Reviewing Pakistan’s foreign policy options

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M Saeed Khalid*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

The year 2017 is marked by arrival in the White House of a president who is better known for his entrepreneurial skills or showmanship rather than a career in public service. Donald Trump has never held public office and yet he promises to “Make America great again”. Time alone can tell if this was mere election rhetoric. What seems more likely is that the American president has the potential to shake things in ways the world, including the US, are simply not familiar with.

Uncertainties about US policies under Trump are likely to constitute formidable challenges for many countries, including Pakistan. A major question being whether Trump administration’s policies toward our sub-region would compound or ease the existing difficulties in Pakistan’s testing ties with India and Afghanistan. Washington’s actions concerning China would raise a different set of questions in so far as Pakistan is a strategic partner of China.

Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment may be having mixed feelings about the challenges it could encounter after the presidential inauguration on January 20. Historically, Pakistan has had a better working chemistry with the Republicans as  compared to the Democrats who were traditionally more enthusiastic about strengthening ties with India. That has, however, changed with strategic partnership with India receiving loud bipartisan support in Washington. Hence, Islamabad has found it increasingly difficult to win support for its viewpoint from the US administration or Congress. There is still some hope that Pak-US relations would be guided by practical considerations rather than a dogmatic approach in the new Republican administration. In his recent visit to Washington, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Tariq Fatemi met members of the outgoing Obama administration. He also had an unannounced meeting with a senior member of the Trump team with the two sides expressing interest in an active engagement, particularly with regard to the situation in our sub-region.

President Obama’s keenness to disengage from the war in Afghanistan resulted in increased pressure on Pakistan to help achieve this. Obama had to concede in the end that it was necessary to maintain US forces around Kabul and elsewhere to support the fledgling governments in Kabul. That, however, did not diminish the pressure on Pakistan to “do more” to reign in the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis. As a result, Pakistan’s diplomacy was forced to the back foot. The same goes for Pakistan’s public diplomacy that was seen mostly in a reactive mode, trying to ward off coordinated criticism from Kabul, Delhi and Washington.

Pakistan’s foreign policy managers spend the best part of their energies and resources on keeping a semblance of normality in relations with these three capitals. Relations with China, the European Union including the UK, and the Gulf region are the other areas of vital interest. The great redeeming feature of this scenario is a solid partnership with China that now encompasses areas of activity unmatched by any other partnership. Figuratively speaking, Pak-China alliance is akin to a spine that enables the body (our foreign policy) to stand up and walk around.

Many in the west or in countries like India may wonder about the extraordinary solidity of Pak-China friendship. Indeed, it defies the traditional wisdom about ‘permanent interests’ rather than ‘permanent friends’ as a driving force in foreign relations. The Chinese, of course, realize that Pakistan remained steadfast in its close ties with the Peoples Republic of China in the face of US pressure in the 1960s, especially after the Sino-Indian conflict.

China has stood solidly behind Pakistan in its difficult days. In the book “If I am Assassinated” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is quoted to have disclosed that while the world was focused on the affair of French nuclear fuel reprocessing plant for Pakistan, he had quietly reached an accord of nuclear cooperation with China. By the time the French reneged on their commitments, Pakistan was well on its way to matching India’s nuclear capability via a different route.

Pakistan actively campaigned for the People’s Republic’s  admission to the United Nations where Taiwan had continued to occupy the seat as the Republic of China. In parallel, Islamabad played an effective role in Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between them. Premier Chou en Lai is quoted to have advised President Nixon not to forget the route (via Islamabad) the US had taken to reach China.

China has also stood by Pakistan to checkmate India’s move to gate crash into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Chinese made it known, along with some other NSG members, that new members should be admitted on a criteria based process rather than selectively to suit some countries. This principled position has rattled India, which had made the issue as one that would help her take a seat at the high table of nuclear trade.

The NSG case is a reminder of India’s attempts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council along with Germany, Japan and Brazil. China supports Pakistan and likeminded countries in their stance that Security Council reform should not lead to expanding the privileged group of P-5 but serve interests of the wider membership, for instance, by increasing the number of non-permanent members.

In another case, China has blocked Indian moves to include Pakistan based entities or individuals in the UNSC’s list of   terrorists that requires the freezing of assets of those declared terrorists by it. As a veto wielding member of the Security Council, China has taken the position that India should provide irrefutable evidence of any organization’s involvement in terrorism. Beijing thus frustrated New Delhi’s politically motivated move aimed at advancing its own agenda and malign Pakistan despite its role in combating terrorism, and ignoring enormous sacrifices it had to make over several years.

The so called Pivot to Asia, described as one of Obama administration’s central foreign policy initiatives, is another area that requires analysis. In simple words, the pivot is meant to be a strategic re-balancing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East towards East Asia. In an analysis that appeared in The Atlantic on April 15, 2013, Matt Schiavenza wrote that the US had shifted 2500 marines to a base in northern Australia – that raised eyebrows in China – as a part of US military moves that would materialize over time. The Obama administration had also unveiled plans for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) a free trade agreement without China, which has been discarded by president-elect Donald Trump who is opposed to free trade deals.

According to the Atlantic write-up, the Asia pivot heralded closer ties – both militarily and economically – with countries around the Pacific Rim. While “the rise of China was the single biggest causal explanation for the pivot, it’s far from the only one.” Read: North Korea, trade interests and climate change among other factors.

Schiavenza called this a win-win for Washington and its Asian partners as a check against growing Chinese power. Considering Asia’s rise as an economic centre of gravity, the pivot may have its swings but is there to stay under one name or the other. The evolution of pivot to Asia is seen as a grand maneouver to contain China. This has met Chinese resistance by way of asserting its turf in the South China Sea and beyond. The US containment plans are subject to financial constraints with regard to ambitious aims like navy’s 60-40 asset rebalance to Asia and the deployment of more weapons platforms to the Pacific.

Viewed from Pakistan, the US efforts to enlist India as a strategic ally in containing China are causing collateral damage to Pak-US cooperation as Washington expands space for India in the South Asian power struggle. The quantum leap in Pak-China cooperation seen with the launch of China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC, and use of the Pakistani port of Gwadar as an outlet of Chinese exports may be considered as a countermove to Indo-US entente.

Russia has been watching the growth of US-India strategic cooperation including military sales, and has warmed up towards Pakistan. Even though Pak-Russia cooperation may have made modest gains, its symbolic significance has not been lost on India. Russia has stepped up interest in the stalemated Afghan conflict, and established contacts with the Afghan Taliban. By acknowledging the Taliban’s position as stakeholders in Afghanistan, Russia has created a window to counter inroads by the Islamic State in the war torn country.

Russia has held consultations with Pakistan and China to review developments in Afghanistan as a bulk of NATO forces were withdrawn from the country. The third round of these trilateral discussions took place in December, 2016 when senior diplomats from Russia, China and Pakistan met in Moscow to consider the precarious situation in Afghanistan. The three countries publicly warned that the influence of Daesh or the Islamic State was growing in Afghanistan and that the security situation there was deteriorating. They agreed on a “flexible approach to remove certain (Taliban) figures from sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the movement”. They further agreed to invite the Afghan government to such talks in the future.

The Afghan foreign ministry said Kabul had not been properly briefed about the meeting in Moscow. Its spokesman went on to say that “Discussions about the situation in Afghanistan, even if well-intentioned, in the absence of Afghans cannot help the real situation and also raises serious questions about the purpose of such meetings.”

The increasing contacts between Russia, Pakistan and China show a degree of convergence of views to explore ways of promoting the peace efforts in Afghanistan. Officials in Kabul and Washington have said that Russia is deepening ties with the Taliban. Moscow has acknowledged that such contacts have taken place but denied that it has provided them aid. It appears that in order to retain its leverage in the process of removing some Taliban from the sanctions list, Russia had applied a hold on Kabul’s move to remove GulbuddinHikmatyar’s name from the list

The latest round of trilateral consultations received a cautious response from Washington when the US State Department spokesman, John Kirby stated that the US welcomed any international effort to help Afghanistan become secure and more prosperous. The US still believes that an Afghan-led reconciliation process is the right way to go forward. Kirby qualified his remark by adding that countries discussing avenues of secure, safe and prosperous Afghanistan can come up with ideas in keeping with mandates from the international community.

The nearly four decades old conflict in Afghanistan has profoundly impacted Pakistan. It continues to shelter millions of Afghan refugees while international support for their upkeep has dwindled. The war in Afghanistan has caused collateral damage in terms of drug and gun culture. Since 9/11, Pakistan became the frontline state in the so called war on terror, resulting in tremendous loss of life and economic activity. Perhaps the greatest loss to Pakistan is that of image as it was considered unsafe to travel to or invest in. Sadly the loss of image is most palpable in Afghanistan where ordinary folks have been misled by official propaganda, portraying Pakistan as a backer of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

The US officials usually overlook Pakistan’s apprehensions  of provoking these organizations by becoming too harsh on them. Gen John Campbell, US commander in Afghanistan, following a meeting with the Pakistan army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, said in a talk at Brookings Institution in Washington in August 2015 that as the Pakistanis “look at it, they have a lot of other issues they have got to deal with inside Pakistan and they don’t want Haqqanis to turn on them.”

The Afghan government is loathe to acknowledging the complexities of dealing with the Taliban or the Haqqanis. It is much easier for them to claim that without Pakistan’s backing, the anti-government forces will not be able to sustain their attacks. ImtiazGul, a Pakistani analyst wrote that “many, including the Afghan government … look at the situation in black and white. This they do in sheer disregard of the huge gray area that marks conflicts in tribal societies – tribal affinities, enmities, organized crime, drugs are factors that play out and go on to pollute the political landscape.” Gul concluded that peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan could only be achieved if the various players synergize their efforts, instead of resorting to geopolitical maneuverings (Friday Times, 18-24 September, 2015).

Pakistan’s security establishment cannot overlook the fact that the Taliban “insurgents” are the former rulers of Afghanistan, deposed by a coalition of US forces and the Northern Alliance. Banishing the Taliban from Pakistan to please Kabul does not appear as the best option to safeguard Pakistan’s interests, when the government in Kabul remains closely allied to India. The only viable option is a dialogue process that accommodates the Taliban in a power sharing arrangement. There are no signs yet that the government in Kabul and the Taliban leadership are prepared to address that vital aspect.

Senior Pakistani diplomats say the Afghan conflict is in a stalemate, neither side being strong enough to win. There can be no peace in Afghanistan, even temporarily, until there is sufficient consensus on reconciliation. The Taliban are not ready to give up violence. In order to push them to reason, Pakistan is gradually squeezing space for them and the Haqqanis, telling them to live like refugees and not plan terror. Pakistan has been engaged in regulating movement across the border, something that is resented by the Afghan side.

Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen QamarJavedBajwa established telephonic contact with President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah to renew the Pak army’s commitment to work with the Afghan side for peace and security between the two neighbours. A visit by Gen Bajwa to Kabul would revive the high level military contact maintained by his predecessor, Gen Raheel Sharif.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a high level consultative meeting of top civil and military personalities on January 3, 2017 to strategize foreign policy actions in the period ahead. The meeting reviewed relations with the neighboring countries with a view to lowering tensions and fostering cooperation. It was officially stated that the premier stressed that “peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and economically integrated region must be our shared objectives”.

According to media reports, Pakistan’s active engagement with Russia and China to explore ways of promoting peace in Afghanistan was seen as a diplomatic success in the face of India’s attempts to isolate Pakistan. The civil and military leadership reviewed progress on CPEC projects particularly with reference to the joint working group meeting in Beijing where the federal representatives and the provincial chief ministers had met Chinese representatives with a view to ensuring better coordination of the CPEC projects. The meeting also took stock of the relations with the US and the strategy for engaging the Trump administration after his inauguration on January 20.

The high level civil-military meeting of January 3, is significant in the backdrop of their continuing differences over the trajectory of relations with India. It is widely believed that the security establishment is not in favour of greater trade and transit with India without progress on resolving major disputes of which Kashmir is the foremost.

Pakistan-India relations, difficult in the best of times, have been given a serious blow by the Modi led BJP government. While expecting Pakistan to accord India greater trade transit facilities to Afghanistan and Central Asia, Modihas followed an anti-Muslim agenda, adopting Hindutva as a national credo and, above all, turning occupied Kashmir into a living hell for its Muslim majority.

Renouncing the previous BJP (Vajpayee) government’s policy of dialogue with Pakistan and allowing space for the Kashmiris, Modi embarked on strong arm tactics in reaping a whirlwind of young Kashmiris protesting as never before. Further violent repression and curfews in Indian Held Kashmir made people’s lives unbearable. All the Modi government had, as a response, was to blame the situation on “Pakistan backed terrorists” and threatening Pakistan of diplomatic isolation.

India’s diversionary tactics over Kashmir form part of the blame game to ratchet up pressure on Pakistan to cover up their own failures. The accusations of harboring “terrorist” groups are used as propaganda to fudge setbacks in Afghanistan and Indian Occupied Kashmir. In both cases, sincere diplomatic efforts are the only means of moving forward.

The Nawaz Sharif government launched a counter campaign to sensitize the international opinion about heightened repression of the Indian forces against Kashmiri civilians and systematic firing across the Line of Control and the Working Boundary. Nawaz Sharif’s statement at the UN General Assembly also placed great emphasis on the need to address the long standing Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

Diplomatic contacts between Pakistan and India were maintained at various levels, notably through meetings between the prime ministers, national security advisers and foreign secretaries, till the end of 2015. The situation changed dramatically after the attack on the Indian airbase in Pathankot on January 2, 2016. Pakistan extended cooperation to the Indian side to investigate charges against Jaish e Muhammad led by MasudAzhar, accused by India of being behind the attack.

Matters, however, became more complicated with the capture in Balochistan of Indian Navy officer KulbushanYadav for organizing an Indian sponsored network to destabilize Pakistan.

Detailed dossiers have been presented to the newly elected UN Secretary General, Antonio Gouterrez, documenting activities of Yadav and other Indian agents to carry out terror acts in Balochistan, Karachi and FATA. Further, Pakistan expressed concern about India stationing special forces near the LoC in Indian Held Kashmir.

Earlier, the situation took a turn for the worse after an attack on the Indian military base of Uri. This had tell tale signs of a false flag operation in order to unleash further retaliatory measures against Pakistan, notably to sabotage the SAARC summit that was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in December, 2016.

India has come out in the open to damage Pakistan’s territorial integrity by aiding Baloch dissidents. Threats to hinder river waters to Pakistan and renouncing the Indus Waters Treaty were hurled by prime ministerModi. Pakistan took counter measures by lobbying in important capitals, denting India’s avowed campaign to isolate Pakistan. New Delhi also staged the drama of surgical strikes against ‘terrorists’ in Azad Kashmir on 29 September, 2016 but failed to show any tangible proof. Indian cabinet ministers have  openly resorted to  threats to destabilize and eventually disintegrate Pakistan.

Pakistan’s approach has been to de-escalate tensions without showing weakness. Pakistan made it clear to India that any military adventure would be given a befitting reply. Modi’s campaign consequently has centredaround war mongering, hostile propaganda and targeting civilians across the LoC and the Working Boundary. Important capitals counseled both sides to avoid further escalation. It is worth noting that the incidents of firing across the LoC have gone down after the change of command in Pakistan’s army, easing somewhat the atmosphere of hostility and acrimony.

It remains to be seen if India will lower the intensity of its propaganda war against Pakistan. The truth remains that the so called terrorism and insurgency in IHK are misnomers of a home grown struggle for freedom that fired the Kashmiri youth after the killing by the Indian forces of a young activist, BurhanWani on 8 July, 2016. India’s new army chief, Gen BipinRawat has renewed the usual threats against Pakistan but in another statement, he advised that the “insurgency” has to be met by luring the youth away from militancy, thereby, conceding that another generation of Kashmiris has stood up against Indian occupation.

The new year is marked by continued US emphasis on Asia, building partnerships to contain China and help India emerge as a counterweight. China is not sitting by idly and has begun to flex its muscles, shedding pragmatism, and becoming more assertive. Pakistan has enhanced cooperation with China in civil and military fields. But the US is not replaceable in the short term and nor does Pakistan have any intention on giving up on the pre-eminent power. Pakistan and China coming together in CPEC, giving China access to the Indian Ocean has affected US plans of containment. However, issue based coalitions can enable Pakistan to have good relations with both China and the US

To the west of Pakistan, the US job in Afghanistan is far from finished. Obama had to defer his decision to quit Afghanistan. One of the last decisions of his presidency was to deploy three hundred Marines in the Helmand province on a “training mission”.

To conclude, Af-Pak destinies are linked. According to a senior diplomat, “our Afghan policy has undergone a phenomenal change with a consensus between civil and military institutions… Now there is a national consensus against terrorism but the strategy and timeframe to fight terrorism is ours not that of Afghanistan or the US.”

Pakistan has made great strides in its sustained campaign against terror networks but the problem is by no means over. The militant organizations received patronage in the past and have grown roots among the people. It will take time to eliminate their strong influence. But they have to adjust to the state’s policies to promote a peaceful neighourhood that can help in achieving peace in Pakistan.

Pakistan has lacked synergy between civil and military institutions that is necessary to advance on the diplomatic front. The situation appears to have improved following changes at the army headquarter and the Inter services Intelligence. The Pakistani state has been narrowing space for the militants but the authorities say that these organizations have “a life of their own”. Banning them legally does not take them out of business. Cracking down on their visible presence is likely to push them underground. Law enforcement has to be matched by other measures to discourage extremism so as to rid the country decisively of the menace of militancy.