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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s new government has a tumultuous start on the Foreign Policy front


The first few weeks in power have proved to be challenging on the foreign relations front for the new Pakistani Government headed by Imran Khan, which has experienced first-hand how tricky balancing Pakistan's complex and competing foreign policy priorities can be. The situation is not expected to get any easier for the government dominated by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party that has assumed charge at the national level for the first time and has no experience in the delicate art of navigating international affairs. 

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry began with a major faux pas within a couple of days of the new government assuming office last month when it inexplicably misinterpreted a congratulatory message from the Indian Government to the new Pakistani Government. The Indian message had stressed on the desirability of peace and development in the region, which was misconstrued by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry as a weighty proposal from India for negotiations on the core issues between the two countries. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi responded by agreeing to what he erroneously perceived to be a proposal from the Indian Prime Minister for “peace talks”, only to be rebuffed by the Indian Government and told that no such proposal had been made by it in the first place. Left red faced, Qureshi was constrained to issue a clarification that conveniently blamed the Indian media for “misquoting” him. This clarification did not succeed in fooling anybody, as was evident from the Pakistani media’s coverage of the matter. 

This was followed by an incident with the United States (US) that further exposed the new Pakistani Government’s lack of tact and its immaturity. After a courtesy telephone call to Imran Khan from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US administration issued a statement on 30 August saying that Pompeo had urged the Pakistani PM to take “decisive action against terrorists” operating from Pakistan, sought Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan peace process, and expressed hope that Khan’s government would work towards a “productive” bilateral relationship between the two countries. Shortly thereafter, Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson, refuted the US statement by tweeting, “Pakistan takes exception to the factually incorrect statement issued by the US State Department on today’s phone call between PM Khan & Sec Pompeo”, adding that the issue of terrorists operating from Pakistan did not figure in the conversation. He demanded a correction from the US. When asked about this Pakistani contention later that day, the US State Department spokesperson reiterated that the department stood by its original statement. 

The Pakistani position in this latter case was not only crass in as much as it attempted to brand Pompeo a liar, but also incomprehensible given how widely accepted it is internationally that chosen terrorist outfits do operate well-nigh unhindered in and from Pakistan. It was also not the first time that the US was taking up with Pakistan the issue of its support to terrorist organizations such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Successive US administrations have repeatedly demanded action against terrorist organizations that are consciously sheltered on Pakistani territory. The Pakistani response, therefore, displayed a rather naïve attempt to totally brush aside the reality that terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern not only for its neighbours like Afghanistan and India, but also for the wider world. Such an approach, disconcertingly, is often adopted by the Pakistan Army establishment. It, therefore, raised eerie questions especially when seen in the context of the majority of Pakistanis being convinced of Khan being a subordinate of the Pakistan Army. 

This vexatious affair was followed soon after by the US announcement on 1 September that it planned to suspend $300 million in aid to Islamabad under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner said that the suspended $300 million would be “reprogammed” and spent instead on other “urgent priorities” due to a perceived lack of “decisive” action by the Pakistani Government. The suspension was essentially due to Pakistan’s failure to act against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network that from their bases in Pakistan target US forces stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan. The US believes that a Pakistani crackdown on these outfits could be pivotal in deciding the outcome of the long-running war in Afghanistan. Security experts, however, are convinced that Pakistan, through its military establishment, has long maintained ties with both these terrorist outfits to secure strategic depth in Afghanistan. 

The US chose to announce the suspension of the aid to Pakistan just four days prior to the scheduled visit of Pompeo and General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Pakistan on 5 September. This was slated to be the first high-level US interaction with the new Pakistani Government. The message being conveyed was that the US no longer had the appetite for or patience with Pakistan’s doublespeak anymore, and that it expected the new government to immediately fall in line or be prepared to face the consequences. Ahead of the talks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, General Dunford stated that President Trump’s South Asia strategy set clear expectations for Pakistan, including help to drive the Taliban to a peace process in Afghanistan. “Our bilateral relationship moving forward is very much going to be informed by the degree of cooperation we see from Pakistan in doing that”, Dunford said. 

Pompeo and Dunford held meetings with Khan, Qureshi, and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The future of Afghanistan and terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil dominated the talks. Following the meetings, Pompeo stated that “we made clear to them that — and they agreed — it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments, right…And so there was broad agreement between myself and foreign minister Qureshi, as well as with the prime minister, that we need to begin to do things that will begin to actually, on the ground, deliver outcomes so that we can begin to build confidence and trust...”. In a statement that conveyed the US’ lack of trust in Pakistan, he added, "We've still got a long way to go, lots more discussion to be had. It's time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitment... We've had lots of times where we've talked and made agreements, but we haven't been able to actually execute those"

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert informed that “in all of his meetings (in Islamabad), Secretary Pompeo emphasized the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, and conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability”. She added that Pompeo, during his meeting with Army Chief General Bajwa, expressed “hope for deeper counter-terrorism cooperation between our nations”

US-Pakistan relations have been in the doldrums for quite some time. The US initiative to re-engage is driven by its new objective of trying to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on its part, has made strenuous efforts to project the visit as one that had broken the ice and brought the relationship back on track despite no concrete agreements having being arrived at. Qureshi, almost comically, even resorted to references to the body language of the American guests to prove the success of the visit. He stated that he had consciously chosen to ignore the slight of the suspension of aid and did not raise it at the meetings with the visiting US officials.

Pakistan realizes the importance of its relationship with the US in terms of ending its international isolation, addressing its economic crisis, and seeking a balance with India. However, the Trump administration, unlike its predecessors, has adopted a tough policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. There is a predominant reliance on the stick and a near-exclusion of carrots in this policy. Pompeo’s message, accordingly, was clear - if Pakistan did not pay heed to the US’ concerns in Afghanistan, it would be further isolated. Similarly, the loan Pakistan desperately needs to service its $12 billion debts will not be forthcoming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unless Pakistan plays ball. Pompeo had earlier expressed serious reservations about the IMF granting Pakistan another bailout just to repay the billions of dollars in debt to China for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. 

As for India, the trajectory of the US’ relationship with it is on a sharp upward curve. Pompeo spent a mere five hours in Pakistan chastising it for its support to terrorism before flying off to India for a much longer stay there for the first 2+2 (Foreign and Defence Ministers) meeting between the two countries. Defence deals worth billions are in the offing between the two countries and the US is, of late, making no bones about the fact that India is one of its most important strategic and defence partners with which it has little reservations about sharing its most modern technology, equipment and knowledge. Afghanistan is also likely to figure in Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ discussions with their Indian counterparts, and references to Pakistan in this context are not likely to be flattering. Much to the chagrin of Pakistan, the US supports a prominent Indian role in Afghanistan.