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Missed opportunities


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, March 22, 2013


Asif Ali Zardari took many Pakistanis by surprise on September 8, 2008 when he invited his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai to sit next to him for his post swearing-in interaction with the press. The move, it looked, was meant to underline two clear messages to the military establishment: i) the civilian government will now take the lead on Afghanistan, and ii) it will mend relations with India by moving to a resolution of the Kashmir issue. 

"Soon, before the end of this month, you will hear good news about Kashmir," Zardari proclaimed in the presence of Karzai. The comment roused a clutter of whispers inside the grand banquet hall, raised questions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and rang alarm bells in Aabpara and the General Headquarters. 

All began positioning themselves in the face of a grand political consensus between Zardari's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N against the military establishment. 

For many, a review of the foreign policy looked imminent. But as time passed by, the hopes dissipated. The Zardari-led government, more given to self-preservation vis a vis the ascendant Supreme Court, clearly abdicated the foreign policy, creating a vacuum. It left the generals at the GHQ to run the India and Afghan policy as they deemed fit.

Issues such as the arrest of Raymond Davis, Memogate, and the status of the NRO kept straining and challenging a rudderless civilian government which, on the face of it, tried hard to redefine its relations with Afghanistan and injected new impetus into relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) through its look-east policy. 

Although the November 2008 Mumbai attacks brought unprecedented pressure on Pakistan and gridlocked relations with India for almost two years, the civilian government failed in asserting itself on this front too. Often, Rehman Malik would parrot the lines that the establishment would feed him on relations with India. Nobody thus took him seriously.

Similarly, the Afghan policy underwent civilian review to the extent that under Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan attempted to reach out to almost all non-Pashtun Afghan stakeholders, followed up by the prime ministerial visit. Yet the civilians lacked the punch and conviction they needed to confront the United States and its Afghan surrogate ie Karzai on issues that concerned Pakistan. A forceful Pakistani narrative on the implications of a military operation in North Waziristan, the "reality" of the oft-mentioned Quetta Shura, or the reported nexus between the military establishment and groups such as the Haqqani Network or Lashkar-e-Taiba was largely missing.

Most foreign observers ask why Pakistan cannot articulate its geo-political compulsions flowing from these relations. While outsiders, including Amrullah Saleh, the former maverick chief of the Afghan intelligence, accused Pakistan of "harboring Mullah Omar and others," Pakistan kept denying possession or protective custody of top Taliban leaders, only to agree late last year to release over two dozen of them. It holds even more but would not release them until it has assessed the impact on the reconciliation process of those already set free.

Here too, the civilians seemed to be clueless, with the Foreign Ministry playing second fiddle to the GHQ. Cumulatively, Pakistan's decision to release Taliban leaders contradicted its earlier claim that it held little influence over Taliban. In fact, these "confidence building measures" to facilitate the reconciliation process underlined the fact that Pakistan was still in the hedging mode. It also reflected badly on the government as a whole because the entire Afghan policy and the position on the Taliban lacked the much-needed strategic focus for outlining the fate of the relationship with the obscurantist Afghan Taliban. They all indeed are sons of the soil but Pakistan needs to consider whether deference to them at all serves its long-term interests, or whether they provide the ideological adrenalin to those Pakistani militant outfits who justify their anti-government or anti-US campaigns in the name of Afghan jihad.

Most of the Afghan policy as well as that on India appeared to draw strength and guidance from the GHQ with hardly any visible or discernible signs of an assertive civilian stamp on it. The civilians essentially failed to draw their own strategy for engaging key foreign policy partners such as the United States, India and Afghanistan. As usual, they kept putting the blame on the GHQ for the problematic relations with these countries but miserably failed in crafting a civilian narrative on foreign policy. Although Hina Rabbani Khar tried to put up a civilian face on her outings to these countries, she failed to change the perception that the civilians had left foreign policy to the military, for their own convenience.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk