The long overdue appointment of a permanent foreign minister – the first we have had since the PML-N government took power in 2013 – should lead to a less plodding approach to foreign policy. Pakistan is walking somewhat of a diplomatic tightrope right now. The scope of our relations with Trump’s US is still undefined, though the signs point to a downward trajectory. India under Narendra Modi and Afghanistan under Ashraf Ghani are only minimally engaging with Pakistan, preferring to demonise us as a way of deflecting blame for their problems at home. The latter two countries were the focus of Khawaja Asif’s first press conference as foreign minister as he urged them to respond to Pakistan’s overtures. The tone Asif struck was a delicate balance between conciliatory and defiant. He reiterated Pakistan’s desire for peace in the region but without hinting at any compromise. He was very particular in condemning Indian atrocities in Kashmir and its continuous firing across the LoC. On Afghanistan, he regretted the unwillingness of the Afghan government to talk peace. Both these statements are longstanding policies of ours, showing that there will be continuity in foreign policy from the Nawaz Sharif government to the Shahid Khaqan Abbasi government. An uninterrupted approach to the region may be just what we need at a time when allies like China may be alarmed by the sudden removal of the prime minister. Asif, as an important member of the previous cabinet, can provide that approach.
Pakistan’s future course of relations with Afghanistan may end up being guided by the US policy review into its 16-year war in the country. Signs from Washington are that the Trump administration may be considering deploying extra troops to Afghanistan. The Foreign Office has advised against sending more troops. Should it still do so, Pakistan will be placed in a difficult position. The US is more likely to complain about alleged Pakistan support for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network and carry out more drone attacks within Pakistan should it become embroiled in another quagmire in Afghanistan. Our relations with the US likely weren’t helped by Asif’s assertion that the US and India are involved in an international conspiracy to destroy the Indus Waters Treaty. Whatever the truth of that assertion, it reflected Pakistan’s concern about the direction of the negotiations over dams with India in Washington and a justified feeling that the US has decided to align with India at the expense of Pakistan. Bringing all these countries closer to us, without sacrificing any of our foreign policy principles, will be the largest challenge Asif faces as foreign minister.