‘Pakistan’s foreign policy is in a minefield, without a map’


Pakistan is caught between several power players in the region and its diplomacy leaves much to be desired.

Twenty-eight years ago, almost to the day, I had the good fortune to befriend Pakistan’s then-chief diplomat Akram Zaki.

As a young reporter for The Nation, a respected Pakistani English language daily, I had been freshly assigned coverage of the diplomatic affairs “beat”, for no better reason than that I am white-skinned and speak English with a London accent – and so was more likely to be socially accepted by the diplomats (which proved to be true).

More attuned to sniffing out corruption scandals in government departments, I was alarmingly out of my depth. I needed to quickly develop sources at the Foreign Office willing to tip me off on diplomatic developments in the making and to provide the background history lessons necessary for a novice like myself to make sense of it all.

Zaki Sahib, who remained my friend until he passed away in November 2017, imparted my first impromptu lesson at a diplomatic shindig in 1992. “Pakistan’s foreign policy … ” he dictated, as I eagerly scribbled notes next to the drinks table, ” … is in a minefield, without a map.”

It was an extraordinary statement from an extraordinary man in extraordinary times. 

As Pakistan’s ambassador to Beijing between 1989 and 1991, Zaki had overseen the transfers of Chinese strategic weapons technology that helped its “iron brother” cross the so-called nuclear threshold.

Over the course of regular Thursday afternoon tea meetings at his home, I came to learn how Zaki’s handiwork had triggered US sanctions under the Pressler Amendment, bringing a jarring end to the US-Pakistan partnership dedicated to ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

He also educated me in the fine art of diplomacy with India. Tensions between the perennial enemies were particularly high at the time because the victorious mujahideen returning from Afghanistan had turned their attention to Indian-occupied Kashmir and Hindutva bakhts had just demolished the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

To a 26-year-old reporter, it was reassuring to watch firsthand as Pakistan’s foreign policy course was steered by intelligent diplomats like the flamboyant, street-street Zaki and Foreign Secretary Shaheryar Khan, a soft-spoken blueblood from the House of Bhopal.

Their “bad cop, good cop” act was performed with flair and panache, and it imbibed me with a sense of optimism that, no matter how dire Pakistan’s situation, they would find a way out of the minefield.

Sadly, my sense of optimism has been exhausted by the manner in which Pakistan’s foreign policy has become completely subservient to the domestic political objectives of its institutions in recent years.

As a direct consequence of the shots being called by non-diplomats, Pakistan’s foreign policy has exited the unmapped minefield, only to find itself floating adrift in the Indo-Pacific ocean with only a Chinese life jacket to keep it afloat.

The last five years, in particular, have been marked by one blunder after another. The first was to paint the December 2014 massacre of more than 140 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar as a conspiracy involving India.

The attack was carried out by terrorists of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgent movement, from ungoverned parts of eastern Afghanistan where they had recently established bases after fleeing the decisive Pakistani military offensive launched six months earlier. Period.

I understand the reasons for Pakistan wanting to implicate India. The government needed to unite Pakistanis against the TTP and the easiest way was to blame the usual suspects.

Hostilities along the Line of Control had also resumed for the first time in a decade, in parallel to the resurgence of a homegrown rebellion in Indian-occupied Kashmir. 

Islamabad needed to deflect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign – in partnership with the West – to diplomatically corner Pakistan on the issue of cross-border militant attacks.

This issue was still raging when Pakistan was hit with an untimely and quite ridiculous demand by close ally Saudi Arabia to commit forces to its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Wisely, Pakistan declined, but it was clear that the days when Islamabad could expect favours its Gulf Arab friends without having to pay a stiff price were over.

Soon enough, they too jumped on the India-US bandwagon which in June 2018 had Pakistan grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris-based multilateral agency, for not doing enough to stymie money laundering and terrorist funding.

Soon after assuming office on September 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan reached out to the Saudis in an effort to rebuild bridges. In return for a balance of payments bailout and an introduction to US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, Khan and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman agreed that the Saudis would invest $10 billion in a strategic oil storage and refinery facility to be built at the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar. The port is a hop, skip and jump from the Iranian border and port of Chabahar, which served as the base for an Indian covert operation in restive Balochistan that was exposed in 2016.

The invitation to the Saudis to establish a beachhead on the Iranian border, immediately after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Tehran, was a recipe for trouble. 

Soon enough, Pakistan had a major security problem with Iran.

Unsurprisingly, Iran demanded that the Saudis be made to leave Balochistan. This seems inevitable now, following the surreal ultimatum issued by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, because it refused to endorse Pakistan’s diplomatic campaign against India’s unilateral decision on August 5, 2019, to rescind the semi-autonomy of occupied Kashmir.

I say surreal because Qureshi issued the ultimatum in an appearance on a Pakistani cable news channel, not at a diplomatic forum.

Islamabad has also flipped and flopped in dealings with its other key partners. The net result for Islamabad, as Khan himself said recently, is “China is our (only) friend which has remained politically steadfast with Pakistan during good and bad times. It should be clear that our future is connected with China.”

But at what price? The devil is in the detail of the joint statement issued after Qureshi met recently with Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi. This is an admission of diplomatic defeat. So are the nationalist arguments urging the government to invite the Chinese to establish a naval base at Gwadar in response to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

Supposedly, Pakistan now stands encircled by them and India, and a plan to capture or destroy its nuclear arsenal is coming to fruition. Like the other diplomatic misjudgments I have cited, this too threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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