Our old one doesn’t seem to be working…
Despite multiple problems in the domestic context, the federal government is endeavouring to expand its foreign policy options against the backdrop of the changing regional situation. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister recently visited Moscow for exploring new economic and diplomacy options. In January, the 7th session of Pakistan-Russia Consultative Group was held in Moscow. In 2011, President Zardari visited Moscow for the SCO summit conference and the army chief also undertook a visit to Russia in the same year. Myanmar’s air force chief visited Pakistan in January and President Zardari visited that country later that month. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani visited Qatar this month and participated in the World Economic Forum at Davos in the last week of January. President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Islamabad on February 10-12.
There have been several exchange visit with Afghanistan and Iran during the last three months, including the visit of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to Kabul (February) and Iran’s Vice President to Islamabad. President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran are visiting Islamabad on February 16-17 for the third tripartite meeting of the heads of state of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. There has been a significant improvement of relations with India, including Pakistan’s decision to grant India the MFN status. An Indian trade fair was held in Lahore on February 11-13, and India’s commerce minister came to Pakistan with a large delegation of business and trade people. With China, Pakistan’s interaction goes on unabated with high-level cultural exchanges. Pakistan’s army chief visited China in January 2012. Pakistan assumed a seat in the UN Secretary Council as a non-permanent member on January 1, 2012 for two years.
The current activism does not necessarily offer quick solutions to Pakistan’s problems in the regional context. This is partly because its internal economic and political troubles limit its foreign policy options and partly due to absence of a long-term thinking on how to cope with security related issues, especially the American action in Abbottabad (May 2, 2011), the attack on the Mehran Naval Base in Karachi (May), and American/NATO attack on Pakistani checkposts (November).
These three incidents reflected negatively on the capacity of the three services of the military to cope with a swift and dare-devil security operation. The military faced sharp domestic criticism of security lapses in these incidents. The military and intelligence establishment decided to shift the focus of internal debate in Pakistan from its criticism to external intervention and violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. It used its linkages with the media and the Islamists and political far-right for this purpose. The Islamist-militant and sectarian groups jumped into action because the military’s desired discourse fitted well with their anti-American and anti-India discourse. The Pakistan Defence Council, a conglomerate of Islamist-militant and sectarian and political far-right organisations, held well-attended public meetings in different cities, adopting a pro-military and anti-US and anti-India disposition.
The sovereignty argument and anti-Americanism helped to meet the immediate needs of Pakistan’s security establishment for deflecting internal criticism and showing that the US was unpopular in Pakistan
From the long-term foreign policy and security perspective, the reactivated Islamic-militant and sectarian groups pose serious challenge to the civilian government and the military establishment. Whenever Pakistan attempts to revive its relations with the US and allows land transit of supplies to US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, these groups will oppose it through street protests. Pakistan’s official circles insist that the transit facilities have caused massive damage to Pakistan’s road network. In this way, Pakistan’s foreign policy and security establishment has pushed itself in a corner to such an extent that it will find it difficult to convince the people at large about the resumption of land transit facilities to the US.
Pakistan needs to re-articulate its relations with the US and Afghanistan if it wants to be involved in their dialogue with the Taliban groups. These countries are also seeking out Pakistan in order to secure the cooperation of the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. It is not clear if Pakistan wants to extend such cooperation especially when it refuses to admit that some senior Afghan Taliban are based in Pakistan.
Pakistan faces another problem. The Afghan Taliban leaders have laid down some conditions for the dialogue process that show their distrust of Pakistan. This also limits the role that Pakistan can play in the dialogue process. This makes it important for Pakistan to improve relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan to stay in the dialogue loop.
It seems that Pakistan and Afghanistan are now taking measured steps to normalise their relations. This is a positive development because they need to work together as the US/NATO troops pull out. However, a streak of anti-Pakistani sentiments will persist in the official Afghan circles which will cause periodic crises in their bilateral relations. On the Pakistani side, the fear of an expanded Indian role in Afghanistan and Indian support to Baloch dissidents will haunt Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Pakistan should play its trade and economic cards in a realistic manner rather than seeking the advancement of its military dominated power agenda in Afghanistan. There is a need for Pakistan’s security establishment to make a dispassionate review of its Afghan policy so that it is not left alone in the politics of power and influence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
One positive development is the effort on the part of the Pakistan government, backed by the military, to normalise relations with India and reduce tensions on the Pakistan-India border. The prospects of improved India-Pakistan trade and economic interaction will be beneficial to Pakistan’s economy and it will also enable Pakistan’s security managers to devote more attention to the security issues relating to the tribal areas and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Pakistan’s efforts to cultivate China and Russia widen the scope of its foreign policy. Pakistan can continue to rely on China for wide ranging support. However, China cannot be a substitute for the US, given the multifaceted interaction between the US and Pakistan at the official and non-official levels. One wonders if China wants to be entangled in politics of Pakistan-US relations. China and Russia share with the US concerns about Pakistan’s internal coherence and stability. These countries expect Pakistan to contain Islamic militancy that overflows its territorial boundaries.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.