Pakistan considers Kashmir a core political dispute with India. Islamabad has spent decades formulating a national security policy to gain an upper hand in that debate.
Kashmir, often called Pakistan’s “jugular vein,” figures prominently in the country’s foreign policy toward India and other countries as well. Pakistan’s external relations are heavily influenced by concerns over the Kashmir dispute.
However, growing evidence shows that Kashmir may have ceased to be Pakistan’s jugular vein as Islamabad grapples with other issues relating to the country’s internal politics.
An interesting piece of evidence in this regard comes from a recent statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi over Saudi Arabia’s position on Kashmir issue at the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). A week ago, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in a TV interview said, “Today, I am telling the OIC to convene the meeting of the council of foreign ministers. If they cannot do it, then I will be compelled to ask the prime minister [Imran Khan] to call a meeting of Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir.” Those unnamed “Islamic countries” were widely taken to refer to Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia.
The statement didn’t sit well with Riyadh, which has refused to assist Islamabad at the OIC when it comes to condemning India over the issue of Kashmir. Within a week, Pakistan has been forced to pay back a $1 billion Saudi loan. Riyadh has also canceled a special oil credit facility for Islamabad. There are concerns that if the bilateral relationship deteriorates further, Riyadh may ask Islamabad for additional payments on the loan it offered Pakistan in 2018.
After India’s controversial move to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir last year, Pakistan, via its independent diplomatic efforts, has not been able to mount much pressure on India. A majority of the criticism that India faces in regard to the Kashmir issue comes because of the international community’s independent view of the situation.
The backlash to Qureshi’s statement emphasizes that while the subject of Kashmir is important for Pakistan, it is not important enough for the country to risk infuriating a major financier such as Saudi Arabia. The best Pakistan can do in this situation is to be content with whatever attention it receives from the Kingdom and not complain about it.
Since Qureshi’s statement, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have been scrambling to control the damage. On August 10, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Islamabad met the army chief in what appears to be an attempt to find out the military’s position on Qureshi’s statement.
Pakistani Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on August 16. Bajwa’s visit is being seen as another effort from the military to indicate Pakistan’s commitment to the bilateral relationship and perhaps dump Qureshi’s remarks as a non-issue. There have been speculations that Qureshi may be forced to resign over the comment.
Understandably, Islamabad doesn’t want to annoy Riyadh further over a statement that cannot be owned or backed up with institutional or state level support. Even the federal government has come out to question the view of its own foreign minister. On August 11, Pakistan’s Federal Information Minister Shibli Faraz said in a statement that looking at Pakistan-Saudi ties with suspicion is not in Pakistan’s interest.
Thus, Qureshi’s statement was nothing more than the uttered annoyance of a foreign minister who has been tasked with arranging meetings and gathering headlines to support a Pakistan-centric view of the Kashmir situation.
Domestically, Pakistan’s current government has been criticized for not doing enough to support the narrative it has amassed to challenge India’s decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status last year. Previously, a part of Pakistan’s response to any such situation was allegedly linked to dispatching jihadists to keep the region boiling. But that strategy has come to a standstill due to the growing pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). To make up for this lost space, Islamabad has resorted to other means to rally domestic support for the cause.
Ahead of the first anniversary of India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status earlier this month, Pakistan released a song demonstrating the country’s solidarity with Kashmiris. The country’s lawmakers walked for a kilometer in the capital to register protest against India’s actions. Pakistan renamed a road in the capital from Kashmir highway to the Srinagar Highway. The government has also changed the country’s political map, which shows Jammu and Kashmir and other regions of India as disputed territories that should be a part of Pakistan.
However, it is unclear how these rhetorical moves will give Pakistan a leg up in settling the dispute with India. Surely, this doesn’t mean that India should not be questioned for its controversial Kashmir policies. To a great extent, that is already happening, but beyond Pakistan’s own efforts.
The real question is whether Pakistan’s Kashmir policy means anything when the country cannot even independently register its protest over an issue that forms the core of its national security policy. When the Pakistani foreign minister’s statement on the matter is backtracked to please countries like Saudi Arabia, it only leaves space for suspicions about Islamabad’s so-called commitment to the issue of Kashmir and Kashmiris.
As of now, it doesn’t appear that Islamabad is in a position to pursue its Kashmir policy internationally at all forums, particularly at the OIC. It is high time that Pakistan’s policymakers trim the size of their Kashmir narrative to meet space on the policy end.