‘Taliban are not our wards nor our proxies’
Our case on the Nuclear Supplier Group is ‘coeval’ with India’s. Both are non-NPT states; India was the first to conduct its nuclear tests and we followed suit. If India is being given exception after exception to facilitate its entry into the NSG, a forum that was created to contain India’s proliferation following its 1974 tests, Pakistan with its credentials and responsible conduct too qualifies hands down
Question: Who is really responsible for Pakistan’s foreign policy crisis? Is it the prime minister, who refuses to appoint a full time foreign minister and retains the portfolio, even though he’s neck-deep in politics of survival and cannot give foreign affairs enough attention? Or is it the ‘establishment’, which took over foreign affairs and now has little to show for it?
Masood Khan: There is no crisis as such, but Pakistan’s foreign policy no doubt is facing huge challenges. In fact, until we hit three major snags, Pakistan was doing quite well. The three snags are: the United States demarche last year to Pakistan to cap or curb its tactical nuclear weapons and both short- and long-range delivery vehicles (and this Pakistan could not accept under any circumstances); the discomfiture Pakistan faced after the US practically went back on its F-16 aircraft deal with Pakistan; and the US drone strike in Baluchistan last month. In all these setbacks, the US is a common factor; but more importantly they were influenced by India. Either the US came under direct Indian pressure, for instance in the first two cases, or the Washington heeded Indian advice. If we pin these “failures” on our government or the ‘establishment’ then we would not understand the regional and international dynamics that we are pitted against. You won’t revolve these problems even if you have a full time foreign minister (whose job is being done by Mr Sartaj Aziz). There is no quick fix. The government and the armed forces are on the same page on all these issues. The question is how to make the US understand our perspective and priorities, but their prism is right now dominated by Indophile colours.
We mustn’t forget our successes — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, entry into the SCO, new inroads into the Central Asia, including breakthroughs on CASA 1000 and TAPI gas pipeline, GSP Plus with the European Union, putting Pakistan-US relations back on track in non-security areas, and a series of balanced decisions in regard to the Gulf and the Middle East. The economy is also moving upward with a huge promise. Right now we need to rethink our strategy to reengage the US especially on Afghanistan and India, and somehow persuade India to come to talks for the greater common good of the region. Pakistan has pursued high diplomacy for a rapprochement with India and peace and reconciliation agenda on Afghanistan. Despite lack of success in this direction, we cannot give low grades to Pakistan’s foreign policy or doubt the judgment driving it. Let me clarify this is not apologism but a call for harnessing all our national ingenuity to face down these threats with new resolve and resourcefulness. The leitmotif of our foreign policy is correct; we need to finesse it to make it more successful.
Q: Is Pakistan playing catch-up with India? How would you rate PM Modi’s personal touch to diplomacy while trying to lobby support for India’s entry into the NSG?
MK: Pakistan is not playing catch-up with India. Our case on the Nuclear Supplier Group is ‘coeval’ with India’s. Both are non-NPT states; India was the first to conduct its nuclear tests and we followed suit. If India is being given exception after exception to facilitate its entry into the NSG, a forum that was created to contain India’s proliferation following its 1974 tests, Pakistan with its credentials and responsible conduct too qualifies hands down. Yes, you are right Mr Modi has been skillful and successful in swinging support for India’s case, and it has created a strong momentum for its entry into the club, thanks to the massive boost given to it by the US diplomacy. Mr Modi’s charm and charisma would not make any impact if Secretary Kerry had not led a strong campaign to get India in. Ironically Mr Modi is both the prime claimant and the second fiddle; and in the process he would have the international community violate many international norms. On the other hand, China and Pakistan, supported by many others, are calling for a criteria-based approach anchored in principles. That is not a bad position. We have resolved to persevere in this effort no matter how difficult the path ahead is .
Q: Do you think the Chabahar Port pact between India, Afghanistan and Iran was a ‘stab in the back of Pakistan’, like some analysts have tried to portray it?
MK: As a nation, we should, I believe, discard a static mindset. The world around us is moving and we too should be moving. India, Iran and Afghanistan are watching and advancing their interests, and some of their steps could be deleterious to our interests if we are sleeping at the wheel. But if we are vigilant, and I believe we are, we should meet our CPEC timelines. The Gwardar Port should be completed on time and it should outcompete and cooperate with the emerging ports. That should be the ambition. We should do away with self-immobilising self-flagellation that reinforces feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Did we not worry India by launching CPEC? Now let’s stay the course, build closer ties with Iran and keep working on Afghan peace. Also explore new markets in Africa, where there is no contest with India.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the way out of the Pak-Afghan logjam? Could we really have asked more of President Ghani, who staked his presidency on a thaw with Pakistan? Or is it that Pakistan really did not do enough this time? We did promise bringing the Afghan Taliban to the talks but were eventually unable to do so.
MK: Like President Ghani, our leadership, both civil and military, has been sincere in reaching out to Afghanistan. But the problems spawned by multiple strategic factors are complex. Three things have really complicated the situation. One, Afghan leaders want to do diplomacy by media and are quick to blame Pakistan for all ills and failures. They externalise threat. Two, the Afghan army is not strong enough to neutralise the resistance. Three, the Taliban have continued with their violent attacks against their own people. Because of the fluidity of the situation the atmosphere is rife with rumour and suspicion. Pakistan should not be made the whipping boy for the Afghan imbroglio. The US and Afghanistan too should take responsibility. After all, they have been in charge for the past fifteen years. And then we should strategise together to steer Afghanistan and Pakistan towards peace, stability and property.
The fact is that we never promised to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. They are not our wards nor our proxies. They are fiercely independent and most of them are in Afghanistan any way. They are running 40 out of 400 districts in Afghanistan and have shared control with the Afghan government in another 40. We had explained to the US and Afghan governments (the previous one too) that we would try our best, with no guarantees. We made sincere efforts to promote talks. Time and again, the process was deliberately scuppered. The US and Afghan government should not change goalposts frequently. If they want to fight, then fight; if they want talks, then give a pause to fighting and give diplomacy a chance. The same goes for the Taliban.
Q: Yet another great Afghan war is ending with the Americans “abandoning us”, like some people in the military are saying. Do you think it’s as simple a matter as the US simply getting what it wanted and walking away, like last time?
MK: The US is a great nation but its governments have a short attention span and there are changing priorities with each succeeding administration. The US citizens and foreign governments have to deal with that reality every four years. The next year is even more unpredictable because one does not know who the next president will be. We do not know whether the new administration will be expansionist or reductionist. For the past fifteen years, the Americans have been assuring us and Afghanistan that, unlike in the 1990s, they would not walk way, they would not ‘abandon’; and they seemed sincere in their pronouncements. But today the US itself is not sure what it will do next. I think we should presume that the US would stay in the region but on a reduced scale. In any case, the US would make a grave mistake if it subcontracts its security interests to India in the region. Objectively speaking, India does not have that capacity and it would not watch the US interests but settle its own regional scores and that would be a recipe for disaster. Pakistan should remain proactive and remain fully engaged with the US so that a growing chasm with Washington is not exploited more fiercely by India. For India to do so would be myopic because the right for it would be to respond to Pakistan’s overtures’ for dialogue.