‘Major shift in ties’


New Aziz doctrine?

Sartaj Aziz might not be the formal foreign minister, but he must, for all intents and purposes, still be regarded as the country’s top diplomat. That is why his comments on foreign relations, regardless of the setting, must be seen as representing Islamabad’s policy considerations. And much about his speech at the National Defence University (NDU) the other day – which read more like a regional foreign policy wish list – deserves comment.

There can be little denying, of course, that a peaceful South Asia cannot be assured without “a qualitative transformation in our relations with Afghanistan, India and Iran”. Now the equation with Afghanistan has changed dramatically over the last few months, even if the army deserves more credit than the government Aziz represents. The American drawdown, President Ghani taking over in Kabul and, most importantly, Pakistan committing to Zarb-e-Azb heralded a rare feel-good environment in the region. As a result, it’s not just Islamabad and Kabul that have suddenly come close, but even Washington has appreciated the thaw. Sincere efforts must now be made to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted. The Afghans are, no doubt, crucial in our own war against terrorism. But we must also cooperate in the same spirit, since we can help with some of their biggest problems as well.

Aziz was also pretty straight-forward about issues with India. There’s not much Islamabad can do, after all, when Delhi not only refuses to play ball, but also deliberately muddies the waters. But his speech bordered more on rhetoric than substance when it came to Iran. True, the two countries have been good friends for much of our history. But implying – and pretty confidently – that relations with Tehran have ‘begun improving’ oversimplifies tensions that have built since Sharif came to power. The Iranians were furious over cross border incidents by militants while Islamabad took no action. At one point, Iran’s interior minister threatened a cross-border raid, which spoke volumes of the trust deficit. And the government further distanced Iran by siding with Saudi Arabia in their proxy conflict in the Middle East and Levant. Therefore a reorientation with Iran is definitely in order, and that will require revisiting sensitivities far beyond the region. If the NDU speech implies a revision of the present paradigm, there might be much to celebrate down the line. But if it was just more diplomacy from the top diplomat, there are not many ‘shifts’ to be expected.