War of words

Published January 8, 2023
The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

PAKISTAN’S leadership has lately been engaged in a war of words with the Afghan Taliban. Our frustration is understandable. The Taliban regime in Kabul was not doing enough to stop the TTP from using Afghan soil to launch terrorist attacks against the people of Pakistan. The National Security Committee meeting on Jan 2, without naming Afghanistan, cautioned that “no country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists and Pakistan reserves all rights in that respect to safeguard her people”. One of our ministers was, however, more explicit in his warnings to the Kabul regime. Not surprisingly, there was an instant retort from the Taliban government. The net result is a vitiation of the environment for bilateral engagement.

A month ago, we witnessed a similar exchange with India at the level of foreign ministers while both were in New York. That exchange foreclosed any prospect of unfreezing bilateral relations with India, which were already at their lowest ebb.

Granted that sometimes harsh words are unavoidable to convey an unambiguous message to the intended audience. However, in the process, this also whips up domestic sentiment and raises expectation levels which often remain unmet and create public frustration.

There are also other implications that must be factored in. For instance, when Pakistan claims the right to attack targets inside Afghanistan, then will Afghanistan not react in equal measure? Will such actions also not provide a justification to India to attack targets inside Pakistan? It must be remembered that exchange of hot words between neighbours can unwittingly push the countries towards kinetic confrontation, which can have wider implications.

Verbal confrontations do not serve long-term interests.

The aggravated acrimony can be particularly hurtful for a country like Pakistan that is sandwiched between two historically difficult neighbours. And all this while our country is facing the biggest financial and economic crisis of our national life. The energies of our leaders are being consumed with finding resources that can help us avert default. Such economic vulnerabilities shrink our foreign policy choices. Verbosity at such a time makes it worse for the country.

A better strategy is to run a low-profile foreign policy that seeks to build bridges. Take for instance, the Taliban regime, which is defying the entire international community by not forming an inclusive government, allowing girls’ education or ensuring counter terrorism. It will hardly be deterred by verbal threats. A much better course of action is to engage them through quiet diplomacy as well as by using our economic incentives and leverage. The Taliban are quite well aware that the only country that has been supportive of them is Pakistan, and will, therefore, be amenable to close diplomatic engagement. Daring them publicly is likely to be counterproductive.

As for India, the situation is quite complex. Both countries, despite sharing history, language and culture, have focused more on what divides them than what brings them closer to each other. Both sides have also squandered many opportunities for lasting peace that stood a real chance. In the past few years, especially since 2016, the two countries have drifted so far apart that the prospects of a normal diplomatic engagement between the two have become extremely slim. As it is, the Modi government, given its present Hindutva-driven policies, does not seem interested in any rapprochement with Pakistan. In such grim circumstances, the war of words makes it difficult for both countries even to maintain a cold peace, which is the minimum that any two neighbours must strive for in the larger interest of regional peace.

Besides Afghanistan and India, Pakistan has also often had heated exchanges with the US, though in most cases, these were nearly always triggered by some unkind remark from the US government.

As a rule of thumb, such confrontations, howsoever justified they may appear, do not serve Pakistan’s long-term interests. Pakistan can look around and see how other neighbourhoods have eschewed hostile rhetoric. China and Japan have a history of wars and maritime disputes. Yet, they have managed to contain their hostility within limits, and have built peace constituencies by encouraging strong trade and investment relations with each other. Vietnam and China are another example where historical differences have been subdued in favour of closer economic relations. Even India and China, despite their strategic competition, have managed to keep the mutually hostile rhetoric under limits. The US and Mexico briefly suffered a bad patch during the Trump era, but have managed to contain it ever since.

Granted, Pakistan is not always responsible for angry, bitter and public displays of disagreement with its neighbours. However, in our own larger national interest, our diplomacy needs a quieter and more low-profile phase while we focus on our internal issues.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2023

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