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Without a foreign minister

September 19, 2013

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“DEAR General,” wrote Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Relations, “put a full-stop (in para 5) after the words ‘India and Pakistan’ and substitute the immediately following words ‘and which’ by the words ‘these resolutions’”. Then he added, “omit the words ‘and enduring’.”

The letter was addressed to Gen A.G.L. McNaughton, President of the Security Council, by Zafrullah Khan, Pakistan’s first foreign minister, in reply to the Canadian diplomat’s set of proposals for a demilitarisation of Kashmir for holding a plebiscite according to the UN resolutions.

Zafrulla Khan’s interpolations give us an indication of his grasp of the diplomatic nuances in exchanges between Pakistan, India, the UN and the mediating parties. Being a jurist, Zafrullah was especially qualified for the job, because he had to avoid the legal pitfalls inherent in an issue which from the very beginning was mired in law, when the Maharaja signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan and then violated it by acceding to India. New Delhi’s case rests on this instrument of accession signed by a Maharaja who was then a fugitive.

Zafrulla was a remarkable man. Jinnah had chosen him to be the foreign minister in 1947 when it required wisdom and nerves of steel to run the newly born country — with a war raging in Kashmir, India having attacked and annexed Junagadh, Hyderabad under pressure for accession, Burma making demands on Pakistan territory and millions of refugees pouring into a country where the bureaucracy in Karachi sat on sidewalks and brought stationery from home to run the state.

Before independence, Zafrulla represented the (British) Indian government in China during the Second World War, and later became a member of the viceroy’s council. After he retired as Pakistan’s foreign minister, he became a judge and later vice president of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and later president of the General Assembly.

Zafrulla was one of the many brilliant foreign minsters Pakistan produced. H.S. Suhrawardy was never the foreign minister: Sir Malik Firoz Khan Noon was his foreign minister when the Awami League leader was prime minister. But Suhrawardy ran foreign policy brilliantly during those awful Nasser years when Pakistan faced isolation in the Middle East. It was also in the Suhrawardy era that Pakistan and China drew closer after the initial breakthrough was made by Mohammed Ali Bogra and Zhou Enlai at Bandung in 1955.

The Ayub era saw two brilliant handlers of foreign policy — Manzur Qadir and a man who became a legend in his own lifetime. Acting as foreign minister, with Bogra ill, Z.A. Bhutto negotiated with Indian foreign minister Swaran Singh on Kashmir in the wake of the China-India war. The talks failed, and Western intermediaries said they were “stunned” by Pakistan’s (read Bhutto’s demands) — the valley should come to Pakistan, and Jammu should be partitioned, with the smaller part going to India.

Bogra’s death and Bhutto’s assumption of the office of foreign minister saw radical changes in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Called America’s most “allied ally” which, in the words of Henry Kissinger, suffered from “pactitis”, Pakistan started veering to a less allied position. This was an uphill task.

Given Pakistan’s economic and military dependence on the US, it was not easy for Islamabad to make radical changes that could develop new and unwanted distortions in relations with the West. The task was to end an adversarial relationship with the communist camp, the nonaligned community and the Arab world while staying in the Western camp so as not to deny the benefits accruing from a close economic and military relationship with the US-led ‘free world’.

It was also Bhutto who as prime minister corrected the imbalance in our relationship with the Arab world. Till then tilted heavily towards the Gulf monarchies, Pakistan’s foreign policy developed new avenues of strength and economic and military cooperation by reaching out to the Arab republican camp, especially after the 1973 Ramazan war and the Islamic summit at Lahore in February 1974.

The Zia era had an excellent foreign minister in Sahibzada Yaqub Khan. Well-equipped intellectually and linguistically, he was good at conceptualising foreign policy initiatives. With a wooden expression being no handicap, he articulated his views in undertones and was rated highly in Washington at a time when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had thrown new challenges to Pakistan.

He miscalculated his chances as Unesco chief, because a person who was a minister in the cabinet of a brutal military dictator who ran the country by hanging and lashing had little chance of being voted chief of the UN’s cultural body. He withdrew at the eleventh hour to avoid defeat.

Benazir Bhutto was her own foreign minister, but she never had the chance to come into her own, so stifled and persecuted she was by Zia remnants, who of course included today’s ruling party. Since then the only spark in foreign affairs was provided by Hina Rabbani Khar. In her brief stint as foreign minister in the PPP-led coalition, Khar showed originality in diplomatic idiom. On Indian soil, she spoke of a peace process that would not only be “uninterrupted” but also “uninterruptible”.

Now Nawaz Sharif himself is foreign minister, besides being defence minister. He is good as a businessman, and years of exile, though in royal splendour, have done him enormous good, for he has gained in maturity as a politician. That he can also be a good foreign minister is doubtful. There is no evidence that he likes books, which means diplomatic literature and idiom are alien to him. That the country should be without a foreign minister whose diplomatic skills should be commensurate with the challenges Pakistan faces in the realm of foreign policy is indeed a great anomaly if not tragedy.

The writer is a member of staff.