By Umer Farooq
The mass protests, by Tehrik e Labaik Pakistan (TLP), during the last week showed how Pakistan’s internal security situation has become the country’s biggest foreign policy problem. Over a decade ago, Pakistan’s foreign policy establishment was dealing with conventional foreign policy issues like any normal state would. Now, Pakistan’s internal security situation has become a major security concern for regional players as well.
Besides this, the foreign policy machinery of the state has remained dormant throughout the TLP crisis. The Foreign Office issued no statement to counter any foreign or “outside” narrative that was being built in the Western Media because apparently there was no need to do so.
However, no foreign country or media outlet criticized Pakistan during this brief crisis. And although the foreign media gave full coverage to events in the country, it was one of those rare occasions when the Pakistani state pillars, especially the judiciary, and the Supreme Court, were shown in good light.
However, this internal crisis also created an ironic situation for the Pakistani Foreign Policy and the directions it has taken since the Global War on Terror began in October 2001, in Afghanistan. Since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s internal security situation and, to a lesser extent, the domestic political crises have become the central issues in the country’s foreign policy.
Now, the visiting foreign dignitaries do not discuss “real” foreign policy issues with the Pakistani officials. Even Pakistan’s traditional foreign policy issues, mainly the Kashmir Conflict, seldom crop up in the talks between Pakistani and visiting foreign policy officials.
The Pak-US and Indo-Pak relations do come under discussion, however, they are also discussed with reference to Pakistan’s internal security situation. This “internal security situation” revolves around the Pakistani army’s efforts (or sometimes lack thereof) in defeating terrorism and militancy.
15 years ago, Islamabad-based diplomatic correspondents of local newspapers used to enthusiastically ask foreign dignitaries, in press talks, about their opinion on important issues such as Kashmir. However, that is not happening anymore. Now, those same diplomatic correspondents seek comments on the gallantry of the Pakistani security forces in their fight against terrorism.
And the irony is, Pakistan is no more a normal country with a range of foreign policy issues to deal with. We are no more confronted with questions, posed to foreign dignitaries, like, “what is your country’s position on the proposed UN Security Council reforms?” or “Is Pak-India normalization on the cards during your talks with Pakistani/Indian counterparts?” Or, finally, “How will your country assist Pakistan in increasing its exports?”
Moreover, it is just these internal security problems that the Global Community is interested in.
The Pakistani Foreign Office succeeded in bagging the full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This should have been considered a big achievement for Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan and the SCO could have communicated on mutual trade potential, however, even with the SCO, the story is dominated by Pakistan’s dealing with the terrorists and militants. .
On the other hand, the US, one of our major trade partners, is no more interested in increasing the volume of trade or correcting the trade balance. It only wants Pakistan to go after the militants and terrorist hiding in Pakistan. Similarly, India is not ready for diplomatic talks before Pakistan gives assurances that Pakistani terror groups will not attack India in the future. Russia is also only ready to send its troops for “joint military training and exercises” to learn about counter terrorism.
Hence, the whole world wants to see Pakistan from the perspective of “internal security policy”, which includes countering terrorism and militancy. In the meantime, Pakistan’s economic, commercial and political interests have taken a back seat as far as international and regional politics is concerned. This dominant trend is also having an impact on the country’s domestic power structures, as civilian governments are increasingly being sidelined, with the military bureaucracy leading from the front.
The lawlessness witnessed on the streets and roads of Pakistan, after Supreme Court exonerated Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges, only reinforced the trend of how Pakistan’s internal security situation is becoming the country’s biggest foreign policy problem.
The fear of security managers that any use of force against the rioters would lead to loss of life has played in the hands of the ultra-groups in the country. Pakistan’s security policy makers, and influencers, were also afraid that the loss of life would lead to mass protests, which could ultimately get out of hand.
However, the world community, meanwhile, is not foolish not to understand that Pakistan’s security apparatus, again, had to ultimately appease the ultra-right segment in the country. Hence, the PTI government needs to set its priorities straight while formulating a new and effective foreign policy.