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Foreign policy in khaki

With changed mood in Pakistan, its nationals have begun asking whether what's good for the ISI is necessarily good for the country as a whole.

world Updated: Aug 06, 2011 23:26 IST
Imtiaz Ahmed
Imtiaz Ahmed
Hindustan Times

The likelihood of US troops from Afghanistan is now a clear possibility. But Pakistan, which should be cheering as this long-desired strategic goal becomes visible, is having a serious debate about the nature of its foreign policy.

The traditional debate about its Afghanistan policy, has been on whether the Taliban can be made part of a Kabul government and what Islamabad can do to facilitate this development. Now a new foreign policy debate has emerged and a more fundamental question is being asked. Is Pakistan's foreign policy in the interests of Pakistan or for the interests of a few institutions of the country, namely the military? And, if the latter, are those interests being pursued at the cost of other institutions of government?

Afghanistan is seen as an example of this problem. The debate stems from the change of mood in Pakistan and the open discussion on the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the army in deciding matters of national importance. In the words of Asma Jahangir, prominent lawyer and former head of the country's human rights commission, "The army comprises a number of incompetent people. And to expect them to do something intelligent is to expect too much."

In the post-Abbotabad and Saleem Shehzad era, the army has been on the defensive. Many questions are being raised over Islamabad's foreign adventures, whether they should continue and whether their should be greater civilian oversight of these actions. The Ghulam Nabi Fai incident is a case in point: much of the debate in the media has been over why taxpayer money was used to fund his outfit.

Some part of the discourse don't change at the Pakistan Foreign Office. Talk to any senior diplomat and he will explain at length how India continues to thwart the country's foreign initiatives and can be blamed for many of its problems.

Afghanistan is a case in point. Pakistani officials tell anyone who will listen that they fear Indian dominance in the region, a profile that will in turn lead to more violence, not peace.

With US troops now on their way out, there is a growing chorus of voices demanding a greater and more overt Pakistani role in Afghanistan. "I do not see any peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. All I see is more violence once the coalition troops withdraw," General Ehsan-ul Haq, a former ISI chief, said in an interview this week. When asked what the solution would be, General Ehsan was categorical: "More Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan and in the same manner, a downsizing of Indian interference."

But things are not as easy as that.

The problem for Pakistan is three-fold. First, its relations with Afghanistan continue to deteriorate. This is complicated by a second problem, its worsening relations with the US. Then there is the third worry of being outpaced and outwitted by India in the days to come.

Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of being behind cross border attacks which have killed many in the border regions. It also suspects the supportive hand of the ISI in Taliban-led attacks in Afghan cities.

All this, even as Islamabad woos Karzai and urges him to work closely with Pakistan.

When Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was sworn in, he invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be his special guest at the ceremony.

This is typical of how Pakistan operates, says one observer. "The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing." There is little that can be done to produce a more coordinated policy because of the dominant role ISI plays in relations with Afghanistan.

The military's Afghan goals are clear but with at least one part of the Taliban now attacking Pakistan, questions are being raised as to whether the military's goals are good for the country. This is coming to increasingly to the fore as the stage is set for the long awaited Afghan peace talks.

The Afghan policy has become all the more entangled as Pakistan's relations with the US deteriorates sharply. Again, so many of the contentious elements to the Pakistan-US relationship eventually go back to the priorities of the generals.

US drone attacks, which have angered the Pakistani public deeply, were tolerated as a quid pro quo for large amounts of US military assistance. Now that the US relationship has soured, post-Abbotabad, the drone attacks are a virtual fait accompli. The open battling between the ISI and the Central Intelligence Agency is an intra-agency squabble that is having repercussions against the national interest.

Poor relations with Washington, some fear, could cost Pakistan in the all-important Afghan talks. "There are suggestions that either Pakistan will be denied a major role in the talks or that the Americans will force us to toe their line," says Khalid Munir, a former senator and army officer.

In Pakistan itself, there is a growing debate on not just its proposed role in Afghanistan but the obsession with issues abroad. "This excessive focus outside is becoming a fatal distraction for the urgency of addressing pressing internal problems," says Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the US.

Lodhi makes the point that Pakistan's foreign policy needs to be turned on its head. "The fixation with overseas engagements is of course not new. It reflects a legacy of historical factors, the country's geo-strategic location, intrusion of big-power politics in the region and Islamabad's proclivity to leverage geography to enhance its strategic relevance."

Ultimately all these foreign policy strands come together over the question of what role Pakistan will play in the region in the coming years.

There is confusion here, again because of the military versus civilian divide. All are in agreement over better relations with India, any effort on the part of the political leadership to move ahead is thwarted by the military high command. "Any move to fight terrorist outfits will hurt the military's strategic assets and long term plans," comments Ayesha Siddiqa, security analyst and author of Military Inc, a book on the Pakistani military.

As things stand, expecting the political leadership to stop military interference in civilian matters would be expecting too much, say some. However, the mere fact that after so many years, such interference is being discussed openly, say many, is a very positive sign and a possible bellwether of change in the future.

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