111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

The treacherous waters of foreign policy

The newly elected National Assembly has held its inaugural session. The short but intense election campaign, which resulted in the convincing victory of the PML-N, demonstrated yet again that the country has become the home of lost ideas. The speeches of party leaders at rallies were unimaginative and saturated with ridiculous and antiquated thought that made no sense in the context of the contemporary challenges that Pakistan confronts.
Two or three days after the May 11 elections, a jubilant Nawaz Sharif – flushed with victory and the certainty that he would again become prime minister – announced that he intended to appoint a technocrat as his foreign policy adviser in addition to a person from his own party as foreign minister.
This was bad policy. It would not only have diminished the stature of the minister in his dealings with his international counterparts, but would also have sparked tensions between the foreign minister and the unelected adviser, generated confusion in foreign policy formulation and impaired the ability of professional diplomats to perform their duties effectively.
However, a close aide of the prime minister-in-waiting revealed recently, on condition of anonymity, that the PML-N chief was likely to keep the defence and foreign affairs portfolios with himself but would, nevertheless, appoint a foreign policy adviser. This is an unwise decision for at least three good reasons.
First, Nawaz Sharif doesn’t have a clue about foreign policy as was apparent from his previous two crisis-dominated prime ministerial terms. He tends to formulate his views on external relations in simplistic black and white perspectives rather than on rational thought derived from ground realities. Second, an adviser – whether on foreign policy, finance or any other field – is a political nonentity and has no clout as such. He is likely to be swayed by the preferences of the prime minister, rather than express an honest opinion that might be in conflict with that of his boss. Third, the foreign office is relegated under this organisational structure to the backwaters and its recommendations are likely to be brushed aside by the adviser if they do not mesh with the prime minister’s views.
The problem with the political leaders of Pakistan is that they are taken in by the glittering half-truths articulated by self-serving technocrats and, in the context of foreign affairs, by non-career ambassadors. In the secretive world of interstate relations, it cannot be denied that diplomats are excessively cautious and work overtime in trying to conceal what is not worth knowing. But when one deviates from this narrow, confining groove of diplomatic practice and takes initiatives without any reference to the foreign office, the outcome can be disastrous.
A startling confirmation of this was the Memogate scandal, which surfaced in October 2011. The man at the centre of the storm was Husain Haqqani, the politically-appointed ambassador to Washington. Haqqani, an obsequious pseudo-intellectual, fancied himself as a foreign policy wizard and enjoyed the complete trust and confidence of the president. It has never been conclusively proved whether the treasonous memo requesting US intervention to pre-empt a potential military coup was actually dictated by Haqqani to Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American businessman.
Though the government trashed the memorandum as “a pack of lies,” the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and the former director general of the ISI, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, submitted affidavits to the Supreme Court which deviated sharply from the stance of the PPP-led coalition. In paragraph 10 of his deposition, the army chief affirmed that “there is no denying the fact that the memo exists and it has been delivered and received by the US authorities.”
The government reacted in panic. On December 22, 2011, former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani publicly stated on two separate occasions that democracy was imperilled because a particular institution of the country had become “a state within a state.” This unleashed a speculative ‘tsunami’ in the print and electronic media that a coup was in the offing.
General Kayani moved quickly to dispel what he described as “misleading rumours” of a military takeover. The Pakistan Army, he said, was all too aware of its “constitutional obligations and responsibilities” but he was equally emphatic that “irrespective of all other considerations, there can be no compromise on national security.” This is the message that the incoming government must unfailingly keep in mind as it navigates through the treacherous waters of foreign policy.
It is true that under Kayani’s leadership the Pakistan Army has undergone a remarkable transformation but there are certain red lines that it will never allow to be crossed. On Wednesday, the National Assembly will undoubtedly elect Nawaz Sharif as the leader of the House; and that will be the curtain-raiser to his third prime ministerial term – a feat no other politician has been able to achieve in the short but tumultuous history of Pakistan. He will have to be particularly circumspect in his pronouncements on foreign policy but, unfortunately, his statements over the last several months and in recent days demonstrate that he has still not been able to overcome the habit of articulating ill-thought-through opinions on external affairs.
On April 17 last year, Nawaz Sharif visited the Siachen region after the Gayari tragedy. There he emphasised the need for the normalisation of Pakistan-India relations. No one in their right mind can disagree with this because the two nuclear-armed neighbours just do not have any other option. But then, the PML-N chief went completely overboard and added, “The Pakistani government should take the lead and withdraw its troops from…Siachen…Let’s not make this a matter of ego. Pakistan should take the initiative.” Despite two prime ministerial terms, he has still not learnt the fundamental principle of diplomacy: upfront concessions must never be made.
Similarly, after the PML-N’s spectacular electoral success, Nawaz Sharif descended yet again into crass ill-logic in spelling out the measures he intends to take to establish a tension-free and cooperative relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi. He told the Indian media that he would investigate Musharraf’s foolhardy Kargil escapade and even probe the possible involvement of Pakistan in the Mumbai attacks. But what precisely does he hope to achieve by reopening the wounds of the past? It certainly does not advance the cause of Pakistan-India normalisation nor does it augur well for Pakistan’s internal stability for reasons that are all too obvious.
During the campaign trail, the PML-N chief exuded confidence that he would be able to prevail on Washington to terminate drone strikes. This was the false bravado of the market place. Drone strikes will continue for “the next 10 to 20 years” as was made clear to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Assistant Secretary for Defence Michael Sheehan on May 17.
The recent attack resulted in the killing of Waliur Rehman, the deputy leader of the TTP. As a consequence of this Nawaz Sharif’s election pledge of initiating talks with the banned outfit has also come to naught.
There is need for Pakistan to restore calm dignity in the conduct of its foreign policy. The country just cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Mansoor Ijaz affair, which is just one of many such disgraceful episodes, should have set alarm bells ringing and persuaded the leadership of the country to be careful in the appointment of ambassadors. India, for instance, avoids such disasters by appointing almost all its envoys from the Foreign Service. This is a practice that the prime minister-in-waiting would be well advised to follow.
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed @gmail.com

S Iftikhar Murshed, "The treacherous waters of foreign policy," The News. 2013-06-02.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Memogate scandal , National Assembly , Foreign affairs , Supreme court , Elections , Democracy , Hussain Haqqani , Gen Kayani , PM Gilani , Nawaz Sharif , PPP , ISI , PMLN , TTP