Interview: Najmuddin Sheikh
What was your experience of civil-military relations as Pakistan’s foreign secretary?
Essentially the formulation of foreign policy is something that has to be a whole government effort. In the period I was foreign secretary, policies were formed with input from the intelligence agencies, from the military, from commerce, finance etc. Foreign policy cannot be something that is made only by the mandarins sitting in the Foreign Office saying, ‘aha this is what we want.’ What the Foreign Office does is it put it all together, using sources that are unique to the Foreign Office, its missions abroad, its personal contacts with foreign dignitaries and policy-makers.
But foreign policy is very largely a handmaiden of domestic policy. We have one overriding concern — maintaining the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan. Beyond that, everything a foreign policy does is meant to serve domestic policy. Now who sets the domestic agenda? The government does that. Who sets the security policy? The government, with input from all elements. One thing I will tell you — and this bears repetition — nature abhors a vacuum. People from various fields of expertise should get together and say, ‘this is what we should do.’ But in terms of how relationships with other countries are determined, the lead figure has to be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I know of examples where much was surrendered to the Economic Affairs Division, for instance, in terms of determining our relationships with our donor partners or donor agencies. We have something of that nature happening with regard to our relationship with the UN Commissioner for Refugees. You give up space and that space will be occupied by others. So you have to insist that this is the role the Foreign Office has to play. Only then will the Foreign Office be able to play that role.
This is how I went about the formulation of foreign policy during the period I was there. It was a difficult period. It was a period in which we were not talking to India, because as a matter of policy we had said, ‘until you do something to alleviate the condition of the Kashmiris, make life easier for them, get rid of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, stop the arbitrary arrests, etc., talking will be difficult.’ I was foreign secretary from March 1994, and from October 1993 to August 1997 — until a composite dialogue was agreed upon — we did not talk to India.
Now that is not helpful. In my view, we should have tried to change [this situation.] The Indians made efforts to try to get us to change it, but we didn’t. Now, the same mistake is being repeated on the other side. Now they say ‘we’ll talk about terrorism and nothing else.’ As a result, we are left stranded.
In the formulation of foreign policy and in the determination of relationships between countries, there are a few things that should not be forgotten. First, you can’t change geography, and second, the world today is one in which economics, rather than politics, is the determinant. We talk about Pakistan’s geo-strategic location, I beg to differ. I talk about Pakistan’s geo-economic location. It is a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia via Afghanistan. It is a bridge between West Asia and South Asia, being the direct overland route. And now, there is the CPEC, which incidentally, is not new. The Chinese had briefed me about it more than 25 years ago, saying, ‘We are developing Western China. We have put in 750 billion dollars to bring it to the same level as our coastal cities, which means there will be an enormous amount of economic development and production, and will create new markets. All that will require inputs. Those countries that neighbour Western China can benefit from this. To be quite honest, I didn’t visualise that access to Xinjiang and Western China could be provided through Gwadar. That would obviate the long trek from Western China to Shanghai or Canton, etc.
Now that is what we should be focusing on.
When we talk about foreign relations, it’s usually from a national security point of view. For example, the perception is that when it comes to policy vis a vis Afghanistan and India particularly, it’s the army calling the shots. What is your view on this? During your tenure as foreign secretary, how independently could you approach issues with regard to Afghanistan and India?
In my time, Afghanistan was a different proposition. Geography determines, or forces upon you the fact, that you must learn how to live with your neighbours. All your neighbours may not necessarily behave in the manner that you like, but that is what diplomacy is about. Diplomacy is about reconciling differences and creating a modus vivendi. And a modus vivendi is not ‘in thee we trust.’ It means that whatever you do has to be carefully modulated to ensure that you reduce tensions but safeguard your interests.
In regard to India, my effort always was that even if we were not talking, our relationship must not be allowed to deteriorate — we must keep it on as even a plane as possible. I wanted to emphasise to India that its own rise — which in 1994 was more in the imagination than in reality — would only come if it took its neighbours with it.
There is going to be no war. Mr Modi has achieved his principal purpose, which was to divert attention from what is happening in Kashmir, ie. the spontaneous uprising brought about as a result of Burhan Wani’s killing. Thousands of people have died — the last few days I have seen 800/900 people with pellet wounds in their eyes, dozens and dozens of people arrested, and a new phenomenon: these are leaderless demonstrators. They are not being led by Yasin Malik. They are not being led by Gilani. They are there on their own. For India, this is one of the biggest embarrassments possible. But if they can put this in the compartment of terrorism being fomented by Pakistan, then the whole equation changes.
I try to follow the reporting abroad. Uri happened, but did the surgical strikes happen? The Indians report that the Americans say Uri was a case of cross-border terrorism. Modi is satisfied with that; he uses it as the reason for the fomenting of the demonstrations in Kashmir.
So Modi has used this effectively to divert attention from the real situation in Kashmir. And as a result he hopes [he can use it to bolster] other developments in UP, where the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is beginning to have internal problems of its own and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might come out ahead.
There is a secondary purpose to the nationalist sloganeering in Modi’s India. It has worked in fomenting anti-Pakistan sentiment, but has been carefully modulated. The official statements have talked about operations along the Line of Control and about the fact that ‘we have informed our Pakistani counterparts that we have taken this action, but we don’t intend on doing anything further.’ In effect [Modi is] saying, ‘I’ve done what I had to do. We’re not going to do anything further, and neither should you.’
We don’t intend taking this further either. There is no escalation planned. In all probability, the restrictions on the film industries [on both sides of the border] are also likely to be reversed. But while there is no danger of war, there is the danger that a genuine dialogue will not resume.
One of the things this July-October uprising has determined is that a genuine dialogue is needed, and the voice of the Kashmiri people must be counted. If you say Kashmir is back at centrestage so far as Pakistan is concerned, yes, I would agree, but it is not centrestage in India. If we want this to move centrestage in the international arena, then other elements must be removed, which brings me back to the fact that our problems are internal. If we resolve our internal problems, our foreign policy problems will disappear.
There were other elements involved In Afghanistan, including elements that are part of our historic baggage. We made mistakes. One of the mistakes, I believe, is the fact that we did not, as I had wanted, try to insulate ourselves from Afghanistan. I had always felt that the Taliban influence in Pakistan would be a detrimental influence, even while they were operating within the borders of Afghanistan. [The problem was and remains, that] their definition of the Pak-Afghan border is, to say the least, ambiguous.
I believe this was not government policy. But there were many parts of the establishment who felt differently, which led to policy moving in a particular direction.
Moving to another topic, who do you think leaked the story of the government-military meeting, and to what end?
I don’t know what the facts are. I am sure that the foreign secretary must have talked about the fact that we have a problem in so far as every country talks to us about terrorism and extremism — [saying] ‘we know you are fighting [terrorism] successfully, but we also believe you are fighting selectively.’ That must have been said, but from there to jump to the conclusion that there was a confrontation… I’m not sure that there is anybody in the military establishment who says, ‘do not complete the application of the National Action Plan.’ The registration of madrassahs, the auditing of accounts, stopping of their financing — these are all elements on which everybody was in agreement — but these steps have not been taken.
There was an article in Dawn that identified the National Action Plan as the National Inaction Plan. This, I believe, is due to the lack of direction as far as the political leadership is concerned — its inability to give the matter the priority it deserves. For the media, the story lies in the so-called confrontation [between the civilian and the military authorities]. But the true story in Pakistan is the collapse of governance.
The media is supposed to be the Fourth Estate. They have very specific responsibilities. But with us here, in Pakistan, I have forgotten that such a thing as investigative journalism, as coherent reporting, exists. It’s unfortunate.
I think our stories should focus on what our economic plight is. Mr Dar might say we are doing very well. He may get (IMF Managing Director)Christine Lagarde to talk about the fact that we have fulfilled our IMF commitments. That’s fine. But show me the figures. They don’t match. That is the story. That our tax base is not widening because [to do so] our leadership would have to swallow a bitter pill and say to its community of supporters, ‘if you want development, then the money has to come from what we raise from you.’ That is not happening. Today we floated a sukuk — a bond — at rates which were three per cent higher than the rates at which Sri Lanka borrowed. Why? I put this down to a lack of preparation, a lack of homework. Frankly, this kind of attitude is what is taking this country to ruin.
Do you think the army overreacted to the Almeida story? And did the government do so as well?
I don’t want to be overly critical — the government finds itself in difficulty on a number of scores, and therefore, there is a panicked reaction. But I think we have created a storm in a teacup. It is not worth the time that the media has given it — I am very annoyed with the media.
Chaudhry Nisar said we will complete the inquiry [as to the source of the leak].
But it’s been 15 days, and nothing has happened. So the media is now taking him to task.
What is important is how this features in the larger picture. In the larger picture, I would like the media to say, ‘we have looked at the public service commission results, and seen that the results are abysmal. [They should be asking,] Who are the people who are coming in? Who are the people who are going to provide the administration? What has happened to our privatisation? What has happened to the plan to get get rid of the haemorrhaging of public sector enterprises, be it PIA, or the Steel Mill? Why do you suddenly have a solar plant that is costing you 14 cents per kilo an hour, when other countries instal it at four cents?
So you believe this brouhaha is a diversion of sorts and that the actual, more concrete issues are not being addressed…
Yes, but why? What are you doing now? Three days [after the report was published] you had in essence put it aside. Nobody was talking about Cyril Almeida. So what happened?
As foreign secretary I had heated discussions with the Prime Minister, with other ministers and secretaries sitting there, and these discussions sometimes got to be quite heated. You put across your point of view, and they made their point of view known. And this should happen. That is how honest debate takes place. My fear nowadays is not that heated or honest debates are taking place, but that they are debates of the ignorant. People come to meetings without knowing the facts. And that is what our current governance is all about. But the steady deterioration in our ability to govern does not become a story in our media.
I talk to the trainees at the National Institute of Management, and I keep saying to them, whether it is our colonial heritage or otherwise, the civil service was meant to be the [country’s] steel framework. It was the 800 people [in the civil service] who essentially administered the 400 million people of India. They provided governance. In [Pakistan’s] early years, we had people who were dedicated and sat on crates and the entire Foreign Office had the use of only one typewriter. They knew what they were doing, and they did it with dedication and competence.
I look everyday at the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN). I think anybody who is interested in looking at our long-term prospects should look at this. Today the picture is so grim, that when I look at our assemblies I feel ashamed of the fact that these are the people we elected. Look at the attendance of our legislative bodies, [the dire lack of quorum]. And the meetings that are held last no more than 60-65 minutes. So and so bill is not considered. Questions are not answered because the minister is not available. Other issues are not dealt with because the questioner is absent. What is this? Is anybody taking their responsibility seriously? That is what you have to focus on. Start making people who are theoretically the representatives of the people, do what they have been elected to do. Discuss matters in parliament, discuss matters in the provincial assemblies, and make wise decisions based on having done your homework and having attended.
We have to restore the dedication and competence of earlier days.
There is quite a bit of tension between the government and the military establishment. In your opinion, as a result of this stand-off, and against the backdrop of the PTI dharna, could there be a a change of guard in the PM House? Can you see the jackboots marching in?
The dynamics of our internal politics are really beyond me. But my amateur view is that nothing of the sort is going to happen. You are going to lose half a million working days or more, and that is the sum total of what is going to be achieved — another misfortune for this country. But I entertain some hope that the Chief Justice — again I’m talking now not as an expert but as an ordinary Pakistani — will make good his pledge to insist on clear accountability.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.