July issue 2016

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


It is strange that after 69 years and after thousands of trained and experienced diplomats have passed through the Foreign Office, we still need to ask what is Pakistan’s foreign policy and who formulates it? It is a question that has been asked repeatedly in every decade — and remained unanswered. The seeming disorderliness of our foreign policy in a changing regional and global milieu is disturbing. Pakistanis want to know where we are headed and if we even know how to express our national interest?

More importantly, are we ready to face the challenges of changing times, especially as global tension rises because of the transformation of a unipolar power system to one of multi-polarity? Pakistanis may discover that a foreign policy defined by centralisation, lack of flexibility on core interests, an almost monarchical dominance of the decision-making process by a bureaucratic oligarchy, and the centrality of the idea of military security may not help bear the burden.

The global power equation is changing in such a manner that Asia has turned into a strategically-vital continent. What was once nothing more than a combination of Second World and struggling Third World states, has gradually acquired military, economic and political strength. The future global military, economic and political potential lies in this region, which is why existing global powers like the US seek to strengthen old linkages, as with Japan, and build newer ones, as with India. The global geo-political competition will have an impact on Asia’s internal geo-strategic design and intra-regional rivalry. In due course, many of the old power structures will crumble and newer ones will emerge, as we are witnessing in the Middle East. The likely centre of power in the Middle East and Gulf will be Iran, which has re-emerged from the shadow of three decades of rivalry with the West. Tehran has a significant role to play in a Middle East where many of the Arab states are politically non-existent and others are on the precipice of an internal meltdown.

Under the circumstances, a country’s foreign policy has to show sufficient flexibility to adapt to changes. A foreign policy is meant to fulfil state interests, which is not just achieved through competitive military might but bilateral, multilateral and regional arrangements that will strengthen a state both directly and indirectly. So, it baffles many to see Pakistan’s foreign policy out of depth in grasping changing realities. Even our best and everlasting friend, China, seems to be increasingly worried about our isolationism.

Therefore, when Pakistan has to think of fencing the Pak-Afghan border despite having engaged with ourneighbour for almost three decades, the fault lies not in our stars but with the tenor of our bilateral and political engagement. Why didn’t our Foreign Office ever inform decision-makers about the resentment of the ordinary Afghan against Islamabad? Why did we continue supporting the Taliban and pursuing a policy that paid minimal dividends? But then the case of Pakistan’s relations with Kabul is no different from our history with Bangladesh. Why and when did a country, which was presented by some retired-military-turned-defence analysts as future strategic depth vis-à-vis India, turn so strongly against us? Why couldn’t our diplomats smell the domestic change in Dhaka? Or why didn’t anyone tell former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani that he was sending a person, with a wrong historical context, Khwaja Alqama, son of Khwaja Khairuddin, who was detested by the Bangladeshis, to Bangladesh as high commissioner? Outside South Asia, we have suffered from the inability to find a more long-lasting convergence with the US. The relationship is pendulum-like — up and down — based on the limited agendas of both sides.


The biggest issue of Pakistan’s foreign policy that results in its over-centralisation and myopic reading of events lies in what is stated by Pakistan’s former diplomat turned academic, S. M. Burke, and American political scientist, Lawrence Ziring, as a “psychological thing” — Islamabad’s obsession with New Delhi. This is not just the best description of Pakistan’s ties with India, but also a factor that has influenced everything else. Our threat perception vis-à-vis India has turned all our relations triangular and utilitarian. Thus, we will only engage a country, be it China, Iran, Afghanistan, the US or the Arab world, if it can help us acquire wings to fly against India. Our foreign policy does not cater to exploring avenues beyond military security. Few initiatives are taken by Pakistani diplomats to present Pakistan to the outside world and vice versa. I am reminded of a conversation with a senior diplomat who was nothing but discouraging about the idea of exploring Russia. This attitude breeds ignorance even about our close friends. Do we know what the Chinese like to read, the films they love to watch or their cultural trends? Similarly, do they know us as people? Yet, in a television debate a few years ago, Tariq Fatemi declared that we had a strategic partnership with China.

The other dimensions of our foreign policy generally flow from the first and above-cited dominant angle.

Fighting India has historically diverted resources from development to defence. This means a lack of social, economic, political and cultural progress — a gap that was always filled through seeking funds from abroad. Economic dependency forms the second critical dimension of our foreign policy, the idea of which seems to have been inspired by the founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who believed that “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.” Indeed, he wrote a letter to Washington asking for $170 million for the Pakistan Army, $75 million for the Pakistan Air Force, $60 million for Pakistan Navy, and an additional $1400 million for agriculture and industrial development. He was of the view that Washington being a prominent western power would replace Britain and help Pakistan, a country that he thought would prove to be “the pivot of the world” due to its geographic location on “the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.” In current times, the acknowledgement in Islamabad that access to the Arabia Sea is crucial for Beijing and so it will invest in Pakistan’s economic and military development has turned into a major driver for bilateral links. Having transformed purely into a security state that lacks additional economic or cultural dimensions to extend itself, Pakistan’s status as an aid-dependent state has an impact on foreign policymaking.

Yet, a third and inter-linked dimension pertains to finding a counter-balance to India. In a succinct paper, author Samina Yasmeen, a scholar based in Australia, wrote about two significant trends in foreign policy — the threat from India and a bid to counterbalance it. The important role played by the US, especially after the late 1970s and nuclearisation of the Indian subcontinent when the threat of crisis increased, indicates the second trend. Diplomatic missions from Washington would help defuse tension and bring the situation back to the pre-crisis mode, especially as bilateral talks were more susceptible to collapse. Given the tension between Beijing and New Delhi or lack of engagement between Moscow and Islamabad, there was no other state which could play this role except for the United States. It is noteworthy to add that the search for strategic depth also results from the desire to search for a counter-balance to New Delhi.


The centrality of the Pakistan-India conflict meant that geo-politically insignificant states in Africa, South America or even those from the Muslim bloc did not matter to us. In fact, religion or religious identity did not play a significant role in the early years of Pakistan, mainly because there was nothing that each of the Muslim states independently struggling with their post-colonial social development could add to Pakistan’s confidence and security. In any case, the Muslim bloc has never been a single force. As observed by former Canadian diplomat Louis A. Delvoie in one of the rare works on the Islamic dimension of the country’s foreign policy, the Islamic aspect is least contested within the country and has not played a decisive role. During the 1950s and the 1960s, Egypt’s Nasser was vying for regional supremacy with the Saudi and Gulf Arabs. Egypt’s decision to rebuff Islamabad coincided with Pakistan opting for the Saudi bloc, a relationship it has since maintained. The relationship was also helpful from an economic-military dimension as Riyadh and Libyan petro-dollars came in handy when building the nuclear programme. But over the years, Pak-Saudi or the Pak-Arab Gulf relations are less about Pakistan’s strategic needs and more about a clientele within the Muslim world in which individual and organisational mercenary interests dovetail into ideological bias. The Saudi oil, in return for a guarantee of the security of the monarchy, is part of the client-patron relationship and building of the myth that indicates Islamabad’s financial dependence on the Saudi-dominated Arab world — which may not necessarily be the case. What’s for sure is that successive efforts did not materialise in building the Muslim bloc which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had envisioned during the 1970s.

The desire to build a strategic Muslim bloc flows weakly through our foreign policy. Successive leaders have vied for building a central nexus despite the domestic political flavour. From Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf — the idea of building a bloc dominated by Pakistan, which would probably help in working as a counter-balance to Indian power, has been there. There is nothing ‘personalised’ about this foreign policy. Individual leaders’ energy matters but their personal beliefs and biases seem to have played a lesser role. For example, it was not Benazir Bhutto’s faith that influenced the policy to supply nuclear know-how to Iran, but the mercenary instincts of the security establishment, their miscalculation about the possibility of selling nuclear technology, and a perspective adopted even by non-Shia military commanders such as Mirza Aslam Beg, Jahangir Karamat and Asif Nawaz Janjua that building the nuclear technological base of a neighbouring Muslim state would help build Pakistan’s influence.

In the early 1990s, there was talk of a Pakistan-China-Iran nexus and the then army chief, General Asif Nawaz Janjua had travelled both to China and Iran in order to build links independent of the US. However, the option did not seem to work well as Tehran challenged Islamabad’s military support of the Taliban during the 1990s. Iran’s opposition in Afghanistan seems to have even shaken the historical basis of bilateral relations. It is worth noting that up until 1979, Tehran was viewed as Islamabad’s strategic depth. This was also the point when suspicion seems to have crept in vis-à-vis Iran that would never disappear. Since the 1990s, the Iranian embassy in Islamabad was one of the missions keenly tracked by the spooks. With the India-Iran-Afghanistan deal to build a port and provide energy to each other the bias may have only deepened.


This may not necessarily mean that Pakistan will permanently become part of the Saudi military alignment, though this has been a significant relationship since the 1960s when the Kingdom started to establish its own strategic-ideological grouping versus Egypt. While adding up numbers pertaining to Saudi financial aid may make the claim doubtful, the popular myth is that Islamabad’s dependency upon Riyadh or other Arab Gulf states is driven by financial needs. For example, during the 2010 floods, the UK and USA gave more financial assistance than Saudi Arabia. Also, unlike Iran during the 1970s, KSA or the Arab Gulf states have never used their diplomatic influence to bear upon India on behalf of Islamabad. Perhaps, this is not what successive Pakistan governments want from the Muslim world. The dependence is essentially strategic-economic in which resources were sought at critical times, particularly to build nuclear weapons. Islamabad always gave the impression to Riyadh that it would protect it against foreign aggression. However, there is never any clarity on what this responsibility entails. Historically, it was considered to be threat from Israel but nuclear expert Frank Barnaby believes that Pakistan would never use its weapons against Tel Aviv. In more recent times there is less clarity regarding what Pakistan will protect Riyadh against. It is issues of its own identity rather than the Arab world that have kept Islamabad away from establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. An effort was made during the Musharraf days but got stalled mainly because the issue was not important enough for Islamabad to struggle for a change in the status quo. Meanwhile, Islamabad has continued to deal with Israel secretly and on a ‘as need be’ basis.

The search for a counterbalance against New Delhi also resulted in Pakistan establishing its own power base. I am reminded of a restricted paper written in 1990 under the supervision of Generals Mirza Aslam Beg, Hameed Gul and Agha Masood titled: ‘Gulf Crisis 1990.’ The basic hypothesis was that the US would attack Iraq and lose the war, which would create a vacuum to be filled in the Middle East by the only nuclear Muslim state. Furthermore, it advised de-linking with the US, building ties with certain Asian and European states, and developing the Afghan Taliban into an additional infantry battalion to be used when required. This perception of building Pakistan into a significant military player translated, during the 1990s, into investment in the Taliban in Afghanistan and interest in Central Asian Republics that were offered money as an inducement to join a Pakistani-dominated bloc. While this ambition did not materialise, such argumentation probably represented a hybrid between two lobbies out of three that Samina Yasmeen identified as influencing the country’s foreign policy. In a 1994 paper written for the IISS journal Survival, Yasmeen identified three groups among the foreign policymaking community: (a) the surrender group (that accepted American dominance) (b) the independence school that asked for developing links beyond the US, and (c) the Muslim group which aims at building an Islamic bloc. Despite the fact that many years having passed since the publication of the paper, the three schools of thought remain, with a constant competition and variation in significance. However, it is in the lack of consensus and clarity regarding operationalising the wish list that Islamabad falters in making significant gains. The ability in pushing forward in building and strengthening ties with Russia is a case in point. Notwithstanding the desire to strengthen relations with Moscow, Pakistan has failed to put in place a team that would translate such wish into action. The placement of insignificant run-of-the-mill bureaucrats in Moscow will not help.


Many consider the foreign policy confusion to be less due to Islamabad’s paradoxical security interests and more due to the absence of a foreign minister, especially after 2013. For the prime minister to also wear the foreign minister’s hat is a hat too many. However, a question worth asking is, if an independent foreign minister can give a better policy direction, especially if it is the GHQ, which dominates the show. The dominance of the security paradigm means that the military has a greater say in influencing foreign policy decisions.

Relations with India and Afghanistan have always fallen within the army’s purview. This, despite the fact that Muhammad Khan Junejo managed to sign the Geneva Accords in 1985, which raised General Zia’s ire. But such rebellion may have not been a case of solitary bravado by a politician, but a concerted effort from the pro-US lobby. What is for sure, as noted by several authors, is that the army, especially after Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal in 1990, seems to have assumed greater control of foreign policy. Burnt once, Ms Bhutto was not too keen to disrupt the GHQ in pursuing its goals in Afghanistan or vis-à-vis Central Asia during her second term. According to a foreign office diplomat, her lack of interest was apparent during her visits to some of the Central Asian Republics. Today, the military’s influence is far more pervasive and extends beyond nuclear-related issues and links with India, to relations with China, the US and other significant states. The differences that emerged between Rawalpindi and Washington after the signing of the Kerry-Lugar Bill and the escalation in military conflict in Afghanistan resulted in the political government being forced out of its share of US-related policymaking.

Although a large number of lateral entrants at the ambassadorial level are retired military personnel and even younger officers began to opt for the Foreign Service at the entry level through their quota in the civil service, it is the control of the mind and soul of the Foreign Office which gives the security establishment its power. A glance inside what used to be the Hotel Shehrzade (this is where the Foreign Office is located in Islamabad) indicates the strong footprint of policy hawks.

The overall orientation of the Foreign Office remains towards military security. The dominant diplomatic tradition is symbolised by people like Agha Shahi and Muneer Akram. The more successful breed of officers in the foreign service aim to be like these men — confident, well-versed in history as gleaned from files, and hawkish. It is the last characteristic which appears to some as a Punjabi influence over foreign policymaking. This lack of contribution in ideas could be due to, as stated by Mehtab Ali Shah in his paper ‘Ethnic impacts on foreign policymaking,’ poor representation from other areas. For instance, in 1994 the then foreign minister Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali informed the Parliament that out of a total of 383 officers only 39 were from rural Sindh, which was way less than the 14 per cent quota assigned to the area as per the 1973 Constitutional allocations. Moreover, there is the problem of Punjabi settlers getting seats on the rural Sindh quota due to their domicile. The example of the former foreign secretary, Tanveer Ahmed Khan, is a case in point.


Agha Shahi

The military’s dominance has turned the Foreign Office into a post office meant to circulate instructions or undertake crisis management. During my personal brief stint with the Pakistan Navy, I got a chance to observe closely the resistance of even a peripheral service such as the navy to seeking opinion from the foreign office. During the mid-1990s, when the Foreign Office was of the view that Moscow was not ready to establish ties with Pakistan let alone sell us major weapon systems, the three service headquarters couldn’t care less. They believed that if they had enough money, the entire world would be willing to sell anything to them. Such an attitude does not boost a career diplomat’s morale.

In the past few decades, several factors have led to a decline in the quality of the foreign service. Top CSS candidates now opt for administrative services like DMG and police or lucrative financial services such as Customs and Income Tax over the Foreign Office. Just a few years back when the Income Tax department took officers on loan, there were several from the foreign service who agreed to go and had little interest in returning to the Foreign Office. This was popularly known as the ‘Dubai group.’ The fact of the matter is that the overall change in class structure motivates people towards services that are lucrative or enhance power in an overall semi-feudal environment. In the ‘70s and the ‘80s, the foreign service was rated as the top most service. That is no longer the case.

For many that spend a few years in the service, the romance tends to fade away as they figure out that the officers have little to do with actual policymaking. But you don’t even need to be a bureaucrat to learn about your insignificance. Apparently, even the foreign minister under Pervez Musharraf learnt that the hard way. Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri has written a weighty book, Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove, highlighting his contribution in easing relations with India but sources claim that even he had to request a senior journalist to convince Musharraf to brief his own foreign minister on his interaction with India regarding Kashmir. Hina Rabbani Khar was more truthful when she told Al Jazeera that there were things she did not know as the country’s foreign minister. Was she referring to the secret conversation between some members of the military and the Indian government during 2011 that she and the prime minister did not know anything about?


Muneer Akram

As for the bureaucrats, the more ambitious ones tend to find a way around the organisational flaws. In the words of a Foreign Office employee, the best ones are not necessarily those that contribute to policy but those who have done the homework of reading policy briefs and older files. In fact, the Foreign Office crowd can easily be divided between the happy-go-lucky types who are just there to do a job, get a promotion and walk out, and those that are very career-oriented and learn the tricks of the trade. It is officers from the second category that will be found strolling in the corridors well after office hours to impress their bosses. One of the destinations for career advancement is the disarmament division where you learn about issues and get to interact with the security establishment more than usual. This is certainly one section that breeds hawks. In any case, it is now almost impossible to get a posting to critical stations like New Delhi, Washington and London without getting a nod from the khakis. As for other stations, personal contacts with political governments help many stay afloat.

Being articulate, suave and a workaholic may build an individual reputation, but it has not helped produce an outstanding mind. Even if we consider some of the earlier mentioned icons of the Foreign Office, they were good to run a hawkish, defensive and traditional policy but they failed to use their imagination to expand Pakistan’s outreach beyond security.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter