Now that the new envoy to the United States Ali Jehangir Siddiqui has presented his diplomatic credentials to President Donald Trump, he is finally and formally at work in Washington.
Being Pakistan’s envoy in Washington is one of the toughest jobs in the US capital. These days, Washington is a sort of diplomatic minefield. In that context former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government’s choice of Siddiqui was quite intriguing. His appointment received a lot of criticism at home. Critics, who saw the appointment as a political favour by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for his onetime business partner, questioned Siddiqui’s lack of diplomatic experience. The appointment faced legal challenges as well.
All that is, for the time being, behind us and Siddiqui is now the country’s ambassador in the world’s most powerful capital. More importantly, he has taken up the charge at a very difficult phase in the bilateral relations. The US-Pakistan ties have been not in a good shape for over a decade now lurching from one crisis to another, but they aggravated last year after the announcement of Trump administration’s policy on Afghanistan which was not only very critical of Pakistan, but also quite demeaning towards the erstwhile ally. Several initiatives have been taken by both sides since last August to put the ties on an even keel, including this month’s elimination of the terrorist most wanted by Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, in a US drone attack, but still the two sides have not been able to get much success in fixing the their problems.
That provides the backdrop in which Siddiqui has assumed office.
Now let’s see how the new and one of the youngest Pakistani ambassadors to US plans to deal with it. Multiple followers of Pak-US ties based in Washington say Siddiqui’s prescription is heavily focused on strengthening trade and investment ties. His appointment had in a way signalled former PML-N government’s desire to change the security-centric policy on US and instead seek to capitalise on the trade and investment elements.
He may have some strong connections with investment community in US, but to what extent would those be helpful in confronting a cynical and suspicious administration which is getting impatient every day?
While one may not disagree that trade and investment plays an important role in diplomacy and that also fits with Pakistan’s long term vision of establishing itself as a regional trade and transit hub, but two things need to be kept in mind. One, that there are limitations to which the trade ties could be exploited because of structural issues with Pakistani economy and industry, and secondly, but more importantly it should not be forgotten that in a relationship like the one that Pakistan and US have it would be simply wrong to assume that the political and security dimensions could be cast aside. The conflict in Afghanistan is undoubtedly playing the most crucial role in shaping the US perceptions about Pakistan. That distrust is further fuelled by the misalignment of Pak-US interests in the region – to be more specific the way the two see India’s position and role in the region.
There is a feeling that Siddiqui’s focus on trade and investment is relegating the political and security issues in the embassy’s list of priorities.
Unless and until these larger issues are addressed, it would be ambitious to assume that trade and investment ties can alone heal the fractured relationship. That becomes even more challenging in Siddiqui’s case because not only he is a diplomatic novice, he was a personal choice of Abbasi with little or no consent of the military that retains a strong influence on foreign policy. The military has not been too reticent about its reservations about the appointment.
One wonders what would be his talking points on Afghanistan and regional security in his meetings with American interlocutors given his disconnect with those who are calling foreign policy shots in general and running the country’s Afghanistan policy in particular.
He may have some strong connections with investment community of US, but to what extent would those be helpful in confronting a cynical and suspicious US administration which is getting impatient on the issue of Taliban and Haqqani Network? Then there is also the question of China. Can Siddiqui offer US businesses similar incentives to what have been extended to the Chinese?
Siddiqui, in his first interaction with Pakistani expatriate community, emphasised on them to contribute to rebuilding the country and cementing Pak-US ties instead of being over-awed by negatives.
“In the discharge of my duties, I will be relying on the Pakistani American community to add strength to my arms and to guide me through this effort,” Siddiqui wrote in a letter to the Pakistani community. He further said, “The Pakistani American diaspora has assumed significance and influence within the US mainstream. Our youth is active and well-educated, and they provide reason for great optimism for the future.”
He is right. Diaspora can be a great support and India has leveraged that strength. But, unfortunately Pakistani diaspora is not as strong and it is not as influential as the Indians because this aspect remained overlooked for long. This is one area where the new envoy is rightly planning to focus.
But would Siddiqui have enough time in Washington? He has just started his job, but it would depend on the incoming government whether or not it would want the young envoy to carry on.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad