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Why Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Is So Confused

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The Pulse

Why Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Is So Confused

Pakistan’s civilian government and the military are working to different ends in their diplomatic efforts.

Why Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Is So Confused
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In recent months Pakistan’s foreign policy has been in disarray, resulting in the deterioration of relations with its immediate neighbors — India, Afghanistan, and Iran — as well as the United States. This is all due to a lack of consensus between the civilian leadership and security establishment over the nature of Pakistan’s relations with the external world, and consequently the absence of well-thought out and robust foreign policy choices.

Pakistan’s elected leaders want to foster positive, multi-faceted engagement with regional countries and major global powers, especially by promoting trade and economic relations. But they have little sway over the formation of foreign policy as it is the all- powerful army that calls the shots. Therefore, whenever a diplomatic challenge arises, the civilian apparatus usually adopts a hands-off approach. Sadly, they have not mounted a well-planned effort to take control of the foreign policy domain.

On the other hand, the military refuses to budge on hardened external security approach and prefers to construct relations on the basis of security concerns alone, while ignoring economic and political issues.

Take the example of the divergent opinions hold by the two camps on forging relations with arch-rival India. The civilians, who are assumed to be proponents of peace, advocate for greater cooperation with Delhi. They have called for for giving India rail and road access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the city of Lahore, in addition to cooperating with India on regional projects like the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Central Asia-South Asia (CASA) energy transmission line. Such moves, they believe, will bridge the trust deficit and ease tensions between the two neighbors, thus paving the way for peace and prosperity in the impoverished South Asian region. By serving as a regional connectivity center, Pakistan can get not only economic benefits but also can tempt its erstwhile enemy to shun its subversive activities in the province of Balochistan and end its smear campaign to isolate Pakistan at the international level.

On the contrary, the top brass and hawks of the military are of the view that Delhi is conspiring a grand strategy to undermine Pakistan and establish hegemony in the region. Delhi’s overtures to Kabul and Tehran, like the development of Iran’s Chabahar port and India’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan, are seen as part of this heinous plot. Therefore, military leaders assume, it is necessary to keep India at bay if Pakistan’s sovereignty and strategic interests are to be protected.

This paranoid mindset is also shaping Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan and the United States. Both countries are seen as long-term partners of India, assisting Delhi in carrying out underhand activities to make Pakistan weaker. Thus the relationship with these potential partners has always been seen through the security prism, in the context of their relationships with India. Islamabad wants to see a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul so that it can have strategic leverage in the immediate neighborhood in order to prevent Delhi from increasing its influence there. For that it is ready to go to do anything, even nurturing anti-Afghan government militants such as the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban on its soil.

With the United Staes, Pakistan intends to maintain its global “war on terror” alliance as long as Washington provides financial and logistical assistance to Pakistan’s military. The recent fraying of ties came after Washington’s refusal to pay for the F-16 sales to Pakistan. This patron-client relationship has been in place for the last several decades.

Some policymakers point to the China-Pakistan friendship as a foreign policy success. But the fact is that this time-tested partnership exists mainly because of a convergence of security interests with respect to Indian hostility, not because of successful diplomatic maneuvers. The CPEC is not a gift to Pakistan; it is a part of Beijing’s comprehensive network of infrastructure projects, which it intends to spread across different regions in order to increase its trade and commerce outreach. This is not to say that Pakistan will not benefit from this project. Certainly, it will accelerate much-needed economic growth and promote social development. In the future, China, with the help of Pakistan, can counter the growing Indian-U.S. military presence in the Indian Ocean through this corridor.

Pakistan’s policy of maintaining strategic ties with China has remained same over a long period, quite rightly. But Islamabad has wrongly pursued an inflexible and dogmatic foreign policy approach with regards to other countries. This is because of the security establishment’s refusal to withdraw support for some militant groups in the name of so-called strategic depth. Thus, Pakistan, unlike China and India, has not been able to reset its external relations to meet regional and global challenges  Mindful of exaggerated perceived and real security threats, the Pakistani army continues to frame a security-oriented foreign policy.

The impact of this obstinate approach on internal decision-making has also been profound and far-reaching. For instance, two important social sectors, heath and education, do not get sufficient funds, as a large chunk of Pakistan’s budget is allocated for security and defense-related expenditures. The masses have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology and odd narratives, such as the persecution of Pakistan at the hands of the U.S., India, and their puppet supporters, including the Ashraf Ghani-led government in Afghanistan. Such illusions and assumptions wrongly mold Pakistan’s foreign policy.

In today’s modern world, the foreign policy of any country must be guided by its history, geography, and internal circumstances. Policymakers in Islamabad pay attention to history and geography while formulating foreign policy, but they disregard the all-important domestic socio-economic and political conditions. This strategy should be recast.

More importantly, Pakistan needs a great overhaul in its foreign policy approach. This means a greater focus on geo-economics, moving away from the security underpinning of foreign policy. Such changes are only possible when the political and military leaderships of country are on the same page. Only then that they can properly re-evaluate strategic objectives and formulate an overarching foreign policy.

Deedar Hussain Samejo is a postgraduate student in Political Science at University of Sindh, Jamshoro, Pakistan.