It’s time to take the right turn

The National Security Committee (NSC), the highest civilian-military coordination forum in Pakistan, has resolved to recalibrate the country’s foreign policy, amidst the pressure building up in the context of inclusion of country’s name in grey list of Financial Action Task Force (FATF), followed by the visit of Ms Lisa Curtis, Deputy Assistant to the President and the US National Security Council’s Senior Director for South and Central Asia, to Islamabad. Although the purpose of her visit was clandestine, her meetings with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Ms. Tehmeena Janjua, and Minister for Interior Mr. Ahsan Iqbal were focused by the mainstream media. What exactly Ms. Lisa conveyed to Pakistan has not been made public, yet a US embassy statement shows that she has told Islamabad to take stern action against the Haqqani Network and other terrorist organizations. The message seems to be powerful and coercive enough to make Pakistan’s civil and military leadership agree on one point: Pakistan now needs to revisit and reshape its foreign policy.

What exactly is the foreign policy of Pakistan and what are its real motives and objectives? The answer to the questions is clear in theory but, in practice, Pakistan has never followed a foreign policy based on achieving long-term goals enshrined in it. Many factors contribute to this quagmire, but weaknesses and lacunae within the system of institutions of the country and the imperatives of its geo-strategic location contribute the most.

Internally, Pakistan has been struggling incessantly to find a way out of the political instability caused by a perpetual tug of war between dictators and the political rulers. Both blame each other for this dilemma and the public has remained a silent spectator owing, mainly, to their negligible, and undetermined, role in this context. Elections held by the military regimes could never win legitimacy in the eyes of the public and acceptance on the part of politicians. On the other hand, military establishment puts all the excrement over the undemocratic and egotistical attitude of the politicians, which, at certain times, proves spot on.

The geo-strategic location of Pakistan, which should have been an asset, has too proved to be a liability due to the unremitting challenges from the neighbouring countries, especially India and Afghanistan. To cope with these challenges, military strategies prevailed as the core interest remained the security and stability of the state from the outside world and next-door neighbours.

Nevertheless, with the onset of the 21st century, the dynamics of world politics has changed, and world has transformed from bipolar to a unipolar one; followed by multipolarity, casting a deep shadow on internal and external politics of every nation. The role of state institutions has now revived and all institutions, especially the ones concerning the outside world, have a significant say in formulation of foreign policy. Same is the case with Pakistan at present.

In Pakistan’s political history, the occasions where civil and military leaders have been seen in a huddle to debate and decide on foreign policy issues have been very rare. Today, the country’s parliament is in a position to debate on and decide whether to deploy troops abroad – in Yemen war – or restrain from it. In an extraordinary move, the parliament also invited army chief to present the report before the lawmakers, and it also questioned the defence minister on exact number of troops that have been deployed in the Saudi Kingdom. But this seems an ad-hoc approach and the process needs to be systemized and institutionalized so that in case of emergency situations, every institution is clear about its role and the custom of emergency meetings is given the least preference. It is inevitable to formulate a vibrant foreign policy.

The principal area of foreign policy that needs to be revitalized and critically reviewed is the shifting of security-based policies to economy-driven ones that pursue economic stability and prosperity. Linking the regional states in economic projects will considerably change the outlook of their respective foreign policies. China, an economic giant in our part of the world, is out to change South and East Asia into a hub of transit trade, with Pakistan at its central point. Thus, Pakistan’s foreign policy should also be receptive to these opportunities and it must be reoriented accordingly.

A threadbare analysis of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies as well as that of the country’s role in Afghanistan’s stability reveals that Pakistan has already done a lot more than any other nation in this regard, with least recognition of its services by the world community. Pakistan must continue its efforts to ensure that its borders as well as its stakes in Afghanistan are safe, with tactical adjustments wherever needed. It should conduct relations with neighbouring states at such a level that Pakistan is not looked down upon and its stakes are not at risk. For this purpose, Pakistan’s policies should be based on national interest, without accepting any dictation from any quarters.

All the issues with India should be resolved through dialogue. Although it will see some ups and downs, the perseverance of stressing over dialogue from Pakistani side should prevail. Iran, apparently is presenting itself as a competitor; nonetheless, Pakistan should focus on more engagements with Iran.

In the current scenario, the most important area to be focused while recalibrating Pakistan’s foreign policy is Afghanistan. Pakistan should emphasize the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and handing over of power to the Afghans at the earliest possible time. All Afghan insurgent groups should be mainstreamed through dialogue and the alien terrorist groups and their sponsors should be dealt with iron hands. FATF and such other forces are only the stopgap arrangements as they are meant to keep pressurizing those nations and groups that do not fulfil the agenda of their sponsor states, so the tactics used by FATF need not be taken as a daunting challenge for Pakistan, rather, it should be taken as an opportunity to make long-term, realistic policies oriented towards achieving our national interests.

The way the incumbent government has responded to Trump’s policy on South Asia and Afghanistan is commendable. However, it needs continuity and consensus of all the stakeholders which, fortunately, is there at present. The meetings and consultations should continue, but building consensus upon clear-cut and open-ended foreign policy is the need of the hour. It will pave the way for achieving internal stability and improving the image of Pakistan before the world community.