Whither foreign policy?

May 25, 2011


THE Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, Karachi, has a remarkable history. Its founder-secretary, Khwaja Sarwar Hasan, brought the institution from Delhi to Karachi in 1947. Since then, it has had an uninterrupted existence, albeit with many ups and downs, a rocky period being when it was taken over by the Zia government.

The PIIA’s forte has been the research journal, Pakistan Horizon, it has published without break for the last 60 years. Another strong point is that it has served as a forum for scholars, diplomats and public leaders for intellectual discourse.

One such meeting was held last Monday when the speaker was Riaz Mohammad Khan, a former foreign secretary who retired in 2008 not exactly as per routine. The media had then described his exit as ‘sacking’.

I am not personally aware of the reason why Mr Riaz had to leave. But when I heard him speak — for the first time — he struck me as being rational, erudite and statesmanlike. These qualities he has shared with some of his distinguished predecessors. I have always wondered why our foreign policy has been such a failure when so many of the heads of the Pakistan Foreign Office have known their job well.

Mr Riaz spoke on ‘After Osama bin Laden’. With the air thick with rumours, the turnout was impressive. But there was no boast of inside knowledge of events by the speaker who made it clear at the start that he knew as much as we in the audience did. There was no hint of speculation about what must have happened and no grandiose observations on what went wrong.

But the question and answer session yielded some precious gems of wisdom that can show the way forward if we want to move on. What emerged clearly is that military strength will not help us in the post-Cold War era in a world where there has been a paradigm shift to globalisation, technological revolution and knowledge-based societies.

In the international order of today, trade, economic cooperation and people-to-people interaction are the norm. China changed its position in the world not through military confrontation but its economic management. (Mr Riaz Mohammad Khan was Pakistan’s ambassador to Beijing from 2002-2005 and was instrumental in fostering close ties between the two countries at a time when the war on terror had begun to shape the destiny of our country.)

How much sense does all this make to our military which calls the shots and the civilian government that submits to the men in uniform?

It is a pity that the concepts of strategic depth and strategic assets continue to dominate our foreign and defence policies. Needless to say, they rob our government of the capacity to have choices. The former foreign secretary very categorically stated that nuclear assets do create the capacity in us to ensure that others cannot mess around with us, but they do not give us the capacity to mess around with others.

As for the strategic-depth concept, it is offensive to the Afghans. He was right because this concept implies some kind of Pakistani control over Afghanistan, and no government in Kabul with dignity and self-respect would tolerate that.

Very obviously, all this indicates that the Foreign Office — at least in some phases of our history — has not seen eye to eye with the military headquarters. This could also apply to our approach to Kashmir. Mr Riaz Mohammad Khan confirmed that the formula of limited sovereignty had been under discussion between Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris. Gen Musharraf had gone along with this approach. It seems the hawks were not too happy with it.

So what is next on our agenda? There is a lot of talk of reshaping our relations with the US. But it is not clear whose word is to be final and on what terms. The present government has tried to assert its supremacy over the armed forces — a concept that is universally accepted in democracies. After all, as said by the French statesman Georges Clemenceau, war is too serious a matter to be left to the generals. Twice in 2008, the government tried to assert its control over the ISI. In July, a formal notification was even issued to the effect that the IB and the ISI were to be under the administrative, financial and operational control of the interior ministry with immediate effect. Within six hours this order was withdrawn.

Again in November 2008, when the Pakistani government responded to India’s angry reaction to the Mumbai incident by offering to send the ISI chief to Delhi it was duly snubbed by our khakis. Remember the brouhaha that ensued in the wake of the announcement of the Kerry-Lugar bill in 2009 which offered $7.5bn worth of American aid to Pakistan but made it conditional on the civilian government subordinating the military to its control?

Recent events — especially the Raymond Davies incident and the Abbottabad drama — leave no one in doubt as to who is in control. Against this backdrop, one can well ask if people like Riaz Mohammad Khan really carry any weight.

If the army is given the monopoly to decide our security perceptions and therefore has the first say in presenting its financial demands, it is plain that not much is left from our meagre resources to spend on human capital which Mr Riaz implicitly suggested should be our first priority.