Foreign policy review

07 Sep 2017


MERCIFULLY enough, the hysterical dirges in response to President Trump’s blitz against Pakistan that were as unbecoming of an independent state as Ayub Khan’s boast about this country being the most allied of the US allies have given way to sober reflection on foreign policy options. 

Hopefully the three-day conference of envoys to some key states, which concludes today, will help clear the air of emotional sloganeering. The participants should not only have received a patient hearing they must also have been given a clear understanding of what Pakistan’s strategic interests are and how to achieve them.

Let us first see what has been happening over the past few weeks. Pakistan somehow was apprehensive of the outcome of Mr Trump’s consultations with his generals. While the Camp David meetings were still in progress, army chief Gen Bajwa told the Centcom chief of Pakistan’s firm policy of backing the US and the Kabul government’s forces in Afghanistan. Our ambassador in Washington wished the new US policy on Afghanistan would reflect due appreciation of Pakistan’s role in restoring peace to Afghanistan.

Not only did this wish remain unfulfilled, Mr Trump heaped scorn on Pakistan and threatened to punish it severely. Worse, he further appeased India. Finally, the general commanding US troops in Afghanistan accused Pakistan of hosting the Afghan Taliban leadership, among other acts of perfidy. All this was provocation pure and simple.

Unnecessary US-bashing will embolden friends of terrorist groups to openly challenge the state.

And Pakistan got provoked beyond reason. Little attention was paid to the fact that Mr Trump had told Pakistan what the latter had been hearing from the Americans for quite some time, albeit not in Mr Trump’s vitriolic idiom. A pungent response was unavoidable because the audience at home had to be reassured that their government could not be called names by anyone. Perhaps there was a feeling of guilt too at having accepted the Republicans as Pakistan’s permanent patrons and having gone with indecent haste to Washington to hail the Trump triumph and forge an understanding with him before our traditional rivals reached him.

Anyway, the Americans were told to keep their aid and that Pakistan wanted their confidence and not their dollars. But friendly support from China, Russia and Turkey, and disapproval of Mr Trump’s abrasive language by quite a few Americans, including the secretary of state, helped the angry spokesmen to cool down. Besides, voices from within the government too called for realism and moderation. For instance, the minister recently promoted from commerce to the defence portfolio advised against aggressive posturing that might make negotiations in future impossible.

Now, nothing will please the common citizens more than an end to dependence on the US that has cost Pakistan over the past 65 years much more than the born-yesterday defenders of national dignity realise. Knowledgeable citizens have serious misgivings about the ruling elite’s will to say ‘no’ to an old though fickle-minded patron. They are alarmed at the absence of any plan for living after being jilted by the US. Going round in search of a new patron to replace America renders mock heroics not only meaningless but also disgusting.

Regardless of the turn that the relationship with Washington takes it is essential to cool-headedly examine the complaints the US has been making. The main grievance apparently is that Pakistan wishes to save the ‘good Taliban’ considered its future allies in Afghanistan. Pakistan must in its own interest find ways of debunking this charge because anyone who subscribes to this view of Taliban’s usefulness is not a friend of Pakistan.

Under the current understanding with the US, Pakistan gets paid for its services to the American war effort in Afghanistan. Any arrangements involving financial dealings of this kind can threaten the closest of friendships. If there are any doubts in American minds about Pakistan’s capacity for accurate bookkeeping the matter must be resolved jointly by the auditors.

There is also no use reminding the US of the sacrifices Pakistan has made in the fight against terrorism because we didn’t get into the Afghanistan mess at anybody else’s bidding. Instead, on our part, we should continue to battle against the monster whose creation will haunt us for long. A word of caution against using harsh words about any fellow member of the comity of nations. Language often becomes a part of its user’s mindset. The aggressive language we use against foreign states can become the standard expression for talking to any people, including our own.

Pakistan cannot force the US to treat it the way it likes to be treated. While hoping that the current phase of American foreign policy will pass like a storm at sea, on its part Pakistan should maintain an attitude of dignified restraint. Unnecessary America-bashing will, among other things, embolden friends of terrorist organisations to openly challenge the state.

After the decks have been cleared of suspicion and accusations from both sides, it should be possible to think of ties with the US without strings on either side, as it would be unwise to ignore America, or any major power for that matter, altogether and to unnecessarily invite its hostility.

Much more important than that is the need to redefine foreign policy priorities. The oft-repeated resolve to strengthen relations with all, repeat all, close neighbours now needs to be actively implemented. It is also necessary to define foreign policy as an extension of the country’s domestic priorities. A dynamic external policy will be impossible to achieve without a clear vision of Pakistan some 20 to 25 years from now. The foreign policy of a theocratic Pakistan cannot be identical to that of a pluralist, democratic polity. The most crucial decisions are thus to be taken in the country’s domestic domain.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2017