Little room for manouvre

Political instability and economic constraints make the conduct of an independent foreign policy a tightrope walk

While the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government claimed major achievements on all fronts, including foreign policy, on the recent occasion of completion of two years of its rule, it didn’t mention its failures and challenges in any detail.

Given the economic constraints and political instability, Pakistan cannot pursue a truly independent foreign policy. Its dependence on foreign aid and donors is no secret. This compels it to seek loans from institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and request friendly countries to bail it. Political instability is perennial. Elected governments start facing protests and calls for resignation as early as a year into their five-year terms. Most elected governments thus find it difficult to implement their manifestos.

At the press conference where the federal ministers narrated the achievements of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi too listed a few ranging from internationalizing the Kashmir dispute, foiling India’s sustained efforts to isolate Pakistan, playing a critical role in the Afghan peace process, further strengthening the already deep friendship with China and giving a new impetus to relations with old friends and cultivating friendship with new ones. Qureshi is articulate even though he sometimes appears to be emphasizing a point more than required.

No other issue has been more important for Pakistan since independence than the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. It has led to wars and kept two nuclear-armed neighbours hostile to each other. India never showed any flexibility and refuses to discuss or implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions until August 5, 2019, when it went a step further and through its unilateral action withdrew the state’s autonomy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government made the move with the knowledge that the international community won’t reprimand it and that the issue might be forgotten over time.

Though Pakistan did well to raise the issue at every available forum by highlighting the violation of UN Security Council resolutions by India and the human rights abuses perpetrated by the 900,000 Indian security personnel deployed in the state, it was New Delhi in the first place that provided the chance to Islamabad to internationalize the matter. India won’t be stepping back from what it has brazenly done and is now attempting a demographic change in Jammu and Kashmir. It is going to be a daunting task for Pakistan to keep the issue alive in the hope that the world would eventually listen to the pleas of the eight million Kashmiris for their right to decide their future.

The only tangible success the PTI government has had in this regard was to take the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council after a long wait. What followed was an informal debate. As always, China came to Pakistan’s rescue even as the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council were disinterested in discussing the issue.

The recent border clashes between Chinese and Indian forces in the Ladakh region of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state in which the Indians suffered significant losses also focused attention on Kashmir and made the world realize that it remains a flashpoint involving three nuclear neighbours. Beijing’s unconditional support for Islamabad on Kashmir and other issues showed the centrality of China’s role in defending Pakistan not only in terms of its security but also economic wellbeing. Perhaps no other two countries interact with each other so often and cooperate in so many fields. In fact, the US closeness to India in a bid to contain China has prompted Beijing and Islamabad to deepen their friendship and work together for common goals.

However, Pakistan hasn’t walked away from the US as it won’t be wise to antagonize the Americans at a time when they need Islamabad’s help to extricate themselves from Afghanistan after 19 years of a costly war through a political settlement with the Taliban. Pakistan’s position that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan has been vindicated. The US criticism of Pakistan is no longer frequent and aggressive, though a friendship based on shared objectives is likely to remain a distant dream.

The Afghan peace process afforded an opportunity to Pakistan to play its role in facilitating Taliban-US talks that unexpectedly led to a deal on February 29 this year. Implementing the deal hasn’t been easy as the prisoners’ exchange couldn’t be completed by the agreed date of March 10. This caused a delay in starting the intra-Afghan negotiations. Pakistan recently made a move to break the deadlock by inviting a high-level Taliban delegation under its deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar to visit Islamabad. It remains to be seen if the visit would move forward the stalemated peace process as Taliban have made it clear they won’t engage in intra-Afghan dialogue with Kabul unless the remaining 320 of their 5,000 prisoners are released. Rather belatedly, the Afghan government is demanding the release of 22 of its commandos.

Taliban deny holding any Afghan servicemen after having freed 1,005. France and Australia, out of the blue, have opposed the release of six Taliban prisoners accused of killing French and Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Along with the delaying tactics being employed by President Ashraf Ghani’s government, this is a new hurdle to the implementation of the Doha agreement.

In terms of failures, the prime minister erred in first agreeing to attend the Kuala Lumpur Islamic summit convened by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and then pulling out under pressure from Saudi Arabia. He erred again when during a subsequent visit to Malaysia he conceded that it had been a mistake not to attend the summit and promised to participate in a similar summit next year. It has been difficult maintaining balanced relations with the Saudi-led Arab bloc and the emerging alliance of Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Qatar. Pakistan also tried to take on the ambitious task of mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It had earlier antagonized Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies by refusing to commit troops to fight in Yemen. There are challenges galore as Pakistan continues its efforts to pursue an independent foreign policy considering the fact that it doesn’t have much room to manoeuvre.

The writer is resident editor of The News in   Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Little room for manouvre