Wresting back space

Published September 18, 2016
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

OFF he’s headed to the UN again, with talking points that aren’t his and an agenda he’d rather not have.

Thwarted by Modi? Sure. Stymied by Pathankot? Definitely.

But let’s not kid around: Nawaz’s foreign policy agenda was derailed early and comprehensively.

We know most of the story of how the PM with a historic mandate and an ambitious regional agenda was quickly reduced to inaugurator-in-chief of bits and pieces of road and electricity.

He went after Musharraf instead of going all in for a trade deal with India. He tried to do business with Karzai when the boys here were already looking past Karzai towards the next administration.

And as relations with the US were on the mend, Nawaz was more keen to sell himself as pro-West, or at least not anti-West, than to get in on the action.

Some blame the dharna, but privately the N-League will admit that the dharna made possible what was likely anyway.

And in terms of ceding space, nothing has come close to Nawaz’s disastrous gamble on resisting a fight against the TTP.

The boys may have made this bed, but Nawaz all too willingly lay in it.

Question is, what now?

The calendar looks something like this. Everything is on hold until the US elections in November; new president comes in Jan.

The good news, for Nawaz anyway, is that electorally he’s in the same position he was five years ago.

In Afghanistan, fighting season is winding down, giving us until spring next year, when the results of the next round of diplomacy will be judged.

Over in India, Modi and co look like they’ve got a fair bit of bluster and huffing left in them. All of that adds up to somewhere around mid-2017.

That’s final year for Nawaz here in Pakistan. Fifth year is uncharted territory, but you can bet nothing big will happen, at least not by design. Elections will dominate.

The good news, for Nawaz anyway, is that electorally he’s in the same position he was five years ago.

Five years ago, 2013 was Nawaz’s to lose — the PPP was too battered and Imran too disorganised.

Five years later, 2018 is also Nawaz’s to lose — Imran is still too disorganised and the PPP has self-immolated.

In the two years from now to 2018, Nawaz will have two internal, civ-mil choices to make. The more eye-catching/less important one will come in November: selecting the next chief.

The more important/less headline-grabbing choice will be whether to continue what we can call Nawaz’s Old Man and the Sea-routine: give the boys as much string as they want until they exhaust themselves or, more likely, tie themselves up in knots over their foreign policy/national security choices.

At that point, inaugurator-in-chief could step back up, boosted by successive election wins and a track record of domestic delivery to wrest back some foreign policy space.

Another dharna or another Pathankot may be less effective then.

Of course, anything that sounds that good is unlikely to be true, especially if you’re a civilian.

Nawaz is more likely to be pulled into the sea than reel in the boys if his strategy rests on hoping the boys make a pig’s ear of their foreign policy dominance.

But there may be a path to recovery, ie wresting back some foreign policy space, and it will have to combine the domestic with the foreign.

The domestic centres on Nawaz setting right his catastrophic misreading of the fight against militancy and finding convergences with the boys in Punjab.

It may not be obvious, but perhaps nothing has hurt Nawaz more than still living in the ’90s when it comes to militancy.

He and the younger Sharif are still fighting yesterday’s battles, headlined by LJ and their sectarian spawn.

If, somehow, he can update his worldview and figure out that Punjab is much more than just encroachment by the boys on PML-N turf, the fight against militancy can become a point of convergence, not acute disagreement.

But that would only change him from being on the defensive to a neutral position overall — getting a modicum of foreign-policy control will mean needing to find allies abroad.

Modi seems to like him, but for now has judged that he’s ineffective. So Nawaz may have to look elsewhere.

Xi, the Chinese president, was a potential ally and his pet CPEC the obvious route to closeness, but the Nawaz-Xi relationship has been cool.

The cooling can be traced back to the delayed Chinese presidential trip in the middle of the dharna — look how often Nawaz lambastes Imran for that.

The Saudis, a complicated ally in any case, have been unusually cool. Perhaps it was Yemen, but it seems something more given their warmth towards Raheel.

Besides, next time round, Nawaz will need more than a billion and a half of hard dollars to look like he’s back in the foreign-policy mix.

The Saudis don’t look like they have that kind of money right now.

It may come down to the US. If Clinton wins, chances are her hawkish ways will refocus American attention on Afghanistan.

That could be an opportunity, but it would also be a risk — security-minded American principals tend to get business done with the boys.

Put all of that together, with a narrow path abroad and a stubbornness on domestic militancy, and Nawaz may be tempted to go for the worst of all options: pin all his hopes on selecting a pliable next army chief.

Raheel was Nawaz’s choice because Raheel was the least political and most likely to stay in his lane from the last cohort.

Look where that got Nawaz.

Wresting back space from the next guy will mean figuring out first what went wrong with the current chap.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn September 18th, 2016


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