Turkish President Recap Tayyip Erdogan has postponed his visit to Pakistan. This is the third time this year that his visit has been postponed, this time because of Turkey’s military offensive in Northern Syria against Kurdish ‘militants’. Note, that Prime Minister Imran Khan had assured Erdogan of Pakistan’s full support over this operation last week. “Pakistan fully understands Turkey’s concerns related to terrorism”, was the statement issued by the prime minister’s office. When asked about the said military operation during his recent visit to Turkey, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser said Pakistan would always side with Turkey, or words to this effect.
This is exactly the opposite of how international community has responded to Turkey’s attack. According to the BBC, the US has imposed sanctions on Turkish ministries and senior government officials. Moreover President Trump has phoned Erdogan “to demand an immediate truce”. Russia does not approve of Turkey’s action and India has condemned it.
What merits Pakistan’s solidarity with Turkey at this juncture is then a reasonable question. On the face of it, Pakistan needs the support of three countries out of the 36 at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF); to stop it from falling into the ‘black’ category. Turkey is one of those three countries alongside China and Malaysia.
This is how complex Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives are at the moment, transactional at times, but always in need of crucial decision-making.
The challenges were huge, no doubt, when Imran Khan took charge as prime minister last year. Pakistan’s international image as an exporter of terrorism was a blot that haunted the country in the form of FATF, the economy was in a particularly bad state, and there were security concerns on its eastern and western borders. All of these were intertwined, also with a major concern: how much room would the civilian government be allowed in shaping an independent foreign policy?
In August 2018, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s declaration of “Pakistan first” at the core of foreign policy which, he said, would be made “here — at the Foreign office of Pakistan” gave a hint of the trajectory of foreign relations under the new dispensation. Honestly, rhetoric apart, it did not look much different from before, especially given the limitations and challenges. Soon, the prime minister made his expected first visit to Saudi Arabia, because economic necessity beckoned, and there was almost a consensus in the ruling PTI to shun the IMF.
At that time, it did appear that Pakistan had put all its eggs in the Chinese basket which could also be read, as the legacy of the outgoing government. The current government’s initial reservations about the dividends of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for Pakistan were allayed in due course but the expected bailout package from China after Prime Minister Khan’s visit did not materialise, pushing Pakistan into the IMF sphere again.
Today, in spite of all the faux pas of the past year, Pakistan has managed to cosy up to an alienated United States under President Trump, though the proverbial reset in relations has not happened yet. Given our dependence on the IMF and our troubles with the FATF, this was perhaps the best thing to happen. To an extent Pakistan played its cards well, building on its strengths — its strategic location and its so-called influence over the Afghan Taliban.
As the US made its intention to leave Afghanistan clear, Pakistan decided to use its influence to bring the Taliban on the negotiating table, on let them talk peace with the Americans. It released Mullah Baradar and some other Taliban leaders late last year to facilitate the process. However, the euphoria of those initial announcements of an agreement blew away with each incident of violence, perpetrated from both sides, that happened while the talks were taking place. This culminated in a Tweet by the US president announcing an end of the peace talks with Taliban. Weeks later, Pakistan it was once again that became a meeting ground for the two sides.
As the fate of Taliban-US talks hangs in balance, mediation, it seems, is the buzzword for our foreign policy. Pakistan’s sectarian composition — with 20 percent or a little more of its population being Shia, and its historical good relations with Iran — allowed it to act as the mediator (with or without the insistence of US president) between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As the two major powers in the region locked horns once again, apparently on each other’s soil (oil installations in this case) as per their claims, Pakistan took upon itself the task of mediator or facilitator. PM Khan travelled to Iran and then to Saudi Arabia to try and reduce tensions in the region. While the Iranian leaders issued a statement that they were ready to be a part of Pakistan-mediated talks with Saudi Arabia, the one issued by Saudi Arabia made no such commitment and remained vague, no matter what positive spin the foreign minister tries to put on it.
The issue is “complex”, the prime minister is right in pointing out. It is also deep-rooted and not confined to the war in Yemen that Iran mentioned in the joint statement and Saudi Arabia did not. So the analysts are right in saying that the only beneficiary of this mediation is Pakistan itself, because this provides it an occasion to establish its neutrality.
Now, if the textbook definition that “a country’s foreign policy consists of self-interest strategies chosen by the state…” is to be the test, Pakistan is not too off the mark, in its mediation efforts at least. Meanwhile, the FATF and the economy are the two swords hanging over its head that require internal restructuring a lot more than foreign policy initiatives. As for the tension on its eastern border, there is an unfortunate status quo that Pakistan must deal with, fiery speeches at the UN General Assembly notwithstanding.