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Looking for options

The PTI government faces huge foreign policy challenges that are likely to bother the new government in the future

Looking for options

Senior diplomats say the PTI government has started its five-year term with signs of making a pragmatic foreign policy. Former foreign secretary, Jalil Abbas Jilani, says the government’s peace overtures to India and Afghanistan and its efforts to scale down its anti-American rhetoric, which was a norm with its leaders while they were in the opposition, are clear signs that they want to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy.

However, the PTI government has inherited a situation where the environment is not favourable to making moves towards the normalisation of relations with Pakistan’s erstwhile ally United States and its eastern neighbour, India.

The government hit a snag in its efforts to “reset” relations with Washington when the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, after a brief stopover in Islamabad, landed in New Delhi and after a lengthy session with his Indian counterpart, demanded that Pakistan carry out indiscriminate military operations against all militant groups operating from Pakistani territory and make sure that terrorists are not allowed to use Pakistani territory for carrying out terror attacks in the region. This was a big affront to Pakistan’s military establishment, which thinks it has broken the backbone of militancy.

The PTI government had an even harder time dealing with New Delhi, which cancelled a foreign ministers level meeting on the sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York after agreeing to it as a result of correspondence between the prime ministers of two countries.

All this may be the result of a visible strategic shift in the region with Islamabad developing closer relations with Moscow and Beijing, “We started to understand since late 1990s that we don’t have any strategic convergences with the United States, after Washington and New Delhi came close to each other,” says Jalil Abbas Jilani, former foreign secretary. “With China we had a strategic convergence since the beginning but with Russia strategic convergence is a recent development.”

Pakistan’s strategic shift towards Russia, however, predates the PTI taking over power in Islamabad. This is something the new government will inherit from the previous political set-up.

In 2012, while the situation in Syria was turning into a full-fledged civil war, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey each approached Pakistan’s foreign ministry with a request that Pakistan support the international efforts to dislodge the Asad regime, “We received the two requests separately and rejected both the requests,” says Jilani, who was serving as foreign secretary at the time. According to Jilani, Pakistan opposed the idea of regime change through external influence, “Our position was in line with the UN charter, but this position endeared us to Putin administration in Moscow, which was trying to help the Asad regime.”

This was the time when Pakistan’s defense establishment had started negotiations for the supply of state of the art military equipment from Russia, including T-90 tanks, Su-35 fighter aircrafts and modern air defense systems. Similarly, there is a growing convergence between Pakistani and Russian positions on Afghanistan, “We have growing defense relations with Russia and on Afghanistan, Russian position is close to our position,” says Jilani.

Russians are stated to be in contact with the Afghan Taliban, which are considered close to Pakistan’s military establishment. The reason for Russian inclination to develop closer ties with Pakistan’s military, and open lines of communication with Taliban is the threat of rise of Daesh (ISIS) in Northern Afghanistan, which is adjacent to Central Asian Republics (CARs), including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — all three considered by Russia to be within its security parameters.

As far as relations with Afghanistan are concerned, the military is calling the shots in the face of intense pressure from Washington to bring Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government.

The Pakistan government seems to have little say in this situation, according to insiders. It is not clear how much Prime Minister Imran Khan will assert himself on this issue, though he was very vocal on talks with the Taliban during the days preceding the July parliamentary elections. In his internal party meetings as well in his talks with some foreign journalists a few days before the elections, Imran Khan is said to have asserted that the US administration should first think about completely withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan and then give peace a chance in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials dealing with this situation say the PTI government does not have an option of making any substantial changes in these developments. Jalil Abbas Jilani, however, is of the opinion that despite the strategic shift towards the Russian federation, Pakistan still needs to keep a certain level of goodwill towards Washington, “The PTI government appears to be making efforts to retain that goodwill towards Washington. It has toned down its rhetoric against America after coming to power.”

The PTI government is expected to play a marginal role in foreign policy making in the foreseeable future, “The military establishment and foreign office bureaucracy represent the continuity as far as foreign policy making is concerned,” says Ahmer Bilal Mehboob, President Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT).“This may change in the future but right now the civil and military bureaucracy appear to be in total control of foreign policy making,” says Mehboob.

The PTI government is making things difficult for foreign policy bureaucracy with its uncanny mistakes. Three such mistakes were particularly disturbing for many in the foreign policy establishment.

The first mistake was committed after a telephonic conversation between the US Secretary of State and Prime Minister Imran Khan after the latter assumed office. After the telephonic conversation, Pakistan foreign office pointed out that the State Department readout wrongly mentioned that Pompeo and Khan discussed the issue of terror groups operating from the Pakistani territory. Former diplomats say FO’s decision to raise the issue unnecessarily vitiated the first meeting between Pompeo and Khan.

The PTI government’s second foreign policy blunder was when one of its ministers asserted in an interview with a foreign newspaper that CPEC projects should be frozen for at least a year. This created some confusion about the intention of the PTI government, both in Beijing and Islamabad, which only ended when army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa emphasised the importance of CPEC for the country.

The PTI government’s third mistake was Imran Khan’s tweet in which he labeled Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi a “small man”. Prime Minister Khan’s tweet came after the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced cancellation of Pak-India Foreign Ministers meeting in New York on the sidelines of UN General Assembly.

A day after, Indian army chief issued a threat to Pakistan, saying India will inflict pain on the country in retaliation of terror attacks on the Indian soldiers. This statement considerably vitiated the political environment of the region. Many in Islamabad’s political and diplomatic circles believe that in the absence of Imran Khan’s tweet, Indian Army chief would not have responded in such a manner.

Read also: The burden of geography

Pakistan’s foreign office has been advocating in the internal meetings that Pakistan governments should not waste time in efforts to bring India to the negotiating table. However, the latest rejection of talks offer by the Indian government has reinforced the views of old hands in the foreign office, who have been arguing against making any serious efforts for resumption of talks between Pakistan and India.

This view in the foreign policy establishment says that by rejuvenating Kashmir diplomacy at the regional and international level, Pakistan could hope to bring the Kashmir issue to the table, thus forcing India to discuss the Kashmir issue in bilateral talks.

Umer Farooq

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Umer Farooq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He specializes in writing on politics, foreign policy and security issues.

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