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Determinants of diplomacy: separating friend from foe

Ambassador Munir Akram is Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. A diplomat for over fifty years, he has a wealth of experience in foreign relations, GVS Managing Editor Najma Minhas spoke to him to understand the compulsions driving Pakistan’s foreign relations for over the past seventy years.

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GVS: In an article you wrote for GVS, you referred to Pakistan’s current major external challenges including Kashmir, Indian hostility, Afghanistan’s terrorism, and economic vulnerability, are all largely products of history. Are you saying that history is responsible for this, and we need not take any personal responsibility for this as a nation?

Amb Munir Akram: No, of course, we do. However, when I say that history is responsible, it is the context of history and how we evolved our policies to it. We were born in a security environment that required us to find an equalizer to a larger adversary that led us to an alliance system that was not totally compatible with our national priorities.

Therefore, we were led into several situations that proved to be counterproductive in the latter part of our history. The one good thing that we did was the early establishment of a close relationship with the People’s Republic of China. At that stage, China was a large emerging country that was poorer than Pakistan.

Still, we saw the geopolitical rationale for that relationship. Hence, we established it, and I think that stood the test of time through all the trials that we went through with the early alignment with the US, the breakup of that alliance, and re-emergence of that alliance when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Pressler sanctions and then another re-emergence after 9/11 with the war on terrorism.

Now with all of those, there were some short-term advantages for us, but all had long-term consequences for Pakistan. Therefore, I think the lesson to be learned is to be careful in making strategic policy choices. We should bear this in mind as we face the challenges we are facing today.

Read more: APS Terrorism: Pakistan’s 9/11

GVS: In the 1950s, the prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, decided to go to the United States instead of accepting the offer for a meeting by the Soviet Union. Do you think that was a crucial strategic mistake that Pakistan made by aligning itself with the western bloc rather than the Soviet Union at that time? Or could have stayed neutral – “non-aligned” the way India did in the whole period?

Amb Munir Akram: Firstly, alignments do not emerge out of one or two meetings. They are a process in which establishments, governments, or countries make many calculations. So, I think our alignments were not the result of one or no meetings as such.

Secondly, we need to remember that we were looking to equalize the power of India as a larger country at this stage, so we were seeking support or patronage that could counteract India, and because we had that compulsion, we accepted the offer to align with the West.

Now, whether we should have moderated our behavior, this is something we could have done for the better. Nevertheless, the alignment, I think, made sense for Pakistan at that time. It is instead a question of how you manage that relationship that is important.

separating friend from foe

GVS: So you referred to the need for equalizers for India, but at one point in your article, you wrote, “Historical analysis would reveal major and minor strategic and tactical mistakes, which allowed us to overcome many challenges and missed up opportunities to overcome these challenges.” Do you think there were opportunities with India that we missed during the first fifty years of our history?

Amb Munir Akram: Yes, certainly. In 1962, during the Indo-China war, we had the opportunity to take Kashmir. India was wholly preoccupied with the war with China, and if we were tactically and strategically bold at that time, we would have gone in and taken Kashmir rather than try taking it in 1965

GVS: So, you are saying that if we would have taken Kashmir in 1962, then our issues with India could have finished once and for all?

Amb Munir Akram: No, of course not. Like I have always said, Kashmir is only a symptom. The ingrained hostility between the two nations emerged in 1947 because India had always been a Hindu nation, whether it called itself that or not.

We would have continued to have an adversarial relationship, but if we had been able to take Kashmir, we would have been in a much better position to negotiate the self-determination for Kashmir at that time. We were not bold enough to take that step.

We came under pressure from our ally, the US, not to do it. But again, this is the question of managing a relationship; we could have said no, claiming it a national priority, we could have moved towards our interests. So, I think there were mistakes of that nature.

The other big mistake was obviously, in Afghanistan, when we supported the extremists against USSR. It was an ideologically driven motivation at that time; instead of calculating consequences and blow-back from taking such a decision, we now live with the results of that mistake.

Then again, when we joined the War on Terror, we made a similar mistake of not being open about the fact that while we could support action against Al-Qaeda, we could not support overthrowing the established Taliban government at Kabul. And we switched the alliance 180 degrees at the drop of a hat. We should have been much clearer to the Americans about what we could and could not do in the war against terrorism.

This lack of clarity has brought us the whole war that has cost us in terms of lives, extremist movements born in Pakistan, and the then Kashmir liberation movements that turned on Pakistan. We paid heavy costs for that mistake. History has consequences, and men and policies write it.

Read more: Will the Chinese Dragon and the Indian Tiger go to War?

GVS: Do you think there were some opportunities we missed with India to work towards peace?

Amb Munir Akram: Peace comes through strength. Peace with an adversary is negotiated when you have equalized power. If you are weaker, then you have to accept an unjust and unequal outcome. Pakistan has not been willing to take that since it has not been on equal footing with India. That is the central problem, and so if we cannot accept an unequal peace, we have to equalize power before we can move in that direction.

Since we do not have the military capability, therefore, the equalizer, in this case, is the freedom struggle of the Kashmiri people, and that is where India has tried to hold back our hand and has prevented us from supporting that struggle through this device of portraying this struggle as the ‘struggle of terrorism’ rather than ‘struggle for liberation.’

So, I do not see missed opportunities with India; there have been many thoughts and discussions, but the essential equation is what counts, which has been unequal against us, and we have been unable to equalize that either externally through conventional power or internally in Kashmir through the freedom struggle.

GVS: Do you agree with the thought that India and Pakistan would have a totally different relationship if the Kashmir issue was resolved once and for all?

Amb Munir Akram: What do the Indians mean by resolving the Kashmir issue? What they mean is that Pakistan should accept the current unjust statehood. They have occupied two-thirds of Kashmir, and they want us to accept it while forgetting about the rights of the Kashmiris.

If we do that, the collateral conclusion will be Indian dominance of the region; then, we will have a good relationship. We will have trade, and we will be another Bangladesh. We will be happy except for the Kashmiris and those perhaps in Pakistan who support them. So, the critical choice for us is; can we accept an unjust solution for Kashmir? However, suppose we want relations to be normalized alongside a just solution to Kashmir.

In that case, we have to struggle for it, which involves tensions, confrontations, confrontational diplomacy, adversarial relationship, the whole gambit of the military equation between India and Pakistan. So, while it is a simple choice, it is a critical choice, and I think the people of Pakistan are not willing to accept an unequal solution for Kashmir.

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GVS: So what does Pakistan need to do then if it wants a reasonably working relationship? For example, for India to stop lobbying the FATF for Pakistan to remain on the grey list?

Amb Munir Akram: So long India considers Pakistan an adversary, it will lobby against us every opportunity it gets. It could put pressure on Pakistan, constrain our capabilities; military, diplomacy, etc. Now, what could we do about it? We need to find ways to equalize the power relationship, and there are ways to do that.

The equalization process, I think, had happened to some extent last year when China confronted Indians on Ladakh and obliged the Indian forces to move 100,000 troops from other places to the LOC, the northern border with China. I think that diminished the capability to attack Pakistan, which has somewhat equalized the equation.

Moreover, the overtures that we had from India regarding the possible normalization of relationships and dialogues is the direct consequence of the change in strategic calculations of India once the front with China is over, and this is just one element of the equation. But this change has provided the opportunity to at least get some semblance of justice for Kashmir.

GVS: What is the equalization you are referring to because people would find it rather odd to say that Pakistan should aspire to be equal to India – given its size, population and now GDP?

Amb Munir Akram: Of course, we cannot be equal to India, but the strategic and geopolitical situation can evolve so that their capacity to conduct pressure against Pakistan diminishes, which has already happened to some extent. You have seen General Rawat’s talk about the two-front war.

They could face a two and a half-front war with China, on the one hand, Pakistan, and internally with the insurgency in Kashmir. That could be an equalizer. I do not think that the Indians are prepared for this, so the overtures have made Pakistan happy.

Of course, the Modi government is ideologically committed to its policy in Kashmir, and it would be difficult for Modi and company to reverse their policy in Kashmir. Nevertheless, the only reason they are doing it is that they see that they are facing a larger adversary on the northern front and therefore need to ease tensions on the western front.

So, this is the geopolitical equation that I am talking about, and those equations can change over time. We have to see what these equations are and negotiate accordingly – according to the strengths and weaknesses at any given moment.

Read more: Kashmir, Gurdaspur & Mountbatten?

GVS: What is the equation Pakistan has with China? Is China our new equalizer with India? Is this how we perceive China? What are the synergies in the relationship, which will hold for the long term?

Amb Munir Akram: China has always been our equalizer with India. Indian aggression could have happened several times against us before we acquired nuclear weapons. In 1965, they ensured the Indian divisions in the north would never move against us.

In 1971, we asked the Chinese for help in the Bangladesh theatre, which they were ready to do so. If you read Henry Kissinger’s book, you will see that the discussions that took place in New York at that time between Mr. Bhutto, Kissinger, and the Chinese deputy former minister.

China has been our equalizer for many years, much more than the US. Especially after 1965, it has been the Chinese equation that has halted Indian aggression against Pakistan. However, after we acquired nuclear weapons, it became a different ball game altogether.

separating friend from foe

GVS: What is the Synergy with China in the relationship in itself other than the equalizer? How can we grow this particular relationship?

Amb Munir Akram: The scope of a relationship with China can be huge, even unlimited. It is up to us how we grow this relationship. As far as China is concerned, let me recall something Mao Zedong told his second ambassador when he was being posted to Pakistan. He said to him, “look after Pakistan, it is our window to the West.”

That was Mao Zedong in the late 1950s with a vision of Pakistan’s role, and then if you see CPEC, what is it? It is China’s window, out not to the entire west but to West Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Sea, to Africa. China has a built-in adversarial relationship with India, and so does Pakistan; there is a convergence of geopolitical interests between the two countries.

These interests have multiplied with China’s vision to emerge in the world in the backdrop of the new model of economic and political cooperation of BRI. Our interests, geography, economics are all converged at this time. If we go looking around for investments from the West, we will not receive them easily. The West’s vision now includes India as its primary ally in the region. China regards Pakistan as a primary ally in the region.

So, I think our future should be prioritizing how to maximize our convergences with China and its maximum economic contribution to Pakistan’s development which will be rapid. China has invested 25 billion dollars in Pakistan in the last four years.

The US has not invested even half of that. So one has to work based on ground realities, not because we can speak English, so we find it easy to deal with the West. The geopolitical reality is that our future is linked with China.

Read more: How can Muslims stop living in history? GVS Exclusive Interview with Prof. Ahmet T. Kuru

GVS: Everyone in Islamabad is now talking about “geo-economics”, you still use the word “geo-politics” determining our foreign policy? How do you think that has or will change our foreign policy?

Amb Munir Akram: I do not think that is necessarily the case. Our geo-economic concept is based on geopolitics. If we are looking for connectivity with China, Central Asia, West Asia, and if things normalize with India, then South Asia. Nevertheless, connectivity is made possible by our geopolitics or geographical situation and the political environment in which we operate.

If China were not interested in the BRI, in pushing the CPEC, if the central Asian countries were not interested in breaking the barrier of Russian control, they would not have been looking for the southern route through Afghanistan and Pakistan through the Arabian Sea. Geopolitics is therefore linked with geo-economics, so we should not confuse ourselves.

Geo-economics is something that we are looking at ourselves; we are driven by the need to develop our country and pursue economic and social development in our country, so we need to utilize our geopolitical location to promote our economic objectives. Moreover, that is the meaning of the whole phrase, “geo-economics.”

GVS: What is your understanding of why President Biden has not called PM Imran Khan for the past eight months? Throughout Pakistan, people share pictures from the time of the Ayub Khan era; President Kennedy came and received him from the airport, from that time to this time when President Joe Biden has not bothered to pick up the phone to Pakistan. Is it the reflection of bad policies on behalf of Pakistan, or is there something else in play?

Amb Munir Akram: Well, its geopolitics, its strategic changes. During Ayub Khan’s era, we were the most allied ally; now, we are not. The US’s new ally is now India. So, why should we expect Biden to call us, or why should we fall over our feet to call Biden? We should have a certain amount of self-respect for our sovereignty, our dignity.

The US is now allied with India; let us accept it and work from there. We obviously, do not want a bad relationship with the United States. The US anger is born out of its failure in Afghanistan. It is a completely irrational, emotional assessment of the situation, which explained the military failure, strategic mistakes the US has made in Afghanistan.

We would like to have good relations with the US, and there are areas in which we can cooperate; American investment, technology, trade, etc. These are not incompatible with our relationship with China. China has never asked us to have bad relations with the US; we are free to explore the relationship. However, the US does not want it.

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GVS: How do you see the future because the chaos seems to have started already in Afghanistan, and most Afghan experts predict more. How do you see this situation impacting Pak-US relations in the future?

Amb Munir Akram: The US is exiting physically from Afghanistan. If the Afghans rule themselves, they will find the solution; they have always had. Perhaps a decentralized government at Kabul with representatives of all the ethnic compositions in a power structure which is loose in various districts.

They can find a solution. But the question is, will they be left alone? Is the US or the West interested in a solution? Do they want a settlement? Why has the US promised continued military support to the government at Kabul, to the Afghan national forces? They are still conducting aerial strikes against the Taliban after making and signing an agreement last year with them; they have not kept that agreement.

They promised the return of prisoners, delisting Taliban from the terrorism list, promised to withdraw by May 1st, but none of them were observed in actuality. Meanwhile, the Taliban promised not to strike at the US-NATO forces while withdrawing, and they had obliged this commitment. However, this is just my assessment of the scenario. Who acted in good faith and who in bad faith is still an open question.

separating friend from foe

GVS: Going forward what are the key opportunities Pakistan should focus on?

Amb Munir Akram: Our first opportunity is our relationship with China. We have to maximize it, and I am glad foreign minister Qureshi is in China for a strategic dialogue. This is and should be our first priority in consolidating that relationship and ensuring that the kinds of attacks that happened against the Chinese engineers should not happen again.

We need to protect them since there is a campaign by our adversary against the Chinese involvement, and we have to ensure their security and protect that relationship at all levels, strategic, economic, etc.

Secondly, I think we have to focus on our internal issues, such as ending terrorism entering from Afghanistan. We need to put an end to the militancy from the TTP and the Baloch insurgents from Afghanistan.

Whatever agreement has evolved from Afghanistan, whether it is the negotiation with the Taliban or other players who have emerged in Kabul, our primary condition has to be that there should be no militancy in Pakistan, and Afghan soil should not be used for this purpose. This is essential to provide stability to Pakistan internally to foster social and economic development. These are two major priorities.

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