RED ZONE FILES: Trouble with the West

Published March 3, 2022
A file photo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. — Photo courtesy Radio Pakistan
A file photo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. — Photo courtesy Radio Pakistan

There is a long list of countries that are angry with us and we are doing far less than we should to make them un-angry. There could be trouble ahead.

Prime Minister Imran Khan ventured to Moscow despite various urgings from powerful capitals not to do so. Senior Biden administration officials, for instance, telephoned their counterparts in Islamabad on the eve of the PM’s Russia visit and said in plain words that the trip at this time would be inadvisable. Various other officials also weighed in with similar advice. The PM decided to undertake the travel in any case. It was a difficult choice but on balance, the right one.

Read more: Should the PM have gone to Moscow?

The story though does not end here. Inside the Red Zone, there is growing concern that while the PTI leadership may have taken the right call to carry on with the visit, it is doing woefully little to mitigate the negatives of the visit through proactive and effective diplomacy. The Foreign Office did so well to stitch up the important visit — regardless of the awkward timing — but for some strange reason is now mishandling the expected fallout of the visit by indulging in terribly weak diplomacy. At a crucial moment that could pivot back and haunt us, the Foreign Office and its leadership is in danger of dropping the ball. So what’s going on?

Plenty, as it turns out. Earlier this week envoys of nearly two dozen countries put their signatures on a document demanding that Pakistan condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is rare for so many ambassadors to undertake such an initiative. Insiders in the diplomatic corps in Islamabad say they have been under tremendous pressure from their governments to inform the government of Pakistan about how strongly they feel regarding Pakistan’s position on the Ukraine issue. Not that Islamabad does not know. The PM Office and the Foreign Office have a pretty good idea of the anger that is aimed at them. In return, however, Islamabad appears to be shying away from the kind of deep engagement with the West that is so urgently needed now.

The issue is no more the visit to Moscow. That is done and over with. The issue is how Pakistan wants to position itself now in the given situation. Diplomacy isn’t really all black and white even when countries insist their stance is. The Russia-Ukraine binary is being presented by the West to the world in stark tones – either you are with us or with Russia – but within the larger spectrum of interstate relations, there is plenty of space to find a more nuanced position for countries like Pakistan. And especially Pakistan. The fact is that PM Khan’s visit to Moscow at a time when President Vladimir Putin was ordering his forces to invade neighbouring Ukraine has put the PM and Pakistan both under a Western spotlight. Islamabad therefore does not have the luxury of receding into a conveniently vague position and being non-committal about the conflict. It is too late for that.

While it may have a valid explanation for why the Moscow visit was allowed to proceed as scheduled, it does not have one for why the leadership of the Foreign Office refused to meet important Western envoys in Islamabad for more than a couple of days. This is just unpardonable knowing that at this time such incompetence – or flawed decision-making — can cost Pakistan dearly. To make matters worse, the foreign minister has gone off for his party’s long march in Sindh when he should have been leading his ministry from the front and speaking to his counterparts in key Western capitals on a daily basis. In fact, he should have been visiting these capitals instead of jetting off to Ghotki, and presenting Pakistan’s case in person.

But what case? Saying we are neutral is just lazy positioning. Is the leadership of the Foreign Office asleep on the wheel? Does it not sense the mood across the globe and convey its recommendation to the political bosses? Do the Grade 22 and 21 officers in the Foreign Office not realise that in this day and age there is no equivalence between a country that is the invader and the one that is invaded. Have these senior officers at the Foreign Office forgotten international conventions? And if they have not, and they in fact do know that dodging and ducking from Western governments at this moment in time is the worst thing to do, and if they also recognise and acknowledge that this “neutrality” option will not wash — if they are aware of all of this, which one sincerely hopes they are, then why are they criminally silent?

Unless of course, there is more to this diplomatic inertia than meets the eye. Some Red Zone insiders insinuate that thumbing the nose at the West is a political knee-jerk reaction emanating from what is obviously a superficial worldview that Pakistan will now draw strength from China and Russia. There is no shortage of such naïve and emotional advice sprinkled regularly in cabinet meetings by the usual suspects. It should ideally be dismissed with the contempt that it deserves. But apparently it is not.

Is it too late? Should we brace for what comes next because we have dropped the diplomatic ball? A key meeting between senior officials of Pakistan and a Western country was cancelled at the last minute this week. The reason: Pakistan’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion. Diplomatic experts say Pakistan should realise it is blundering on this front and issue a statement that Russia’s act of invading another country is against all international laws. Can it say this and still maintain the ties it wants with Russia? “Of course we can,” says a retired diplomat. Naïve neutrality needs to be replaced with smart balance.

Smarts though appear in short supply in Islamabad nowadays. With each passing day the task of salvaging our position is getting harder and harder. The alarm bells are ringing while the Foreign Office remains in snooze mode.

Where are the adults when you actually need them?

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2022

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