Pakistan has often been described as a state with a single- issue foreign policy. In less charitable opinions, that single issue was often determined by a foreign power enlisting Pakistan to advance its own regional or global agenda. Admittedly, Pakistan signed on in the secret hope that it would also facilitate the pursuit of its interests such as narrowing financing gaps, developing nuclear deterrence and maintaining an increasingly improbable balance of power with India. In retrospect, it achieved only limited success in doing so and ended up, rather predictably, paying a heavy price for unequal, overpowering relationships. With the United States, it has not even been a robust and continuous linkage, as periods of collaboration have alternated with those of severe sanctions that distorted the economy, fragmented national politics and polarised the society.
When the US precipitately disengaged from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet retreat, the initial reaction was a benumbing shock. But gradually the alternating prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, grasped the need for diversifying Pakistan’s international relations. Despite a huge loss of national energy caused by their perpetual rivalry, there was progress in expanding the ambit of foreign policy. Sadly, the process was cut short when Musharraf made his Faustian bargain with Washington. Managed by civil servants on coveted extensions, the Foreign Office quickly lapsed into the glib grammar of the so-called global war on terror (GWOT) and the self-intoxication of Pakistan being a frontline state. Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri had a broader vision but was greatly hobbled by the straitjacket of Musharraf’s emphasis on the military aspect of the GWOT. Nothing illustrated this better than the failure of his administration, as indeed that of the successor political government, to achieve market access in the United States. Relations remained transactional and terms of engagement repeatedly failed to accommodate Pakistan’s real needs. More recently, it was not just the denial of these needs despite the Kerry Luger legislation but a sustained pressure to force the Pakistan Army into a mercenary role, non-compliance with which presumably climaxed into the fateful attack on the Salala post.
Salala’s destruction has deprived the government of the option of masterly inaction after opportunistically using parliament as an ineffectual debating chamber. There is also the imperative to demonstrate that the foreign and security policy review is not driven by the armed forces. Step aside these political compulsions and you see that the review that Pakistan needs and can afford is not difficult to design. It should have been designed once Washington de-hyphenated India and Pakistan and declared that the two countries merited different approaches because of their different histories. Instead, Pakistan went into anodyne statements about an unprecedented strategic relationship that did not exist and cannot exist in the current realities. In a recent article, helpfully entitled “The Pakistanis Have a Point”, Bill Keller, a former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, addressed the issue of draining “some of the acrimony and paranoia from the US-Pakistan rhetoric”. If Washington is serious about managing what Keller calls “a highly problematic, ultimately critical relationship”, it will have to reassess Pakistan’s undiminished relevance to regional stability and stop running the Pakistan policy on colonial lines.
While readjusting this critical relationship to a new and probably lower order of mutual engagement, Pakistan has to break out of the constraints imposed unilaterally on it by the United States. It is not for Hillary Clinton to tell Pakistan that it would not be good for it to proceed with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Pakistan has done little to add substance to economic ties with the ASEAN states. It has to go a long way to establish optimum political and economic relations with a transformed Turkey. Historic ties with the GG states are withering. China has yet to be persuaded to make the investment it can in Pakistan’s energy and manufacturing sector. Above all, Pakistan has to remould relations with India despite the known cussedness of the Indian establishment. These objectives are as valid today as they were in 1990s.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2011.