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Pakistan’s foreign policy – A passage to nowhere

Pakistan’s 48 years since independence from British tutelage can be divided into two equal 24 year segments, the period before 1971 and the period since. It was during our hour of greatest need that we had the maximum support of our friends, 24 years later we do not have the same close relationship with any of the nations that then stood by us. Theoretically we hold that only democracy can strengthen external relationships, paradoxically our foreign relations have been strong during periods of dictatorship in comparison to the periods of democratic rule. This has mainly been because of circum-happenstance rather than any logical policy. While remaining an anti-communist (for communist read Soviet Union) bulwark in the Cold War (SEATO and CENTO), our relationship with Communist China expanded till reaching a symbolic peak during the 1965 war with India. During 1971, we had overwhelming support of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others.

To the credit of late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto he built on the Ayubian era and formed personal relationships with many Heads of State and Government, the symbolic peak was the OIC Summit in Lahore in 1974. Since 1965 our relationship with US had been headed steadily downhill, particularly because of the arms embargo imposed on both India and Pakistan post-1965 war. Given that almost all our arms and equipment came to us under US Military Aid to Pakistan (MAP) programme and that India’s major supplier, the Soviet Union, continued to replenish the Indian arsenal, we had reasons for being upset. Even the famous US “tilt” in December 1971 came too late to save our forces in then East Pakistan. With India exploding a nuclear bomb in 1974, we were committed to the search for a commensurate deterrent, late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s famous “we will eat grass if we have to get the Bomb” or some such pushed us into an early confrontation with US and its non-proliferation policy, all US economic aid to Pakistan came to an end by 1978 under the Carter-invoked Symington Amendment. By the time (and also because) PM Bhutto was hanged in 1979 we were well and truly in the western diplomatic doghouse, singled out not only for our nuclear policy but in the post-Shah period, we were pilloried as potentially a dangerous bastion of radical Islam in western perceptions. Despite their quiet reservations (and anguish) about Bhutto’s unfortunate hanging, our traditional friends stayed firmly allied to us.

The Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in December 1979 changed our relationship with the west in a hurry. Gen Zia’s military regime was transformed from international pariahs to the West’s frontline State to check perceived Russian designs towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the oil-rich Gulf area. Even the insulting “peanuts !” Zia exclamation to turn down the first offer of US$ 300 million by US President Carter in early 1980 was laughed away as a witty response of a proud soldier. Our nuclear aspirations and Islamic-bent were conveniently forgotten, Gen Zia’s image was re-built by the western media in the form acceptable to the western public. The Pakistan Armed Forces started receiving US military aid, to cater for the massive influx of refugees humanitarian aid was coordinated by UNHCR and beefed up by the US and other western states along with economic aid, in return Pakistan became a conduit for western military aid to the Afghan Mujahideen. Real-politik dictated that we should have realized that the west gave two hoots for the Afghan people, their primary objective was to take the pressure off NATO by getting the Soviet military machine involved in a debilitating Vietnam-type land conflict in Asia. In that they succeeded beyond all expectations in the destruction of the Soviet economy followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire. As the requisite platform and fire-base for the West’s war by proxy, Pakistan came under Scud missile attacks as well as cross-border air and artillery bombardment. In the process we also laid ourselves open to socio-economic and political problems along with the proliferation of drugs and Kalashnikovs throughout the country, a new culture took hold that has eroded the very foundations of our traditional society. The main staging port city of Karachi, polarised politically, suffered unfortunate side-effects, criminal activity turning into outright terrorism.

The aftermath of the Gulf War showed us the absolute bankruptcy of our negotiating stance in the early 80s. As a reward for standing by the US, countries like Egypt that peripherally came into contact with the crisis, were forgiven their entire debt by the US (upto US$ 14 billion in the case of Egypt) while Pakistan that besides terrorist targeting and acquiring massive debt in the 80s to shore up its economic position in the wake of the influx of about 3 million Afghan refugees that flooded into the country, was content with being feted as a frontline State for a decade plus. In retrospect we could have had, among other things (1) all our debts (at least US origin) forgiven (2) transfer of technology including sophisticated military infrastructure including arms manufacturing, facilities for aircraft, tanks, naval vessels, etc (3) entire national highway structure built according to most modern specifications particularly because they were getting a beating moving heavy supplies to Afghanistan (4) enhanced quotas for cotton made-ups in conformity with our raw cotton production so that our cotton-based economy could have taken off (5) obtained US acceptance about parity with India in treatment with respect to nuclear potential as well as missiles and (6) development of Balochistan including the ports as staging areas to counter any possible southern thrust by Russian forces. For a few squadrons of F-16s and assorted other equipment, we sold our future down the river, with nothing but regret to show for our pains for over a decade. It is amazing how far and fast we dropped in western estimation, we have only ourselves to thank for the bad deal. Rather than having the country’s best interest at heart, the Zia Regime seemed to be more interested in currying US support towards their own longevity, Zia and his colleagues failed us badly. No amount of rhetoric or media hoopla can cover this great betrayal.

Our most-favoured nation status persisted when Ms Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988 but she had to satisfy the US that she was not the socialist firebrand that her father was and that she would continue Zia’s policies. Anxious to transform her electoral lead into power, she readily accepted the guarantors that the US sought, President Ghulam Ishaq and Foreign Minister Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, among others. The US made it clear to the Pakistan Government that the “halcyon” days of the early 80s were over, that the Pressler Amendment which was used as a device for Pakistan to circumvent US Congress in providing US Aid on the strength of a Presidential certification that Pakistan was not pursuing nuclear aspirations would now be reversed (simply by withholding the Presidential certification) to ensure that Pakistan adhered to US policy on nuclear non-proliferation. Other than this we were now the target of a long list of “sins” which included (1) promoting and exporting State terrorism (2) obtaining missiles (and technology thereof) from China (3) not doing enough for drug eradication and interdiction (4) breaking textile quotas by third country operations (5) overlooking child labour (6) not controlling illegal immigration, etc. In the post-cold war era, where only one Super power remained on the block, there was no need for the US to compromise on issues with client-States on the usual pattern of client-patron relationship. The Gulf war heralded in the “New World Order”.

The dismissal of Ms Bhutto’s government by President Ishaq in early Aug 90 meant that Pakistan’s foreign policy went into hibernation during a critical three months period before an elected government took office, thereafter our policy in the Gulf crisis was quite ambivalent, mainly due to our then leaders being guided by street dictat instead of evolving Pakistan’s policy in the selfish interests of the country and the country alone. While Mian Nawaz Sharif jetted off on mediation missions, his COAS Gen Aslam Beg came out with the now famous “Strategic Defiance” which seemed to line Pakistan behind Saddam Hussein on the one hand while on the other hand we sent in our ground forces to Saudi Arabia to oppose Iraq. Some of us thought that this confused hotch-potch policy was a ploy by the COAS to bail out the PM from the pressures of street power. Much later it dawned on us that the then COAS was in earnest, the net result was that we managed to annoy friends and foe alike. By the end of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s tenure as PM we had come back a full circle to the same foreign policy doghouse that Zia was in 1979, on a “watch list” for a variety of universal “sins”.

There is no doubt that the US preferred Ms Benazir to Mian Nawaz Sharif, given the fact that the then DG ISI Lt Gen (Moulvi) Javed Nasir had taken some unfortunate initiatives that landed us into the company of nations like North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Sudan etc as countries exporting State terrorism. Of our friends in time of need, China became estranged with us over the issue of some of our Mullahs promoting Islamic fundamentalism in Sinkiang Province, Iran shies away from our overly dependence on the US of A and our policy in Afghanistan that seems to militate against Shias, Saudi Arabia remains miffed at our Gulf War responses and Turkey has been shocked at our ambivalence over Cyprus, cancellation of motorway contracts, etc. Despite great fanfare by the Ms Benazir Regime about its impending demise, the Pressler Amendment remains in place, what to talk about getting F-16s already paid for we are not ever likely to get (at least for the time being) the other equipment also paid for and agreed upon by President Clinton during the PM’s recent State visit to the States. Our whole foreign policy seems to revolve around a couple of squadrons of F-16s, we are a hostage to this issue resolution. By backing the wrong horse in Afghanistan in the post-war period or rather, not remaining neutral, we have pushed President Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood into the Indian/Russian camp, in effect with respect to Afghanistan we are roughly back in the same place as we were in 1985, outsiders. This time we are without any western economic and military support to shore up our efforts, in effect up the creek without a paddle. Central Asia was one area of Mian Nawaz Sharif success, after a short period of indecision Ms Benazir has regained the momentum. We have a genuine identity crisis whether to be South Asian, Central Asian or even may be Middle Eastern. We do not have any close links with any of the South Asian countries except Bangladesh, our relations with Sri Lanka having changed substantially after the advent of Ms Chandrika Kumaratanga Government. Perhaps the only thing keeping us in South Asia (and SAARC) is the historical and emotional links with Bangladesh, now further deepened by the economic fabric of two-way trade.

While appeasement of the only Super Power in the world, the US, may be pragmatic for longevity of the incumbent regime’s tenure, nations have to, in the ultimate analysis, look to their own national interests rather than succumbing to various external pressures. The US has its own national and security considerations (as every sovereign nation should), after the end of the cold war economic interests have come to the forefront. Our nuclear potential is a deterrence we cannot part with in the face of Indian nuclear potential, its conventional armed might, its known expansionist designs and the unresolved Kashmir question. Over Kashmir, one can be thankful that we have survived the tenure of Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi, the previous DG ISI, another few months and we would have been in the same sinking boat in which he had managed to put our Afghan policy into. Ms Benazir inherited a royal foreign policy mess, and foreign policy remaining her strong suit but despite innumerable State visits she shows no proclivity to take full control over the running of foreign policy despite her domestic pre-occupations. One could compare our foreign policy to the fact that the title of this article could have been left in place and the rest symbolized by a blank. That is certainly nowhere for a country’s foreign policy to be.


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