Diplomatic quagmire

June 5, 2016

Pakistan needs hearty diplomats who understand politics to improve its foreign relations

Diplomatic quagmire

The complex relationship between Pakistan and the United States has hit another low. The strain in ties was exposed when the Congress refused to finance the F-16 fighter jets that Pakistan had requested. Further severeness in the relation followed when a surprise unilateral drone strike in Balochistan killed the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor.

Both episodes shattered the much-touted claim that the bilateral relationship is on a ‘positive trajectory’. This characterisation was used time and again by not only the Pakistani mission in Washington, but also by almost every official delegation from Pakistan visiting the US, including even the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif.

In November 2015, commenting on his meeting with the US officials here in Washington, the army chief said that military to military relations were at their best and the relations with the American administration were on a ‘positive trajectory’.

Over time, the mythical ‘positive trajectory’ has been nose-diving. There are serious reasons for that, among them the lack of vision to lead the diplomatic corps and the lack of understanding of how Washington works.

Yet, the last two incidents are not necessarily a diplomatic quagmire but definitely a policy failure. It was the military that requested for the planes, it was the military that pursued the deal, and it was the aid for the military that was to be used to finance the planes. It was also the expectation from the military to take action against the Haqqani Network. So, to blame the diplomatic mission for the debacles would not be entirely fair.

What needs to be acknowledged is that Washington is unlike Islamabad. It’s a tiny town where international politics reigns. Since it conveniently houses the White House, State Department, foreign embassies and the Pentagon just across the river, it is intriguing and interesting, dull and dramatic all at the same time. As a political hub it breathes diplomacy.

The way to get things done isn’t confined to one place though. The town has multiple centres of power -- the executive branch to the legislative branch, greedy lobbyists to academic think tank experts.

To cut through all these steps, you need a subtle strategy that requires hearty diplomats who understand politics. Diplomacy is about getting others to play our game, and in the near past diplomats like Richard Holbrooke proved it. He settled the Dayton Peace Accords as a young diplomat, just by thinking out of the box. As the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he led the way to a resolution by convincing parties bogged down in conflict to believe that he was speaking their language, their mind. He was not just a career diplomat, he became a miracle worker who knew his way around Washington.

Pakistan’s top diplomats who served in the US and left their mark were all political appointees. They understood the necessity of seeking common ground by listening with an open mind.

Coincidently, Pakistan’s top diplomats who served in the US and left their mark were all political appointees. They understood the necessity of seeking common ground by listening with an open mind. Ambassador Abida Hussain notes in her memoir: "Not only did the US government speak with one voice, they kept each other informed on language and content of all conversations made from our side, running their government tightly and competently with no loose ends."

She cited that the then COAS Gen. Asif Nawaz Janjua was visiting the State Department when he was whisked away to meet with the then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at Pentagon. Gen. Janjua was suggested to stage a coup in Pakistan. Even though Ambassador Abida was not present in that meeting, she discovered of the hastily conducted one-on-one meeting. That was an inspiring understudying of how Washington plays out.

Another top diplomat who bravely weathered the toughest time in the history of Pakistan-US relations was Ambassador Husain Haqqani. He knew the ins and outs of the political sphere and managed to bounce the rocky relation back to affordable. Ambassador Sherry Rehman followed suit. Haqqani faced Raymond Davis crisis, and Sherry Rehman dealt with the Salala attack.

Both made adjustments and crafted reconciliation. They developed tactics to gain political, financial and military advancement. They engaged with the diaspora, appeared on American media, delivered speeches at think tanks, and held meetings with generals and journalists, senators and congressmen, and sometimes even with immature interns. They consulted lobbying firms and straightened out national priorities. They remained open and forthcoming about their policies and amended them accordingly. They knew they couldn’t decide anything alone, yet they were quick to improvise. Their relations were outward, personal and across the board.

These efforts were coupled with advocacy from lobbying firms. In the aftermath of the Abbottabad operation, it was Locke Lord Strategies that pushed back Congressional criticism, and preserved the billions of dollars of American aid under threat of discontinuation.

Career diplomats, as has been evident in the past and now, have limitations to their decision-making. They’re trained to follow orders to the letter without exception. They maintain secrecy and bureaucratic inertia, and confine relations between their immediate office back home and the State Department. They’re hardly at freedom to take independent decision, or in direct consultation with the political leadership. They also can’t afford mutually acceptable perspectives, and fail to dominate the equation.

Hence, foreign diplomats generally, and the US officials particularly, seek the core which holds the real power to make policy decisions in Pakistan. The bilateral interests are then conceived by the Pentagon and the State Department, and the role of the ambassador gets restricted to being merely a messenger.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s style of administration encourages this ‘diplomatic’ facade. The absence of a reasonable civilian foreign minister is one indication of that. Deployment of a near retiring career diplomat as ambassador is another. It took the PML-N government months to send the Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US.

Ambassador Jilani was appointed when the bilateral ties were fresh out of hot waters. He started off with separate individual meetings with every other American lawmaker, and continues to do so. He has also availed a two-year extension since then. Besides this, he has been flying solo, without any assistance from any lobbying firm helping him shape opinions and policies on the Hill. The PML-N government did not hire any other lobbying group when the last firm’s contract expired.

Rumour has it that he might be replaced by another career diplomat, most probably the current Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry. Such a decision would set a precedent, quite worrying, that the Foreign Office high-ups could land a more ambitious foreign posting when they’re almost out of the door. This trend would only serve self-interest, leaving bilateral issues unresolved, and would take the decision-making power far away from the political class.

As suggested by Ambassador Chas Freeman, we are living in an era of strategic fluidity. There are therefore no fixed lines to defend. There is no unilateral ‘positive trajectory’. There are challenges that neither the military nor the bureaucracy can face, and only diplomacy endorsed by the political leadership can define national interest -- at least in Washington.

Diplomatic quagmire