Pakistan is quietly setting itself up to do very well out of Central Asia, slightly underneath the radar. Despite being a significant power it itself, militarily and population-wise, Pakistan's playing the typical game of the small state. It's piggybacking on the aspirations of China, America, and even India, being bankrolled and supported by them without ever quite becoming a client state.
China and the oil
China is famously desperate for oil, and Pakistan is doing well by helping it get at what's in Central Asia. At the core of this is Gwadar, a fishing village that Pakistan is furiously turning into a port and transport hub - funded by over $400m of Chinese money. It might be a grim place to visit, but it's also the site of a fascinating convergence of superpowers.
Remember the oil pipeline through Afghanistan - the one some people claimed was behind the US invasion of Afghanistan? That was going to end up in Gwadar - and still will, if it ever goes ahead. It might end up being extended at both ends, to Azerbaijan and India, with Pakistan sitting happily in the middle taking transit fees. If that pipeline doesn't come off (building anything through Afghanistan seems pretty dubious), there's another one waiting in the wings: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas route - which would again go through Gwadar.
China has been considering building another pipeline on from Gwadar into China - and even if that doesn't happen, they'll be able to ship oil out by sea.
Meanwhile the Chinese are building one railway to connect Gwadar to the Karakoram Highway, have already built a road linking it to Karachi, and are looking at linking it to Iran.
So, China gets a little more energy security, Pakistan gets road, railways, a new port, earnings from transit fees, and Chinese interest in keeping Pakistan stable.
America and the Taliban
Then there's America - an even clearer case of Pakistan selling off its foreign policy, but getting a good proce for it. In September 2001 Musharraf managed to spin Pakistan's foreign policy 180 degrees, abandon the Taliban, and let the American army use Pakistan to invade Afghanistan. And boy, were they rewarded - with money, with weapons, with a trade deal and with general support for the regime.
Pakistan can't use quite the same approach to dealing with its greatest enemy - but even here there are pragmatic elements. It's just that here Pakistan's deal-makers are competing with the populists and the nationalists, and they only come out on top some of the time.
Let's take the populists first. India-bashing always goes down well, and if there's an election coming up the politicians will say some nasty things about India. But this isn't all that important: sometimes politicians get boxed in by their rhetoric and forced to do something, sometimes talking tough affects the situation by itself - but in general, the grandstanding doesn't amount to much.
More important is the body of nationalistic, paranoid, anti-Indian opinion which dominates Pakistans army and intelligence services. These are the people who got Pakistan involved in supporting the Taliban to provide 'Strategic Depth' - that is, having friendly space for Pakistan's army to regroup in the face of an attack from India, and avoiding India and her allies encircling Pakistan. These people get nervous when they see India stationing a dozen MiG-29 fighter planes in Tajikistan
But then there's the third group, who want to cut the same kind of deal with India as they've made with China and the US. That is, let India use Pakistan as a route to Central Asia (and Iran, in this case), and on the back of that get money and an Indian interest in keeping Pakistan stable. The big avenue for this is a proposed gas pipeline running from Iran to India, through Pakistan. From that idea, it's only a short step to getting India a share of what comes off any pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. When gas is involved, even the arch-enemy can be turned into a friend.
Keeping everybody happy
It's not easy keeping three superpowers in bed together, but Pakistan is navigating through the straits pretty well. The US didn't like the look of China's involvement in Gwadar - they saw it as a listening post and a way for China to project naval power into the Arabian sea. So they leant on Pakistan to push China out of the deal. What did Pakistan do? They raised the price of Chinese involvement, demanding $1.5bn per year from Beijing. So Islamabad turns a conflict into a win: either China coughs up and they're in the money, or they back out and the US takes over Gwadar (which they'd find useful for browbeating Iran and for supplying trops in Iraq)
When Pakistan chooses to defy the superpowers, it can, because every power involved has an interest in propping up the Musharraf government. Most obviously, the US is still relying on their support in the War on Terror. But nobody wants to see a nuclear power in civil war, and both China and (especially) India know that a disintegrating Pakistan is infinitely worse than a stable Pakistan.
Going it alone?
Apart from being everybody's accomplice, is Pakistan getting involved in Central Asia? Well, they've tried a little, but not enough for anybody to care much. According to RAND:
In the early 1990s, many Pakistani firms and the Bank of Pakistan moved into the region expecting rapid liberalization and acceptance of their services. After attempting to conduct business in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for several years, many firms re-sorted to looking for an exit strategy.1
Pakistan's government has made a few attempts at promoting business in Central Asia, but it's mostly trivia. In 2003-4, Pakistan's exports to Central Asia and the Caucasus amounted to just 1.2bn rupees - or slightly over US$20m!
There's no much worth mentioning militarily, either: Pakistan's army may be the 7th largest in the world, but it's pointed entirely at India. The ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service) reputedly has agents all over the region, but they don't exactly do a great deal. In the past they were accused of stirring up Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, but that was mostly a by-product of what was happening in Afghanistan - and has stopped since 2001 in any case. It doesn't matter much, because Pakistan is doing far better from helping superpowers than it could do by itself.