Is Pakistan Isolated? The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN

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The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

SEVERAL Pakistani commentators have concluded that Pakistan is isolated because its relations with three of its four immediate neighbours are hostile. Some have ascribed this ‘failure’ exclusively to the absence of a fulltime foreign minister and the hydra-headed leadership at the Foreign Office.

Pakistan is far from isolated. It enjoys a very close strategic relationship with its largest neighbour China, the emerging superpower. Relations with Iran are complex, but not hostile, and can become cooperative. Relations with regional neighbours Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Turkey remain friendly, with considerable potential for collaboration. Pakistan enjoys influence within the wider international community due to its size, strategic location, military strength and economic potential.

That Pakistan’s relations with India are tense should come as no surprise. This is almost a historical norm. The hostility of a Hindu supremacist BJP government was anticipated by most Pakistanis, except the purblind. But Modi’s arrogance and belligerence towards Pakistan have outstripped anticipation, partly because of the perceived weakness in Islamabad, but mostly due to the shift in the global and regional strategic environment and India’s growing alignment with the US in the context of its rising rivalry with China.

This emerging US-Indian alliance has not only encouraged New Delhi’s belligerence, it has exacerbated Pakistan’s security challenges, reflected in American support for India’s massive arms build-up; wide-ranging US attempts to contain and neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear and missile deterrence capabilities; and growing US pressure on Pakistan to act against ‘terrorists’.

Our diplomacy has displayed several missteps which illustrate an absence of strategic direction.

The strategic evolution has also complicated Pakistan’s relationship with the ‘unity’ government in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has accepted the Pentagon’s proposal for an indefinite US military presence in Afghanistan. Assured that American and Nato forces will stay indefinitely and prevent its collapse, Kabul has shifted from seeking reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban to demanding that Pakistan join in crushing them militarily. Fighting, rather than reconciling with the Taliban, has always been India’s preferred option.

Pakistan, with China’s cooperation, can meet India’s security challenge and maintain credible deterrence, nuclear and conventional. Pakistan has no compulsion to press for a dialogue so long as New Delhi refuses to address the fundamental issues of Kashmir and peace and security.

What Pakistan does need to reverse at present is, first, India’s long-standing attempts to sow domestic discord and destabilise Pakistan, including in Balochistan, rural Sindh and Karachi; and, second, the attacks against Pakistan’s civilians and security forces conducted by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan militants and the Balochistan Liberation Army insurgents from the territory of Afghanistan, with the sponsorship of Indian and Afghan intelligence.

Pakistan could respond effectively to these Indo-Afghan sponsored interventions. Kashmir remains India’s Achilles’ heel, as recent events illustrate. Pakistan also has the capability to eliminate TTP safe havens in Afghanistan. However, Pakistan is prevented from recourse to such robust responses by the political and security ‘umbrella’ extended by the US to Kabul and New Delhi. While extending limited help to counter the TTP’s safe havens in Afghanistan, the US is exerting pressure on Islamabad to fight the Afghan Taliban and clamp down on the pro-Kashmiri militants now outlawed as ‘terrorists’ at India’s instance.

Thus, in order to respond to India’s mischief and Kabul’s renewed hostility, Pakistan has to address, primarily, America’s alignment with these two neighbours. Pakistan will have to evolve policies which can neutralise those US positions which are antithetical to Pakistan’s vital interests, while preserving its vital strategic partnership with China. This is the major foreign policy challenge confronting Islamabad. This challenge is likely to become more daunting if, as anticipated, Sino-US rivalry and tensions escalate further.

Confronted by these regional and global strategic developments, Pakistan must formulate and execute its external policies with clarity and imagination. As Einstein said “You cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking where they were created.”

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s diplomacy has displayed several missteps which illustrate an absence of strategic coherence and direction. These include: the prime minister’s participation in Modi’s inauguration and inability to meet Kashmiri leaders; the Ufa declaration, emphasising terrorism and ignoring Kashmir; unwarranted confidence about bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; uninvited admission of the presence of insurgent leaders in Pakistan; the fumbling response to the Saudi request for military support; the tepid reaction to Afghan and US assertions regarding Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and the US’ unilateral drone strike in Balochistan.

Almost all of these missteps have been the consequence of shortsighted and often naive political intervention in the foreign policy process. The formulation and execution of foreign policy, like military policy, must be left to the professionals. The foreign service should be enabled and encouraged to provide objective and independent advice to the political leadership, rather than be whimsically directed from above. According to the government’s Rules of Business, the foreign secretary’s policy recommendations can be overruled by the political leadership, but they cannot be dictated to him.

Obviously, the organisational mess at the Foreign Office needs to be cleared. The government should have a fulltime foreign minister, not only for protocol reasons, but also to serve as a single, credible conduit for the expression and execution of foreign policy. There is an important role for the prime minister’s special assistant: to reconcile external policy with the government’s political priorities. But this role should be exercised, not from the foreign ministry, but the Prime Minister’s Office, where a foreign service official is, exceptionally, absent.

The security dimensions of foreign policy should be integrated through established institutional mechanisms, particularly the high-level National Security Command. If these mechanisms are not utilised, the ‘security establishment’ will find ‘informal’ ways of influencing policies.

Likewise, external economic policy cannot be formulated or conducted without the foreign ministry’s participation. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is an example of the nexus between diplomatic, economic and security policies. Unfortunately, at present, development, trade and investment policies are formulated and implemented largely without the benefit of the foreign policy dimension.

A modern state cannot function without competent institutions of governance. For Pakistan, which is compelled to conduct a multi-directional external policy in a strategically challenging environment, a competent, empowered and motivated foreign service is as indispensable as Pakistan’s security forces.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN

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