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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan’s struggling people need aid and support, not hollow inconsequential rhetoric meant to distract them from their woes


Even as news of the upcoming meeting between India and Bangladesh to round up negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that will be held in New Delhi over the next two days is breaking through, the din in Pakistan over its Foreign Minister’s remarks at the United Nations (UN) against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be flamed by a hapless Pakistani government that seems to be seeking refuge from the mind-boggling problems that the country is in the midst of by fanning the irrelevant rhetoric of a young politician who has not yet been brought to terms with the cruel reality that in politics everywhere, but more so in South Asia, irresponsible and out-of-turn personal denigration of a much more illustrious and powerful political personality could have debilitating political consequences in times to come. Thus, while Dhaka has set its eyes on a free trade pact with India and the tremendous economic benefits such a pact would bring to millions of Bangladeshis, it is also expecting that India will be extending essential supplies such as wheat to Bangladesh to help the country deal with the food shortage caused by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. India’s Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, meanwhile, opined that a target to reach a value of $1 trillion in goods exports to Bangladesh by 2030 was achievable. He had said in March that “I think it's possible, and I come with renewed enthusiasm after having achieved India’s historic high of $400 billion plus exports for the first time ever”.

The Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, as an afterthought once he was through with ranting about the ills he perceived in Modi and India, did fleetingly mention his flood-ravaged country’s need for aid and largesse. Of course, it would not have occurred to the Foreign Minister’s deeply tinted mind that the country that could assist it the most in such times of dire need lay right at Pakistan’s eastern borders, only if Rawalpindi, and now also increasingly Islamabad, could throw all the venom aside, stop misusing India as a punching bag to diffuse public focus from internal social, economic, political, and security-related strife, put an end to its decades long and continuing policy of sponsoring and exporting terror to India, and prioritize upon building genuinely healthy neighborly relations with New Delhi. Such a course of action would not only be beneficial to India and the rest of South Asia, but even more so for Pakistan.

The UN Security Council adopted a statement warning of the increasing dangers of terrorism on 15 December. India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar, without naming Pakistan, reiterated to the UN Security Council that “India faced the horrors of cross-border terrorism long before the world took serious note of it” and has “fought terrorism resolutely, bravely and with a zero-tolerance approach”. Later, he called Pakistan the “epicenter of terrorism” and advised it to “clean up your act and try to be good neighbour”. He reminded reporters that “Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Pakistan, said that if you keep snakes in your back yard you can’t expect them to bite only your neighbours, eventually they will bite the people who keep them in the back yard”.

When Bhutto-Zardari was asked to respond to Jaishankar’s comments, he left the very basics of diplomacy on the sidelines and astonishingly called India’s Prime Minister the “butcher of Gujarat”. Certainly, Bhutto-Zardari is entitled to his own personal interpretation of the sad events that occurred in Gujarat in 2002, as does anybody else in Pakistan, or anywhere else for that matter. Modi, after a formal enquiry was conducted by Indian authorities, was cleared of all charges leveled against him over the Gujarat tragedy by India’s highest court, the Supreme Court, and the rule of law ran its full cycle. That being the case, it is moot whether the Foreign Minister of another country, Pakistan in this case, should have the moral, legal, or diplomatic right to level such unsubstantiated but serious allegations against the Prime Minister of another country who has already been exonerated by the due process of law.

The aim of Bhutto-Zardari, quite clearly, was to throw something sensational and emotionally relatable into the air to drive the attention of Pakistanis, who are otherwise struggling with their everyday lives due to the country’s near bankruptcy, its gross mismanagement of the economy, its deep-rooted political instability, its deteriorating security situation with the battles against terrorists in the Afghan border regions assuming crisis proportions, its sinking deeper into Chinese and other debt, and even natural disasters such as this year’s devastating floods, away from their woes. Whether he would have succeeded in achieving that remains doubtful, despite the Pakistani State media machine’s continuing attempts to keep the non-issue alive.

Responding to Jaishankar’s comments, Bhutto-Zardari also said that his country had lost far more lives to terrorism than any other, and, referring to his mother and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, added that he, himself, was a victim. Benazir’s killing, without doubt, was a sad and condemnable event in the annals of South Asia, and it is easy to empathize with Bhutto-Zardari’s pain on that count. However, this was exactly the point that was being made by Hillary Clinton and was quoted by Jaishankar at the UN. It is not by accident that Pakistan has the ignominy of hosting the shocking number of 126 UN-designated terrorists and 27 UN-designated terrorist entities. It is not as though terrorist groups in such large numbers can prop up unnoticed in a security State such as Pakistan. Only a facilitating and encouraging attitude and environment by the Pakistani State would allow this to happen. How else could one explain the grim reality that of the many countries in this world several are afflicted with terrorism, but having a disgruntled terrorist outfit or two hiding in the deep forests is very different from having as many as 27 UN-designated terrorist entities dominating the streets of almost all major cities of a country. The total number of UN-designated and non-designated terrorist entities in Pakistan would actually be well above a hundred. Clinton and Jaishankar’s message, therefore, was exactly that – a liberally terrorist-friendly environment will beget all varieties of terrorists, including those, eventually, who will target and attack you.

Bhutto-Zardari also sought to make the point that anti-Pakistan terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) were using Afghanistan to launch deadly attacks against Pakistani forces and were receiving support from “hostile quarters”. Both the TTP and the BLA have issued statements asserting that they are operating from well within Pakistani territory and not from Afghanistan. As for the composition of both the TTP and the BLA, their leaders and cadres are all Pakistanis. There are no reports of foreign fighters joining their ranks, a far cry from Pakistan’s preferred policy of sending its nationals to launch terrorist attacks not only in India, especially in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), but also in countries far more distant. Bhutto-Zardari’s lament in this case, therefore, is simply over another clear example of the “snakes in your backyard” phenomenon, one that is proving too hot to handle for the Pakistani State.

India, in a sharp rebuttal to the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s comments, described them as “a new low, even for Pakistan”, adding that “The Foreign Minister of Pakistan has obviously forgotten this day in 1971, which was a direct result of the genocide unleashed by Pakistani rulers against ethnic Bengalis and Hindus. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not seem to have changed much in the treatment of its minorities. It certainly lacks credentials to cast aspersions at India”. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s “uncivilised outburst” seemed to be a result of Pakistan’s “increasing inability to use terrorists and their proxies”. The MEA added that “Cities like New York, Mumbai, Pulwama, Pathankot and London are among the many that bear the scars of Pakistan-sponsored, supported and instigated terrorism. This violence has emanated from their Special Terrorist Zones and exported to all parts of the world. 'Make in Pakistan' terrorism has to stop”. It pointed out that “Pakistan is a country that glorifies Osama bin Laden as a martyr, and shelters terrorists like Lakhvi, Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar, Sajid Mir and Dawood Ibrahim. No other country can boast having 126 UN-designated terrorists and 27 UN-designated terrorist entities”. The MEA concluded by saying that “We wish that Pakistan Foreign Minister would have listened more sincerely yesterday at the UN Security Council to the testimony of Ms. Anjali Kulthe, a Mumbai nurse who saved the lives of 20 pregnant women from the bullets of the Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab. Clearly, the Foreign Minister was more interested in whitewashing Pakistan's role. Pakistan FM's frustration would be better directed towards the masterminds of terrorist enterprises in his own country, who have made terrorism a part of their State policy. Pakistan needs to change its own mindset or remain a pariah”.

India’s junior Foreign Minister Meenakshi Lekhi, described Bhutto-Zardari as “mentally bankrupt and irresponsible”. She said, “The language used by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan shows that not only does he represent a bankrupt country, he is also mentally bankrupt. He is the representative of a failed state and is himself failed... What can you expect from those who have a terror mindset?”

Seasoned Pakistan analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc and Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, pointed out that Bhutto-Zardari’s comments received a mixed response even within Pakistan. She wrote, “While some in the establishment corridor welcomed it, others weren’t too excited. But Bhutto’s seemingly thoughtless comment was made consciously. It showed that Pakistan’s India policy has not shifted from its traditional stance and remains under Shehbaz Sharif more or less where it was under Imran Khan. Several geographic and domestic political considerations can explain the remarks. More importantly, it explains where Pakistan’s powerful establishment sees its short-term and long-term dividends”. She added, “Notwithstanding the fact that the sharp remarks may not benefit Pakistan or damage India, the position was viewed by many in the establishment as a necessary pincer movement aimed at countering India’s move at the UN meeting presenting Pakistan as perpetuating terrorism in India. The brief for the foreign minister and his team was to attain an equaliser with India and dispel the idea that it was Pakistan alone that caused terrorism. Of course, Pakistan would have to put consistent effort to produce greater evidence and convince the UN and other international forums to expand the terrorism debate”.

Siddiqa was of the view that “This is not about expecting immediate gains but not surrendering its position. Given the consistency of the policy, a young politician like Zardari and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) view it as an opportunity to piggyback to greater prominence and ultimately power. This is indeed the approach that his maternal grandfather and former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used”. She elaborated that “Bhutto-Zardari’s remarks were meant to push a kind of politics that would position him as ‘the man for the job’ in the establishment circle… But should the young Zardari be taking this belligerent approach and not think about retaining some political space for himself as a politician and not entirely follow the establishment’s perspective? The fate of Zulfiqar Bhutto should be a lesson”.

The prospects of dialogue and rapprochement between India and Pakistan may today seem a distant dream, but the reality is that sooner or later the two countries will need to sit across the table to resolve the issues that plague them. When that will happen is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is more likely to happen in the 34-year-old Bhutto-Zardari’s lifetime than in that of his more senior Pakistani political colleagues.

The question then is, as a young politician who aspires to leadership of his country through subservience to his country’s military establishment, will Bhutto-Zardari, after such “thoughtless comments”, leave himself in times to come with the “political space” to either be seen as talk-worthy by India, or indeed as “the man for the job” by the Pakistani military establishment?