Pakistan’s foreign policy conundrums


    Not all bad news?


    After seesawing over dialogue with India for the umpteenth time Pakistan is indeed back to square one. It’s doing no better on the Afghanistan front with Ghani thumbing his nose to leaders on the other side of the border. On the US front, Pakistan exists in a constant state of stagnating disappointment, interrupted occasionally with mild appreciation for some efforts or the other.

    Nevertheless, it isn’t all bad news for the country’s foreign policy and foreign relations; there are also countries like China and Iran, who still see scope where others do not.

    Under the current government the seat of the foreign policy throne is being shared by two men i.e. Sartaj Aziz, who acts as the Advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Foreign Policy and Tariq Fatemi, who is the current Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs.

    For Pakistan Muslim League – Noon (PML-N) it seems that Aziz’s status as an advisor removes the need for a foreign minister.

    “Sartaj Aziz is the foreign minister. The status of an advisor to the PM is no less than that of a minister. Aziz is the minister for national security and foreign affairs. To say that we don’t have a minister is extremely wrong,” minister of information, mass-media broadcasting, and national heritage, Pervez Rashid, explained.

    The responsibilities and requirements of a foreign minister are plenty. Some have criticised the post being allotted to Aziz because of the plethora of duties that come part and parcel with the title. However, Rashid doesn’t understand what the big deal is.

    “A foreign minister needs to have a brain, he doesn’t need to go wrestle anyone. He doesn’t need to go and indulge in physical violence, he just needs to know how to talk to people,” he explained.

    “There aren’t many men that have the kind of knowledge and experience that Sartaj Aziz has. People like him that have lived an entire life the way he has are an asset. A foreign minister needs to be such that the world knows who he is, and he knows the world, too — Aziz fits that bill, no?” he asked.

    Rashid spoke about the advisor’s role in previous governments at length. “He has worked with many PMs. His relationships span back 20-30 years. Many foreign ministers have worked as his students or colleagues. A man that has so much knowledge and so many relationships cannot be liability,” he explained.

    On the other hand, ex MNA and former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Nadeem Afzal Chan finds the lack of a foreign minister alarming.

    “This is a failure of the government. The biggest failure of any government is not appointing the right people,” he said.

    For Pakistan Muslim League – Noon (PML-N) it seems that Aziz’s status as an advisor removes the need for a foreign minister

    “Someone at this post needs to be someone who understands domestic politics and has experience with foreign policy. Right now you have Fatemi and Aziz and both are technocrats and both are old — what can they possibly deliver?” he asked.

    The issues, according to Chan, go back to the party not having many options to begin with. “They don’t trust anyone beyond their kitchen cabinet… that’s not how you run a country,” Chan observed. “They have limited themselves quite a bit because of this”.

    Sartaj Aziz himself is tired of the discussion over Pakistan’s missing foreign minister. “The thing is that there is little difference between an advisor and an actual minister,” he said irritably.

    “You must have seen before during the PPP government that Malik was the advisor on interior for a long time after which he took on the role of the finance advisor for a long time. The only difference is that I’m not a part of the parliament and cannot be called a minister, therefore I am an advisor,” he said of his shared role with Tariq Fatemi.

    “I am heading the foreign office and heading it fully, I’m there almost the whole day. This issue has been created for no reason,” he adding while listing the various ministries he has had control of during his career.

    If anything Aziz has had his responsibilities doubled. Not only is he the advisor on foreign policy, but he’s also the advisor on national security. Both the portfolios are substantially important ones — both are key to Pakistan’s survival right now. How prudent is it to allot both positions to one person? Aziz felt that it was a good decision.

    “National security and foreign policy share a deep connection. This is a logical combination and it isn’t like this is the combination of two diverse things. National Security encompasses social security, economic reality and defence requirements,” the advisor explained and added: “My experience in the past, including my time as a finance minister, becomes all the more relevant.”

    “In the start if you bring in a national security advisor that doesn’t have the support of the foreign office, he will fail. In that manner, it is an advantage I have both the portfolios,” he asserted.

    Verily, having an advisor instead of a minister does not in itself pose a problem. However, Pakistan faces a multifaceted and diverse set of issues. Right now, instead of putting one man or woman at the helm of affairs the current government has given the same job to two men.

    “Sartaj Aziz is a brilliant technocrat and economic manager but for foreign policy someone more suitable, a former career diplomat perhaps, would be needed,” says Irfan Shahzad, lead coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

    “The situation is that he’s the national security advisor and the foreign affairs advisor. We then have Fatemi, who is the special assistant to the PM on foreign affairs as well. Not having a foreign minister is one thing, but having two people doing the same job is something else,” he said.

    Foreign policy matters require substantial attention and intricate planning. Having two people for the same job means big trouble.

    “When you have two people, there is trouble. You can have two people doing the same kind of job but in general you who know the senior is or the junior or how they are meant to collaborate. When they were first appointed they also clashed and they aren’t in a favourable situation,” Shahzad observed.

    Would Pakistan benefit from some fresh blood when it comes to foreign policy? The answer isn’t all that simple.

    “I’m personally in favour of new people in top policymaking, but this is one forte that you need experience, tolerance and patience for. I would not suggest someone like Hina Rabbani Khar, and the likes of her for the post,” Shahzad said.

    Instead of one core minister, there are two advisors. And in this case two heads may not be better than one. To start with, both Sartaj Aziz and Tariq Fatemi are old. “A senior person is always an asset, but to what extent? Aziz has crossed 80 and Tariq Fatemi is slightly younger but he’s also into his 70s while our PM is somewhere in his mid-60s. I believe that one should be senior but not too old. The post requires agility,” he explained.

    Who cares about the foreign minister anyway?

    An interesting problem that Pakistan’s foreign policy faces is the hidden hands that know when to pull the right strings.

    “The military as an intuition has always been stronger than the civilian leaderships. We have some betterment now but there isn’t a huge substantial change. We can’t say that the military is running our foreign policy, but their shadows are very obvious,” Shahzad notes.

    Whether it’s Pakistan’s perpetually fractured relations with India or its tumultuous exchanges with Afghanistan — it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the military’s scent is all over the foreign policies that this country chooses to execute.

    As has been the case with many other avenues, where the civilian government failed the establishment stepped up. Is that the reason Pakistan’s lack of a foreign minister troubles no one? Chan believes that it would be incorrect to assume that the military is blatantly running the show; however, to say that they aren’t at all involved would also be wrong.

    “Well when it comes to the military… there’s a difference between coordination and influence. I think that till politicians deliver what they are supposed to, they shouldn’t crib about not having a role in foreign policy. Our democracy is not as strong as it should be and it will take time,” he said.

    Chan believes that the current government doesn’t do enough for foreign policy for it to be a relevant party at the table.

    Pakistan’s position in terms of its foreign policy in the last few months has gone from complicated to troubling

    “What have they done for foreign policy, that is the question. They are towing the policy that was already present under the PPP government. Relations with Afghanistan and Iran were getting better during PPP rule and they have ruined things there.

    “The only foreign policy they did bring to the table was that they wanted to fix relations with India — and they have backed off from that themselves. So what policy do they have? Call it their strategy or their weakness; their foreign policy is a joke,” he said.

    Pervez Rashid feels that the military’s involvement is nothing to get too excited over. “First of all, the entire world, when they are working on their foreign policy, get input from their defence. This is nothing new. Even the Americans do it; when they go to get their foreign policy they go to the pentagon, for instance. That input is taken and then moulded into the foreign policy, we’re not doing anything too unique.

    “Secondly, we have our own special circumstances. We almost always have security issues on the eastern border. The Afghan border has been war ridden since the last 30-40 years. When you live between such neighbours and these are the borders that you are sharing then it becomes even more necessary for the defence establishment to give their input because they are the ones tackling the situation on the ground at the end of the day,” he said.

    On the other hand, Sartaj Aziz feels that the perception that the military is calling the shots from the background is an ignorant one. “To start with the defence establishment has a deep interest in these portfolios because their defence capacity, their entire strategy depends on it. The civilian government is in charge, however,” he said.

    Aziz went on to speak about the progress that has been made in terms of both Afghanistan and India. While progress was en route in terms of Afghanistan, the recent vibe has been chilly at best. “Their recent attitude has nothing to do with us or what we have done. It is their internal situation in their country,” he said.

    “The consensus we achieved on how to deal with them is still very much relevant and there,” he added.

    Pakistan’s position in terms of its foreign policy in the last few months has gone from complicated to troubling. Internal policies continue to bang against foreign policies and little has been done to put the problems on the back burner.

    “The thing is that our geopolitical location, and being an Islamic country, along with global fault lines that have travelled to us, have put us in a tight spot,” Aziz observed.

    “A lot has improved in the last two years. There are some concerns but on the whole things are improving,” he added.

    The answer to whether Pakistan’s foreign relations have truly improved varies depending on who is asked. The reality is that a more coherent approach to how we deal with our neighbours and our allies needs to be made obvious, and soon.