Off to a bumpy start

September 03,2018

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Recent developments on the diplomatic front are indicative of how the winds are blowing. But first the success story: a hands-on approach by Imran Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi has led to the cancellation of the provocative cartoon exhibition planned by Geert Wilders and stopped the agitation led by the TLP and saved the government from an internal crisis.

For the rest, more intractable diplomatic challenges are looming on the horizon. Yet, the prime minister does not intend to travel to New York for the annual UN General Assembly session. A newly elected leader is normally awaited at the UN to make his entry on to the world stage. In Pakistan’s case, Imran Khan could have used the opportunity to share his vision of domestic and foreign policies at the global forum. He will also miss the chance to hold meetings with other important leaders.

Of course, there are arguments in favour of the prime minister staying at home, and coming to grips with the job of administering a nation as large and as diverse as Pakistan. He would have returned from New York without any laurels when urgent challenges, notably the monster of foreign debt, are staring down at the new government.

The appointment of a seasoned foreign minister is a good step for the reconfiguration of Pakistan’s diplomatic goals. But omens for ties with the US were clouded by US Secretary of State Pompeo raising questions over an IMF package for Pakistan to repay Chinese loans. Quick to support that stance was none other than Zalmay Khalilzad, a known detractor of Pakistan, who is being considered for appointment as a special US envoy on Afghanistan.

Matters were not helped either by the phone call from Pompeo to felicitate Prime Minister Khan, when the former repeated the US demand for greater efforts by the government against terror groups “operating out of Pakistan”. Pakistan’s denial of that led to some haggling, brought to an end with the US sharing the call’s transcript with the Foreign Office.

If Powell’s call to Musharraf post-9/11 was the grandaunt of all calls, Pompeo’s conversation will also reverberate for some time. He is scheduled to visit Islamabad along the US chairman of joint chiefs of staff on September 5 and the likely scenario is one of the US leaning on Pakistan even harder to curb terror groups particularly the Afghan Taliban.

The new government is embarking on ties with the US with the baggage of Imran Khan’s rhetoric about Pakistan fighting America’s war in the region and the need to get out of that pronto. He may recommend to the Americans to review their policy on Afghanistan. He can also point out that the Americans underplay whatever Pakistan has done to help peace in Afghanistan while incessantly demanding to “do more”.

It cannot be ruled out that the US might threaten further punitive measures in the period ahead if its demands are not met. Pakistan is not in a position to comply for a variety of reasons but now more so because the prime minister has never endorsed the US war in Afghanistan.

A part of the problem is President Trump’s wish to declare victory in Afghanistan and his keenness to coerce Pakistan into refusing shelter to the Afghan Taliban. An impression has been created that the former ruling militia cannot survive without Pakistan’s blessings and support. And since Washington and Kabul are not in a position to achieve a military victory over the Taliban, they continue to seek a negotiated settlement with the same ‘terrorists’. That is the height of hypocrisy only big powers can get away with.

The Afghan conundrum cannot be untangled without some kind of power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. This needs to be clearly stated to the US and their allies in Kabul. As often pointed out by Pakistani interlocutors, the Americans cannot ask Islamabad to make life tough for the Taliban and facilitate negotiations at the same time. Ever since the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan, Iran and Russia have upgraded their contacts with the Taliban. The latest example is Russia’s initiative to host a peace conference, since torpedoed by Kabul and Washington.

Finally, while the US has been wielding the stick, and carrying out a propaganda war against Pakistan, there are no carrots in view. This is another point the Pakistani interlocutors might raise with Pompeo and his team. A positive attitude towards Pakistan’s external financing needs can be one way of showing solidarity with the new government, as demonstrated by China and Saudi Arabia.

Pak-US relations demand so much time and energy that some vital relationships get sidetracked. Successful diplomacy would require sufficient attention to relations with China, especially on the CPEC dimension. It is important at this stage that the new government proves, by words and actions, its commitment to further consolidating ties with China.

The reader may wonder: what about relations with immediate neighbours like India and Iran; and traditional friends Saudi Arabia and Turkey? If diplomacy is akin to a chess game, it needs the deftness to play several games at the same time. Over to you, Mr Prime Minister!



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