Who controls foreign policy in Pakistan?

Published: April 9, 2012


We know who does not! The Foreign Office certainly does not and the civilian governments also do not. Or, if they do, they control those aspects of foreign policy which do not deal with India, the United States and Kashmir. And if you classify nuclear weapons as a foreign policy issue, then once again, the government does not control them. So then, those who do control these crucial issues of foreign policy are the top leadership of the army, the intelligence agencies and pressure groups in Pakistan. There are bits of evidence in interviews, anecdotes and biographies given by people about decision-making in the 1965 War and the 1971 military action in Dhaka, as well as the long-drawn proxy war in Kashmir to prove the above assertions. To cite but one example, Sartaj Aziz tells us in his book Between Dreams and Realities: some Milestones in Pakistan’s History (OUP, 2009) that the disastrous Kargil misadventure was taken by General Pervez Musharraf, who met him before he went to India as foreign minister and again when he returned from there in order to ensure that Aziz does not concede anything like withdrawal of troops from the forward locations in Indian-held areas. In short, the foreign minister of Pakistan went to Delhi to defuse the tension but ‘with his hands tied behind his back’ (as the press put it). Moreover, Musharraf held his briefing with the prime minister about Kargil after the event and not before. And this usurpation of foreign policy is not something unusual. The military high command thinks it is the sole guardian of national interest and, therefore, keeps making policies which diplomats have to defend — always a nightmare for their excellencies in foreign capitals.

But now, it seems we have gone so overboard in inculcating anti-Americanism in our people that even the army cannot fully control foreign policy. The army was not always right about its capacity to control the genie which came out of the bottle. The militant groups it allowed to be unleashed upon India after 1989 might have been tactically controllable. But strategically speaking they had a worldview beyond just Kashmir. They wanted an Islamic government and society as they interpreted Islam and in this they were joined by other ideological visionaries such as the groups of armed warriors one finds in al Qaeda or the Taliban. These are not ultimately controllable by the army which still operates in the familiar world of the nation-state and a postcolonial organisational structure. That is why these groups could not agree with the Musharraf government’s decision to participate in the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan. They turned against Musharraf and the Pakistan Army, which itself is torn between supporting them while also fighting them. But there are two wars in Afpak. First, against the American occupation of Afghanistan; the second against the non-Islamic way of life and polity of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The first is the one which is advertised by our media; the second is ignored. Its significance is not realised, or not commented upon, because of anti-Americanism which is so endemic as to block out Pakistan’s own long-term interests.

The present crisis about the Nato supply line is an example of our public opinion holding us hostage. It is in Pakistan’s interest to renegotiate the deal so as to gain more. But it is not in Pakistan’s interest to create a situation where America decides it has had enough of this country and is pushed into the arms of Pakistan’s rivals or use force to punish Pakistan. If the Americans do not fight us but simply abandon us they will have to pay more to fight this war. While the route through Russia and Central Asia is long and costly, it is possible that America will start relying on it more and more leaving Pakistan high and dry. The only gain for those who are fighting the Americans will be that they will then leave by 2013 instead of 2014 and maybe abandon the idea of making a permanent base in Afghanistan. But then Pakistan would then be sidelined in the peace process and will stand to lose whatever foothold it may have in that country after the American withdrawal. It is possible that the Taliban come to control Afghanistan and they are so beholden to Pakistan for stopping the Nato supplies that they act in a friendly manner later. But that they should do so anyway considering that Pakistan has refused to take military action against many of the anti-American fighting groups of Afghanistan. In any case, it is doubtful that any Afghan government, even the Taliban, will recognise the Durand line or provide that kind of meaningful ‘depth’ for which the Pakistani military have almost bartered away our security.

What we will lose is a lot even without an overt war with the US. The army will lose its constant supply of spare parts and weapons and the money which it needs to absorb the costs of warfare. The government will face even more inflation, power riots and harsher debt burden. Even more alarming is the isolation which we will find ourselves in. And if we do not get bailed out by the world financial institutions, we will have a crisis which no civilian government can endure unless it is a puppet of the military. In short, both the army and the PPP government will probably want to come to terms with the Americans but they are caught in the rhetoric they helped stir up or did not stop effectively. Some say the paralysis is because of the militant threat to kill the members of parliament who vote in favour of the restoration of Nato supplies. In my view, this in itself would not be the biggest hurdle as such threats are always there but not everyone is actually stopped from acting because of them. The biggest misconceived hurdle is that Pakistani public opinion; the opposition or the religious parties or even the Taliban are not as violently against the restoration of Nato supplies as the army and the government are making out to be. So much so that they feel their power to take decisions is seriously curtailed. This is the hole which we have dug out for ourselves.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (38)

  • faraz
    Apr 9, 2012 - 11:30PM

    I think PPP should refuse to open the supply line. Elections are approaching and it has no chance of forming the next government. PPP should teach army a lesson because army is behind DPC and army is the real beneficiary of reopening of supply line. Recommend

  • Apr 9, 2012 - 11:39PM

    Public is also against the restoration of supplies


  • BlackJack
    Apr 9, 2012 - 11:49PM

    Excellent article. The burden of public opinion has effectively handicapped the current Pak government and chained them to the parliament’s go-ahead, and there appears no way out. The Islamists in society are also from the same stock as normal Pak citizens – bred with glorious stories of muslim warriors bringing religion to the infidels; none of the heroes of Pakistan were born there – so why should any aspiring jihadi respect these man-made boundaries. Today both the Pak army (a professional fighting force) and civil society still stand in the way of a Talibanized state – wonder which will buckle first.


  • Babloo
    Apr 9, 2012 - 11:53PM

    There is no scenario whatsoever, under which Taleban can rule Afganistan. They are destined to remain a insurgent group controlling some territories in the south, despised and isolated by the world.


  • Whats in the name.
    Apr 10, 2012 - 12:33AM

    It is simply needless to say who controls it and as a matter of principle I would not mention who does. It is known by default. Unfortunately you cannot blame the powers that be for it rather have to blame the power itself, which intoxicates even the mildest….. Honestly is there a way out of this quagmire. I seriously don’t think so. Who would want to give up on power, which comes with no responsibility, no strings attached, and to be used and abused is the most attractive incentive. And as always when something goes wrong, there are civilian leaders/representatives to be held accountable for. Be it Z A Bhutto, the Kargil fiasco (Nawaz Sharif), 26/09/2008 (present govt.) or the OBL episode.


  • Shahid
    Apr 10, 2012 - 12:49AM

    THe pakistani government/ Army it self made this such a big deal by delaying and faning anti american sentiments. Now the government should ask the parliament to give guideline and make a decision herself the sooner the better. It is laughable that Military generals do not realise how important it is to have good relations with USA and west. As surhwardy said zero plus zero is zero. America, Russia ,china ,japan And India all are one. they all belive in modern civilisation and are partners in growth. Pakistan has to join them rather than aligning themselves with loosers and committ sucide. The military has the duty now to reverse anti americanism and tell people how important American friendship is for pakistan and we need to live in modern world not a caveman’s life.


  • kafir
    Apr 10, 2012 - 12:53AM

    @ Pakistan politics

    “Public is also against the restoration of supplies”
    Mr Genius – This is the point of article.


  • Marium
    Apr 10, 2012 - 1:25AM

    I am highly amused by this column. No offence to the writer I agree with his observations about the difficult position that the Pakistani Government finds itself in . However , Your article seems to indicate that the government is now beholden to the will of the people that It so naively created. Sir, Isn’t that the essence of democracy in the first place, Something that the civil society has been fighting for over these years?


  • Shahid Jamil
    Apr 10, 2012 - 1:34AM

    The present crisis about the Nato supply line is an example of our
    public opinion holding us hostage.

    One would have thought that in democratic dispensations the public opinion would be paramount in making decisions about important issues and parliaments and elected representatives should reflect this opinion in their decisions.

    Not according to the author…

    Public is too unreliable to understand these complex issues and hence some mandarins should keep control and guide the affairs of the state. But then what ever happened to the criticism heaped on the so called “establishment” in the beginning of the article? They have been doing what the author wants them to do in the first place. What is the point of this article then?

    What he fails to mention is the utter incompetence of our feudal political class to take care of anything except their own personal and parochial interests. If they had any capability they wold have taken charge and led. But they cannot and always accuse others for their own failures. This has always been the case when ever they have been given a chance to take charge, authors claims notwithstanding. Just see what they are doing right now …


  • Falcon
    Apr 10, 2012 - 1:37AM

    From some of the developments that have emerged, it is less likely that army is interested in using Taliban as strategic assets as in 1990s. I think at this point, they are more interested in just getting them out of Pak whatever it takes, because the heat has become unbearable for them to deal with and they know that until this war continues, there can not be peace in areas of Pak bordering Afghanistan.


  • true_blue_pakistani
    Apr 10, 2012 - 1:55AM

    Military forced the government to block the NATO supply. Now it is the responsibility of military to lift the blockade. Why PPP have to pay the penalty for the mistake of Military/ISI generals?
    Americans survived 5 months with blockade sends clear signal that US can manage without Pakistan. Can Pakistan manage without US? Absolutely impossible.


  • Logic Europe
    Apr 10, 2012 - 2:19AM

    Why a fantasgic tic sight the writer has The truth has been told plain and simple but mullas are bent upon destruction of pakistan and they seem to be suceeding


  • Thoughtful
    Apr 10, 2012 - 2:47AM

    About process. It has been an amazing sight to see thepresident, the prime minister defer decision making to the Parliament and sometimes the judiciary as if that is to be epected. Each branch has its responsibility. Such abdication is craven. So what really is the role of the President and council of ministers? It just gives opacity to their real actions.


  • Mirza
    Apr 10, 2012 - 2:50AM

    I agree with your post. The coalition govt should not take the blame of opening the supply routes. Let the army, and opposition deal with that equally. Otherwise there would be non stop attacks from the rightwing parties and the hidden hands. Like Kerry Lugar Bill, these forces have made such a big issue out of this that the govt should not touch it with a ten foot pole.


  • Z Ali
    Apr 10, 2012 - 3:14AM

    While the writer makes certain points well, his assertion that the Army is “anti american” is really not plausible. Public opinion is Pakistan has turned against the US, but this has not happened without plenty of help from the Americans themselves. The US has consistently demanded that Pakistan simply do its bidding, with no regard to its own long term interests (which DO NOT always coincide with American interests). Add to that the constant mess ups by US forces such as Salala, the very ANTI PAKISTAN rhetoric and ACTIONS of US lawmakers (Pressler, Symington etc), and there are plenty of reasons why people in Pakistan have no positive view of the US. Remember, it was very much the US that walked away in 1990, and spent a decade sanctioning anything and everything it could around Pakistan. The issue of restoration of NATO supply lines did not just come out of nowhere. It followed the absolutely insane attack on Pakistani troops at Salala, and the even more muddled and arrogant US response. Pakistan was right to use this as leverage and should continue to do so. The US is now clearly just in exit mode in Afghanistan and definitely does not care at all what it will leave behind. Whatever mess is left, Pakistan will have to deal with it. The US will probably not remain a “friend” once its troops are out of Afghanistan, whatever they may say today about “long term partnerships” or “caring about the future of Pakistan”. Sadly, the army and its generals may be wrong about most things but they one thing they got right (and all us stupid liberals got totally wrong) is the the US is NOT here for the long term, and the US will ditch us again. So, not doing anything and everything the US wants may actually be the smarter choice.


  • SaudiRules
    Apr 10, 2012 - 3:43AM

    I hope the PPP and PML-N are savvy enough not to take any unilateral decision to restore the NATO supply and suffer during the elections. This is what the khakis really want without getting hit with awaams angst. Only institution to benefit vastly from the restoration of the NATO supply are the khakis, both in terms of getting toys and US $$$ (just remember the hullagulla caused by khais on kerry-lugar bill, which was aimed at reducing the US $$$ gravy to the army and incresing more aids to awaam). Amy suppoeted talibans, all the ‘charities like JuD, DPC, PTI and tried to whip up anti-US sentiment after salala incident (fact is the talibums and others group alike have killed many many more jawans than the amreeka).

  • gp65
    Apr 10, 2012 - 3:53AM

    @Marium: “However , Your article seems to indicate that the government is now beholden to the will of the people that It so naively created. Sir, Isn’t that the essence of democracy in the first place, Something that the civil society has been fighting for over these years?”

    The point of the article is that the anti-Americanism has been wilfully created by the army NOT the government. The army assumed it could do some pointscoring against Americans and civilians would then bail them out just like they have in the past. Looks like army’s plan backfired.


  • gp65
    Apr 10, 2012 - 4:57AM

    In 2010 Oct when the supplies were stopped, US apologized almost immediately and supplies route was reopened. Upon a more detailed inquiry, the US discovered that their attack was not as unprovoked as they had initially been led to believe. The army expected history to repeat almost a year later and really turned up the anti-Americanism through media to improve their negotiating position. But a lot of water had flowed under the bridge including Raymond Davis, OBL, Pakistan military now openly saying that they would not act against Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis etc.

    The US military did not apologize but decided instead to order an inquiry to determine what had happened. Instead of sending high powered delegations to Pakistan to force an early opening of supply routes, it has simply made clear the consequences ( no coaliation support funds if there is no coaliation support, no leaning on IMF, World Bank to sanction loans that otherwise are likely to not be sanctioned, no free military hardware that Pakistan is addicted to). Overtly it keeps saying that it will wait for decision from the Parliament. But it has made it clear that it will not stop drones (one of the recommendations proposed to the Parliament by the Parliamentary committee).

    The army’s strategy has backfired. They have used up the one of their biggest leverages they had against US. While it does increase costs for the US, it can bear the increased costs. It is the Pak army that is finding the cost of not dealing with US too heavy to bear. Unfortunately their second line of defense i.e. using the parliament ‘s shoulder to fire from is also not working with elections just around the corner. A lesson for the army : you reap what you sow.


  • Basit
    Apr 10, 2012 - 6:42AM

    So amusing to see liberal elitists under so much duress that the public’s mandate will somehow hold sway over their treacherous support to foreign occupiers. There is a limit even to treachery, but not for our Pakistani liberals.


  • raw is war
    Apr 10, 2012 - 7:47AM



  • shahid
    Apr 10, 2012 - 7:58AM

    @Z Ali:
    You don’t seem to understand that America rules the planet earth. Even if you don’t like some of their actions there is no wisdom into turning them into enemy. It is much more beneficial to continue friendly relations.beggars are not choosers. We can maintain friendly relationship with USA and benefit but we have to stop senseless and meaningless Anti American rhetoric.


  • mateen saeed
    Apr 10, 2012 - 8:51AM

    “The military high command thinks it is the sole guardian of national interest and, therefore, keeps making policies which diplomats have to defend — always a nightmare for their excellencies in foreign capitals”.
    Very true, many believe the worst nightmare their excellencies ever had in their career was 2 may operation in Abbotabad. One wonders how our ambassadors would have defended this brazen doing of High Command. Secondly what is confusing for a laymen, what high goals of national interest were to be realized by provided safe heaven to a dreaded terrorist. Indeed policies designed and approved by top brass, may be a routine matter for our ambassadors, but are truly nightmare collectively for us.


  • reasonable
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:35AM

    @Z Ali:
    decide on what you want US to do you want them to leave this area and if they leave then you complain they left you high and dry. Or is it that you want them to leave and the coalition support fund to continue!!


  • Raja Imran
    Apr 10, 2012 - 10:49AM

    Excellent Opinion piece, masterfully covering foreign policy, internal and strategic issues together . I agree with writer that Army is not capable of controlling terrorists groups those created to destroy Indian in Kashmir and now miserably destroying their own country. What happening in Galigit Beltistan is by product of our strategic polices.In Afghans Affairs, if American start punishment policy for Pakistan, as writer indicated in the column, it be last nail on the coffin of Pakistan’s internal security and peace.


  • Riaz Khan
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:26AM

    We have a DEATH wish which is fast approaching! We have lost the logic of reasoning & logic instead of using our head we are using our emotions. We have ALWAYS lost because we NEVER used logic & reasoning instead emotions.


  • wonderer
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:52AM

    We have once again foolishly bitten off more than we can chew. Not a single politician of any hue has the guts to talk tough to America for the fear of certain failure.

    There is going to be not much talk now of “sovereignty” “mutual respect” “national honor” “high handedness of the US” etc etc. The Gharat Brigade is going under ground.

    The US will do what it wants to. They know it because they have paid for it.


  • Pragmatist
    Apr 10, 2012 - 2:43PM

    The Pakistani Military controls foreign policy. But when it gets in a fix, the military will turn around and pass the buck to the civilian government. Like Kayani’s statement that reinstating NATO supply routes was up to the government. There is no doubt that the military wants NATO supply restored. They still want US arms. Can’t depend on Chinese guns which is as likely to hit your own forces as the enemy.


  • faheema
    Apr 10, 2012 - 3:04PM

    I salute u for such deep analysis of prevailing situation we are caught in. There is no doubt our so-called Anti American phobia has made us collectively blind and now we are following those dreadful elements who have nothing to deliver except death and destruction.


  • Hot potatoes!
    Apr 10, 2012 - 4:05PM

    NATO supply routes must be blocked forever! That will ensure, USA completely cuts off any engagements with Pakistan. It is a fact, that once US exits Afganistan, it will pay back pakistan for all the treachery and Pakistan will have to go crying for aid onm b ended knees. That will ensure that foreign policy collapses and finally Pak govt gets to control the same, after 65 years!
    Alternately Pakistan can prostrate to Turkey and ask to be made a federation( rename iself East Turkistan!!).Or secede more of Kashmir to China and ask to be renamed West China!!
    Complex? well this is an exciting decade!


  • Super Star
    Apr 10, 2012 - 5:37PM

    @ Pragmatist

    “Can’t depend on Chinese guns which is as likely to hit your own forces as the enemy”

    This one was really funny! put me into splits . Trust me this is true. The last thing Pakistan should do is depend on China and chinese hardware ! Made in china is also “works in china”


  • Z Ali
    Apr 10, 2012 - 5:42PM

    I am not advocating making enemies of the US, however it is just as important to stop behaving and being treated as a client state. We have our own interests, and should be able to assert them. If this is not recognised by the US as legitimate, then they clearly are not and never will be your friends.


  • wonderer
    Apr 10, 2012 - 6:04PM

    Pakistan, just like any other country, is absolutely free to decide what kind of foreign policy is suitable. Complications arise when you run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. The current problems being faced by Pakistan are a result of this looking both ways. This sort of conduct is unacceptable in International relations, and cannot but result in poor reputation and loss of credibility.

    Pakistan has put itself in a bind unnecessarily. Pakistan has no foreign policy at present towards the US. Politicians cannot decide what it should be, government and army do not want to byte the bullet, and the US is getting hot under the collar.Recommend

  • Zaheer Baloch
    Apr 10, 2012 - 6:28PM

    Very good article. It has beautifully narrated the civil-military relationship as far as foreign policy is concerned. Apart from Army’s foreign policy formulation mandate, i would like to say that our army has drawn some red lines domestically as well, military has halted the civilian-government from taking some corrective measures internally. Such issues are anti-terrorism steps in wazirstan and counter-insurgency steps in Balochistan.


  • Maxxx Hardcore
    Apr 10, 2012 - 6:29PM

    Pakistan has been a client state of the US since its inception and all this saber rattling against the US is just political rhetoric designed to fool the masses. Pakistan will never jeopardize its relationship with the US over public opinion and relinquish the billions it receives from the US.Recommend

  • kaalchakra
    Apr 10, 2012 - 7:12PM

    Please don’t try to create rifts between the people, the army, the militants – as if they were aliens to one another.


  • naeem khan
    Apr 10, 2012 - 9:09PM

    “The military high command thinks it is the sole guardian of national interest”, well, can you blame them,just look at this corrupt outfit in Islamabad and remember memogate, these are the reasons for now .Kargil misadventure should have given the reason and chance to get rid of Mush but Sharif did not do it like Bhutto did not sack Zia when there was chance for him to do so.( Yahya Bukhtiar told me the reason himself).Your assertion that US will either ignore us or fight us is somewhat mistaken, Northern supply route is 3 to 4 times the expensive than Pakistani route, living here in the US we know what these wars are costing and causing the trillion dollar deficit in the history of US, it is a downward slide and the Americans just don’t have the stamina or stomach for another war or so much expense.More over they will not see Pakistan being pushed into Iran’s arms, their strategic links with India is China specific and not Pakistan.As the matter of fact Americans need Friends and not enemies in that part of the world.They also know that Taliban will eventually take over because their satrap in Afghanistan will not survive after they leave and they will leave regardless winning or losing because it is just not feasible politically to stay there after 10 years and after no winning or end in sight.Americans are very tired of these wars and it will be difficult for Obama or next President to wage war even on Iran rhetoric aside. The time is coming that Pakistanis has to tighten their belts and I mean the elites of Pakistan and this scourge of corruption got to stop and above all every one must pay it’s fair share of taxes and Pakistan as a nation does not need external loans and grants for which they have mortgaged their sovereignty. If you want to be a respected world community member then stand up and be counted and don’t let Americans interfere in the country and throw these corrupt out for a long time to come.Recommend

  • pmbm
    Apr 10, 2012 - 11:32PM

    Confused as usual.


  • observer
    Apr 11, 2012 - 12:25PM


    Please don’t try to create rifts between the people, the army, the militants – as if they were aliens to one another.

    At first I laughed at your sense of humour. Then I realised you were stating the truth, at least about the Army and militants being one, and I sobered up.

    The people of Pakistan alone can break this nexus and save themselves.


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