Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting to review the country’s foreign policy challenges on January 3. What was doubly significant about the event was that it was the first formal civil-military interaction since General Qamar Bajwa assumed command of the army.
The prime minister was at pains to emphasise that Pakistan wanted peaceful coexistence based on mutual respect amongst the countries of South Asia. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), he underlined, was a manifestation of Pakistan’s desire for regional integration. These objectives, Nawaz Sharif said, could only be realised when we demonstrate commitment to our aspirations for peace, progress and prosperity.
The foreign policy review comes after a challenging year that saw relations deteriorate with our neighbours and marked an unprecedented isolation for the country in the region, reflected in the cancellation of the SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad in November last year after India and some other countries pulled out of attending. The prime minister’s message was addressed particularly to the Indian and Afghan leaderships, two neighbouring countries with whom relations turned particularly sour last year.
The review meeting looked at relations with these and other neighbouring countries in the bilateral and multilateral context to strategize a renewal of ties. In the context of SAARC, outreach is planned to reset strained ties with the members of the regional grouping. While India and Afghanistan top the list and present more intractable problems, the other countries of South Asia can only be ignored at our peril. Traditional close ties with Sri Lanka, for example, need mending after it followed India’s lead in not attending the SAARC summit.
Security co-operation and trade have defined bilateral ties in the past, and whatever reservations Colombo harbours need to be addressed. Bangladesh too, perhaps not so surprisingly, followed New Delhi’s lead but we need to revisit our penchant for commenting negatively on Bangladesh’s internal affairs, especially the Sheikh Hasina government’s drive against opposition leaders accused of war crimes. Not only do such comments get Dhaka’s back up because of the bitterness of the past, they serve to drive Bangladesh even more firmly into India’s embrace. With India, there are some tentative signs that the Modi government may be softening its belligerence in the context of tensions along the Line of Control (LoC).
We can ignore as mere hype the rhetoric of the new Indian army chief regarding ‘surgical strikes’ across the LoC, while keeping our powder dry. The meeting hoped for an easing of tensions after the upcoming elections in some Indian states are over. But that does not take away the problem of conflict between the Indian state and the uprising of the Kashmiris in Indian Held Kashmir since July 2016, whose severe repression has raised the temperature manifold. India must address the grievances of the Kashmiris through dialogue, not bullets, if Pakistan and India are to have any hope of improved relations. Afghanistan presents a picture of missed opportunities. The failure of the Quadrilateral Co-ordination Group process and a major Haqqani network attack on the National Directorate of Security building in Kabul on April 19, 2016 induced a negative cycle in relations after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s initial extending of a hand of friendship.
Tensions have been further inflamed by the construction on the Pakistani side of a border gate at Torkham that led to exchange of fire and military casualties on both sides. In addition, the vexed question of Afghan refugees’ repatriation and transit trade (Kabul insisting on trade with India through Wagah) added fuel to the fire. In the process, Kabul is perceived as having moved even closer to New Delhi, but this may be its effort to have a balancing option. General Bajwa’s telephone call on the eve of New Year to President Ghani and other Afghan leaders may have helped melt the ice as reflected in his being invited to visit Kabul. Following this i
nitiative, steps are expected to mollify Kabul. Relations with the US and the new incoming Donald Trump administration were also on the table, although the US President-elect remains an unknown commodity.
Given the criticality of civil-military consensus on the approach to foreign policy, especially in our neighbourhood, this first interaction promises a turn towards better co-ordination and co-operation between the two sides of the state system. -Business Recorder