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New envoy in US?

May 15, 2018

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IT seems that Pakistan will have a new ambassador in Washington after all. Press reports indicate that ambassador-designate Ali Jehangir Siddiqui may take over before the PML-N government leaves office. Siddiqui’s nomination has intrigued watchers of the Pakistan-US relationship. Recently, some of my colleagues in Washington’s policy community sat down to make sense of it. Parts of our conversation bear recounting.

Let me be clear that none of this discussion was pointed at Siddiqui. I, for one, have never met him. Nor is it my place to pass judgement on his fate as an ambassador should he make the coveted post. He has an impressive resumé otherwise and I wish him well.

The concerns raised by the policy analysts I huddled with were institutional in nature. They were about the conduct of Pakistan — the state. First, they wondered how Pakistan could realistically expect the world to take its international engagements seriously when its leaders continue to disempower the custodians of diplomacy.

Here is a classic example of individual whims trumping institutions.

Siddiqui’s nomination was a classic example of individual whims trumping institutions. The decision to nominate him was made in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat with no real buy-in from the Foreign Office. The signal for the institution was a demoralising one. Even some of the finest in the diplomatic corps feel irrelevant in such moments — and the feeling will continue to spread as long as leaders keep circumventing them.

Second, they doubted if those who picked Siddiqui grasped how the nomination may be seen in Washington. In their view, the choice may reflect a lack of appreciation of what the job of a Pakistani ambassador in the US entails.

Pointing to Siddiqui’s business background, one of my colleagues who seemed to have an inside scoop suggested that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s intent may have been to signal his desire to focus on non-security aspects of the bilateral relationship. I tend to agree. In the past, I have heard from (then minister) Abbasi his fairly negative view of Pakistani diplomacy. He perceives the country’s diplomatic orientation to be heavily security centric and behind the times.

On this, the prime minister is spot on. Pakistan’s India-fixated security outlook runs deep within the Foreign Office and much of Pakistan’s diplomatic approach and lingo harken back to the Cold War.

What he may have overlooked, however, is that the present tenor of the Pakistan-US relationship is singularly focused on security — specifically with regard to Afgha­nistan — and there are no prospects for a return to a broader dialogue. The majority of the engagements of the new ambassador are certain to be about hard security issues bedeviling the partnership.

Precisely because of the relative lack of regard for the Foreign Office and the security bias in bilateral ties, Pakistani ambassadors who are perceived to have some cache on both the civilian and military sides of the aisle have had more to offer in Washington. I am not sure where Siddiqui stands on this count but the perception in Washington is that his appointment may not have had the blessings of the security establishment.

Some of these policy analysts wondered if the real implication of his appointment was that the civilian government would be willing to let the military directly engage Washington on the security aspects of the ties while the new ambassador focuses on whatever little he can do in the economic sphere.

Third, no one can make head or tail of the timing of Siddiqui’s appointment. Ironically, his nomination in early March forced the current Pakistani ambassador into lame-duck mode while the timing of his arrival means he too will be firmly in this category from the get go. Realistically, I doubt he’ll be able to gain any traction in Washington till after the elections — and that too if the PML-N returns to power. Otherwise, you’d have wasted four precious months at a time when the fast-deteriorating relationship requires daily attention and engagement in Washington.

Finally, going beyond this case, my collea­gues delivered the punch line for Pakistani officials by explaining where Pakistan falters in comparison to its peers. Comparing India and Pakistan, they perceived both as having equally good human capacity but argued that one derived strength from an elite consensus on priorities for the country’s foreign policy and clarity on roles of the various institutions executing it while the other’s hand was weakened by its inability to engage as a coherent unitary actor.

Based on their prior interactions with Pakistani officials, they noted internal bickering and a defensive attitude towards policies they articulate as being typical of Pakistan’s way of doing business.

Dare I say that these observations are quite widely shared among Pakistan watchers in the Western world. They need not be taken at face value. Still, they de­­mand serious introspection by Pakistan.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2018