Dr Ayesha Siddiqa Speaks at Berkeley
By Ras Siddiqui
It does not usually take this long to write a report, but sometimes one has to take more time to ponder over an event. It is not every day that a Pakistani scholar of politics and security of international repute comes to this area, and for this occurrence one has to thank the Institute for South Asia Studies, University of California Berkeley and The Berkeley Pakistan Initiative for inviting an expert.
Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, who is currently a research associate with the South Asia Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, has many scholarly accomplishments to her credit, including two well-researched books on the Pakistani military. She has been a past fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and also had a stint at Sandia.
Ayesha is amongst a very small group of Pakistanis who write columns for and are published across the Wagah border. One might say that her popularity within the Pakistani establishment is often not high. She has published many well-researched pieces and two books geared towards promoting democratic ideals and empowerment. And even though her ideas do not go over well in military-dominated Pakistan, she is someone who has made a serious effort to back her publications and position with a great deal of research.
The regional alignments in South Asia are changing rapidly and Ayesha Siddiqa’s topic for this late February, 2017 event at Berkeley was “Pakistan: Civil-Military Relations in a Changing Domestic, Regional and Global Environment”, a subject very relevant and of interest to serious watchers of the developments in Pakistan vis a vis Afghanistan, China, India and Russia here in the United States. In the India context, a divergence of views remains amongst the civilian and military power bases in Pakistan. Some civilian entities want much more people-to-people contact, trade and cooperation between the two countries and Dr Ayesha remains a strong proponent of that kind of relationship. And that was just a small part of her talk here.
She started her presentation by stating that it was an honor and a pleasure to be here, but also added that the last time that she was in Berkeley in 2015, it was now painful to look back, because the late Sabeen Mahmud was with her at a conference which they both attended. For those who may not know, Sabeen, a Pakistani peace activist, was killed in Karachi in April, 2015 under mysterious circumstances soon after holding a debate on Baluchistan at her café, The Second Floor in Pakistan’s largest city. Siddiqa said that it is sad that many brave people like Sabeen have died in Pakistan and that this may be part of a conscious act of silencing liberal voices there and making life difficult for others to the extent that they cannot continue to live in the country.
Regional and geopolitical changes were the main focus of her talk that included the internal dynamics of the civil-military relationship in Pakistan as well. She said that the larger states in South Asia, namely India and Pakistan, are currently rethinking their choice of partners. In Pakistan’s case, what is obvious today is a shift away from the US towards an evolving Sino-Russian block. And this drift away from America is not the first time for Pakistan, because such changes occur every time that there is a divergence of interests. She even went as far as calling this relationship a bad marriage - a tumultuous love affair. In her words, the love affair is (currently) dead.
She went through the history of US-Pakistan relations starting from the 1950’s onwards and said that some in Pakistan have termed the low points in this relationship as a betrayal by the US with both sides sometimes accusing the other of lying and cheating. But she elaborated that the difference this time is that Pakistan has found an alternative in a globally emergent China and that relationship is planned to expand to include Russia as well. She added that Islamabad remains indebted to China for helping with its nuclear weapons program but we never get to hear about the details of this strategic relationship. But China’s support, according to Siddiqa, is not always guaranteed as was evident during the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999 when it may have actually suggested that the Pakistanis withdraw, leading to the dash to Washington.
This time, there is a significant difference in the change taking place in the region, said Ayesha, and that change is in a new economically assertive China itself, a China that is no longer just a regional power, but one ready to play a larger role in Asia and in global politics. She added that Moscow and Beijing are also re-engaging each other. What was once the three A’s running Pakistan (Allah, Army and America) have certainly shifted. What is possibly even more significant is the addition of Pakistan into the China-Russia cooperation. It is a push-back in relevance, a counter to India’s growing influence as a soft power in the region, especially in Central Asia. Russia, she said, is looking to regaining its former dominant status and would not mind possibly turning Afghanistan into America’s Vietnam.
Delving deeper into the Beijing-Islamabad relationship, she said that both Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical to China with massive investments being made in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and specifically in the seaport of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. She added that this was different from the past Pakistan-US relationship when American weapons were a main attraction for the Pakistanis, who have now already turned to China as the major source of military hardware to counter growing Indian military might. This is a significant shift in patterns. The growing influence of China in Pakistan is now visible everywhere today and Chinese companies are even taking over some essential services in the country.
On civil-military relations DrSiddiqa said that civilians want better relations with India but the Pakistani military remains very closed to improving relations with our neighbor. She said that they do not want to take control in the country because they are already in control. And she added that dissent is not being tolerated and that the recent disappearance of liberal bloggers is reflective of that (they were recovered and are not saying much except for one who lives in Europe). She also elaborated on the fact that the political class in Pakistan is itself a product of the military and that there is increasingly less space for human rights activism and political discourse there.
To conclude, how this changing scenario in Asia is being viewed by Washington will remain a topic for another time but in the Q/A session after her talk, some interesting points emerged. The bottom line is that things are changing rapidly in the South Asian region and it remains to be seen how they will eventually play out. Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s views, which may not be popular in the power centers of Pakistan itself (at the moment), cannot be ignored by the parties involved there and should not be taken lightly.