Shahid M Amin
IMRAN Khan has become Prime Minister of Pakistan at a time went the country is facing grave challenges in foreign policy, while beset by a serious economic crisis. Priority needs to be given to the economic challenge. A collapsing economy seriously impairs our ability to conduct relations with other countries. When a country is strong internally, it carries greater clout in international dealings, and vice versa. For economic progress and internal reforms, Pakistan needs peace and international cooperation. In his policy pronouncements so far, Imran Khan has struck the right chord by emphasizing his intention to take Pakistan out of its economic mess, created by former governments through corruption, misrule, and wrong economic priorities. However, an additional reason for our economic woes is the drying up of US military and economic aid. In the past 70 years, the US has given over $75 billion in aid to Pakistan, which is more than the aid received from all other countries put together.
Imran Khan has been saying that USA has turned Pakistan into a client state and that we have been fighting America’s wars. Another grievance is that the US is demanding that we should “do more” in the war against terror. Let us examine the facts. The US gave Pakistan significant military and economic aid from 1953 to 1965. This strengthened us militarily and we were able to hold our own in 1965 War against India. However, the US aid was given for defence against Communist aggression. The military pacts we joined –CENTO and SEATO— aimed to contain Soviet expansionism. In international relations, convergence of interests brings two countries closer. We had joined the pacts to overcome our military vulnerability vis-à-vis India, since we were practically without modern military hardware.
Pakistan went on to use the US weapons, meant for defence against Communist aggression, to fight India instead. In this period, there was no ‘American war’ in which we took part. Clearly, Pakistan benefitted more from the military pacts. The argument that Pakistan became a client state of USA is contradicted by numerous facts. We have repeatedly gone against US policy goals. We have always opposed Israel. We befriended China in 1950s when the US had hostile relations with it. We developed ties with Gaddafi and Khomeini who were hated by the US. We developed our nuclear bomb, refused to roll it back and carried out nuclear explosions, all against US wishes.
The Communist seizure power in Afghanistan in 1978, followed by Soviet military intervention was seen by Pakistan as a grave threat to its own security. We started giving aid to the Afghan Mujahidin fighting against Communist rule. All mainstream political parties in Pakistan were in favour of Afghan Jihad. The US joined the Jihad later in 1980. It cannot be dismissed as an ‘American war’. Most countries in the world, including China, were supporting the Jihad. However, what was not understood at the time was that militarization of Islamist groups would turn them into Frankensteins, who became a menace to us and to world peace. They morphed into Al-Qaeda and 9/11 terrorism. In retaliation, the US/NATO decided to invade Afghanistan to eradicate Al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors. Pakistan had no choice but to support the war which also had UN sanction behind it. Otherwise, Pakistan would have become dangerously isolated, since even its closest friends, Saudi Arabia and China, were supporting the war.
Even then, the fact was that we provided the transit route for US/NATO forces and our armed forces never joined the actual fighting in Afghanistan. Still, Al-Qaeda declared a Jihad against Pakistan and Pakistani Taliban (TTP) began a vicious campaign of terror. We have been fighting these terrorists for our own reasons and not as part of any ‘American war’. These terrorists are common enemies of both the US/NATO forces and Pakistan. The US has been urging us to ‘do more’ against terrorists who allegedly use sanctuaries in Pakistan to conduct operations in Afghanistan. We strongly deny this charge, but can we really say that all terrorists on our soil have been eliminated? This is the precise issue that needs to be addressed in talks between the two sides in a business-like atmosphere, without emotionalism.
Imran Khan is right in saying that political negotiations should be held to end the Afghan war. But the ground reality is that the Taliban have always refused to join talks with the Kabul regime, dubbing it a US puppet. They want to hold talks directly with Washington to secure total US military withdrawal from Afghanistan without preconditions. But if the US concedes this demand, the Taliban would probably overrun the Kabul regime forces. That will neither be acceptable to USA nor would it end the crisis in Afghanistan. The non-Pakhtuns would continue the civil war against any Taliban regime, which most countries would also refuse to recognise. The real issue, therefore, is persuading the Taliban to agree to a political compromise in which there is a multi-party government in Kabul. The US is prepared for such a political settlement, but can Pakistan persuade the Taliban to join such negotiations?
The new government has fumbled on two issues already. It entered into an unnecessary spat with the US on what Secretary of State Pompeo had discussed with Imran Khan. Secondly, the Foreign Minister misunderstood the Indian position on talks, necessitating a clarification by the Foreign Office. “Not too much zeal” is the centuries-old advice for diplomats. Public diplomacy is usually counter-productive as it leads to adoption of inflexible positions and public posturing. Confidential diplomacy by diplomats can best produce results. Foreign policy is a complex business. It is not enough to determine what we want: it is equally important to know what the others want. This requires an understanding of dynamics of international politics, a hard-headed approach bereft of emotions, and always keeping the country’s national interests supreme. The new government’s objective to seek better relations with India is laudable, but no high hopes should be raised, because of the Hindutva ideas of the Modi government. As for Iran-Saudi differences, any mediation must be attempted with Riyadh’s approval; otherwise, our important relations with Saudi Arabia could be damaged.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.