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Sense of déjà vu

July 18, 2012


IS history repeating itself? It appears to be. Look carefully at the accord between Islamabad and Washington reached earlier this month that broke the seven-month impasse between them. Observers and critics have speculated about what led to the breakthrough.

The US said sorry for the Salala incident. Pakistan softened its stance on the price demanded for reopening Nato supply routes to Afghanistan. Drone attacks have been quietly ignored. But what is strange is that in the flurry of articles on this issue there has been no mention of the event that in all likelihood jolted Washington into action. It was the announcement in May that Russian president Vladimir Putin will be visiting Islamabad in September. He will be the first Russian head of state to do so.

Mr Putin’s visit will not be a routine diplomatic exercise. The fact is that in spite of the Cold War formally being over and Moscow and Washington having buried the hatchet, their relations have slumped of late and they are positioning themselves on opposite sides in global politics. They do not see eye to eye on Afghanistan, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and other regional matters.

Since its birth Pakistan has displayed great adeptness in manipulating its hand in international affairs. We extracted an invitation from Moscow back in 1949 to goad Washington into dispatching an invitation to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, which was promptly accepted. The Russian invitation was ignored (though some diplomats who claim to be in the know insist that it was not formalised).

Our history is replete with instances of such balancing acts. We used our friendship with China as a countervailing factor against the US when Washington refused to support us in our conflict with India in 1965. Our friendship with China was welcomed because Beijing needed our support at a time when it was isolated and engaged in a territorial border war with India. In return China extended a helping hand by picking a squabble with New Delhi and mobilising forces on its western border while dispatching an ultimatum for the return of ‘800 sheep and 59 yaks’ that India had supposedly pinched from the Chinese side.

Russia came in handy at Tashkent in 1966 when a foreign mediator was needed. Later Pakistan took advantage of its friendship with Beijing to facilitate Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China to win American goodwill during the 1971 crisis.

Why should one object to that? As a 19th-century British statesman so correctly observed, “it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Our problem is that we have created misplaced eternal interests. Our policymakers perceive India to be our ‘perpetual enemy’ and a permanent threat to our security. This view clouds our perception of our national interests. We tend to forget that we cannot stake our national survival on our foreign policy. We forget that no country can be an astute player on the world stage if its power base is weak.

National power does not come from military strength derived from weapons. It comes from cohesive populations that are educated, healthy, economically productive and show tolerance and acceptance of political plurality and sociocultural diversity. This is possible only when governments set the stage by introducing and managing a sound political and socio-economic system based on democracy, moral integrity and social justice. A country where one province is torn by civil war and others are decimated by violence cannot be considered strong. That gives us little leverage in foreign policy.

When I speak of déjà vu, remember what happened to the country in 1971, when a big chunk of it broke away to set up the new state of Bangladesh which is, from all accounts, doing so much better than us? Could our foreign friends help us in those days of crisis when the Pakistani military leadership claimed to be fighting for the country’s territorial integrity?

There were high expectations that our Chinese friends would bail us out. The Chinese, wise as they are, refused to intervene in the conflict between the two wings, declaring it to be Pakistan’s internal matter. Even during our war with India in 1971 our military leadership foolishly expected China to re-enact its 1965 performance. It did not. The Chinese had their own interests to guard and India had entered into a peace and friendship treaty with Moscow. China could not risk a war with the Soviets.

Similarly, many will still recall the hopes that were pinned on the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise entering the Bay of Bengal in 1971 to check the Indian advance on East Pakistan. Some also spoke of the Enterprise serving as a rescue ship for West Pakistani civilians trapped in the east. But nothing of the sort happened, as the Americans had their own interests to protect.

We lost East Pakistan because we could not resolve our political differences with the Awami League and expected our foreign friends to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. We seem to be doing the same today as the country moves towards destruction brought on by our own domestic failures.