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Policy confusions

August 04, 2016

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MUCH of Pakistan’s foreign policy debate is currently being framed by peripheral concerns or non-issues, such as the question of the lack of a foreign minister. The real issues with the sector are far more serious and deeply embedded in the idea and body politic of the country. They are systemic and thematic, and affect both the process and the substance of foreign policy.

A country’s foreign policy is linked by varying degrees to the political system, social structure, power balances and interests of the ruling elite. So if there is something wrong with the foreign policy, it is often because something is wrong with the domestic policy. And nowhere is this as true as perhaps in Pakistan.

In its early years, Pakistan faced serious challenges of external security and internal unity. To their credit, the army and civil bureaucracy helped Pakistan not only survive but also build a good platform for progress. But the counterpoint was the emergence of a centralised authoritarian state that soon became a useful model to serve the class and institutional interests of the army and dominant social groups who came to decide what was best for Pakistan. They had a stake in the country, but largely as a creation for their own benefit.

From that organising idea emerged a foreign policy that was consistent with the domestic order. No genuine foreign policy debate was encouraged for fear that it might contradict the official paradigm that served the status quo.


No genuine foreign policy debate was encouraged for fear that it might contradict the official paradigm.


In time, the army emerged as predominant amongst the ruling elite; long years of direct military rule helped it define Pakistan’s identity, ideology and interests in a way that entrenched the army’s primacy in national life. This organising principle was made all the more enduring by creating a compatible socio-cultural and intellectual landscape.

The country’s foreign policy was so designed as to focus on issues dependent on the army’s role. And Pakistan’s legitimate security interests were exaggerated to provide a rationale for this. Worried neither by the budget nor accountability, the army embarked on strategic ambitions in the region, leading to an imbalance between foreign policy and the domestic priorities of security, development, and political stability. Civilian rule or military — the system remained the same. The people’s interests suffered, but they were fed illusions and emotions. Even democracy became an illusion.

The army’s definition of Pakistan managed to carry the day due to its political weight and value to the system from which both civilians and the army profited. The army’s achievements were not only in courting external powers, principally the US, China and Saudi Arabia, whose strategic interests it served, but also in enhancing Pakistan’s defence capability, particularly in the nuclear field — a matter of some pride for an underachieving nation. Civilians who could not outperform the army decided to ‘support the troops’ and bask under their accomplishments, especially in the area of security. And both, of course, espoused the cause of Islam and flirted with Islamists.

This model looked ‘good’ as long as we had benefactors who were solidly behind us. To its credit, the Foreign Office did well in making this policy operational. But we did not realise what the years of living dangerously had done to us; we did not realise that we had become a source of concern to ourselves and to most of our friends whose interests had changed. Sadly, our foreign policy remained trapped in old assumptions about the world and about ourselves. And Pakistan’s responses to a vastly changed global and regional environment continued to be fixed and unchanging.

There are both compulsions and incentives for change now. The civilians and the army need to work together for it. The country’s socio-economic problems are crying out for solutions, requiring not only good governance but also cooperation from the army in shifting the focus away from external security and away from a security paradigm from which the ‘jihadist’ organisations have found their raison d’être. We have to find a new way of relating to our neighbours and then create a Pakistan in which radicals are treated as enemies not assets, political or strategic. Alibis for inaction will not work. How can we claim to be victims of forces we have not disowned?

Once Pakistan’s defining idea is changed, it will not be difficult to find a fitting foreign policy. Our capable foreign service can help in the making and putting into operation of a strong foreign policy. And we have great intellectual capacity in the country’s intelligentsia to offer its input. The military should not be afraid to lose its dominance. It is a good professional outfit and its role on behalf of Pakistan’s security in a dangerous neighbourhood will remain indispensable. It is just that the foreign policy needs to be democratised.

The writer is a former ambassador teaching at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, US.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2016