Wednesday February 28, 2024

Back to a bad patch

June 19, 2016

Here we go again; we are in a bad patch with the US, our ‘selfish friend’. Many would disagree with this statement as it presupposes that we have seen some good patches as well. The US drone strike on the Taliban chief in our territory, its refusal to deliver F-16s after first making a commitment to do so, and asking us to seek approval of the NSG as a whole after having individually endorsed India’s entry to it are the recent triggers of this bad patch.

The main concern of the US is Afghanistan and the main concern for Pakistan is India. The US wants a stable friendly government in Afghanistan. So does Pakistan, albeit with different priorities. The US wants it to secure its borders from future attacks by terrorists and Pakistan wants it to secure its western border so that it is not sandwiched by India from both sides, of which there are clear indications in the current Indian policy.

Both want a friendly government in Afghanistan but the problems lie in the fact that the US-backed friendly government is not friendly to Pakistan and vice versa. The current Afghan setup is inherently anti-Pakistan for different reasons. One, Pakistan’s past and current support for the Taliban. Two, the Durand Line dispute. And three, Indian influence. Pakistan, though, is not in any position to install a friendly government and its objective – until it is in that position – is to keep the current Afghan government from taking firm roots.

So far so good, but the policy that Pakistan has adopted to achieve that end is self-defeating. The most important problem being that it does not have as strong a control on the Taliban as the US has on the current Afghan government. Moreover, Pakistan’s Taliban policy does not have public support nor has it been devised through a democratic decision-making process. Yet another problem with this policy is that the Taliban are a retrogressive and ruthless force who are not only a threat to Pakistan, as has been demonstrated in the shape of the TTP, their outlook – rigidity, extremism, narrow-mindedness – is also not compatible with modern standards for a group eligible to hold state power.

Needless to mention, in the backdrop of this tug of war between the US and Pakistan to install friendly government in Afghanistan, the US is still a superpower and Pakistan is still nothing more than a client state of the same superpower. How long can we continue with an errant policy that goes right in the face of strong opposition from a superpower on which we are so badly dependent?

Is the time not ripe for Pakistan to come up with out-of-the-box strategies to achieve the same goal – that of a friendly government in Afghanistan, but sans the Taliban? This possibility should be our main focus but is frustrated by the existing policymaking mechanism and institutional incapacity. Three quarters share this responsibility in a democratic order – politicians, the Foreign Office and the security establishment. Given our peculiar situation, the normal democratic order of precedence in policymaking has been functioning in the reverse order with the establishment in the lead role. In an ideal situation, its role should be limited to giving input during policy formulation.

The second institution – the Foreign Office – is supposed to give valuable input in foreign policy formulation, but is not likely to think out of the box for a variety of defects. One, it works in a subordinate position to the security establishment. Two, its organisational failings are proving to be an insurmountable hurdle. Lack of discipline, a culture of sycophancy, overburdening through a completely unwarranted VIP culture and protocol duties, absence of an objective system of rewarding efficiency – such woes have drained its efficiency over the decades.

Can we expect innovative thinking from an office that cannot manage to start work till 11am? The FO needs a complete overhaul in its way of functioning. And then comes the role of the politicians – public representatives, who, again ideally, should be in the driving seat and who are the most suitable and the most likely ones to think out of the box. Is our current lot – power hungry and thoroughly corrupt proxies of past and future dictators – capable of rising to the occasion? Do the circumstances suggest that in case of their assured failure our political system can usher in a new brand of political leadership? Or can our strained relations with the US wait till we manage our internal political mess?

Another option can be that the US should labour to present options to Pakistan – as it does for its client states. If adopted, these options – like limiting the role of India and resolution of the Durand Line dispute etc – can allay Pakistan’s fears of an Afghanistan without the Taliban. Unfortunately, our ruling elite seems to be pinning all its hopes on this option.

Yet another way out could be a change – on US insistence – in India’s hostile policy towards Pakistan but then why would the US go to such an extent for Pakistan? A probable answer to that could be that the US would do it for its own interests. Bullying Pakistan to abandon the Taliban is not going to work, unless Pakistan is reasonably assured that its western border is strategically secure. But the problem with this option is that the US can push India only to a certain level when it comes to Pakistan, especially when American concerns over China are also factored in.

What lies ahead for us till our policymakers come up with something out of box on Afghanistan, or the US comes forward with some viable options for us beyond the Taliban, or India somehow has a change of heart on Pakistan? Bad patches, self-assumed good patches, and more bad patches – perhaps.

The writer is a former diplomat and currently practises law.