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May 26, 2017

The dispensable nation


May 26, 2017

What was the Foreign Office thinking? Before Nawaz Sharif had even reached the Arab-US summit it was telling everyone that the prime minister would be giving a speech in Riyadh even though there was no confirmed speaking slot for him. It kept hyping Nawaz’s likely meeting with US President Donald Trump, meaning the Foreign Office might be the last institution left in the world which doesn’t know how much Trump hates meetings.

Before he began his worldwide tour, a story about Trump appeared in the American media, quoting memos his aides had written to diplomats in the countries he was going to visit. It more or less confirmed that the man has the attention span of a T20 fan. International leaders were told not to give 30-minute presentations to a person who loses interest in 30 seconds; they were told that if he must be engaged in conversation then the best strategy was to congratulate him on his electoral college victory. That Nawaz Sharif got a “Pleased to meet you” from him should be considered a diplomatic triumph.

But the Foreign Office, still bereft of the guidance and direction that a permanent foreign minister should theoretically provide, built up expectations -- and the opposition pounced. Imran Khan went around complaining about how Nawaz had been snubbed. In Imran’s case, this was all politics and hypocritical politics too. No one had complained more loudly than him -- and rightly so -- about Pakistan alienating Iran by joining and allowing Raheel Sharif to lead Saudi Arabia’s military alliance. Why then would he feign surprise that the Saudis did not toast their orange juices in Nawaz’s honour? Imran also made a big deal about Nawaz being so tainted by Panama that no one would come near him. Trump, it is fair to say, has never heard of the Panama Papers leaks and if he had he may just have asked Nawaz for advice.

Imran aside, Pakistan has a strong sense of self-importance and feels the rest of the world should recognise that importance too. We are proud -- perhaps even vain -- about being the only Muslim-majority country with nuclear weapons. We also host the second largest population of Muslims in the world. That, in our minds, means attention must be paid to us. But what do we really have to offer? Trump seems uninterested in any country that he can’t build a Trump Tower in and the only exports we send to Saudi Arabia are cotton, textiles and camel jockeys. The only reason anyone cares about us is because of terrorism and since we haven’t signed up with an open heart to the Sunni alliance none of the countries at the summit wanted to talk to us about that.

That Trump would use his speech at the summit -- hyped as an address on Islam -- to firmly position the US on one side of the Muslim sectarian divide was to be expected. To the extent that he has a foreign policy it is: Not Obama. In Republican circles, there was an impression that Obama was palling around with the ayatollahs of Iran and had all but invited them to build nuclear weapons. This had no basis in reality since Obama kept pouring weapons into Saudi Arabia and only slightly loosened sanctions on Iran but it was enough for Trump to go full hog for the Saudis.

That doesn’t mean we need to do the same. The US has muddled priorities in the Middle East, where it sees Isis as the biggest threat right now but is worried about Iran becoming the regional superpower ahead of Saudi Arabia. None of that should be of concern to us. The proxy wars being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not going to reach our shores. The Islamic State that operates in Pakistan is composed of remnants of existing militant groups and its connection with the IS of Syria and Iraq is more ideological than operational.

Our focus needs to be local. One reason the border incident with Iran, where the militants who attacked its guards sought refuge in Pakistan, metasized out of control is because of the underlying tensions in the relationship. Iran sees Pakistan as an ally of Saudi Arabia and Nawaz Sharif in particular as having a close relationship to the kingdom. Our backing out of the gas pipeline after the Iranians had already constructed their portion didn’t help. Iran has already tried to take its economic revenge by excluding us from the Chabahar port deal with India and Afghanistan. Now, threatening to attack within our territory should there be a repeat of the border incident puts more pressure on us. Had Nawaz been given the opportunity to speak in Riyadh and felt obliged to ingratiate himself with his hosts, Iran would have been further angered.

Pakistan’s foreign policy conundrum is that it is finding it difficult to hold on to the allies that it has while further distancing those with whom it has never enjoyed the best of relations. Our relations with Iran have been rocky ever since the 1979 Revolution but they are at one of the lowest points right now. Short of full-out war, it is hard to imagine how things could get any worse with India. Afghanistan blames us for the terrorism problem on its soil. Easy as it is to say there are faults on all sides – which also happens to be true – somehow we are in a position where the only neighbour with whom we have solid ties is China.

The fair-weather allies we used to have are now abandoning us. The recent budget released by Donald Trump plans to cut aid to Pakistan by $190 million a year from its current level of $534 million. It is true that there are across-the-board cuts in foreign aid in the Trump budget but Pakistan’s has been cut disproportionately while the levels for Israel, Egypt and Nato have stayed the same. It is also true that a presidential budget is an aspirational document and the US Congress, which ultimately collects and distributes appropriations, will not pass the Trump budget. But as an indication of how the US plans on dealing with Pakistan going forward, the document is a valuable guide to his administration’s thinking.

Even Saudi Arabia is moving away slightly from Pakistan for reasons quite apart from our reluctance to sign up for its Middle East wars. Its bilateral trade with India now stands at $40 billion a year while ours is at $6 billion. When Narendra Modi visited the kingdom in April, he was given the King Abdul Aziz Order, the highest civilian honour in the country -- something never conferred on a Pakistani leader.

The next time we complain about being snubbed, ignored or sidelined at an international event we should realise that is not an individual leader who is at fault. Decades of short-sighted policies meant to satisfy immediate needs at the cost of a lasting vision have brought us to a place where everyone treats us as the dispensable nation.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]

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