Independent foreign policy?

Published May 2, 2022
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THE question whether Pakistan has ever had an ‘independent’ foreign policy has assumed an intensely partisan nature. In a polarised environment, it is important to consider some facts to set the record straight.

The historical record testifies that over the decades, successive governments acted to protect Pakistan’s core interests and defied external pressure to adopt policies contrary to our national interests. Continuity and consistency have been the hallmark of the country’s foreign policy through civilian and military governments alike.

Read: Non-intervention and the law

The most outstanding example of ‘independence’ in Pakistan’s foreign policy is how the country acquired a nuclear capability in the face of Western opposition and unprecedented pressure. It saw the strategic imperative of possessing a nuclear deterrent once India detonated a nuclear device in 1974. This despite Western efforts to stop Pakistan after India’s nuclear explosion. The aim, given its conventional asymmetry with a hostile India, was to restore strategic equilibrium by securing the means to deter aggression. The traumatic experience of the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 had taught the lesson that the country could depend only on itself for its security.

The quest for a nuclear capability was encapsulated in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s much cited remark that if India built the bomb, “we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own”. It was a challenging journey with innumerable obstacles along the way. The objective could not have been achieved if successive governments comprising different political parties had not ALL pursued this regardless of the costs.

Over several decades, strenuous efforts were undertaken to develop a strategic capability and an operational deterrent with a credible delivery system.

Pakistan was a close ally of the US in the 1980s, the decade when the nuclear programme was at a critical stage. It was working with Washington in the joint struggle to roll back the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. In 1990, the US invoked the infamous Pressler Amendment to impose unilateral sanctions on Pakistan on the nuclear issue. This was preceded by US warnings that unless Pakistan changed course, military and economic sanctions would follow. Pakistan resisted the pressure and protested against the discriminatory US policy. It braved sanctions, censure and technology denial — and an unfair embargo on military equipment and aircraft it had paid for — because its national security was paramount and non-negotiable. From being America’s ‘most allied ally’, Pakistan became its ‘most sanctioned friend’. The more pressure mounted on Islamabad, the greater was the determination to stay firm and accelerate the programme. No government caved into coercive pressure — an unequivocal display of ‘independence’ in our foreign policy.

Successive governments defied external pressure to protect Pakistan’s core interests.

Pressure from the West continued. Pakistan was asked to sign the CTBT, agree to a one-time inspection of nuclear facilities in return for release of its military equipment, sign up for negotiations to proceed in the UN Conference on Disarmament for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and curb its missile development. As I was closely involved in talks on these issues, serving twice as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, I was witness to the number of times Pakistan said no to all of the above to pursue an ‘independent’ policy.

When India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, the Clinton administration offered incentives (and disincentives) if Pakistan desisted from testing. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif went ahead regardless. Pakistan became a declared nuclear power.

The history of this remarkable achievement — involving multiple governments and the pivotal role of the country’s scientists — is narrated by Feroze Khan in his insightful book, Eating Grass. It should be read by those who fallaciously argue that Pakistan’s foreign policy has never been independent.

Those unacquainted with history would find another example instructive. This concerns Pakistan’s evolving ties with China during the Cold War. Pakistan was then a member of Western military alliances, Seato and Cento; it had also signed a defence agreement with Washington in 1959. But none of this prevented Pakistan from pursuing an independent line to forge relations with Beijing. It was the first Muslim state and among the world’s first countries to recognise PRC. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, Pakistan significantly strengthened ties with Beijing in the midst of America’s efforts to isolate China.

As former foreign secretary Abdul Sattar wrote in his book, US warnings were cast aside that it would review ties with Pakistan if it built relations with China. Declassified documents show such threats were rejected — until 1971, when the US switched course and used Pakistan as a conduit for Henry Kissinger’s historic trip to Beijing, that paved the way for rapprochement with China.

Recent illustrations of Pakistan standing up to sustained pressure are found in the uneasy Pakistan-US relationship during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, a war Islamabad counselled Washington not to wage in early exchanges following 9/11. Islamabad cautioned the US that a military solution would be elusive. It advised kinetic action against Al Qaeda to be “short and surgical” and to draw a distinction between Al Qaeda and the Taliban so that a diplomatic path could be found to eventually engage the Taliban in talks for a political settlement.

Editorial: 20 years after 9/11

Washington did not heed this advice (but came to this conclusion almost 20 years later). Even as Pakistan came under pressure to ‘do more’, it never shied away from urging a negotiated end to the war.

Since Pakistan kept a channel of communication open to the Taliban, which eventually helped to bring them to the negotiating table in Doha, it was accused of playing a ‘double game’. But Islamabad was acting on its own interests as it did not have the luxury of retreating to the other end of the world. In shutting down the Nato supply route to Afghanistan in 2011 for seven months to protest against the killing of Pakistani soldiers in a Nato air raid, Pakistan again took a stand on principle.

Examples abound of how Pakistan adopted an independent line when its interests dictated. Those ignorant of this denigrate the country when they say Pakistan only did what foreign powers wanted. Recalling these examples may sound like a statement of the obvious, but it is necessary when an alternate reality is being created by peddling a narrative based on untruth.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2022

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