Slippery base of foreign policy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN Pakistan’s foreign policy came in the line of fire in the National Assembly last week, one wished that the level of the debate had been more informed and intelligent. But what can one expect from parliamentarians who are too busy with their own pursuits and have no time to even attend Assembly sessions regularly, let aside do their homework?

When Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri rose to wind up the debate, there were barely 40 members in the House. The quorum required is 86 and since the opposition did not point out the lack of quorum, the debate could proceed.

The opposition and surprisingly some members of the ruling Muslim League as well were childishly vociferous in denouncing President Musharraf’s close alliance with the United States in its war on terror that has brought so much humiliation to Pakistan. This made the foreign minister’s job of putting up a spirited defence of his government’s performance quite easy. He promptly listed a series of the foreign office’s ‘foreign policy successes’, as he termed them.

The entire debate was quite superficial. One member, incidentally from the ruling party, a retired major from the army and the parliamentary secretary of defence, did not even attempt to define the policy. He just lashed out in all directions, suggesting that the country should fight a jihad against India and the US, extend recognition to the Taliban – as though one mistake in 1997 were not enough – and dispatch infiltrators into the Kashmir Valley to take revenge.

A closer look at the foreign policy scenario, especially in the context of the developments taking place in the region, leaves one quite stupefied at the lack of understanding among our MNAs of how foreign policy works. Equally baffling is the ad hoc manner in which Pakistan’s policymakers treat this important area of public life.

What emerges from Mr Kasuri’s statement is that our foreign policy focuses primarily on our strategic and security ties with China, the US, the EU and the Muslim world. Obtaining economic assistance and investment from these countries also figures prominently on our foreign policy agenda. What is strange is that the foreign minister chose to brush aside the two most important elements that are actually vital to the shaping of the entire gamut of our foreign relations. These are Pakistan’s equations with India and Afghanistan.

The government appears to be shy about debating the South Asian sector of our foreign relations — notably our ties with India and Afghanistan — and would like to wish it away like an embarrassing dream. But, unfortunately, that is not how diplomacy operates and the government would do better to face squarely some of the facts of life that we have so far refused to recognise. This refusal has cost Islamabad dearly. It has led it to commit blunders of the worst kind while formulating and conducting its foreign and geo-strategic relations. In the process, the country has had to toe the American line with undignified servility.

One of the basic premises on which the foreign office proceeds is that India is our enemy number one. This is not articulated so candidly now as it was a few years ago. But in a subtle way, Islamabad continues to regard New Delhi as its detractor.

For example, take Mr Kasuri’s speech in the National Assembly. While listing his government’s achievements in the field of foreign affairs one item that he mentioned — in fact, the only one in the political context pertaining to India — was his success in blocking India’s ambition to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Kashmir is made out to be the core issue that has blocked friendship between the two countries. But only 48 per cent of the respondents in Pakistan in a survey conducted by Dawn News said that the territory should be a part of their country while 45 per cent believed that friendship with India was possible without the issue being resolved.

Pakistan has yet to become aware of some basic tenets in conducting external relations. No country opens fronts on every side. Although a dialogue is taking place with New Delhi, the government’s tone is wary and the adversarial undertone in Pakistan’s foreign policy continues to be quite pronounced. The sense of antagonism is so strong that Islamabad’s Afghan policy has been shaped accordingly.

These contradictions have also affected the war efforts against the extremists. As such Pakistan has, at least until recently, resorted to the use of covert methods by its secret agencies to keep the pot boiling in Kashmir and also in Afghanistan.

If the country now finds itself overly dependent on the United States, it is not strange. Sensing Islamabad’s limited manoeuvrability, Washington has exploited the situation to its advantage and put pressure on Pakistan when it deems it necessary, even threatening to use military action against the Taliban safe havens on Pakistani territory. Hence, the outpouring of the anti-American sentiments in the country that we witnessed last week. But swinging to the other end is no answer.

Pakistan has been behaving like a big power in the conduct of its foreign policy. It appears to forget the constraints it suffers from in terms of its resources and its relative size and status as a neighbour of India. Competing with India is not a sensible strategy since it only adds to our contradictions.

Besides it is now time for Pakistan to recognise that its moorings should be firmly rooted in South Asia. A non-adversarial relationship with India will help Pakistan to maintain a dignified distance from the US without making an enemy out of it.

A glaring example of our mishandling of our policy vis-à-vis India is the case of our fateful decision in 1998 to become a nuclear power. This was prompted by our conventional policy of waging an arms race with New Delhi. The danger we now face is that this nuclear capability might prove to be a white elephant as the US and other powers debate the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda.

The political crisis in the country has intensified this debate and there is now talk of America launching air strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. The Bush administration claims to have knowledge of their location. Can Pakistan resist this onslaught?

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