We need to keep our cool
So the grand policy review in Washington has come down to what was expected: bluster towards Pakistan, the safest punching bag anyone there can find. Blame it on Pakistan: that’s what the mood in Washington is.
The army chief has said the right thing about American aid, that we are not really on the lookout for it, which is a polite way of saying you can stuff it. Although there was no need for him to go on to add that Pakistan wanted American trust and acknowledgement of its sacrifices in the war against terrorism. America doesn’t have spare trust to go around and that’s the last thing we should be looking for.
And Pakistan doesn’t need any American certificate regarding its losses in this ongoing struggle which we are now fighting for our own reasons—because the terrorists, or call them whatever we like, threaten our stability and sovereignty.
This may not be the best of times for our foreign minister Khawaja Asif who is no Talleyrand to visit Washington, for far from doing any good the Trump administration in its present mood could interpret it as a sign of weakness. Asif was not a very successful defence minister. A greenhorn in diplomacy it’s not certain what impression he makes in Washington as foreign minister.
In any event, the Americans have shot their Afghan bolt holding out threats against us. It’s not we who should be going around giving explanations in the American capital. If anyone is owed an explanation it is Pakistan. So best that in the circumstances we keep our counsel and play it cool.
And why oh why must we look for solace towards Saudi Arabia the moment we feel squeezed by anything? So soon after President Trump’s Afghan policy address it wasn’t a very sound idea for our newly-installed prime minister, Shahid Khaqan, to fly off to Saudi Arabia with Asif and Ishaq Dar accompanying him. Whatever the reasons for this visit it gives a bad impression that the Islamic world’s only nuclear power—as we keep reminding ourselves—have gone to the Saudis, almost cap in hand, for assurance and assistance.
The photo released on the occasion isn’t very flattering for us. There’s the Saudi crown prince, the all powerful Prince Muhammad bin Salman, almost holding court and not a very confident-looking Pakistani delegation being received by him. Ishaq Dar is the very picture of tension and nervousness these days. This shows in his face. In this condition it’s not a good idea to make him part of such missions. What impression must he have conveyed to the other side?
The Saudis have a score or two to settle with us. They weren’t bowled over by our neutrality in Yemen. They wanted us to play an active role which we just couldn’t afford and therefore very sensibly decided that we wouldn’t be sending any troops as the Saudis, to all appearances, wanted. The Saudis also have not been happy about our Qatar neutrality. So what exactly was the aim in repairing hastily to the Holy Land after the Trump speech?
Our problem is that our house is not in order and we don’t have much of a government in Islamabad. The statement made by the army chief about not being too keen to get American assistance should have come from the prime minister’s office. But Shahid Khaqan, given the circumstances of his rise to the office, is not his own man and while he can pretend to look confident he will always be looking left and right and over his shoulder before doing or saying anything. Just when we need a pair of sure hands on the tiller we have him. Just our luck.
On Thursday he was presiding over a meeting of the national defence committee. He was not much of a petroleum minister and now he is supposed to be navigating Pakistan through these choppy waters. Whatever the chiefs say to him will he be in any position to lay before them an alternative opinion? How seriously can they be expected to take him?
China and Russia have spoken out in Pakistan’s support, China State Councillor Yang Jiechi telling US secretary of state Rex Tillerson on Wednesday that “we should attach importance to the important role that Pakistan plays in the Afghanistan issue, respect (Pakistan’s) sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.” And Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has said that Islamabad is “a key regional player to negotiate with.”
We need not go the North Korean way and use strong and irresponsible words but this may be our opportunity to temper our unhealthy relationship with the US, the willingness we show in moments of crisis to become America’s most allied ally. We’ve done this too often in the past and the time may have come to reconsider this approach. This doesn’t mean we court American hostility needlessly but it does mean that we stop fighting its Afghan wars endlessly in exchange for so many guns and dollars. Far from gaining anything we have only damaged ourselves in the process.
But changing course means that our elite classes change their thinking and mentality. When they have their money stashed abroad, have flats and properties there and their kids can’t do without foreign education—not that most of them end up as rocket scientists or computer whizz kids, most going there more for the privilege than anything else—and the military can’t seem to do without training courses in American military institutions even though American military training has little relevance to our conditions, this may be too much to hope for.
Our military, by the way, would gain more from training in China, Russia, Vietnam and Cuba. Although it is all but certain that if this proposition was put before the typical Pakistani military officer he/she would react with outright horror.
It’s funny what the Americans want from us. Even as they lambast us for playing double games, Rex Tillerson suggests that we deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table. How exactly are we supposed to bring this miracle about, especially when our American friends are telling us to get tough with the Taliban at the same time?
But before anything else we have to put our house in order and for this we must clean up the mess surrounding Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal by the Supreme Court. The National Accountability Bureau is a slow-moving goods train. It needs to move faster and with a clearer sense of direction.
And it would help if elections are brought forward and are held before the year is out. We need fresh leadership and for this it is necessary that a reference be made to the people. Ten more months of dithering and weak government is a luxury that Pakistan may not be able to afford.