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Foreign policy challenges

June 10, 2013

ONE of the first things Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did after taking oath was to send a message outlining his foreign policy priorities to Pakistani missions abroad.

The move reflects his interest in getting Pakistan’s foreign relations right and signals this intent to the implementers of the county’s foreign policy vision around the world. There was one observation, though not unexpected, that is nonetheless noteworthy: the importance he laid on Pakistan’s neighbourhood.

Reorienting Pakistan’s focus to the South Asian region in a positive way, especially with regard to India, will be no mean feat. No one knows this better than Mr Sharif given his experience with attempts to improve Indo-Pak ties during his last stint.

Much has been written about the substantive issues and disputes at hand. Let me, instead, focus on a seemingly more mundane, but nonetheless critical, issue of getting the management of the foreign policy machinery right. Without this, the government is sure to fall short on the substance.

To begin with, Sharif needs someone to take charge of the situation. Any confusion in the roles of the key people will only allow detractors to stonewall positive initiatives. His decision to not appoint a full time foreign minister is disturbing in this regard. Prime ministers holding on to such portfolios can work when the foreign policy direction of a country is likely to be a continuation of the status quo. In such cases, the bureaucracy keeps chugging along with its routines and the prime minister, in his capacity as foreign minister, only has to tinker on the edges.

If the goal is truly transformative, though, a full-time, empowered manager who commands respect and has some expertise in the subject is likely to be your best bet. Also, in the Pakistani context, a disempowered foreign minister — much less an absent one — always tends to force important foreign actors to go knocking at GHQ’s doors to get the job done. This is exactly the opposite of what Sharif wants; ostensibly, his decision to keep the portfolio is driven by this concern in the first place.

Sharif has already decided on his two principal foreign policy managers: Sartaj Aziz and Tariq Fatemi. Both are solid choices. But in the absence of a minister (or till one of them is brought into that role) they need the right kind of empowerment to pull off the task Sharif has outlined for them and those who would be working for them in the foreign ministry. A clear signal to this effect needs to come from the prime minister. Disturbingly, some PML-N members confide that this may not happen for purely parochial reasons to do with internal party politics.

Next, one shouldn’t overlook the challenge these officials will face in getting a team in place that shares the prime minister’s vision. Some would argue that perhaps even they don’t fully buy into it. Even if so, they — given their proximity to the prime minister and his faith in them — will have little difficulty in rallying behind him. The real challenge will be to pick likeminded people for key ambassadorial positions and desks in the ministry.

At least on India and Afghanistan, this is not only about finding the brightest and the best. The problem is that the Foreign Office’s traditional outlook on these countries has never been too different from that of the security establishment. Sharif’s vision is light years ahead and it will require quite a jolt to this highly competent, yet characterised by inertia, machinery to get the ball rolling. You need people truly ideologically invested in his vision to take the lead.

The mother of all challenges, however, is undoubtedly going to lie in the civil-military domain. The security establishment and sections of the Foreign Office most closely aligned with its vision have run the country’s India and Afghanistan policy for years. There is no way to make a clean break from that, especially a year before the 2014 Nato exit from Afghanistan. Sharif’s team will have to work this incrementally and without considering the military a competitor. The most crucial role for Nawaz’s core team will be to act as credible and effective interlocutors between the prime minister’s office and the GHQ.

The best-case scenario is that the civilian and military enclaves have frank and regular conversations and agree on a joint agenda to move forward on regional relations and other priorities. The more probable and less attractive possibility is that, in typical Pakistani style, sycophants — in trying to appear more loyal than the king — will begin to saturate both the prime minister and the military top brass with rumours and stories that confirm their worst fears about the other and end up encouraging a rift.

Here, the role of the prime minister’s team will be pivotal. They will have to be the loudest credible voices he can hear and believe. And they will have to prevent such a rift at all costs. Similarly, the military will have to keep its side in check and take the shifting institutional equilibrium in favour of the civilians in its stride rather than seeing this as a dent to personal and institutional egos.

Finally, if the boss’s vision relies on out-of-the-box thinking, the bureaucratic machinery also needs the same. It may not hurt for the Foreign Office to formally coordinate two working groups, one comprising retired senior diplomats and another of independent Pakistani experts in the field. The institution can only gain from regular and streamlined interaction with individuals in both these categories. Too little of it has traditionally taken place. A change here simply can’t hurt.

Above all, all stakeholders — including the prime minister himself — will have to exhibit patience. The reorientation is going to be a slow and cumbersome process. This is not only because of the challenges discussed here but also because there are any number of detractions on the Indian and Afghan sides as well.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.