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Conducting Foreign Policy

Conducting Foreign Policy | Arif Nizami

Who is minding the store?

There are a number of concerns that are frequently expressed by media persons and were amply manifested during the candid question and answer session with the Advisor

 Pakistan is neither isolated in the region nor desperate for talks with India. It wants good relations with its neighbour but not on NewDelhi’s terms. So claims the octogenarian advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz.

The other day Aziz took the trouble, for the first time since the PML-N government assumed power three years ago, to brief senior anchorpersons and analysts on Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities. Perhaps in the face of the cacophony of criticism in the media that Islamabad, thanks to its myopic policies, has few friends left in the world; the foreign office decided to share its version of the story with the media.

There are a number of concerns that are frequently expressed by media persons and were amply manifested during the candid question and answer session with the Advisor. Admittedly, for obvious reasons, some of the upfront questions met only a guarded response.

The oft-repeated criticism on Pakistan’s foreign policy relates to it being a rudderless ship in the absence of a foreign minister. Linked to this is the military’s ubiquitous ingress in the civilian domain in the name of national security.

The foreign office is at pains to explain that the army is not against normalisation of ties with India. Nevertheless, the perception that the military has a veto power over relations with India, Afghanistan and the US however remains pervasive.

Prime Minister Sharif left to his own devices perhaps would like to take the fast track on relations with New Delhi. Nonetheless, the military has put brakes on his ambitions to develop close economic and trade ties with New Delhi.

Perhaps Sharif naively thought that double handshakes and triple embraces with his Indian counter part Narendra Modi will paper over the unsavoury legacy of relationswith India. Modi, despite his pleasant demeanor, remains a hard-nosed BJP stalwart keen to make India a superpower and a member of the Security Council.

Sharif made the basic miscalculation of trying to strike a personal rapport with Modi. Attending his oath taking ceremony in New Delhi in May2014 by itself would have been fine. But the prime minister not meeting the Hurryat leadership in the Indian capital as per past tradition raised eyebrows back home.

Surreptitiously inviting the Indian prime minster to Raiwind on his grand daughter’s wedding in December last year also sent the wrong message to powers that be. Had Modi been received elsewhere for the same meeting, it would have been different.

Soon after the Pathankot incident the dialogue process between New Delhi and Islamabad came to a halt even before it had started. Although New Delhi has absolved the Pakistani state of being complicit in the attack, talks remain stalled.

Aziz says that Islamabad is keen to resume dialogue with its neighbour but not without Kashmir being on the top of the agenda. India however only wants to discuss terrorism as it views being perpetrated upon it by Pakistan based militant groups. Pakistan however is willing to discuss terrorism but only as one of the items of the bigger agenda.

True to the classic Indian approach towards its estranged neighbour, the Indian prime minister has cast aspersions on the prevalent democracy in Pakistan. According to him there are different types of forces operating in Pakistan. And India only talks to democratically elected governments, he claims.

The obvious inference is that thePakistani military calls the shots on relations with India. Although the foreign office claims otherwise, this perception has become more or less a reality.

But is it any of Modi’s business how Islamabad conducts its foreign policy or who calls the shots? What stops New Delhi from resuming dialogue at the secretaries’ level?

Aziz does not agree that the foreign office has merely become a post office. According to him Pakistan is following the US model in shaping the country’s foreign policy. He also claims that consultation between ministry of foreign affairs and the military establishment is the standard operating procedure.

Aziz, in perfect good health despite his advanced age, left on his own to conduct foreign policy under the guidance of the prime minister would perhaps do better. However technically Sharif is the foreign minister of the country. On the other side is Tariq Fatimi the special assistant to the prime minister on foreign policy.

To top it there is the omnipresent establishment looking over the shoulders of the civilian government. Aided by a sizable section of the media it considers itself the last bastion of the pervasive national interest.

Aziz, when confronted about why he took his whole team to the GHQ, flanked by the finance minister and the defence minister claimed that they were not summoned but had to go owing to logisticalreasons.

Whoever’s idea it was, the picture of the meeting released to the media gave the perhaps erroneous impression that the civilians were being put on the mat by the military leadership. In the wake of TTP leader Mullah Mansour’s assassination by a drone attack in Balochistan and prime minister’s long absence, the meeting was nonetheless important and perhaps necessary.

Hopefully senior members of the cabinet would have conveyed to the military leadership the need for those militants, who are using our soil for their own nefarious agenda, to be restrained and sent back to Afghanistan. Only thatAfghan Taliban who is willing to engage in the quadrilateral talks on Afghanistan should be welcome to stay.

A Congressional delegation headed by Chairman of the United States Armed Services Committee Senator John McCain visited Islamabad during the weekend. Unlike the US administration and most of his Congressional colleagues, the senator took a rather nuanced view of Washington’s relations with Islamabad.

The US has also urged Pakistan to work together with India and Afghanistan against terrorism, at the same time pressing on Islamabad to improve its ties with NewDelhi. However it takes two to tango.

Islamabad cannot be expected to improve ties with New Delhi unilaterally. Modi and his advisors should outgrow their condescending approach towards Pakistan.

On the other hand Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) will find it increasingly difficult to resist US moves to give India a role in Afghanistan. Sartaj Aziz hit the nail on its head when he said that that with a consistently low GDP growth rate as compared to India’s, the west’s trade and economic interest in India is becoming increasingly difficult to match.

The strategic balance in the region has also shifted. Pakistan’s close defence and economic ties with China under CPEC (Pakistan China Economic Corridor) are viewed not too kindly by New Delhi. In turn the India-US strategic and economic ties have become even stronger.

Having a full time foreign minister — even if it is Sartaj Aziz — in this backdrop is stating but the obvious. Sharif, who is now scheduled to return home from London, should have this on the top of his agenda when he gets back to real business.

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