By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Pakistan’s foreign policy continues to be a guessing game despite the fact that we have a robust foreign minister at long last. There must have been some wisdom in Mian Sahib not to have a foreign minister as long as he was PM. He knew the calibre of his cabinet colleagues and to an extent he was right not to trust foreign affairs with any one of them.
Current Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi opted to have a foreign minister to shut up the critics. His choice obviously was of a person who could look into the eyes of the devils if not more at least as an equal. Initially Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s responses to questions and utterances in Washington at least made people at home have second thoughts about him and his calibre notwithstanding him making a name for himself as a gender basher when he called heavy weight PTI leader Dr Shireen Mazari a trawler.
While Tweeting Piper in Donald Trump have cornered Pakistan much too much, his officials continue to blow hot and cold. And just when we were trying to stand up to restructure our foreign policy whatever it was, our Foreign Minister in his off the cuff tweet regarding deferment of FATF action to blacklist Pakistan for three months and to place it in the grey list until June-upset the applecart embarrassing friends who were responsible for getting us the breathing space.
This brings us to the fact that we keep messing up our foreign policy and there is desperate urgency that we get down to redrawing the parameters after having an extensive debate in the Parliament to frame our response to foreign policy issues-whether it is Afghanistan, Haqqani Netwoork, question of safe havens, relations with India, heating up of Line of Control, likely misunderstanding with Iran over deployment of Pakistani troops in the Sunni Nato Army, progress on CPEC with China. No doubt the current government has deliberately undermined the Parliament despite the fact that the need of the hour is for the Parliament to get promptly into session and discuss threadbare the vital issues of foreign policy especially following the arbitrary decision of the government to rent out its troops for the defence of a foreign country.
Humbly I believe a foreign policy is a set of parameters that a country evolves to safeguard its geo-strategic interests, have an effective writ of the state within and in securing its borders making them inviolable. When a country ceases to have control over its borders, it claims to sovereignty become questionable. Lastly, in the affairs of diplomacy it has to remain riveted to the fact that in the conduct of bilateral relations or any other, there is no such thin as permanent friendship-whether it is higher than Himalayas or deeper than the seven seas-permanent is a country’s geo-strategic interests only and nothing else. And there is no room for compromise on it.
It will be beyond the scope of this to article to encapsulate 70 years of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan’s could be easily summed up in the title of two historic books-Ayub Khan’s “Friends, not masters”-a sort of shikwa with the United States for its treatment of Pakistan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “Myth of Independence” that laid bare how string tied we came to be with American apron to be accorded the title of most trusted ally of Washington East of Suez.
Anglo-American orientation of our Foreign Office bureaucracy headed by a Knighted Foreign Minister-no doubt a competent man– and military made us commit the fundamental blunder of seeking friends not next door but several thousand miles away. We spurned Russian invitation to get one from Washington, how we got entrapped in John Foster Dulles’ cold war pact-mania-are blunders most foul that shall remain an albatross around our neck.
It was out of sheer desperation Ayub had got written his book to make public his pathetic lamentation to Washington for its treatment of Pakistan. It was much too late. Americans had acquired big leverage and ingress into everything to the extent that a point came when they pressurised Ayub to get rid of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose nationalistic itch to make Pakistan independent had become a thorn in their back. While he was his foreign minister, martyred Bhutto did his best to try to salvage the situation by giving foreign policy a new sense of direction, new set of friends and not masters, reducing dependency on the United States and diversifying defence procurement from dependable friends like China and European suppliers.
In short, Pakistan’s foreign policy under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (three in one, as Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President) especially in the post 1965 period until 1977-reached newer heights of glory, predominantly independent as leader and not led among the Muslim and third world countries. His hall mark of achievements were the Simla agreement buying peace that has lasted till today, release of prisoners of war (93,000 generals included), withdrawal of Indian troops from Pakistani territory (nearly 12, 000 kilometers in Sialkot sector captured by the Indian army in 1971 war), speedy acquisition of nuclear deterrence, holding of Islamic summit and building up of Pakistan’s vast industrial infra-structure to make Pakistan self sufficient in manufacturing of arms include fighter planes at Kamra and submarines at Karachi Shipyard. In this period most outstanding role was that of Foreign Office as executor of Bhutto’s policies. The glory it enjoyed under Bhutto it has never had since.
After General Ziaul Haq’s anti-Bhutto coup in 1977 everything took a nose dive. Foreign Office ceased to have any role in framing of foreign policy; everything was delivered to them from the strategists and warlords of Aabpara. Instead of national interests, he believed in seeking his own legitimacy from foreign masters and self dividends. After great deal of struggle by Benazir Bhutto, PPP and other democratic forces Pakistan did return to truncated democracy in 1988 after General Zia’s divine fall from the sky. As Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did try her best to be independent but extra-constitutional forces were much too powerful and her government did not last more than 20 months. Foreign policy continued under the straightjacket of Aabpara and to this day it continues as such-a sort of jigsaw puzzle. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to assert himself but he had too many skeletons in his cupboard that got released and are now haunting him forcing a denouement on his political career. He had no foreign policy and no foreign minister. Previous Army chief Generals Raheel Sharif virtually assumed the port folio of Foreign Minister as well. And now General Bajwa too is more or less looking after foreign affairs.
For more than four years Nawaz Sharif did not think that Pakistan needed a foreign minister. Many thought that Prime Minister felt confident that he alone was capable of handling it or he thought that there was none in his party capable of running Foreign Ministry. However, people like me who have had the pleasure of dealing with Foreign Office over many decades, at least understood better why he did not have a foreign minister. Since there was no foreign policy so why have a foreign minister-was simple logic.
The other explanation also sounds valid. Since the Foreign Policy had openly shifted into the domain of the Army Chief why have a foreign minister. Throughout the tenure of General Raheel Sharif as COAS major foreign policy decisions were taken by him. Poor Prime Minister– whenever he tried to move forward to break ice with India, something untoward happened to subvert it carrying the message to him that he is not an angel to tread in that no go zone.
No doubt we have a foreign minister now and Khawaja Asif is seen to be such by his frequent visits abroad including 4-day recent visit to Russia. Perhaps we can ignore his goof up and call it a feather in his cap to get deferred on placement on terror financing watchlist. Although the Amercan move had overwhelming support, Chinese helped u to have it deferred. For how long it all depend on our capacity to extend de facto VIP status to Hafiz Saeed and his organisations doing some other questionable business under the cover of charity.
There couldn’t more lethal indictment of Pakistan’s foreign policy than the fact that despite being a corner stone of American foreign policy for decades at the end of the day we are target of worst hostility from the American President who seems to be master of creating uncertainties across the world. It is not only Americans who are bitterly hostile to us, our immediate next door neighbours too are not very friendly.
Cross border violations on the LoC no more seem to summer affair, internal death toll, blinding of the youth with pellets and heating up of the overall environment are so alarming that even Secretary General of the UN has readily offered his mediation. Relations with Afghanistan too are dicey. In this context Americans and Afghan government think that Pakistan is involved hand and glove with the subversive activities of Haqqani Network and Taliban. However, latest news from Kabul generates hope of a long last settlement between the government and the Taliban. About relations with Iran, the less said the better. Iran too has launched an intiative to have talks with its neighbours in Gulf to resolve the issues keeping them at logger head.
Our deployment of troops in the Sunni Nato force in Saudi Arabia has actually catapulted us in the midst of sectarian Middle Eastern cross firing. Only friendly neighbour that we have is China. Time and again it has been standing by us. However, one must not under emphasise its growing economic interests within Pakistan stretching much too far beyond its borders. Its stakes are too high and so far it does not have a history of getting involved militarily in case of aggression.
The corner stone of our foreign policy – our relations with Washington-have ended in a tomb stone. While we don’t know if we have a foreign policy or not, our diplomats keep on hinting of Pakistan seeking new alignments-probably the pointer is towards Russia. However, in the present imbroglio policy planners-if any-must realise that Pakistan’s geo-strategic situation and its wobbly internal condition with apprehensions of sectarian implosion– do not permit it to take sides against Iran or to be involved in what is considered a sectarian alliance. How should Pakistan extricate itself from this Catch-22 trap is to debate foreign policy in a joint session of the Parliament and follow the collective wisdom of the elected representatives of the people rather than individuals. Being the only nuclear Muslim state it must exert its pressure on both Saudi Arabia and Iran to let Pakistan mediate to pull their chestnuts out of fire.
(Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)