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September 1, 2018

Phone fiasco


September 1, 2018

The first foreign policy embarrassment of the PTI government’s tenure came shockingly early in its tenure. A few days after the victory in the elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan received a congratulatory phone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pakistan’s version of the talk was that it centred on anodyne greetings between Imran and Pompeo, but the US State Department claimed that Pompeo had demanded Pakistan take action against militant groups based in the country. The Pakistani side then essentially accused the US of lying – only for the US to send us the transcript of the call to back up its version of the phone conversation. Now there are reports that the Pakistan government has decided to shelve the matter, presumably out of embarrassment.

This was an entirely avoidable unforced error. It appears the new government was so eager to present its first contact with the US to the domestic Pakistani audience as proof that the country’s relationship with the superpower will now be on an equal footing that it ended up picking an unnecessary fight from which it had to humiliatingly backtrack. This does not augur well for the government’s ability to maintain a steady foreign policy.

Pakistan’s relations with the US have been on a steady downward trajectory, mostly because the US no longer retains the leverage to make demands of us. The Trump administration has decided on a policy of maximum confrontation but by cutting off most security aid it does not have the ability to dictate to Pakistan. But that does not mean we can afford to anger the US further. We still need to maintain good ties with the US if we are to seek assistance from international organisations like the IMF. Getting off on the wrong foot with the US will only hurt us and create a tense atmosphere for Pompeo’s visit to Pakistan next week. The government now needs to explain why it gave an essentially misleading account of the phone call and then doubled down when its version was challenged. This embarrassing incident also speaks to the foreign policy inexperience of the government and its insecurity about ties with major countries. When the phone call did not go as well as the government hoped, it tried to create a new reality. Foreign policy requires sober judgement and careful consideration. Its mind-bogglingly poor handling of the phone call with Pompeo shows that the new government does not yet possess those qualities and will need to rethink its strategy and crisis control methods right away.

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