Pakistan’s military, which has dominated the country for much of its turbulent history, has less sway over foreign policy, and a new power equation is emerging within America’s strategic ally, said the foreign minister.
Pakistan has been directly ruled by generals for more than half of its 64-year history and indirectly for much of the rest. The military has largely controlled foreign and security policies, and has taken the lead in relations with Washington.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said new dynamics were now taking hold in Pakistan.
“I want you to also understand that things have changed in Pakistan,” she told Reuters in an interview.
“I think this overbearance of the role of the military in the foreign policy of Pakistan is something which will recede as time passes.”
“I think all institutions in Pakistan are realising that there is a place and role for every institution,” said Khar, 35, Pakistan’s first woman foreign minister.
“And it is best to serve Pakistan’s interests that each of the institutions remains within the boundaries of the roles which are constitutionally defined. It’s a new sort of equilibrium.”
Khar, one of a number of rising women politicians in Pakistan, started her political career with a party affiliated with former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, and eventually rose to junior finance minister.
She since switched to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose ties with the military have been strained.
US-educated Khar said the current government’s staying power in a country prone to coups had given it sway and room to manoeuvre, on issues ranging from ties with the United States to trade with arch-enemy India.
“As far as the new equilibrium … you have consistent four years of democracy, it’s the longest term a democratic governments has had in Pakistan,” said Khar, who is from a political family in southern Punjab.
Khar pointed to the reaction to a NATO cross-border raid in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and plunged relations with the United States to a low point as one sign that civilian leaders have a bigger say in policy.
A Pakistani parliamentary committee reviewed ties with Washington and demanded a halt to US drone aircraft strikes, which US officials see as a highly effective weapon against militants along the border with Afghanistan.
“It is not the first time that foreign policy has been discussed in parliament,” said Khar, in her modest Islamabad office. “But is it not the first time that relations with the United States and other important countries were put on hold until the parliament gave a green signal?”
Khar also said the government’s approach to India suggested Pakistan’s democracy was becoming more robust and the military’s grip on policy had loosened.
In the face of some domestic opposition, the Islamabad government last November vowed to grant India most favoured nation status, which will end restrictions that require most products to move via a third country.
The move was hailed by India and the two countries are now focused on resolving economic issues before moving on to more intractable problems such as the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of what this government did with trade with India. Since 1965 there was no political or military government that could open up trade with India. And it was considered a no-go area,” said Khar.
“And that to me shows, one the maturity of democracy, the maturity of views, and the maturity of the decision-making exercise in Pakistan.”
US not listening: ‘Drone strikes must stop’
Khar said Pakistan had spelt out in no uncertain terms that US drone aircraft strikes against militants inside its territory must stop, but Washington is not listening.
“On drones, the language is clear: a clear cessation of drone strikes,” she said.
“I maintain the position that we’d told them categorically before. But they did not listen. I hope their listening will improve,” she told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
Khar’s sharp comments on the drone strikes came ahead of a two-day visit to Islamabad by the United States’ special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman.
Ambassador Grossman was due to hold bilateral meetings with Pakistani officials and take part in a “core group” meeting with officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the United States is hoping to revive stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
Khar said other methods should be used to take out militants in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We have to look at effective tools which are mutually acceptable. The cost of using tools which are not mutually acceptable is far, far too high. We’re looking at alternatives,” she said, without elaborating.
The commander of the frontline corps in Pakistan’s northwest told Reuters last week that one alternative would be for the United States to share intelligence so that its ally’s F-16 fighter jets could target militants there.