Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
In this backdrop, it is all understandable that Pakistan’s security establishment is reaching out to countries of Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for ensuring stability in the post-2014 Afghanistan. The role of other CARs can also not be overlooked, though.
While economic and energy interests are important, and so are the people to people contacts that must be renewed, security and stability indeed tops the agenda for any regional outreach. It is therefore hoped that Islamabad will continue to seek joining of hands with CARs in years ahead.
It's also possible that Pakistan is trying to outflank India (or to keep from being outflanked by India) which has also been more active in Central Asia recently. From a commentary on Iranian state radio's Turkmen service (via BBC Monitoring):
At the same time, Pakistan, by boosting its military cooperation with Tajikistan, actually is trying to reduce India's role and military cooperation in this country. It is because for some reasons Pakistan is a rival to India in many areas and therefore builds its military and security cooperation with any country depending on the level of this country's relations with India.
Pakistan's army magazine recently published an article on relations with Tajikistan (though it, for the most part, highlights how limited those ties are.) A former Pakistani ambassador to Moscow also spoke recently in Islamabad on relations with Central Asia:
“Pakistanis should change misperception about CARs being backward. In fact, they are more advanced in terms of education, infrastructure, standard of life, gender rights and so on,” said Mohammad Khalid Khattak in a lecture on “Geo-politics and Geo-economic situation in Central Asia and their relations with Pakistan.”
We'll see if General Kayani's visits portend the start of some more serious Pakistani involvement in Central Asia.