s GDP growth rate of over 7% per annum, Pakistan’s GDP grew at the rate of 5.2% in 2017-18 and its growth rate is likely to decline to less than 4% in the current financial year. Even the latest version of Pakistan’s 12th FYP aims at a GDP growth rate of 5.4% only. If these trends continue, they will not only jeopardise Pakistan’s economic well-being but also its long-term security.

In addition, Pakistan must strengthen internal political stability and preserve its cultural identity besides taking resolute steps to root out terrorism. It is a tragedy of historic proportions that some renegade elements, on the one hand, warn the nation about the dangers of a hybrid war, and, on the other, have been involved in political engineering and electoral rigging in the country. In the process, they have deeply polarised and destabilised the nation, thus, unwittingly fulfilling the nefarious designs of the country’s enemies. They must desist from such divisive activities in future.