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Strategic Situation in the Region and Pakistan

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IPRI organized a Guest Lecture on “Strategic Situation in the Region and Pakistan” on June 20, 2017 in IPRI meeting hall. Ambassador (R) Muhammad Khalid Khattak delivered the lecture.

Salient points of the discussion are as follows:

  • The features which characterize the strategic environment and its impact on the region are many. However, there are two terms to define strategic environment. The current strategic environment is characterized by strife and uncertainty. Afghan-Pakistan relationship and specter of terrorism has come to overwhelm the two countries and two societies. There are too many and divided versions as how this menace has affected this region but one can just think of two effects it had and it is still having on our region.
  • First is the deviation from the development agenda and it is overtaken by the security agenda. For Pakistan also, security has become the number one item on the agenda. The resources that Pakistan has used in countering terrorism are huge, both in terms of men material. These resources could have been used for the development of country and its socio-economic conditions could have been much better than the present situation. Second, with the security issue becoming the permanent issue, this is bearing on the internal co-relation of forces, mainly the civil-military relations. The result of this problem of terrorism has made the armed forces to take a lead role not only in security formulation but also other policy formulations of the country. The ownership by the civilian and political leadership of the campaign against terrorism has not really done much. It is more of a token ownership than real ownership. All political parties’ campaign against terrorism has become a cow they have been milking for their own benefits. The performance of national Action Plan (NAP) is less than satisfactory and that in return has a bearing on security and also on the civil military relations. There is a tendency that Pakistani politicians address the issue only by statements which are not substitute of a comprehensive policy. Statements could be very strong, statements are needed but statements are not substitute for a cohesive policy. Pakistan needs a policy more than these statements. The statements are made for the domestic consumption. They may not have any impact on local or host audience. These statements may not get publicized where they are serving, one can only find them on the Pakistani TV channels. As diplomats, they don’t have to convince their own public, they are meant to convince the people they are serving.
  • The issue of security is combined with the drug trafficking and other issues which in the beginning rose out of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is facing the blowback affects. Over the period of time, as a blowback of this effect the world opinion started considering Pakistan as a part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. The things like safe havens and safe sanctuaries not only became a diplomatic liability but a sharp and striking security threat to our own country and society. Its impact on society is more than visible as it changed the quality of life of people and goals and objectives for which Pakistan was created. Because of this situation the US and other western powers came to intervene in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both the countries now talk to each other via third party. Because of this kind of relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the elements in Afghanistan which are against Pakistan got an upper hand for the policymaking in Afghanistan vis-a-vis Pakistan. Due to the presence, of ISAF, NATO and US forces, Pakistan could not pressurize the anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan beyond a certain limit. The presence of US in Afghanistan has enabled Kabul to take any kind of anti-Pakistan stance it wishes to. There was a very interesting statement that former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai had made during his visit to India, “Afghanistan and India are strategic partners while Afghanistan and Pakistan are brothers.”  It is not necessary that every brother is a friend also. The brother is fine but strategic partnership is diplomatic and political arrangement. In international relations, it is better to be strategic partner than a brother.  Afghanistan’s policy to tilt towards India also became possible because of presence of US forces, otherwise the factors of geography, ethnicity and culture are in favour of Pakistan rather than India.
  • In strategic terms the Taliban who were a potential threat once are now potential share holders of power in Afghanistan. The world including Russia is supporting their legitimacy and is of the view that without their participation in the politics there could be no peace in Afghanistan. Earlier, Russia supported the northern alliance but now it considers that Taliban are now an actual reality on the ground and this has to be accepted. Now Russia supports political settlement, dialogue and power sharing in Afghanistan. However, the division and disintegration of Afghanistan cannot be ruled out unless there is a power sharing based on a genuine political solution. In that situation, Pakistan would have a real headache far more than it is facing today.
  • Another issue is the rise of Daesh in Afghanistan and the region. Daesh is fighting a war of life and death in Syria and Iraq. Its focus is in the Middle East and there it has its local franchises. But if Daesh is defeated in the Middle East, its focus will shift in South Asian region. Eliminating terrorism is impossible in a short time because it is very difficult to identify who is the terrorist. So, the terrorism in this region is one factor. The other factor of strategic environment is the situation in Syria. The current political frontiers of Syria can be changed in future. The Arab world may not be able to stay intact. Whatever is happening in Syria and Iraq has already happened in Lebanon. Modern nation state system in Europe is based on common language, common ethnicity, common culture and identities, and religion was also part of it. The modern Arab states do not have distinct culture and distinct values although they have common values, the same historical background and environment. The then President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, understood this point when he came with a project of United Arab Republics in 1938-1959. So there is a need of a Joint Arab Mechanism to save Arab countries from disintegration. The current divisions in the Arab world and the crisis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are going into the advantage of Daesh and other terrorist forces.
  • There is also a great deal of uncertainty in the Middle East. The Kurds are going to hold a Referendum in September 2017 for a separate state, Kurdistan. By all analysis and accounts Kurds are going to vote for an independent Kurdistan. The creation of a new non-Arab state of Kurdistan, like Turkey, Iraq and Iran would be of great advantage for Israel. In Syria, the Asad regime belongs to the past because of presence of extra regional, regional and local forces. It will be eliminated soon the way Ba’th party of Iraq and Saddam Hussein were eliminated. In Syria, the major powers are not taking into consideration the human rights violations being committed by the forces in Syria and Pakistan is also taking a neutral position. Pakistan needs to take a clear stance over human rights violations and killings in Syria because it faces the same situation in Kashmir.
  • The Arab strategic environment is related with the Qatar Crisis. For years, Qatar has been boxing against its weight. Turkey Iran or any other state which supports Qatar would not make it independent of the Gulf countries, but would make it more dependent on them. It would lead to greater chaos in the Middle East.
  • There is a stalemate between India and Pakistan. Nothing concrete will happen soon because Modi government politically rejects it. Bhartia Janta Party (BJP) cannot afford a compromise on Kashmir because politically it will be very damaging for BJP since initially the stance it took over Kashmir was very hawkish. In Kashmir, for the very first time, there is a genuine civil uprising and India has to deal with it politically via Pakistan.
  • There is no possibility of any major conflict between India and Pakistan in the near future, what to talk of having a nuclear escalation. Pakistan and India are not Germany and Russia; they are basically soft societies so there is a possibility of war of words only.
  • The US is becoming a declining power but its military/destructive capability is unmatched. Its military power and command and control over technology remain pre-dominant. Dollar remains the global exchange currency; if dollar collapses so would Chinese economy because it is interconnected with its assets with the US so it gives it a unique position. Under Trump administration, the policy of uncertainty both vis-à-vis allies and adversaries exists. This is of a great concern for everyone like China, European Union, Japan, UK, Iran and other countries. America under Trump is moving from interventionism to isolationism in a knee jerk way. For instance, in Syria the bombing started by the US was a signal to Russia that whatever happens in Syria, Russia should not be concerned about it. When it comes to Russia’s relations with the US, Ukraine is still the sticking point but US policy there is different. The US accepts that Russian interests in Ukraine are natural and genuine as it considers that American interests in Latin America and Mexico are genuine.
  • In China-US relations, North Korea is an issue. But relations are taking new shape as the US walked out of the Pacific Trade Agreement and most of the ASEAN countries came closer to China in terms of trade and economic ties etc. China-Russia Relations are improving with a major shift of replacing India with China by Russia.
  • Russia supported Pakistan’s membership for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) once India applied for the membership. Initially, India was not interested in the membership of SCO so Russia had taken an ambiguous position and supported Indian and Pakistani membership requests later. On the other hand, China and Central Asian Republics (CARS) were not so enthusiastic about the expansion of SCO. China knew that India would be admitted to SCO if Pakistan is admitted and that might not balance the SCO with both India and Russia. SCO represents its huge chamber for territory and global population etc. but most of the SCO countries are conducting their trade and economic relations bilaterally and not under the framework of SCO. So it is doubtful that under the SCO framework, much of trade and economic relations could be undertaken. Secondly, given the problems of India and Pakistan, the security aspect of SCO is unclear. It was initially the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military arrangement between China, Russia and CARs. Now with the India and Pakistan as members of SCO, no one knows how the security aspect of SCO will work. It might work as a kind of platform where there are meetings on the sidelines. The SCO charter is very clear in stating that no bilateral issues can be discussed at SCO platform. The two organizations, SCO and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are overlapping. If India can be a member of SCO, though it does not have common borders with any of CARs except China, China could be added to the SAARC given the fact that China has borders with four members of SAARC; Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. This will change the India centric character of SAARC. In the SAARC, China will be a very appropriate balancing country for India. Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan will support Chinese membership and it will be very difficult for Afghanistan and Bangladesh to oppose Chinese membership. On this issue India could be isolated in the SAARC. Keeping in mind China-India bilateral trade volume and economic relations will also be difficult for India to say no to China for its SAARC membership.
  • The three points of convergence between Russia and Pakistan, which emerged from 2003, since President Musharaf visited Russia and had a long meeting with Russian President Viladimir Putin, are; counter terrorism, security and stability in the region, economic relations and regional connectivity. The third point was emphasized by the Putin during last SCO Summit at Astana but by economic activity he meant pipelines and economic routes from Russia, Central Asia via Afghanistan and Pakistan towards India.
  • Both Russia and Pakistan are on the same page. Both believe in dialogue, leading to regional and an international understanding of the issues. In national and regional understanding the most important factor is the regional alignment. In a regional alignment of interests China, India, Pakistan, Iran and CARs should agree on basic minimum agenda. Russia is wary of the other issues like ISIS and sectarian conflicts but at the same time Russia is not much against sectarianism. It is in Russia’s national interest that this issue should stay under control but it is an historical issue and it works for Russia’s stability because Iran’s influence in Central Asia is minimum because of this issue.
  • In South Asia, Russia is playing a positive role and it is in Russia’s own interest. The relationship between India and Russia is not a zero-sum game. Strategically India and Russia are equal partners. Though India has more options than Russia. Its trade with China is much more than its trade with Russia.

Conclusion: The current strategic environment is characterized by strife and uncertainty in South Asia and Middle East because of intervention by extra-regional states, terrorism, Syrian war and Qatar Crisis. Russia is playing a positive role in South Asia particularly in terms of its relations with India, Pakistan and its interest in Afghanistan.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the speaker and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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