Harmonising external and internal policies

We need more rational relationship with Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi, feasible only if we pursue policies strengthening us

Talat Masood March 04, 2014
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

Recently, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson was visibly annoyed that despite categorical denials regarding the perceived tilt of the government towards the Saudi position on the Syrian conflict, parliamentarians, television commentators and columnists continued with their barrage of criticism. Notwithstanding the validity of the government’s version that it has been consistent and its position is in conformity with the UN Security Council resolution of 2013 on Syria, this level of sensitivity in our public representatives and civil society about such crucial issues that have a direct bearing on our internal security should be considered a sign of maturity. It is not that one does not value the importance and need for having extremely close and fraternal ties with Saudi Arabia, or for that matter, with Iran. But our country has suffered far too much and continues to bleed profusely by getting embroiled in other people’s wars. It is time to steer clear of these power and sectarian conflicts. Having been bitten not once but several times in the past by the short-sighted foreign policy goals of our military and civilian rulers, the people are averse to a replay of any policy that remotely draws the nation into a conflict.

Apart from Pakistan’s perceived Saudi tilt, Iran-Pakistan relations remain strained due to continuous sectarian conflict in which sectarian minorities are repeatedly targeted in Pakistan. The government’s inability to control the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has created serious misgivings in our relationship. The policy, at one time, of using sectarian groups to target separatist national parties in Balochistan has backfired.

Pakistan will also have to stay clear of Saudi Arabia’s apprehensions regarding the interim nuclear agreement between the US and Iran. If it results in a permanent agreement, it will be a positive development — although not in the eyes of the Saudis, and their rivalry could drag Pakistan into it.

Pakistan’s support of the Afghan Taliban is viewed in Tehran with distrust. Iran is backing political groups that are dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks of the former Northern Alliance and are opposed to the Afghan Taliban.

The coming months will place even higher demands on our government about policy choices, especially in dealings with Afghanistan, Iran and India, due to their direct impact on internal stability. Relations with Afghanistan are crucial at a time when our own militant groups are threatening to destabilise the state. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to cooperate closely to defeat the menace of militancy.

The question we confront today is: how can we nuance our policy towards Afghanistan in a way that does not strengthen the Afghan Taliban in the post-2014 scenario, and at the same time does not pitch them against us. Any military success of the Afghan Taliban, even if it were confined to the east and south of Afghanistan, would give a huge boost to Pakistani militant groups. Change in strategic direction for Pakistan will not be easy, as we have been supporting the Afghan Taliban for years. If Pakistan, however, is seen to continue in its tilt towards the Afghan Taliban, then it is very much possible that Afghanistan, India and Iran, along with Russia, could jointly oppose and create a very difficult situation for us.

At a time when Pakistan is committing its resources to go against militants in Fata, we have to ensure that Afghanistan cooperates and denies them sanctuary. The real challenge stems from the conflicting demands of balancing relations with Afghanistan while being able to contain the Afghan militant groups in Fata and dealing with our own militants. This would require that external and internal policies are closely coordinated — by no means an easy task. As there has been hardly any tangible progress between the Afghan Taliban and the US, or between Karzai and the Taliban leadership, Pakistan will have to take measures to prevent a fallout from across the borders.

peace deal that will allow the Afghan Taliban to return to powerWith the exception of Pakistan, all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including the Central Asian states, are vehemently opposed to any . Broad-based hostility towards them requires Pakistan to exercise its relations with great finesse. The encouraging aspect, however, is that the Pakistani military and the political leadership are, perhaps, more realistic today and understand that there are dangers in being too close to the Taliban: even those who harbour no anti-Afghan Taliban feeling are cautious about embracing them.

Of late, Pakistan has revisited its Afghan policy and tried to reach out to other power centres in addition to the Pashtuns. Pakistan is also using its influence on the Afghan Taliban leadership to induce them to talks that could lead to a power-sharing agreement and a peaceful transition. Of course, Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban is limited and it is not clear, as mentioned earlier, if they, the US and Karzai are serious about negotiations. To achieve any meaningful results, the US and India should similarly engage the Northern Alliance in showing greater flexibility in accommodating the genuine interests of Pashtuns. Even if attempts of the US and neighbouring countries fail to stabilise Afghanistan, it would still be in the mutual interest of India and Pakistan to cooperate and play a constructive role.

At a minimum, Pakistan and Afghanistan need a better bargaining position with the Afghan Taliban and for that we need a much better understanding of their demands and our own bottom line. By getting the Afghan Taliban issue under better control, both countries also serve their interests in strengthening their position vis-a-vis the United States, in being able to push back on politically sensitive issues such as drone attacks where US pressures can create more problems than they mean to solve. We need to cease thinking of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, or elements of that movement, as instruments of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and recognise that — as matters stand — Pakistan’s own militants represent a major threat to political stability within our own borders.

In sum, Pakistan needs a more rational relationship with Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia and that is only feasible if we pursue internal and external policies that strengthen us domestically and improve our situation regionally.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2014.

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Sexton Blake | 9 years ago | Reply

@bilal: Crony steup I agree, but it seems to happen in almost every country in the world. Mr Churchill once said in so many words that; democracy was not a very good form of government, but better than anything else. Pakistani people will just have to suffer like everybody else. In regard to Pakistan's position in the world, it has so many domestic problems the last thing that is needed is any overseas adventures. Once a war is started overseas any cash handouts from foreign countries, although seemingly attractive, will merely be tantamount to petty-cash in the long run

unbelievable | 9 years ago | Reply

Reality check. Regardless of your official position your policy of providing sanctuary to the Haqqani and meddling in Afghan affairs has made an enemy of Afghanistan and that's not going to change without a major change of policy demonstrated by taking up arms against the Haqqani - ain't going to happen. Your a Sunni nation and have sided with the Saudi's - it's abundantly clear to the rest of the World so wake up and admit it. BTW buying gas from Iran doesn't mean your best buddies with Iran - it's called business not an alliance. . Pakistan's policy of using strategic assets and playing both sides of the fence has backfired and created enemies of everyone you have betrayed. Not sure how you mend fences with people who don't trust you - might never happen.

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