Tuesday July 05, 2022

Foreign policy challenges

August 14, 2020

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us” are the words of the 35th President of the United States of American, John F. Kennedy. The prior assertion ought to be taken, in conjunction with grasping the intricate nexus of domestic and foreign policy by adopting a middle ground. Since its inception, the foreign policy of Pakistan has always been shaky when it comes to myriads of crucial matters such as its relations with immediate neighbors India, Afghanistan, Iran, and its role amidst the great powers like the US, USSR, and China. To comprehend the contemporary challenges for the foreign policy of Pakistan the historical dimension must be explored.

The challenges for Pakistan in its nascent years were multi-fold. After the truncation of the Indian sub-continent, few prominent Indian leaders predicted the eventual demise of Pakistan and that it must rejoin India. It was an intricate task for Pakistan not only to prove the Indian echelon wrong but to gain a standing of prestige in the global community. Pakistan has disproved the former predictions successfully, but the latter motive is still in shambles as its global stature is not in sync with the expectations of its founding fathers. The founding fathers of both countries India and Pakistan sought amicable relations among themselves, but the reality happened to be strikingly different than their expectations.

The central theme around which the foreign policy of Pakistan revolves historically as well as currently is to neutralise the Indian threat and to keep the Kashmir issue alive. Pakistan and India went into three full-fledged wars (1948, 1965, and 1971) and countless border skirmishes. In various instances, the leaders on both sides ventured to attain peace, such as the famous ‘Bus diplomacy,’ Musharraf’s four-point formula, and numerous track two dialogues for resolving the Kashmir dispute and, to pave the way for an ambiance of peace and prosperity. These initiatives failed. After the revocation of article 370 and 35 A, it seems as if Pakistan is failing on this front as well, but it will not be a walk in the park for India as its recent fierce conflict with China in Ladakh manifests.

Likewise, Pakistan and Afghanistan didn’t start on a positive note as well. Afghanistan became a nuisance for Pakistan right from the outset. It is a Pashtun majority state. Similarly, the population of Pashtuns in Pakistan is around 16%, which is the second-largest ethnic group in the country. The first act which Afghanistan carried out was its refusal to recognise Pakistan in the UN because of its partial claim on the Pashtuns populated areas of the North-Western region of Pakistan. Secessionist feelings among the Pashtuns in both countries irked Pakistan and, it tried to tackle these tendencies with the policy of ‘carrots and sticks.’

Pakistan kept its policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan at the top of its plan right from the beginning. To meet this end, it used numerous proxies. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made it easier for Pakistan to procure modern weapons from the US and also to work on its national interests. As claimed by many, it was not one-way traffic between the US and Pakistan. Pakistan neither compromised on its objectives nor subdued the US interests of defeating the USSR. The post 9/11 situation benefited Pakistan as well but as of late, the US has placed myriads of sanctions on Pakistan for its alleged duplicitous role in the militarization of the region.

Pakistan’s relations with the Muslim world have historical grounds too. A nation-state crafted out on the pretext of being distinct from the Hindus of the subcontinent was surely going to look for gaining a position from which it can lead the Muslim world and mostly to neutralise its vigorous neighbor India. This process intensified under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who convened two Islamic Summit Conferences in Lahore in the 1970s. Throughout history, Pakistan’s relations with the Muslim countries have not been as per its expectations. For instance, Iran didn’t lean overly on Pakistan for reasons of its own and, the bilateral ties remained average. The two countries cooperated on many issues like trade, combating terrorism, and defense arrangements.

In its relations with great powers, Pakistan has played its cards very well during the binary politics of the Cold War. Although Pakistan antagonised USSR by joining the US-led pacts, SEATO and CENTO, it remained on the defensive by not replying and paying heed to the Soviet threats. By siding with the US and Saudi led coalition after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan played a vital role in the fall of the USSR in 1989. Additionally, Pakistan successfully bypassed many legislations of the US Congress related to its nuclear initiatives by using its geostrategic location to its advantage, also the credit of making the rapprochement between the US and China in the middle of the Cold War goes to Pakistan.

In the wake of the post 9/11 world, Pakistan is witnessing severe challenges regarding its foreign affairs, be it the case of US-led global war on terror or relations with regional and extra-regional powers. Like many other countries, the present time is pressing hard on Pakistan too. Regardless of its fragile economy, Pakistan has to fight against the global pandemic COVID-19 mainly, on its own. It is high time for Pakistan to learn to develop its domestic capacity to meet local as well as global challenges. It must focus on its economic development that may facilitate its foreign policy choices in the years to come. Against this pretext, the country needs to adjust its foreign policy. The most critical challenge for Pakistan is to manage the regional and international power rivalries with prudence. Following are some of the most critical issue areas which the state of Pakistan must consider in the altered global context:

Firstly, while the reality of unipolar world order has lost its zenith long ago, the contest of hegemony between two great powers, the US and, China is on its surge. If Pakistan found itself in the quagmire during the Cold War, the matters are going to get worse in the coming years as one contender of global supremacy, China, is a direct neighbour of Pakistan. If anything, the new “battle of the strongest” between the USA and China is only going to exacerbate the situation with its archrival India, as the US has been putting its weight behind India to offset the growing threat of ‘Dragon in the East’. The near future is going to be one of the most formidable challenges for the diplomatic brass of Pakistan to steer it through the tumultuous global and regional strategic politics.

Secondly, Pakistan must manage the Saudi-Iran rivalry with equal care and not provide its turf as a battleground for the sectarian confrontation of these countries as it will dent the already fragile social fabric of Pakistan in a much severe form. Not repudiating the prominence of managing these rivalries, Pakistan must pay heed to the situation brewing up in its direct surrounding.

Thirdly, the Ongoing Afghan peace process ought to be observed meticulously because the adverse effects of another civil war in Afghanistan will be lethal for Pakistan. It is a fact that the Haqqani syndicate is swayed by Pakistan to a great extent but they have their ulterior motives such as not compromising on its claim on the Durand Line and accommodating other proscribed outfits i.e. Al-Qaeda and ISIS which can be detrimental for Pakistan in the long-run. Pakistan should look for alternatives to safeguard its national interests in Afghanistan by giving way to a new dawn, which is not based on perpetual paranoia. Moreover, this policy of strategic depth has also been very deadly for the innocent people of Afghanistan.

Fourthly, the Kashmir issue must be highlighted as much as possible. Pakistan should look to cooperate with India on other fronts as has been advised by Shahid Amin in his magnum opus, ‘Pakistan’s foreign policy.’ According to him, Pakistan has invested a huge amount in reinforcing its warfare capabilities at the cost of human development. He warns Pakistan that this security-based paradigm contributed to the breakage of the USSR regardless of being a nuclear weapon state.

Fifthly, Pakistan has taken many positive steps to curb terrorism inside its borders and has stopped supporting them abroad to some extent but this process should be intensified if it wants to catch up with the developing nations of the globe. Currently, the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, FATF has placed Pakistan in its grey list for abetting and using terrorists for its foreign policy objectives but the omens are looking positive as Pakistan is trying to make amends for its wrongdoings in the past.

Lastly, internal political stability and economic development are the most significant features in the success of the foreign policy of any country. After the revocation of article 370, India faced the slightest of condemnation because of its economic standing in the world and, the sooner Pakistan realizes this fact, the better it will be. Additionally, political stability is another crucial factor in this regard. In the words of the renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky, “the civil-military divide can be said to be the most fundamental fracture in Pakistan’s body politic.” This chasm between the civil and military leadership ought to be bridged and, the role of the military should be minimal when it comes to internal and external politics.

-Yasir Wazir is a graduate student of Iqra University, Islamabad and an independent analyst. He can be reached at