Foreign policy predicaments

The PTI Foreign Minister's diplomatic skills are going to face many tests, especially with Pakistan as isolated as it is today

We should be thankful that for the third time a in a row, a smooth transition has taken place and a new government has taken the country’s reigns through democratic processes rather than extra-constitutional intervention. It is heartening that despite their reservations, all major parties have agreed to work within the parameters of the constitution to make Parliament reassert the sovereignty of the people in a democratic state.

For now we have had enough rhetoric, and it is time to get down to business. Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has lucidly detailed his 11-point agenda to make Pakistan a welfare state but it still lacked prioritisation of issues. Since he is busy creating his government, it is understandable why one of the most serious and threatening developments in the region escaped his mention in his inaugural speech. The alarming recent developments in Afghanistan cannot be ignored. The problems across our western border must be given due attention during the Eid-ul-Azha ceasefire.

The war between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government has gone from bad to worse recently. The Taliban claim they have captured a significant chunk of the southern city of Ghazni after fierce fighting with the Afghan National Army (ANA). In order to hide the Afghan government’s weaknesses, Afghan intelligence has as usual, orchestrated a blame game, alleging that Jihadi elements from Pakistan backed by the ISI were fighting alongside the Taliban. It has even claimed that while 200 dead were left behind, injured Jihadi fighters were whisked away to Quetta and Waziristan for treatment in Pakistani hospitals.

One hopes that PM Imran Khan’s “respond to one step with two” formula can bring about some improvement in relations with Delhi

The latest round of bloodshed in Afghanistan exposes the failure of American policy and the inherent weakness in Afghan security forces that could at best be described as a red tag army. According to independent sources, the siege of Ghazni city caused the deaths of hundreds of people over the last ten days or so. This distressingly points to the lethal tactics being employed by the Taliban and the militant Islamic State group (IS). Since the ferocious fighting erupted, nearly 500 lives have been lost in the five-day battle causing shortage of food and life-saving drugs. Most disheartening for the NDS and the Centcom commanders based in Kabul was the fall of a military base in the north. This stoutly contradicts all the American claims of having turned the Afghan army into a modern fighting force.

Experts have pinned the blame on Washington’s confused handling of the Taliban, and steps like offering them an olive branch without actually decimating them from within. This is in violation of the basic requirements of counter insurgency. It seems that if this blunder isn’t corrected sooner rather than later, there will only be more terrorism in the run-up to the elections in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has suffered enough because of its incoherent foreign policy over the years. While PM Imran Khan has promised major ‘tabdeeli’ in every other field, foreign policy has not been attended to much apart from appointing Shah Mahmood Qureshi as Foreign Minister (FM). One hopes that within his limited domain, Qureshi will be able to remove the shroud of ambiguity about matters related to foreign policy. In his first speech as Foreign Minister he loudly shouted that from now on, foreign policy would be made in the Foreign Office. Obviously, this is only an attempt to dispel certain perceptions about the PTI.

Obviously, the PM will also stand by his claim of not taking dictation from any quarter. One hopes that his “respond to one step with two” formula can bring about some improvement in relations with Delhi, and improve the situation of the people of Kashmir. It should be noted that Kashmir was not spoken of as a core issue in his maiden speech. With Pakistan’s issues with India, and relations with the US at an all time low, the PTI Foreign Minister’s diplomatic skills are going to face many tests, especially with Pakistan as isolated as it is today.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi will need to come up with a counter strategy to repulse the onslaught of negative propaganda against Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is asking the PM Khan and the COAS to explain the allegedly Pakistani corpses that have been found after the Ghazni siege. We need to respond quickly and firmly. Qureshi also has to face US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ms Alice Wells, Head of South Asia Bureau in early September in Islamabad.

Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist

Published in Daily Times, August 22nd 2018.