Long ago, someone asked professor Patras Bokhari, then Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, about elements of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Ever a sharp mind, professor Bokhari is reported to have said something broadly along the line that Pakistan has no foreign policy and that she has foreign relations at best, most of which are illegitimate. This remark fully elucidates the closed, arbitrary and short-term nature of what passes for Pakistan’s foreign policy.
The closed-door policy was inaugurated when Pakistan was pulled into the US orbit by General Ayub Khan behind the back of Pakistani parliament and foreign office. Ayub Khan worked hard to sell Pakistan as the bulwark against the Communist Russia. This opened US military aid and soon led to Pakistan’s absorption into the US-led anti-communist CENTO and SEATO block.
Today Pakistan’s foreign policy mirrors Patras Bokhari’s description of Pakistan’s short term foreign relations which adds up to some semblance of foreign policy. The mess which the short-termism of our foreign policy has created is there for all of us to see. In our early years we handcuffed ourselves to the US interests in the region in return for military aid to bolster our defences against India. This pattern has continued to this day. The military-aid driven foreign policy has morphed into yet narrower national security foreign policy which trumps any wider rational basis of a dynamic foreign policy. The problem is made worse by the fact that there is no one in charge of the Foreign Office.
Initially, it was said that the prime minister would keep this post for himself so that he could face down the military on foreign affairs. Yet, in the wake of Imran Khan’s challenge to the PML-N’s rule, foreign policy seems to have flowed the military way. With this, the two current foreign policy experts of the government are reportedly at loggerheads.
With the military in the driving seat on foreign policy, doesn’t it seem like a proverbial case of two bald men fighting over a comb. The confusion over Pakistan’s complex relations with its neighbours makes the analysis even more challenging.
Take our relationship with Afghanistan. As aptly said by Asfandyar Wali in a TV programme, Pakistan’s flawed policy of isolating Afghanistan has damaged Pakistan’s image. According to him, in the 1950s and 1960s Ayub Khan obstructed Afghanistan’s access to export route through Pakistan. Afghanistan was left with no choice but to refer to Russia and Central Asian states. The result was Afghanistan falling under the Russian influence with all its attendant consequences of Russian interference and the Saur revolution of 1978.
The far-fetched and dangerous notion of making Pakistan a frontline state against communist expansion as advanced by General Ayub Khan became a reality in Afghanistan in 1978. The new conditions in Afghanistan proved another life-reviving bonanza for the flagging dictatorship of General Zia. Overnight, the pariah dictator became darling of the West, showered with cash and military aid. Pakistan obediently and cynically aligned herself with the US in blocking the USSR’s mythic access to warm waters.
The rise of Islamic extremism, heroin and Kalashnikov culture and prolongation of military dictatorship were all the consequences of this. More dangerously, as a result of our over-blown role in Afghanistan, we began to punch above our weight and entertain dangerous notion of strategic depth with terrible consequences for Pakistan.
Suddenly all defense experts (mostly military men) became foreign policy experts too. This inaugurated a dangerous trend whereby defence and foreign policy areas became an indistinguishable blur. The consequences of blowback from strategic depth are still with us in suicide bombs, extremism and terrorism and Pakistan’s plummeting stock as a peaceful, liberal and tolerant nation, conformable in its own skin. Yet we are foolishly persisting with an outdated policy whose time is long past.
As a result of this continuing folly and our arrogant and quasi colonial role in Afghanistan, Pakistan has become the most hated country in Afghanistan. Those who have visited the country recently would readily confirm this. To top it all, we are demented with the monomania of Indian influence in the region to the detriment of our prosperity.
The talk of blocking Indian exports to Afghanistan through Pakistan is very much alive in policy circles. The result of this short-sightedness has led India, Afghanistan and Iran coming together in a far-reaching strategic cooperation on the development of Chabahar Port. The proposed new port will provide India access to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia in one stroke. So much for the vision of our foreign policy managers who have handed India a windfall.
Rather than hand-wringing over this strategic folly, we are doing everything we can to discomfit Iran. The sabotaging of the important visit of the Iranian president to Pakistan is a case in point. The strategic releases of information about the Indian spy and his links to Iran was the crudest ploy to undermine the delicate visit.
Pakistan seems to be well-placed to benefit from lifting of sanctions on Iran by enhancing trade relations with Iran. The opportunity seems to have been lost and there is no realisation of this. Learning not a single lesson from the earlier foreign policy disasters, we have yet again embarked on isolating Afghanistan and Iran in the region. The vacuum was quickly filled by India.
These short-sighted and inward moves show us in a very bad light attesting to our total blindness to strategic shifts in trade and foreign relations in the region. If the flawed running of foreign policy continues, Pakistan will be further isolated in the region and beyond. Therefore, there is a lot to answer for the way our foreign policy is being run. Pakistan can ill-afford the current trajectory of its foreign policy. By sheer stroke of our genius, we have ended up making enemies of all of our key neighbours. This does not reflect well on those running Pakistan’s foreign policy.
The recent flip-flops on Iran, Afghanistan, India policy, which reflect a dangerous and deep-rooted trend, abundantly demonstrate the need for a complete rethink of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The best start would be to bring foreign policy-making in the parliament. The basis of Pakistan’s foreign policy should be trade so that Pakistan is able to translate its geographical location into trade bonus.