For decades, Pakistan has been cursed with political leaders who seemed incapable of grasping the importance of soft power as a tool for accomplishing important strategic goals without incurring any material expense. Last month however, the penny dropped and now the PTI government appears to be gradually mastering the art of perception management.
A moment of reckoning arrived when throughout the month of February, after non-state terrorists operating along the Pakistan-Iran border conducted an attack on Islamic Revolution Guard Corps fighters in south-eastern Iran, Tehran ended up turning against Islamabad in terms of official rhetoric. Rather than handle the issue through private diplomatic channels with its Pakistani neighbour and potentially important partner, Iranian officials instead began making defamatory anti-Pakistan statements which appeared to be straight out of India’s age-old propaganda playbook. Matters became all the more awkward when Iran and its arch enemy Israel appeared to agree on their assessment of the Pulwama incident in Indian occupied Kashmir.
— Mosharraf Zaidi (@mosharrafzaidi) February 16, 2019
But whilst Iran’s outrageous outbursts against Pakistan and Tehran’s strange agreement with Israel on a major issue of international attention were more the result of internal political infighting in Tehran than on anything more directly related to geo-strategy, Pakistan not only took the high road, but took the intelligent and strategic road.
Pakistan has under the Premiership of Imran Khan, become increasingly like the Switzerland of the Ummah (global Islamic community). By refraining from taking sides in the disputes of other Muslim majority nations, Pakistan has been able to balance good relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other – just to offer one such important example.
As such, Turkey was the first nation in the world to offer its role as a mediator in the recent flaring up of tensions over Indian occupied Kashmir, whilst Turkish officials also showed solidarity with fraternal Pakistan. Then, at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the pan-Islamic group of nations offered its withering condemnation of Indian aggression against Kashmiris, in a move which showed unambiguous solidarity with Pakistan. The OIC’s statement took on a new level of relevance because both Turkey and Pakistan (along with Qatar and Iran) boycotted the meeting in the UAE. As such, it is logical to assume that Pakistan’s Saudi partners and Emirati partners had a vital role in either authoring or green-lighting the OIC’s condemnation of India that was delivered at a meeting in which major Indian officials were present. This itself demonstrates that even in the absence of a Pakistani or pro-Pakistani Turkish delegation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had the courage to support Pakistan due to Imran Khan’s ability to balance good relations between geopolitical rivals in the Ummah.
Of course, Pakistan-Iran relations are more complex than Pakistan-Turkey relations, Pakistan-Saudi relations, Pakistan-Qatar relations or Pakistan-UAE relations. This if the reality because of three things: a post-1979 history of mutual distrust due primarily to issues relating to Afghanistan, the Indian funded port in Iran’s Chabahar and finally, the difficulties that transpire due to the presence of non-state extremist groups that in spite of their declining numbers, are still occasionally active on the Iran-Pakistan border.
Because Iran often vacillates between viewing Pakistan as a brotherly Muslim nation and simplistically viewing Pakistan as a rival because of its strong relations with countries like Saudi Arabia (a line of thinking which conveniently forgets that Russia, China and even India have good relations with Riyadh) – it was anyone’s guess how Iran would respond to the recent Kashmir crisis.
As it turned out, Iran initially approached the matter by appearing to take India’s side. This week however, the tone of Iran’s official state media shifted for one clear reason: Pakistani politicians have at long last become articulate in exposing the incredibly strong India-Israel partnership that continues to go from strength-to-strength under the Premiership of Narendra Modi.
Now that Pakistani politicians are finally discussing Israel’s involvement in south Asia, such statements from Pakistan are guaranteed to perk the ears of international audiences in both the Ummah and in the west – audiences who tend to be more sympathetic to Palestinian issues than to the occupation of Kashmir. The reason that Palestine tends to be a more amplified issue among non-south Asian audiences than Kashmir, is due to the fact that in recent years, international celebrities like Roger Waters and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as mainstream western politicians like Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn and American Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have helped to raise the profile of the Palestinian issue which in turn has elicited a major response from many powerful western Israel supporters – thus keeping the Israel/Palestine conflict in western headlines seemingly in perpetuity. By contrast, India’s slick propaganda campaigns have helped to muffle meaningful discussions on Kashmir outside of south Asia and especially in respect of discussions in the west.
There are however several subtle but very real changes afoot in respect of how the world is now viewing Kashmir and the wider India-Pakistan conflict
1. Non-south Asian media are at long last realising that while India portrays itself as a kind of spiritual Disneyland to westerners through propaganda like the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, internal Indian media has largely become a den of extremism. Exposure to Indian media among non-Indian audiences, has helped to shatter the Indian propaganda myth sold to the outside world which claims that somehow India is a pure land of peace whose every last problem is caused by Pakistan. One look at India’s domestically aimed media and it becomes clear that India is anything but a placid power.
2. Mainstream western media is finally reporting on the concerns surrounding the erstwhile ignored partnership between India and Israel.
3. While many Muslim majority nations have good relations with India, now that even westerners are questioning India’s direction under BJP rule, it would be counter-productive for Islamic majority states ot be seen as more pro-India than even a habitually Islamophobic west.
Realising this trend, Pakistani politicians have issued several important statements about Israel in recent days:
1. Pakistan has accused Israel of conspiring with India to conduct a missile attack on Pakistan that was ultimately thwarted by Pakistani intelligence.
2. Pakistan’s Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan referred to Israel as an enemy of Pakistan, a natural ally of India and a country with which Pakistan will never have formal diplomatic relations.
3. Unverified rumours that Pakistan has captured an Israeli pilot who took part in a failed India airstrike against Pakistan have helped to change the nature of the debate on the matter both within Pakistan and outside of south Asia. While the rumours have not yet been verified by any means, seeing as both India and Israel have a tendency to grossly exaggerate their military achievements (whilst facing comparatively little scrutiny from international journalists), Pakistani sources are merely putting the shoe on the other foot.
The result of Pakistan invoking Israel as a pro-Indian nemesis has consequently resulted in the following:
1. The wider Ummah will now want to publicly distance itself form India to varying degrees. This is not to say that the states of the Ummah will somehow boycott India (far from it), but by withdrawing would-be soft power approval of Indian geo-strategic manoeuvring, Muslim countries will tacitly help Pakistani statements about how New Delhi treats its Muslim neighbours, the Muslims of occupied Kashmir and its Muslim citizens, to be heard in a more impactful and unfiltered manner.
2. By associating India with Israel, not only will the Ummah think twice before offering public displays of political affection towards India, but western media outlets courting the Corbyn-Omar style of left-populism in the west, will think twice before glossing over Kashmir or otherwise taking India’s side.
3. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the most anti-Israel country in the world, will now have to be more balanced in its relations with both India and Pakistan, or else risk being seen as hypocritical in respect of its well known statements and position regarding Israel.
Taken as a whole, Pakistan’s government and ruling party have at long last begun to think strategically rather than ambivalently and are now using soft power tools to help shift the debate on Kashmir and India, both the Ummah and in the west.