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EFSAS Commentary

Recent developments pertaining to Sudan and Morocco could hold valuable lessons for Pakistan


Two major announcements with regard to Sudan and Morocco were made this past week. The meaning and implications that these hold for the two countries directly involved, as also for the nations that surround them, are substantial. The decision of the United States (US) to remove Sudan from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism came as a huge boost for the struggling Sudanese economy, while the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara region has, in effect, altered the geopolitics of the region. That both Sudan and Morocco agreed, in return for the US concessions, to the latter’s demand that the countries recognize Israel and engage with it has hogged most of the headlines. However, from the worldview of Sudan and Morocco, the Israel aspect of the deal is secondary to the benefits that the US decisions are likely to yield for their countries. Although these developments relate to distant Africa, they nevertheless hold lessons for South Asia, especially for Pakistan.

In October this year, President Donald Trump had articulated his intention to remove Sudan from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which had effectively kept the impoverished nation off the global financial system for close to three decades. In his usual style, Trump had tweeted, “GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!” The compensation Trump referred to was for victims of terror attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and on a US warship, the USS Cole, in Aden, Yemen in 2000. Sudan has since deposited the compensation amount with the US. This was followed by the release of a joint statement by the US, Sudan and Israel on 23 October which announced the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel. The joint statement said that the leaders of Sudan and Israel had “agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations”, and had “agreed to begin economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture”.

Following up on these agreements of October, the US Embassy in Khartoum announced on Facebook that “The congressional notification period of 45 days has lapsed and the Secretary of State has signed a notification stating rescission of Sudan’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation is effective as of today [December 14], to be published in the Federal Register”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that rescinding the designation “represents a fundamental change in our bilateral relationship toward greater collaboration and support for Sudan's historic democratic transition. This achievement was made possible by the efforts of Sudan's civilian-led transitional government to chart a bold new course away from the legacy of the Bashir regime and, in particular, to meet the statutory and policy criteria for rescission. We commend the calls of the Sudanese people for freedom, peace, and justice, and we congratulate the members of the civilian-led transitional government for their courage in advancing the aspirations of the citizens they serve”.

The US had put Sudan on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1993, when the then President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, in addition to hosting Osama bin Laden in Khartoum, was also harbouring Palestinian militant outfits such as the Hezbollah. Washington had labeled Khartoum a hub of the “axis of evil”. Omar al-Bashir, who had come to power in 1989 after toppling a democratically elected government, enforced hard-line Islamist policies in Sudan for three decades until his ouster last year. After its designation in the US terrorism list, Sudan was cut off from the global economy and was starved of foreign investment. The country’s economy suffered another blow in 2011, when Christians and Animists in southern parts of the country, already up in arms against Khartoum for decades, seceded to form the new country of South Sudan, taking away more than three-quarters of Sudan’s oil reserves. Sudan’s financial woes led to high inflation and price rises in essential commodities, which prompted widespread protests that led to Bashir being ousted from power in 2019. Relations between the US and Sudan have warmed since Bashir’s overthrow.

The removal from the US terrorism list was a top priority for Sudan’s transitional government, consisting of both civilian and military leaders, which replaced the Bashir regime. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock, therefore, welcomed his country's removal from the list. He tweeted after the announcement that “After 3 decades of global isolation on the State of Sponsor of Terrorism list, Sudan officially rejoins the international community”, adding that this “comes with numerous opportunities for Sudan’s development”. He also wrote, “Today we return with all our history, the civilization of our people, the greatness of our country and the vigor of our revolution to the international community”.

The designation as a State that sponsors terror has had a devastating impact on the people of Sudan. It made Sudan technically ineligible for debt relief and much-needed financing from major international institutions, in the midst of an economic crisis marked by shortages in wheat and fuel. As Abda el-Mahdi, a Khartoum-based economist, put it, “The sanctions were stopping the country from getting debt relief. And the debt arrears with multilateral institutions and other creditors were stopping us from getting badly needed concessional financing from them — getting out of that terror list was crucial for Sudan”. In a blog for The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Michelle Gavin wrote that “Delisting is positive economic news in that it removes significant barriers to critical banking relationships, eases investors’ concerns about reputational risk, and allows the United States to support debt relief for Sudan at the international financial institutions”. The de-listing is, importantly, expected to benefit the common man in Sudan directly, as the government will be better placed to address issues such as high inflation and unemployment.

Coming to South Asia, Pakistan, for all intents and purposes has emerged as a major State sponsor of terrorism over the last few decades. This has been borne out by the US and its allies pointedly and repeatedly calling out Pakistan for its sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad against India. Just like Sudan, Pakistan also harboured Osama Bin Laden for years, till the dreaded terrorist was eventually smoked out and gunned down in Abbottabad near the Pakistani capital. While Pakistan’s utility for the US and its allies in Afghanistan may have saved it from inclusion in the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism thus far, with the US drawdown from Afghanistan already well underway, that situation could change very quickly. Pakistan, unless it mends its ways, could at some point along the line join the three countries, Iran, North Korea and Syria, that still remain on the US list of sponsors of terrorism. In any case, Pakistan, in 2008, was identified by the money laundering and terror financing watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as a “high risk and non-cooperative” country, and that situation has not changed much in the years since. The country still figures on the FATF’s grey list, and it has been flirting dangerously with the black list for some years now.

Just like in Sudan, it is not the common man or even the civilian government in Pakistan that has been steering the country towards using terrorism as a policy of the State to achieve political aims. It is the military establishment of the country that has adopted this risk-fraught direction, even if it is the common man that is forced to absorb its toxic effects. The EAF Editorial Board at the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University, in a write-up titled “Pakistan has a path out of the abyss, but will it take it?” described the country as one “that appears to be in perpetual crisis”, and questioned whether it will “ever break the cycle and set a stable and prosperous course?” It added, “Yet the prospects for Pakistan and particularly for its economy are not good, as Ilhan Niaz points out in our lead article this week and the first in EAF’s annual Year in Review series. Skyrocketing food prices and energy sector debt, coupled with a low tax take, had set Pakistan up for a poor year even before the impact of COVID-19. The economy is in no state to achieve the 7 per cent growth necessary to keep pace with its rapidly growing population, according to Niaz. Pakistan’s poor economic form appears entrenched. The economic and political struggles in 2019 — austerity, inflation, rising public sector debt, and economic growth of just a few per cent — have not been seen off yet. Settling on the best way forward seems a reach too far — politicians, generals, clerics, separatists, militants and activists of all shapes and sizes are pulling the country in different directions”.

Pakistan, just like Sudan, could benefit greatly if it were to chart a more responsible course for itself, a route that eschews terrorism. The problem, however, is that while such course correction would greatly benefit the masses, it would wreck havoc on the primary source of power, and income, of the terror-churning institutions of the military establishment. This establishment has demonstrated time and again that in its scheme of things the masses do not really matter or count. Hence, whether it be the double digit inflation that has prevailed since August 2019, or as Hafiz Pasha, an economist and former Finance Minister predicted, “The number of poor in the country will reach 75 million by the end of this year”, the insulated establishment cares little. It will not even care if, as in Sudan, the poor masses are one day forced to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars as compensation to the families who lost their loved ones to Pakistani State-sponsored terrorists, even if the masses had nothing to do with these terrorists. Like the Bashir regime in Sudan, the military establishment in Pakistan will pay nothing for all the innocent blood that it has spilled. That said, just as with the present-day Sudanese, the Pakistani people will find themselves imbued with more hope, more optimism, if and when they eventually do manage to rid themselves of their terror-sponsoring masters, ones whom they have had no role whatsoever in selecting.

On Western Sahara, Trump proclaimed on 10 December that Washington would henceforth support Morocco’s “serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory”. He argued that an independent Sahrawi state was “not a realistic option for resolving the conflict”, adding that “genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution”. Fulfilling its part of the quid pro quo deal, Rabat announced that it was “resuming” diplomatic ties with Israel. The US also decided to open a consulate in the Western Sahara city of Dakhla.

A former Spanish colony that is home to less than a million people, Western Sahara is blessed with valuable resources including fish-rich Atlantic waters, phosphates and potential oil reserves. For Morocco, it is a strategic road south to lucrative West African markets. AFP reported that “Morocco controls three-quarters of the region, offering it autonomy but insisting it has sovereignty. It has poured in investment, and several nations have opened consulates there. The rest, behind a 2,700-km sand barrier, is run by the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed pro-independence group demanding a promised United Nations-run referendum. The UN-backed political process is stalled”.

While the US decision on the complex Western Sahara issue received mixed reactions from the international community, Rudroneel Ghosh in his column ‘Talking Turkey’ in the Times of India assessed that it marked “the beginning of the end of the Moroccan Sahara issue”, and that more countries would follow in Washington’s footsteps to open consulates in Dakhla. Despite there being several major differences between the Western Sahara and Jammu & Kashmir issues, Ghosh does bring out some significant basic similarities when he writes that  “In that sense, the Moroccan Sahara issue is much like the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. In both cases an external power (Pakistan and Algeria) is exploiting a section of a local population (Kashmiri and Sahrawi) to undermine the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation (India and Morocco)”. In addition, in both cases the role of the United Nations had all but been eclipsed, and movement on the issues had more or less stalled.

Pakistan, which would be watching the widening schism between China and the US take on more aggressive hues, and the growing proximity between the US and India adopt more strategic tones, would be concerned by the US decision on Western Sahara. Having thrown its stock completely into the Chinese orbit, Pakistan will wonder whether it would become a fair target in the event of the China – US confrontation escalating. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) definitely will, and its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), enters Pakistan through that portion of the territory of J&K that is illegally occupied by Pakistan. It could prove to be a strategic masterstroke for the US to unabashedly recognize India’s claim over the whole of J&K, as such a move would not only deal a severe blow to China, its BRI, and its vassal State, Pakistan, it would also correct a grave historical wrong.

It should be much easier for the US to do so, as among all the differences alluded to afore, the most significant one is that India has an unambiguous legal title to the whole of J&K in the form of the Instrument of Accession, something Morocco did not have to the Western Sahara.