A sense of location and direction —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Pakistan does not have the option of refusing to locate its strategic policy in regional realities; they will have an increasing salience in the years ahead. In trying to hitch its wagon to a distant star, it can no longer go into a state of denial about the constellations nearby

Islamabad’s grapevine is abuzz with a largely unsubstantiated story that hidden hands are pushing the foreign and security policy of the country into a narrow channel where the dominant American influence would gradually crowd out Pakistan’s most trusted relationships, leave Pakistan at the mercy of western strategic planners, and in the worst case, that of foreign cartographers.

From time to time, elements of this tale spill over into commentaries of some self-styled security analysts — beneficiaries of General (retd) Musharraf’s vast propaganda machine now actively engaged in undermining the new political government. A new line of attack is that the government seems like an extension of the Musharraf rule which, indeed, was characterised by its heavy dependence on the West for political survival.

Preoccupied as the nation is with momentous domestic issues such as the presidential election, the restoration of the judiciary, a near run-away inflation and a worsening law and order situation, there is not much of an informed discourse on foreign policy issues in our midst and much of the daily comment is couched in clichés and catch-phrases.

Additionally, there are dark hints and sly innuendo about individuals allegedly nominated by outside powers to fill key positions in the strategic enclave of the government. They, the argument runs, owe their careers to their being co-opted by the evil Americans in 1990s. Routinely compared to similar selection in other cases including Iraq and Afghanistan, they are suspected of working overtime to commit Pakistan even more closely to America’s Afghan war, weaken its regional linkages, including the one with China, and create a situation where Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence becomes internationally unacceptable.

There is no magic wand that would sweep away conspiracy theories, particularly when their primary purpose is to intensify the internal political conflict. It is often said that a seal of approval from Washington is a prerequisite for any position of power in Pakistan. What is not always said is that too strong an endorsement by that great capital is also often a kiss of death.

In Musharraf’s case, his political demise was slow, lingering and painful. Its lessons have been learnt both in Islamabad and Washington where ruling elites are confronted with the task of re-defining bilateral ties in a manner that reconciles respective national interests.

Far more important than the above-mentioned tactical moves is the question of Pakistan’s options, a question that no government, least of all an elected one, can ignore. Pakistan does not have the option of refusing to locate its strategic policy in regional realities; they will have an increasing salience in the years ahead. In trying to hitch its wagon to a distant star, it can no longer go into a state of denial about the constellations nearby.

Admittedly, circumstances in the post-independence era obliged the leadership of the day to escape the gravitational pull of India by seeking alliances that look difficult to understand today. Apart from the material circumstances, those moves were partly explained by the fact that we were joining other Muslim states such as Iran and Turkey to ward off the threat of a godless ideology. We live in a world of perpetual flux and the realities of today are entirely of a different order.

China has been our principal hedge against a strategic environment made hostile by our neighbours as well as by our own myopic policies. It has added substance to our indigenous capacity to defend ourselves and contributed to the creation of a self-sustaining economy. We helped China in its hour of need and it repaid the debt several times over. Because of its huge economic power its global role has, however, been transformed. It cannot but enter into complex relationships to respond to an ever-changing distribution of world power. The simplicities of 1960s and 1970s are gone. Pakistan has to work hard to safeguard its special position in Beijing’s hierarchy of foreign policy preferences; it cannot simply be complacent about it.

The rest of the geopolitical map speaks for itself. Eastwards, the vast stretch of India and the rest of South Asia has the potential for considerable peril but also great promise. We have invested several years now in the effort to tilt the balance in favour of that great promise. The results so far are neither optimum nor stable enough. In fact, they are threatened by some forces in our body politic and some in India. There is no room for complacency here either.

Westwards is another great stretch of lands with which our destiny has been inter-twined for millennia. The Indus Valley, the vast Iranian plateau and the territories on this side of Hindukush as well as on the other have been the scene of great marches, a living theatre for good and bad. This region is today pulsating with positive and negative energy. We need imaginative policies to align with the positive forces at work and this would take some doing. Our coast merges with the Gulf where windfall profits are creating a new system of six states with unprecedented features. All along this map India remains robustly engaged while we once again run the risk of a single-issue foreign policy agenda.

Just as there is a vague preoccupation with mythical figures distorting this agenda at the behest of outside powers, there is, among us, a knee-jerk denunciation of Pakistan’s foreign office. In most conversations it is dismissed as powerless, feeble-minded, unfocused, careerist in orientation and therefore servile, and above all, a victim of the entrenched hubris of the Foreign Service. Undeniably, there is an image problem but the reality of the foreign office is very different. There is much resilience in it which can still turn this vital institution into a robust instrument of national security and prosperity. Like other institutions, it too needs a reformation. The present government has not focused on it as yet. I will return to this in my next piece.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. He can be contacted at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 1/9/2008

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