By Arif Nizami
The newly inducted PTI government is mainly focusing upon ending Pakistan’s growing international and regional isolation. And this is how it should be.Owing to the prolonged corruption trial against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — ultimately leading to his conviction and a rather lengthy election campaign — the national focus remained on domestic issues. That the former prime minister did not bother to appoint a foreign minister during the rump of his rule further exacerbated the country’s isolation.
The common refrain amongst PML-N circles was that the army leadership wanted to singlehandedly dictate foreign and security policies. Hence Sharif had considered it safe to keep the foreign affairs portfolio with himself. But facts are somewhat different. The present COAS (Chief Of Army Staff) General Qamar Javed Bajwa implored with the then prime minister to appoint a full time foreign minister.
Even a few names including that of senator Mushahid Hussain who at the time was secretary general of PML-Q were discussed. Finally Khawaja Muhammad Asif was appointed as foreign minister, but by Nawaz’s successor prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in August last year.
The PTI government has made an excellent choice in appointing Qureshi as foreign minister. Although for the ace South Punjab politician foreign affairs was not his first choice. He was focusing upon becoming the chief minister of Punjab. Under Nawaz Sharif a few decades ago, he had remained finance minster for a while. But sadly he lost the provincial seat to a political novice.
Qureshi has adequate foreign policy experience. He was foreign minister in Yousaf Raza Gilani’s cabinet. The party co chairperson and president at the time Asif Ali Zardari was unhappy with his role during the Raymond Davis affair during which Qureshi was perceived to be towing the GHQ line. When given the Water and Power ministry instead of foreign affairs in a reshuffle, he not only refused to take the oath of office but also quit the party in protest.
The foreign minister in his maiden press conference has vowed that he will not travel first class nor stay in five star hotels as part of the austerity measures announced by the new government. Symbolically speaking his announcement is fine for domestic consumption.
But where is the beef in the onerous conduct of foreign relations? Unfortunately after briefing the prime minister at the hotel Sherzade headquarters of the foreign office on Friday, Qureshi started his job on the wrong foot.
Much has been made about the readout of a recent telecon between Prime Minister Khan and the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. According to the US version released by the State Department, “secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan.”
The foreign office was quick to contradict the US readout terming it as “factually incorrect”, claiming that there was no mention at all in the conversation about terrorists operating in Pakistan. The matter did not end there. The State Department in a subsequent handout insists that its version is correct.
Whatever the two parties discussed can only be verified if both reveal transcripts of the conversation. But the foreign minister sounds somewhat churlish labouring too much on the point.
Whether Pompeo mentioned Pakistan providing safe havens to terrorists or not is hardly relevant now. The very fact that the State Department insisted on the veracity of its version means that Washington is giving a clear message to Islamabad to cleanup its act.
The US is really desperate to end its military involvement in Afghanistan. To end the longest war in its history it needs to talk to the Taliban. It still reckons that Islamabad has the key to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
However ground realities neither favour Ashraf Ghani’s rag tag of an Afghan government nor its patrons in Washington. The Taliban already control or influence most of Afghan territory.
The last few weeks have been extremely bloody for the already demoralized Afghan forces. The recent attack on Ghazni is squarely blamed (albeit wrongly) on Pakistan’s ISI (Inter Services Intelligence). According to the Indian media: “one of the major goals of Pakistan’s deep state is to reduce India’s involvement in Afghanistan and expand its influence in the country.”
Obviously such canards fit in the US narrative. Thus making Pakistan a scapegoat.
In this backdrop, it will need a lot of convincing on Islamabad’s part that it is no longer providing safe havens to the Taliban nor sending them across the Pak Afghan border. After all why is it that the whole world believes otherwise?
Linked to terrorism is Pakistan being under the hammer of FATF (Financial Action Task Force). It is already gray-listed by the international watchdog for terrorist financing.
Its recent meeting with Pakistani officials in Islamabad reportedly did not go too well leaving FATF officials unconvinced about Pakistan’s case. Hence when the deadline approaches Islamabad is under a real threat of being blacklisted with all its appended consequences.
This comes at a time when the Pakistani economy is in dire straits. Despite not stating the obvious the new government needs to soon start negotiating with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) a bailout package.
Islamabad initially needs at least a whopping $12 billion to keep its head above waters. According to some economists Pakistan would need similar infusions for the next few years.
The US foreign secretary only recently expressed the apprehension that the IMF loan will be used to retire CPEC (China Pak Economic Corridor) debts. Islamabad vociferously denied this charge. Nonetheless obviously the IMF package will not come through without American largesse.
Besides the US secretary of state foreign ministers of China, Japan and Iran are due in Islamabad in the next few days. Saudi Arabia after a few phone calls between Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the army chief’s recent meeting with him in Riyadh is also willing to chip in.
All this is good news that friends are willing to help out Pakistan. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. Apart from strict IMF conditionalies the money from the rest of the world will not be without strings. For example recently Islamabad was quick in condemning Canada in its spat with Riyadh over alleged human rights violations. Perhaps it had little choice.
It is axiomatic improving political and economic relations with India. Thankfully the new prime minister and the army chief himself have given positive vibes in this context. Even our longstanding ally China has stressed improved Indo-Pak ties for the sake of regional stability.
Obviously the military leadership should be co-opted in rebuilding a fresh foreign policy as well as changing an obsolete and counter-productive security paradigm. The National Security Committee is an appropriate forum for threadbare and frank discussion on such existential matters.
Qureshi is in an unenviable position to charter a new course for Pakistan’s foreign relations. But merely taking cosmetic measures and playing to the gallery will not do under the present circumstances.
(The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)