PTI’s foreign policy dilemmas

By Umer Farooq

Senior diplomats in Islamabad have said that the PTI government has started its five-year term with signs showing pragmatism towards the country’s foreign policy. Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan’s former Foreign secretary, says the government’s peace overtures towards India and Afghanistan, and its efforts to scale down its anti-American rhetoric are some of its pragmatic moves. However, the PTI government has also inherited a situation where the environment is not so favourable towards making gestures that help in normalisation of relations with the US and India.

The government recently hit a snag in its efforts to “reset” relations with Washington when the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, after a brief stopover in Islamabad, landed in New Delhi and, soon after, demanded that Pakistan carry out indiscriminate military operations against all militant groups. Moreover, he also demanded that Pakistan made sure that terrorists were not allowed to use Pakistani territory for carrying out terror attacks in the region. This was a big affront to Pakistan’s military establishment, which claims that it has broken the back of militancy and terrorism, especially in the former-FATA region.

On the other hand, the PTI government had an even harder time dealing with New Delhi, which cancelled a Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York after agreeing to it succumbing to pressure at home.

All these developments, since the PTI coming to power, may be the result of a visible strategic shift in the region with Islamabad developing closer relations with Moscow and Beijing. “We started to understand since the late 1990s that we don’t have any strategic convergences with the United States, after Washington and New Delhi came closer to each other,” says Jilani. “With China, we had a strategic convergence since the beginning but with Russia strategic convergence is a recent development”, Jilani further said.

Pakistan’s strategic shift towards Russia, however, predates the PTI assuming power in Islamabad. This is something the new government will inherit from the previous political set-up.

In 2012, while the situation in Syria was turning into an all-out Civil War, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey each approached Pakistan’s foreign ministry with a request that Pakistan support the international efforts to dislodge the Assad regime. “We received the two requests separately and rejected both of them,” says Jilani, who was serving as the foreign secretary at the time. According to Jilani, Pakistan opposed the idea of regime change through external influence, “Our position was in line with the UN charter, but this position endeared us to Putin administration in Moscow, which was trying to help the Assad regime.”

This was the time when Pakistan’s security establishment had started negotiations for the supply of state of the art military equipment from Russia, including T-90 tanks, Su-35 fighter aircrafts and modern air defense systems. Similarly, there is also a growing convergence between Pakistani and Russian positions on Afghanistan, “We have growing defense relations with Russia and on Afghanistan the Russian position is close to our position,” says Jilani.

Russians are said to be in contact with the Afghan Taliban, who are allegedly considered close to Pakistan’s military establishment. The reason for Russian inclination to develop closer ties with Pakistan’s military and open lines of communication with Taliban, is the threat of the rise of Daesh (ISIS) in Northern Afghanistan. This also means that the threat is adjacent to Central Asian Republics (CARs), including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — all three considered within security parameters of Russia.

On the Afghan front, the military is calling the shots in the face of intense pressure from Washington to bring Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government. The PTI government seems to have little say in this situation, according to insiders.

It is not clear how much Prime Minister Imran Khan will assert himself on this issue, though he was very vocal on talks with the Taliban during the days preceding the July parliamentary elections. In his internal party meetings, as well in his talks with some foreign journalists a few days before the elections, Imran Khan is said to have asserted that the US administration should first think about completely withdrawing militarily from Afghanistan and then give peace a chance in the country.

Pakistani officials dealing with this situation say the PTI government does not have an option of making any substantial changes in these developments. Jalil Abbas Jilani, however, is of the opinion that despite the strategic shift towards the Russian federation, Pakistan still needs to keep a certain level of goodwill towards Washington, “The PTI government appears to be making efforts to retain that goodwill towards Washington. It has toned down its rhetoric against America after coming to power”, says Jilani.

The PTI government is expected to play a marginal role in foreign policy making in the foreseeable future, “The military establishment and foreign office bureaucracy represent the continuity as far as foreign policy making is concerned,” says Ahmer Bilal Mehboob, President Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). “This may change in the future but right now the civil and military bureaucracy appear to be in total control of foreign policy making,” argues Mehboob. The PTI government is also making things difficult for the Foreign Office bureaucracy with its uncanny mistakes. Three such mistakes were particularly disturbing for many in the foreign policy establishment.

The first mistake was committed after a telephonic conversation between the US Secretary of State and Prime Minister Imran Khan after the latter assumed office. After the telephonic conversation, the Pakistani Foreign Office pointed out that the State Department readout wrongly mentioned that Pompeo and Khan discussed the issue of terror groups operating from the Pakistani territory. Former diplomats say FO’s decision to raise the issue unnecessarily vitiated the first meeting between Pompeo and Khan.

The PTI government’s second foreign policy blunder was when one of its ministers asserted in an interview with a foreign newspaper that CPEC projects should be frozen for at least a year. This created some confusion about the intentions of the PTI government, both in Beijing and Islamabad, which only ended when the Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited China and emphasised on the importance of CPEC for the country.

The PTI government’s third mistake was Imran Khan’s tweet in which he labelled Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi a “small man”. Prime Minister Khan’s tweet came after the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced cancellation of Pak-India Foreign Ministers meeting in New York on the sidelines of UN General Assembly. A day after, the Indian Army Chief threatened Pakistan, saying India will inflict pain on the country in retaliation to terror attacks on the Indian soldiers. This statement considerably vitiated the political environment of the region. Many in Islamabad’s political and diplomatic circles believe that in the absence of Imran Khan’s tweet, the Indian Army chief would not have responded in such a manner.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office has been advocating in its internal meetings that the governments should not waste time in efforts to bring India to the negotiating table. However, the latest rejection of talks offer by the Indian government has reinforced the views of old hands in the Foreign Office, who have been arguing against making any serious efforts for resumption of talks between Pakistan and India.

In conclusion, Foreign Office officials, both serving and retired, believe that the only way to go forward for the PTI government is the rejuvenation of its Kashmir diplomacy. Only by advocating the issue on both the regional and international level can Pakistan bring India to the dialogue table.


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