In the middle of a corruption scandal linked to the Panama Papers disclosures, Pakistan’s embattled government has recently been going through a foreign policy meltdown. Caught in the crosshairs of a perfect storm from Kabul, New Delhi and Washington, the crisis has exposed Islamabad’s institutional fragility as well as its alarming inability to tell truth to global power, let alone notch up coordinated success at countering extremist violence at home.
With an ailing chief executive in serious trouble in parliament, the leadership vacuum at the heart of the foreign policy crisis has been taken over, without finesse or doubt, by the powerful and chafing military. This is bad for both the military and the country’s experience with democracy.
In the face of complete strategic drift at the hands of an inept government, over the last month Pakistan was caught completely unaware of three key inflection points with its most important neighbour: That its bid for political reconciliation in Afghanistan was ineffective and lacked heft. Not only was the process too unwieldy, and Kabul too frail and disunited, but the timing for the Taliban was off. They would only obviously agree to any terms of reasonable engagement with Kabul if they felt they had enough incentive to consolidate regular, recent battlefield gains. In this sorry tableau, everyone read the signals from the Taliban wrong because it suited their interests.
In Kabul, President Ghani had to show some traction at home with the High Peace Council road he had taken with Pakistan in the lead, with the Obama legacy-White House focused on an exit that looked half-way responsible, while Islamabad just wanted in on an outcome that would affect its own strategic future at least neutrally, if not positively. All the players were complicit in seeking an endgame that favoured stability, but did not factor in the multiple moving parts to such an exercise.
Two, Pakistan did not read the writing on the wall that Washington would suddenly switch to another kinetic playlist depending on Kabul’s mood and Ghani’s fraying temper at his own mounting challenges. It also lost the plot with Iran by sending ill-timed public signals to their visiting president in Islamabad. Three, with no one with high political stature visibly in charge of foreign affairs, Islamabad once again fell back on posturing instead of policy.
At a recent foreign policy lecture run by the Oxbridge Society in Islamabad, I repeatedly said that anger is not policy, and hope is not a plan. Countries often run on strategic auto-pilot, otherwise known as foreign policy drift, but that only works if they are able to pay for their expenses from taxes collected. Channelling anger as reactive policy is also no new international norm, but works best if the states are rimmed with natural frontiers that separate them from aggressive or unstable neighbours.
Pakistan has to contend with both of the last two variables, as well as a large dose of home-grown and imported terrorist franchises. Reluctance to take responsibility for most of it, including our social intolerance is neither smart nor country-protective. The argument that almost half of Pakistan’s terrorism issue is genetically linked to other countries and their outsourcing of either terrorism or proxies is a historically documented fact, but then that is the chronology of colonial and imperial injustice. This argument must be made better, with diplomatic self-assurance, but it will only find resonance if it is linked to a robust Made-in-Pakistan policy for change, with evidence on the ground.
History cuts both ways, and certainly does not speak truth to power. Quite the opposite. The point here is that, yes, Pakistan has been dealt with an unjust hand at the hands of its patrons and neighbours, and that while history is testament to that, the response should not boil down to reacting viscerally, but making policy to get the best outcomes for Pakistan. The idea that Pakistan is fighting a large inland war against terrorism is no longer entirely lost on the world, but the baggage of past policies and present course corrections won’t carry weight if they don’t fit into the global narrative, set mostly by global alignments and media hegemonies.
The assumption that other countries will act rationally, let alone morally, or even in their best long-term interests is also a delusion we rely on at key points. In the post- 9/11 era, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the world has never quite settled back into the articulated multilateralist goals of the post World-War II era. The gloves are off in this Hobbesian new century.
Over-heated big military complexes like the American leviathan don’t like to sit around gaming theory; they like to respond, not always rationally. They need to be engaged, not enraged. It does not matter whether a country is changing what it promised in the unsung calm of committee rooms, or worse, in a covert deal witnessed by no third party. Justice and strategic empathy don’t show up on your doorstep. Not for covertised policy. They need to be elicited and telegraphed in multiple mediums. Power does not dispense just actions, it only does so when parlayed or exhorted.
Pakistan should reboot its foreign policy to face the growing trend of borderless terrorism, globally viable digital extremism, and focus on ridding itself of violent extremism – not an easy task, but one that we all took agreement on. It should not in the process forget that as other countries unravel, the very human response in many overstretched capitals will certainly be the search for fall guys.
If we have chosen Pakistan over playing peace-maker in Afghanistan, which is a troubling zero-sum choice because Afghan peace is key to Pakistani peace, the way forward will be easier. We should re-engage the Afghans, support their efforts across the board, but tell them we need to fortify our border to help them as well, and work with what we have. No need to host Murree-like peace processes. Let neutral countries with no skin in the border game do that.
Instead of falling into very obvious responsibility traps for Afghan stability, by now Islamabad should have hosted a big top conference on Afghanistan, inviting Kabul to burden-share proactively with the rest of the world. Instead of partnering with Kabul, on clear two-way conditionality agendas, we have allowed ourselves to fall into the ‘problem’ box instead of the ‘supportive’ one, as ‘solution’ is just not a single-country task.
The policy table is littered with bad, imperfect, and optimal choices, but some are still available if we bring some leadership and executive agency to the task.
With Islamophobia on the rise and oil prices on the downturn, and no Muslim state capacity to leverage collective agency, it is high time Pakistan woke up to the foreign policy crisis it will continue to face in a rough neighbourhood. An absent or strategically unfocused FM/PM won’t cut it. Nor will the military leadership sitting at the helm of this ship alone.
The storm is all around us, not to mention Narendra Modi’s post-NSG-shambles posturing. We deserve a better policy than just clenching our fist at Washington or Kabul, or Delhi for that matter.
The writer is senator and vice president of the PPP and founding chair of the Jinnah Institute.