Foreign policy or fiasco?

Updated July 02, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Our foreign policy successes are miserably outnumbered by failures as few countries in the world would boast of being surrounded by estranged neighbours on all sides save for one tiny window in the north accessed through some of the highest mountains in the world.

Against this rather bleak backdrop, there is a bit of good news too. There are suggestions that the prime minister is about to head home after a five-week absence abroad for open heart surgery and could reach Pakistan before Eid. Thus should end the over month-long state of paralysis.

Read: No lavish ‘welcome back’ ceremony, PM tells his party

There are many pressing issues awaiting Nawaz Sharif as he is reputedly a hands-on leader and there is hope that his surgery and the long post-operation convalescence period has restored him to good health; good enough to enable him to take tough decisions.

Pakistan’s foreign policy today resembles a dog’s breakfast in all its messy manifestations.

With the retirement of the chief of army staff, Gen Raheel Sharif, less than five months away, obviously the foremost item on a rejuvenated Nawaz Sharif’s agenda would be to start the process for the selection of a successor.

The army chief has categorically stated he is not interested in staying in office beyond the current tenure and has rejected all media speculation about a possible extension. Sources have also rebuffed suggestions that Gen Raheel Sharif will be open to an enhanced role as chief of defence staff along the lines of the British army.

Side by side with choosing a new army chief, which will be vital to continuing the operations against terrorists, the prime minister will be equally hard-pressed to take decisions in the realm of foreign policy formulation and execution as the shambles on display so far is definitely not sustainable.

Whether it is the stalled/cancelled F-16 deal with the United States, the hiatus in the dialogue with India or the state of relations with Iran and Afghanistan, foreign policy is crying out for new direction and fresh impetus.

Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, has come in for a fair bit of stick whenever he has tried to explain away the shortcomings of the country’s foreign policy possibly because the usually candid man has shied away from pinpointing the real reason for the mess.

And that real reason is at the root of most of Pakistan’s foreign policy blues. Let me take you back some months to the visit of Iranian President Rouhani to Islamabad. I remember one White House correspondent describing to me the real meaning of terms such as ‘candid and frank exchange’ (tough talk) or ‘warm and cordial discussion’ (friendly) used in briefings to describe talks between foreign dignitaries and the US president.

But we are not given to such subtleties. Mr Rouhani’s visit more or less coincided with the arrest from Pakistani Balochistan of an Indian spy, who is said to have had a ‘cover’ assignment in the Iranian town of Chabahar and had travelled across.

While the country’s civilian leaders met the Iranian president and exchanged pleasantries and may also have discussed substantive issues, the army chief also called on him. After the COAS’s meeting, his chief spokesman Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa tweeted the gist of the discussion in language which was either deliberately chosen to express anger, jeopardise ties or used without much thought for its impact on relations.

It could have been the latter as any military with two actively hostile borders would hardly be adventurous enough not seek a third simultaneously but then my assessment is mere guess work and I could well be wrong and clueless regarding Gen Bajwa’s real intent.

What many other commentators and I are right about is that the foreign policy today resembles a dog’s breakfast in all its messy manifestations and, of course, for all things wrong in the Islamic Republic the finger of blame points straight towards the civilian politician.

And rightly so — let me tell you why. If the elected leadership feels the transition from outright military rule to a bustling, totally empowered democracy takes time and the process calls for many compromises so be it. But isn’t it incumbent on the leadership then to spell it out to the nation?

This is important because if the decision is being taken in one place and the burden of blame for failures constantly falling elsewhere then it isn’t fair. Even more significantly, it brings into question the competence of the civilian leadership and serves to discredit democracy.

Also, such ‘co-steered’ policies lead to results that neither of the two ‘co-chairs’ is happy with, so why not do away with this practice? The civilian leadership should engage the military leaders in a dialogue and formally offer the latter charge of policy areas which they consider their domain.

Once each side agrees to the other’s autonomy in specific defined areas, both should get on with the task of running the country and implementing their policies in a no-scapegoats scenario. The advantage is that each will be empowered to take key decisions and be held to account for it.

If there are constitutional and legal impediments to such an arrangement, the governing party has demonstrated it can muster the two-thirds support required for a constitutional amendment and could always push through another.

What the country can’t sustain is being pulled in different directions with the elected set-up going one way or helplessly frozen into inaction and the guardians of the territorial integrity pulling in another.

This is one possible solution. Not the only one.

So if you have better ideas do please share those as you’d agree the current state of affairs isn’t sustainable.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2016