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Reflections from the UNGA

At the annual UN General Assembly last week, Pakistan was largely a spectator. This should not be lamented, but welcomed. With a foreign minister who has a proclivity to create controversies because of an unbridled ego that does not allow his mouth to rest between sentences, nor his sentiment to rest between pauses to consider the implications of his pronouncements – it was a impressive performance for Pakistan to have arrived and left New York with only one embarrassing gaffe by the foreign minister (his claim of a conversation with US President Donald Trump that reportedly never happened).

Regardless of who is foreign minister, and what he or she is saying, for Pakistan a break from the international spotlight is good news and should be welcomed. For four decades, Pakistan has been thrust into a spotlight it never sought, burdened with responsibilities it was never meant to bear, forced into wars that it need not have fought, and sustained enmities that bleed it of life and treasure every single day.

Avoiding the spotlight because of fear of what others might see is hardly the life of the heroic nation that Pakistanis are convinced we are. Worst of all, Pakistan is indeed a heroic nation, but the choice of what is deemed heroic leads less to accolades and more to embarrassment. The principal issue in foreign policy is not that Pakistan doesn’t have a good story to tell. It is that Pakistan often tells the wrong story.

The still new government in Pakistan now seems to have decided it wants to tell no story at all. Prime Minister Imran Khan and the PTI government have clearly decided that they will focus on improving Pakistan’s domestic policy, and work on foreign policy – at an undisclosed later date – from a position of strength. Regardless of whether Shah Mehmood Qureshi is the ideal candidate to hold the fort abroad while the PM fixes the home front, this approach should be welcomed, as it represents caution, humility and a deliberate process. So how to reconcile Pakistan’s rightful place in the world, with a world that is changing, whilst Pakistan is changing too?

It isn’t easy, but a closer look at events at the UNGA can help us navigate the tricky terrain. Though the biggest laughs in New York were reserved for US President Donald Trump, some of the most important themes in global affairs were ensconced within his speech. Perhaps the most important was the American president’s decision to launch a frontal assault on international institutions, declaring, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy”.

The liberal press in the United States, and globally, has become an easy target for gas-lighting by provocative populists like Trump – but the international system, the UN, and the massive bureaucracies that run them have nothing to worry about. While the media congregates and hangs on every tweet and every syllable of a speech by world leaders – like Donald Trump – the international system continues to offer both bullies and their victims the best instrument to negotiate the outcomes they seek.

Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the US is a pretty good example. Since at least 2014, the US has demanded a number of actions from Pakistan, on a number of occasions. These actions are all rooted in the international system, and specific United Nations Security Council instruments. Pakistani leaders, whether civilian or military, have not followed US directives and this disconnect between the US and Pakistan is at the heart of the recent grey listing of Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force or FATF.

It seems that countries like the US (with populist and raging isolationists for leaders) will disagree with countries like France (with progressives and internationalists for leaders), except when it comes to Pakistan. When it comes to Pakistan, at an international architecture junction like the FATF, the US, France, and a host of other countries speak with relatively one voice.

Does this mean, as so many low-IQ, hyperbolic folks seem to be always suggest, that Pakistan is isolated? Not at all. Pakistan is not now, nor will it ever be, ‘isolated’. This is the mercy of Allah, and the genius of geography and of the British. It does, however, mean that Pakistan has to be very careful in how it interprets the seemingly waning relevance of international institutions.

More importantly, Pakistan must consider why it has been targeted by the FATF, and what the Americans have been demanding of Pakistan. This is the part of the story where Pakistan’s problem is not that it has no story to tell, but that it either tells the wrong story or, in recent years, tells no story at all.

Pakistan is being asked to dismantle the infrastructure of organisations that came into being in the 1990s to help the brutalised people of Indian-Occupied Kashmir resist the illegal, incessant, barbaric and inhuman onslaught of violence against them by the Indian military, at the behest of India’s elected, first secular, and more recently, Hindu nationalist governments.

For seventy years, the only voice on the international stage for the people of Indian occupied Kashmir has been that of Pakistani diplomats. But as these diplomats have bravely and resolutely fought the case for fairness and justice in Kashmir, they have been standing on a melting glacier: Pakistan’s once impressive and intimidating voice at the UN, and on the international stage, has become meeker and meeker over the last quarter century. It is worth examining why.

The easy answer would be the manufacturing of organisations that cross out of Pakistan’s borders to harm targets in other countries. But this simplified construct essentially denies agency to a number of important actors that Pakistan must respect more, and concurrently, who must take greater responsibility for their own actions.

One example is the now dominant narrative of Pakistan in Afghanistan: all anti state violence in Afghanistan is blamed on Pakistan. All destruction in Afghanistan is blamed on Pakistan. In Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad, everything that goes wrong is always Pakistan’s fault.

Yet between 1988 – when Pakistan, the US and seven Mujahideen organisations defeated the Soviet Union and instigated its collapse – and 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attack initiated the US mission to purge Afghanistan of global terrorist organisations, Afghans had virtually total autonomy to chart their country’s course. In those 13 years, Afghans killed more Afghans than the Soviets and the Americans combined in the almost 30 years in which they have invaded and occupied that country.

Somehow, despite having a massive military presence in Afghanistan for 17 years, and despite Afghans having had three presidential elections and billions in assistance from around the world, the blame for everything in Afghanistan is laid at Pakistan’s feet. Meanwhile, Pakistan has hosted a minimum of two million Afghans in its territory for four consecutive decades. There is no parallel in modern state history to Pakistan’s hospitality of Afghans.

Yet today, instead of every UNGA featuring Pakistan’s incredible tolerance, its generosity and its hospitality: all very real qualities that this great country should be able to boast of, we celebrate the absence of a spotlight.

Worse still, instead of being feted for its advocacy of the plight of people in Indian Occupied Kashmir, and instead of being celebrated for its hospitality and support for Afghan refugees, both Kashmir and Afghanistan have been weaponised against Pakistan: at the UNSC 1267 Committee, at the FATF, and at any forum available to Pakistan’s enemies.

If this new government is indeed one that represents real change, then beyond the headlines and beyond the thespian efforts of the foreign minister, it must use the unprecedented convergence of civil and military thought to reflect on why Pakistan has become a villain on the issues that should in fact make it heroic.

To do so requires an honest appraisal – including the strategic mistakes Pakistan may have made, the tactical errors Pakistan has committed, and the lessons that Pakistan has failed to learn.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "Reflections from the UNGA," The news. 2018-10-02.
Keywords: Political science , Foreign affairs , Foreign policy , International institutions , Media role , International system , Terrorism , Leadership , Pakistan , India , Kashmir