Pakistan’s foreign policy is facing a huge challenge on several fronts. But we seem to be singularly inept at forging ahead.
Pak-US relations under US President Donald Trump were pegged exclusively to US-Afghan policy. In exchange for helping America pull out from Afghanistan in an “honourable” way, the Americans approved an IMF bailout for Pakistan and soft pedaled on FATF. President-Elect Joe Biden will probably demand greater Pakistani pressure on the Taliban to compromise on power-sharing with the Ghani regime – which is not likely to be delivered – and will keep a sharper lookout for political, human, media and minority rights violations which will be resisted by our “hybrid regime” that relies on repression for survival. The Democrats have also historically tilted toward India, which means fewer sympathetic listening posts in Washington. The challenge will be to define a stable strategic relationship that transcends uneven transactional leveraging. But no advance thinking is noticeable.
The Pak-India relationship is at its worst ever. The Indian “hand” is ever more discernable behind acts of terrorism inside Pakistan by sub-nationalist separatist groups and TTP infiltrators from Afghanistan – a dossier of evidence pertaining to India’s “Aggressive-Defensive” doctrine has duly been presented to the UN Secretary General. Thus the spectre of armed conflict looms on the horizon which will hurt Pakistan much more than India. Unfortunately, Imran Khan has boxed Pakistan in by his personal attacks on the person of Narendra Modi.
But Pakistan’s greatest failure lies in Imran Khan’s approach to the Middle East. In recent times, Pak-Saudi and Pak-Gulf States relations have nose-dived, hurting Pakistan significantly. Only two years ago, Prince Mohammad bin Salman was in Islamabad, pledging US$ 10 billion in investment in Gwadar and several billion in deferred oil payments and deposits to shore up our reserves. All that has been reduced to zero in the last six months by Imran Khan’s petulant attempt to build a rival anti-OIC bloc with Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, countries of no strategic or even transactional value to Pakistan with leaders hostile to MBS. Now the Gulf emirates, which are core allies of Saudi Arabia, are strangulating the supply of Pakistani labour upon whose forex remittances Pakistan’s State Bank is so dependent. Before long, we may expect a reverse flow of labour as Indians replace Pakistanis in the labour forces of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates exactly at a time when this region is poised for a spurt in growth through an opening up of its economies to foreign investment and softening of its cultural prohibitions. The biggest snub has come from the refusal of the OIC Foreign Ministers meeting in Niger to acknowledge, let alone admit, Pakistan’s request to put a discussion on Kashmir on its agenda.
Suddenly, there is furtive but significant activity between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that portends momentous events. By all accounts, the stage is set for Saudi Arabia to follow in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. It appears that all sides are now gearing up to consolidate their collective gains under the Trump administration relating to defense and economic clout. The common enemy is Iran under the Ayatollahs which is hoping for a reprieve from the Biden administration as opposed to a policy of sanctions and regime change in Iran under the Trump administration. Under the circumstances, if, in some sort of collaboration with the Saudis, the Israelis were to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations in order to preempt a change in US-Iran policy after Biden becomes President, all hell will break loose, putting Pakistan in a very difficult situation because public opinion in the country will be against the aggressors, making relations worse.
The pressure on Pakistan to start a dialogue with Israel with a view to establishing diplomatic relations comes from the changing matrix of power in this part of the globe. Although no Pakistani politician can dare think of establishing some sort of relations with Israel until the Palestinians get a satisfactory two state solution, the Pakistani Miltablishment has had a more structurally realistic position on the matter. It seeks to leverage diplomatic relations with Israel against Israeli support to India in matters of military technology, training and intelligence sharing aimed at upsetting the military balance with India. It also thinks that such a move will bring dividends in shifting the powerful Jewish lobby in the US away from blind support to India, eventually opening up a more productive route to a settlement with India over Kashmir through international pressure.
But the problem lies in the umbilical link between Pakistan-Kashmir and Israel-Palestine. How can Pakistan abandon the cause of Palestine while insisting on the cause of Kashmir? In 2005, General Pervez Musharraf opened a dialogue with India and Israel to move the cause of both Kashmir and Palestine forward. Unfortunately, his initiatives for regional peace with economic dividends were lost in the political upheavals in Pakistan and India subsequently. Today, we are heading into a storm at our weakest moment ever without any idea of how we will come out of it.