Foreign policy conundrum


Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz’s briefing to journalists on Monday exuded (between the lines of course) an air of gloom and paralysis as far as Pakistan’s foreign policy is concerned.

The briefing naturally focused on arguably the four most important relationships with foreign countries, three of whom are our immediate neighbours and the fourth a distant superpower. First and foremost, Sartaj Aziz was pessimistic regarding the prospect of ties with India improving anytime soon.

Instead, he argued, the situation called for management to avoid an increase in tensions, ie, a minimalist, conservative management approach given the intractability of certain issues and the current atmosphere of a resurgence of suspicion and mistrust between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Terrorism remains the main focus of the latter, while the former insists on all issues being put on the table, including the Kashmir question. Sartaj Aziz complained that India does not want to give us credit for our actions against terrorism and keeps using that as an excuse for not restarting the bilateral suspended dialogue.

Normalisation of relations on India’s terms was not acceptable to Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz emphasised, and neither would Pakistan back down on its principled stance (ie all issues, including Kashmir, should be on the agenda). On relations with Afghanistan, Sartaj Aziz was equally pessimistic regarding the Afghan reconciliation process. Since the prospects were not good, he argued, all now depended on the ground situation in that country.

Elimination of the Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a drone last month had sabotaged the peace dialogue. His successor, reportedly even more a hard-liner, could not be asked to join the peace process. Perhaps the only way the Afghan Taliban could now be persuaded to return to the negotiating table would be if they failed to gain their objectives in the ongoing spring/summer offensive.

In other words, only if the Taliban are convinced that they cannot gain all or any of what they want tactically or strategically on the battlefield might they be persuaded to return to talks. Pakistan could not take all the responsibility for bringing the Taliban to the table but could use whatever influence it had with the group to facilitate the process.

Aziz also pointed out that the Afghan authorities were divided about engaging the Taliban and therefore clarity was lacking on how to take the process forward. Pakistan’s role, Aziz underlined, could not be substituted but blamed Kabul for being bogged down by historical baggage and therefore unable to see Pakistan’s major policy shift since 2013.

On the repeated US and Afghan allegations of Pakistan not adequately moving against the Haqqani network, Aziz said though the objective was common, it was a matter of sequencing and timing.

New co-ordination mechanisms agreed with Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani in Tashkent on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would help address those concerns, leading also to better border management, Aziz revealed (and hopefully avoid the kind of border clashes seen in recent days).

If at all there was a note of optimism, it was in Sartaj Aziz’s assertion that relations with the US were heading in the right direction despite recent setbacks such as the cancellation of the F-16 deal and continuing concerns about our nuclear programme.

On Iran, the Advisor pointed to the balance being maintained between Tehran and Riyadh. Confirming Iranian President Rouhani’s statement after his visit to Pakistan that the issue of alleged Indian intelligence agent Kulbushan Jadhav was not raised during the president’s meeting with CoAS General Raheel Sharif, Aziz revealed only a general concern about such activities from Iranian soil was conveyed.

Advisors naturally are required to put the best gloss on their portfolio. However, the more Sartaj Aziz tried to argue Pakistan’s case vis-à-vis relations with the countries mentioned above, the more it became clear that Pakistan has problems at one level or another with all of them.

According to former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, this is because (like in all other spheres) ours is a reactive rather than active foreign policy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview says he does not know who to talk to in Pakistan (a hint at the perceived civil-military divide here).

While not questioning the verity or weight of Sartaj Aziz’s explanations, the irreducible fact remains that even his survey leaves the indelible impression that Pakistan is bogged down with problems in all its important relationships outlined above.

Surely that calls for revisiting our present course, exploring areas of convergence, restoring, to the extent possible, normal if not friendly ties with all our neighbours and Washington. But to even begin such a journey, perhaps first and foremost there is a need for a full-time foreign minister.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2016

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