The year 2015 was marked by perceptible shifts in foreign policy that were indicative of a state moving into youthful maturity. There was a swing away from the states in the Gulf region and on the Arabian Peninsula which have dominated the foreign policy landscape for decades, tied as we are to their oil supplies and largesse when we are in financial difficulty. Pakistan declined the invitation to join the war being fought by Saudi Arabia in Yemen to the considerable irritation of the Saudis who are used to Pakistan doing their bidding. Eyes turned instead to the east and China, with the emergent China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being touted as the Uber-Fix for a myriad of economic and social woes, the fix-all to fix everything. Eyes also turned to Iran as the opportunities opened up by the lifting of American sanctions suddenly made the long-delayed pipeline project between Iran and Pakistan more of a possibility. Relations with India seemed to improve and a halting dialogue got under way. Even relations with Afghanistan took an uptick. America warmed slightly as well and by the end of the year, the foreign policy environment was beginning to look healthier than it had for decades — but it may all have been a house of cards.
The collapse began with the attack on the Indian airbase at Pathankot that skewered the bilateral talks that were about to move to the foreign secretary level. There were efforts to keep the talks on track and as recently as last week, there were ‘contacts’ between the two sides but the talks are effectively dead in the water, killed off by a group that has a base in Pakistan. It is that failure by the state to control or even regulate extremist and terrorist groups that has been the stiletto through the ribs for our nascent foreign policy shifts, and the rot does not stop there. As previously noted in these columns, American lawmakers are far from happy with the obvious and continuing presence and capacity of Taliban groups to operate from Pakistan; so irritated are they that the latest F16 purchase has run into the sand and Pakistan is going to have to find $700 million because the US Congress refuses to use American taxpayers’ money to fund the deal.
To cap four months of foreign policy discomfort, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to refuse the invitation to visit Pakistan in what is the diplomatic equivalent of a mighty slap in the face. Russia is not a country that is to the fore in terms of protecting the human rights of its citizenry and has its own problems with extremist groups, Muslim and otherwise — to say nothing of its interventionist positions in the Middle East and Ukraine. A state already the subject of sanctions in the wider world yet disdainful of an invitation by Pakistan. The reasons for declining the visit are somewhat opaque but Russia is believed to be less than delighted — as are any number of other states — with the persistence, indeed proliferation, of extremist groups within our borders. Russia has considerable potential for Pakistan as a trading partner, but citing insufficient “substance” to Mr Putin’s trip as the reason to refuse the invitation, which in diplomatic terms is almost unparalleled as invitations such as this are only given after the back-channel work has been done — is virtually unprecedented.
Pakistan keeps snakes in the back garden. They are not fussy about who they bite. When they bite other states around us or those with which we have economic or cultural ties, then unsurprisingly those states want to know why our snakes have bitten them and what we are doing about not letting it happen again. Snakes are never friendly. They cannot be tamed or domesticated though they can be defanged and rendered harmless but have to be caught first. They bit foreign policy. Unfortunately, nobody had bothered to remove their fangs.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2016.