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The surrender of foreign policy

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, September 16, 2011

When the Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples' Party swept into power in the Feb 2008 general elections and struck an alliance with Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League and the Awami National Party, it radiated an unusual confidence and hope for qualitative, if not substantive, change in Pakistan's beleaguered foreign policy. Beleagured, because until then former president General Musharraf and his cohorts practically lorded over the entire state, including the foreign policy. Shah Mehmood Qureshi's appointment as the foreign minister also promised a step forward. But three years down the lane, the major contours of the foreign policy remain more or less the same, with diplomacy practically abdicated to the security establishment.

When Qureshi fell out with the government over the CIA security contractor Raymond Davis issue in March this year, it was a stinging reminder that the war on terror and its consequences had left little space for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct its defined task. At the same time, the Davis saga also reinforced the perception about the deep impact of the security establishment on matters that are foreign. 

Davis was released on March 17 after payment of blood money to the heirs of the two brothers he had shot dead, but Qureshi practically lost his job for disagreement with President Zardari over the same issue. It was no coincidence. Qureshi had already been seen as speaking for the security establishment on Afghanistan and the United States. And immediately after President Obama publicly censured Pakistan for "holding an American diplomat in violation of the Geneva Convention", the establishment stiffened further and put its foot down for a solution not entirely on American terms.

This particular incident also exposed the limits of the civilian government led by Zardari, who most probably finally realised the futility of charting a new path in foreign relations. This in fact was the latest in the litany of setbacks that Zardari and colleagues received on the foreign front.

Recall late July 2008, when Prime Minister Gilani ordered that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) be put under the Interior Ministry. Gilani had to revoke that order. (The decision had to be corrected in the middle of the night, a very senior general had told us later that year).

And on September 9 the same year, Zardari caused several ripples within the military establishment when, after taking oath as the president, he announced in the presence of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai that "you will soon hear good news about Kashmir, probably before the end of the month".

The statement took most by surprise but faded away as a mere bluff at best for reasons not difficult to envision.

The reversal of Gilani's decision to send the ISI chief Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha to help investigate the November 2008 Mumbai attacks was another embarrassing moment for the civilian government, and again exposed the limits to which it can exercise authority on matters related to India. The presence of army chief Gen Kayani in the two rounds of the so-called strategic dialogue with the United States, too, explained the influence that the military establishment wields on the foreign policy.

All these setbacks essentially seem to have prompted Zardari and Gilani to surrender foreign affairs to the military establishment, which continues to deeply influence, if not control, the dealings with the United States, India and Afghanistan. The appointment of the inexperienced Hina Rabbani Khar illustrates the government's belief that it hardly matters who wears the cap of the foreign minister. If the army holds sway over this ministry's final decisions, what is the point in agonising over foreign affairs? So runs the argument in the PPP circles.

Therefore, one is tempted to conclude that the PPP has no real foreign policy, and has largely relied on the establishment's definition of relations with key countries like India, Afghanistan, the United States and China. Although the president has taken upon himself to rejuvenate relations with Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and China, few tangibles are visible as of now and particularly the China part is seen more as bilateral business and investment promotion than a foreign policy venture.

But there is a silver lining. Firstly, the dialogue with India seems to be well back on track, and presumably with the blessing of the General Headquarters (GHQ). Secondly, relations with the United States seem to be on the mend after the mayhem that Osama bin Laden's elimination on May 2 had caused. Thirdly, President Hamid Karzai stands more inclined towards Pakistan than ever before. Fourthly, civil-military relations with China continue to prosper to the backdrop of Pakistan-US tensions over Afghanistan and the Haqqani network.

All this seems to result from a greater synchronisation of the military- civilian positions, albeit out of an over-riding, short-term expedience. This means the Pakistani leadership now speaks probably in unison over issues mentioned above, essentially a reiteration of the policies defined and designed by GHQ.

The pro-active engagement with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and China, however, underlines a new dimension of diplomacy - attempts to secure more energy from Iran and Central Asia through diplomatic forays. The growing energy needs of the country necessitate the need for the realisation - as soon as possible - of the Iran-Pakistan and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipelines. And the real test for Zardari-Gilani diplomacy hinges on whether they can circumvent the Saudi and American opposition to deals with Teheran. Getting India on board for both projects represents another challenge to the Pakistani diplomacy, and that would be the litmus test of the civilian government's ability to successfully wade through the complex cobweb of conflicting interests. Creating its own narrative, independent of the traditional military outlook, on key foreign policy issues remains a big challenge for the civilian government. Surmounting that challenge requires moral authority and that comes only with unassailable commitment and moral integrity. Alas, that is missing at the moment. 

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk