July issue 2016

By | Cover Story | Newsbeat National | Published 8 years ago




For a country neighboured by two potential global superpowers in China and India, one regional superpower in Iran, and in Afghanistan the one country that has vexed foreign adventurers for centuries, Pakistan finds itself remarkably isolated. Of these five countries, four are on historically bad terms with Pakistan. How and why that came to be the case is a story of military usurpation of civilian space, and how that space was quietly surrendered. The consequences of that, as we have seen in the last four years, is that of a state which is unwilling to give up its security fantasies in its dealings with the outside world.

The US is cancelling arms deals and lobbing bombs from drones; Afghanistan is accusing us of supporting the Taliban; India does not want to talk to us about anything except our alleged patronage of militancy, and Iran is ending its international isolation by inking deals with everyone but us. This is the state of Pakistan’s foreign policy in 2016.

The outsized space that was being granted to the military in foreign policy was clear from the very start. The biggest misassumption about Nawaz Sharif is that he has not appointed a permanent foreign minister, instead keeping the portfolio for himself and relying on advisers like Tariq Fatemi and Sartaj Aziz. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In November 2013, Nawaz Sharif appointed a de facto foreign minister. In fact, that de facto foreign minister was in Berlin last month where he met with the German foreign minister. His name is Raheel Sharif.



Even during the rare democratic pauses to uninterrupted military rule, the army has always reserved for itself the conduct of foreign policy — at least when it comes to ‘important’ countries like the US and India. But earlier, the civilians who were nominally in charge of foreign policy would be allowed to go on foreign trips and stay in luxury hotels. When foreign dignitaries visited Pakistan, they would have photo-ops with the civilians before holding closed-door meetings with the uniformed men in charge. Under Nawaz Sharif’s rule, the reality has become more overt and could be one of many reasons we are more isolated than ever.

The first noticeable thing about the Sharif foreign policy is that there isn’t one, in the traditional sense of having a foreign policy that advances our security interests. The PML-N of Nawaz is primarily interested in commerce, not diplomacy. The parallel foreign policy being run from GHQ deals with security interests, leaving little to no room for diplomacy to work.

It seems as if Nawaz realises how much the energy crisis contributed to his election victory and now feels the only way to secure re-election is by showing the electorate he is so fixated on fixing it that getting investment in the energy sector is the only thing on his mind while abroad. Of course, with the military occupying the policy space, perhaps there is little for the civilians to do but ink investment deals.


China has always been one of our closest allies — for entirely pragmatic reasons, despite the lyrical nature in which government officials sometimes refer to it. But under Nawaz, our political and economic destiny has become more closely tied to China than ever before. On the political front, China is the only major power left which still agrees with us that India should not be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and vetoed its admission, even when the US was strongly pushing for it.

It is in the economic realm that China has now become even more important to us than the US is. The Nawaz government began by all but handing China control of Gwadar Port in returning for developing it, a decision that angered just about every other country we have to deal with, most of all the US and India, since it gives an aspiring superpower control of a potentially strategically-important port. The negative fallout from that decision has been felt recently when Iran received $500 million from India to develop the port of Chabahar and a railway line to the port which runs from India to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia without having to cross Pakistani territory. Given that we already refused to build our portion of the Iranian gas pipeline because of US pressure, we will now be locked out of both trade and energy deals in the region.

Better than anything else, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) epitomises the Nawaz Sharif approach to foreign policy. It brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, much of it in the energy sector. It also keeps the Chinese happy by giving their state-owned company not only a share of the profits but also operational control.

The trade-and-investment approach has not worked quite as well with India. This may be because the government has in mind how the military scuttled the PPP government’s move to grant Most Favoured Nation trading status to India. Having Narendra Modi around as prime minister hasn’t helped either.

The relationship between Nawaz and Modi is like that between family members who wish they weren’t related. They call and write letters to each other and attend family weddings but, as soon as they are out of earshot, each starts complaining bitterly about the other. Our relationship with India is fraught with difficulties. Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek. And Kargil, Mumbai and Pathankot have not helped either. The Pathankot attack brought things to a head and the dialogue process that had begun after a long hiatus was put on hold. To our credit, we immediately accepted that the attackers had come from Pakistan and constituted a joint investigation team to assist the Indians. But there are a lot of hiccups along the way. The Indian government has blamed the recent attack on Indian paramilitary troops in Indian-administered Kashmir, which killed eight people, on Pakistan. Jaish-e-Muhammed accepted responsibility for the attack and for India the militant group is an extension of the state.

Meanwhile, we have not increased trade with each other, we have not made travel between the two countries any easier and, worst of all, we do not even play cricket against each other anymore.


As bad as our ties are with India, they pale in comparison with the mess we have made in relations with our other neighbours. Take Bangladesh, for instance. The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh is currently re-litigating the 1971 war cimes and has declared many aged Jamaat-e-Islami leaders guilty of treason and given them capital punishment. Since the JI fought on the side of West Pakistan in 1971, we have strongly protested these trials and the manner in which they have been handled — a fact that has not gone down too well with Hasina’s government, which views it as interference’ in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. There was also the tit-for-tat expelling of each other’s diplomats on charges of spying.

Meanwhile, our honeymoon period with Afghanistan has also ended and it looks like the unhappy couple may be headed for divorce. It didn’t help that Zarb-e-Azb has studiously avoided going after the Afghan Taliban or that two successive Afghan Taliban leaders were residing here — Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour — giving even more credence to the Afghan belief that we are a hidden force pulling their strings.

In recent months, tensions have flared up along the Torkham border. Pakistan clamped down on free movement across the border and even started building a gate. The Afghan response was to start firing at us, killing a Pakistani army major in the process. This is indicative of the state of relations between the two countries. They are wary of each other and will use any provocation, no matter how thin, to turn a cold war hot.

One would have expected that Saudi Arabia, the kingdom which so willingly hosted Nawaz Sharif and his family during their exile from power and even handed them industries in Jeddah, would have been one of our strongest allies. But that hasn’t quite proved to be the case. When the Saudis announced that a coalition of Muslim countries would be joining it in its war in Yemen, Pakistan, too, was included in the list. Our immediate response, however, was to deny all knowledge of a coalition. Even if we had been caught unawares by the announcement, we should not quite have exposed our cluelessness in such an obvious manner. Eventually, we ended up doing the right thing by getting Parliament to vote down committing our troops elsewhere, but the way in which we handled it was sloppy, to put it mildly.

Foreign policy in the PML-N era is beginning to look even worse because the US seems to be winding down its commitment in the region. In recent months, the US Congress voted down funding the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, arguing that the Pakistan government needed to do more against the Haqqani militants.

Ever since 9/11, the US alliance with Pakistan has been that of a patron and its client. They give us billions of dollars in aid and we use it to do their bidding. Sure, we were allowed the occasional protest or two, as happened after the US drone attack which killed Mullah Mansour, but that has now begun to change. With most of its troops having been withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US no longer has as much need for us. It’s tilt towards India, which it sees as a bulwark against China, and as a huge market with its billion plus people, is obvious. None of this is unexpected, since this is exactly what happened after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. What is mystifying is how we did not see this coming years ago and seem to be caught unprepared by the US pivot. When we see Modi and Obama hugging and chatting like old buddies, our anger should be directed not at them but ourselves. This was the most predictable of outcomes, and yet we did nothing to prepare for it.

Blame the military for usurping foreign policy or blame the government for so passively letting it be usurped but there is plenty of blame to go around. We have been left alone and isolated.




Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.