While Imran Khan’s government showed a robust activity on all fronts, be it the economy, accountability or clean and green Pakistan; nothing matches the speed through which it positively moved inside the complex foreign policy arena.
Engaging the World
In less than four months in office, Khan’s hyperactive government successfully created image of a Pakistan that is moving out of its closet and is engaging the world. During this short period, Pakistan’s new prime minister twice visited Saudi Arabia and UAE, was received warmly in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, (where the septuagenarian first lady created headlines by holding his hands in an excitement reminiscent of teenage-style selfies).
Mr. Khalilzad, a staunch critic of Pakistan, had always been seen as pro-India but in the new changed circumstances has so far kept himself away from the mantras of Delhi.
Pakistan had offered mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in troubled Yemen and after making unsuccessful overtures to engage Modi’s Hindutva regime in India, it put New Delhi on defensive through its smart initiative on Kartarpur border opening in Punjab. This robust diplomacy also provided a much needed financial leverage – a breathing space – to an Islamabad struggling under a severe balance of payment crisis.
Saudi Arabia and UAE agreed to place $6 billion in Pakistan’s state bank to help with its balance of payments and made commitments for large deferred oil payments. Chinese made substantial commitments, which Islamabad and Beijing have declined to comment upon – apparently under Middle Kingdom’s traditional policy of understatement.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Khan’s foreign minister (who earlier served as FM in the PPP government between 2008-11) has shuttled, right from August, between Islamabad, Kabul and Washington creating the receptive environment in which President Trump ended up asking Pakistan’s help in a dialogue with Afghan Taliban – that had become stuck after initial meetings with Alice Wells in Doha.
Read more: 100 days of PTI: Smoothening the way
In the third week of December, Shah Mehmood Qureshi embarked on a three-day trip of four countries. The list could not have been more impressive: From Kabul, he landed in Tehran, then was found shaking hands in Beijing and emerging from the shadows of Great Wall he was heading towards Putin’s Kremlin in Moscow.
Pakistani foreign minister was briefing his counterparts on the direct talks between the U.S. and Afghan Taliban – an initiative his government was now actively facilitating. Much has been made of President Trump’s letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the beginning of November, in which he had requested Pakistan to help find a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, but in reality, the process was ongoing much before that –with active support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence.
In the third week of December 2018 history had moved full circle. After wasting almost 21 years, the United States was once again sitting with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the same table trying to find a way forward through the Afghan Taliban.
India, Pakistan’s eastern neighbour, that had invested massively in post 9/11 Afghanistan to entrench itself in the west of Pakistan was absent – something that may not have been noticed by most Pakistanis or those in the west but something that is being viewed with grave concern in the dusty offices of South Block.
Knives and arguments are being sharpened for Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy for the region, who will visit New Delhi to attend Raisina Dialogue in January. Mr. Khalilzad, a staunch critic of Pakistan, had always been seen as pro-India but in the new changed circumstances has so far kept himself away from the mantras of Delhi. In his recent trips to the region, India was ignored and the dialogue with the Taliban has proceeded without an active or visible consultation with the hawks in Delhi.
India has been a staunch supporter of continued U.S. military presence in war-battered Afghanistan. When President Obama had announced his troop withdrawal plan, (to be completed by end 2014) India was the only country in the region that had taken a position against it.
Strategic communities and diplomats in Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan all see continued U.S. military presence as a watch over the region – while no foreign office openly states it, but Islamabad based diplomats quietly point towards a U.S. design towards the region. It thus remains to be seen how New Delhi, Kabul elite dependent upon U.S. funds, and the strategic voices inside Pentagon and CIA will finally influence upon Trump.
America’s business-minded President is eager to find a settlement in the region that can sharply reduce his $45 billion a year bill from Kabul. Trump is clear that 17 years of unending war, thousands of body bags and almost a trillion dollar of tax payer’s money down the drain, prove that there is no sustainable solution except a political settlement.
Many are unhappy in Pentagon, CIA, State Department and what can be described as the strategic community in Washington, who may have a totally different vision towards the region. But no one is more upset than the mandarins in New Delhi who had successfully used the space in Kabul – in the name of development – to destabilize Pakistan through a myriad proxy conflict managed through their deep penetration in the Afghan intelligence set-up of NDS.
Chinese made substantial commitments, which Islamabad and Beijing have declined to comment upon – apparently under Middle Kingdom’s traditional policy of understatement.
While U.S.-Taliban talks were happening in UAE with Pakistan’s help, right at that time President Ashraf Ghani was busy appointing two staunch Pakistan haters as his interior and defense ministers: Amarullah Saleh and Asad Ullah Khaled. Both have headed Afghan intelligence, NDS, in the past and from Islamabad’s point of view, both are pawns of powerful Indian intelligence (RAW) and facilitators of Indian intervention in Pakistani tribal areas and Baluchistan.
Though nothing is certain at this stage, Trump may not be thinking of a total withdrawal but a substantial reduction that can maintain U.S. foothold through his bases at much reduced cost – under $20 billion. Within hours of the resignation of General James Mattis as Secretary Defense, White House hinted that it may be considering withdrawal of 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the summer of 2019.
Read more: A rebuttal: After 100 Days- Dawn’s Editorial
Even this reduction may be unacceptable to hawks in Pentagon, CIA and their strategic partners in New Delhi. But the mere fact that Washington is talking directly with the Afghan Taliban and has released several prisoners – including senior leaders of the Haqqani Network – to help move the process forward is no mean achievement. If all goes well, then an interim set up is expected that will bring Afghan Taliban as partners and stakeholders.
Kartarpur Border Opening: A Diplomatic Coup
But the foreign policy achievement of PTI government in the West cannot diminish the importance of breakthrough in the East. Kartarpur Border opening was described by an excited foreign minister, in a television interview (GNN, Nov 23) with this scribe, as a “diplomatic coup”.
While such pure expressions of raw happiness are not considered “kosher” in the world of diplomacy, the initiative itself was no less than outright brilliant. It forced a friendly engagement on an unwilling New Delhi and allowed Pakistan to placate Sikhs that constitute the main community on Pakistani borders in Punjab.
Disappointed at the arrogant & negative response by India to my call for resumption of the peace dialogue. However, all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) September 22, 2018
Strategists in Islamabad assess that New Delhi markets itself to its media, its civil society, Washington and to the west at large, as “desirous of peace” – and even creates optics to support it like Modi’s sudden dash to attend marriage of Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter in December 2015 – but in reality, beats all Pakistani attempts towards any meaningful or sustainable engagement, for it calculates that an engagement will widen Pakistan’s strategic space in the world and will thus benefit Pakistan more than it benefits India.
Allegations of military or ISI running Pakistan, civilians not in control, perpetrators of Mumbai not being punished, Hafiz Saeed not being reined in, terror and talks can not run together, talks to determine the ambit of talks, etc. are all different mantras and ploys New Delhi uses to escape the possibility of a sustained rational discussion.
Even the headline history of failure of diplomatic engagements since the agreement on ‘Composite Dialogue’ in 1998, provides a quick snapshot to understand the real mind of New Delhi. While events, developments and the excuses keep changing, the determination and ability of New Delhi to wriggle out of dialogues with Pakistan remain constant.
Trump is clear that 17 years of unending war, thousands of body bags and almost a trillion dollar of tax payer’s money down the drain, prove that there is no sustainable solution except a political settlement.
The path towards Kartarpur was thus riddled with several setbacks. Prime Minister, Khan, in his initial victory speech after the elections (July 26) offered an olive branch to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, suggesting that “we will move two steps if you move one” but New Delhi found that one step far too difficult to take.
Before the United Nations General Assembly session in September, Pakistani Prime Minister again wrote to his Indian counterpart suggesting that foreign ministers of both countries should meet in New York, setting the stage towards Modi’s visit to Pakistan to attend SAARC summit in Pakistan in the early part of 2019.
Modi government first agreed then under pressure from right-wing allies – like RSS – and the opposition it quickly backed out. But it did so with a vicious and totally unnecessary attack on the character of PM Khan. Pakistani PM in an equally un-statesmanlike tweet hit back angrily, that reminded almost. Everyone of trigger-happy Donald Trump.
That India and Pakistan moved towards Kartarpur border opening, in November, despite these bumps on the road was thus surprising. Kartarpur is the site of a gurdwara, in the Narowal district, of Pakistani Punjab, only 3 kilometres from the Indian border– but its not a mere gurdwara, it’s the burial site of Sikhism founder, Baba Guru Nanak, who settled here after his missionary trips across the world (that according to some accounts also took him to Mecca and Baghdad in early 16th century) and is thus reverentially referred to as: Gurdwara Darbar Sahib.
Read more: Kartarpur Corridor: A new hope for peace
He died in Kartarpur in 1539, after years of teaching to Punjabi Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims – all of whom were then his followers. Sikhism can be understood as a quintessential Punjabi religion that borrowed its ideas from both Hinduism and Islam. Though at the eve of partition in 1947, most killings in Punjab took place between Muslims and Sikhs, but with the passage of time the Punjabi ethnic bond, the linguistic brotherhood, has overshadowed the tyranny of history and Pakistani Punjabis and even Pathans – harbour lots of affection for the Sikhs.
These feelings multiplied with doses of sympathy, after the Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikhism’s holiest shrine in June of 1984 and the Sikh massacre in Delhi after the assassination of Indian premier, Indira Gandhi, in Oct 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards (Beyant Singh & Satwant Singh). Most Pakistanis now see Sikhs as victims of Indian imperialism and here lie the fears of Delhi establishment that perceives – belied by claims in media – Pakistani sympathies towards Sikhs as renewed support for Khalistan.
In reality, Islamabad seeks appeasement of Sikhs for totally different reasons, it sees this as a confidence-building measure towards a potential opening towards India and it sees religious appeasement of Sikhs as a tool to reduce hostility on Punjab border which is primarily populated by Sikhs on the other side.
In a provocative piece, “The Real Googly: More than Imran, Pakistan Army wants peace with India” published in The Wire, in November soon after the Kartarpur opening, Indian defense analyst, Pravin Sawhney analyses that behind PM Imran Khan’s diplomatic offensive stands Pakistani Army Chief, General Bajwa, because the Pakistani army does not need India’s bogey to justify its own existence – not anymore. Sawhney argues that Pakistan army stands to benefit from the reduction of hostilities with India.
The headline history of failure of diplomatic engagements since the agreement on ‘Composite Dialogue’ in 1998, provides a quick snapshot to understand the real mind of New Delhi.
Those like this scribe who have access to the discussions, under Chatham House Rules, that take place behind scenes in Islamabad and Rawalpindi will gladly agree to Pravin Sawhney’s analysis. Pakistani institutions have developed a totally different worldview and prisms to look at the regional calculus. Peace, economic success, regional integration and engagement with the world – including India – are the key priorities inside Islamabad.
But to Delhi’s chagrin, it also represents a Pakistani attempt to reverse the narrative of peace Delhi itself had been selling to the world through gestures like “Aman Ki Asha” and “Bollywood Style Marriage Diplomacy of Modi”. So Delhi cynicism continued at the eve of Kartarpur opening. Sushma Swaraj, Indian foreign minister, and Capt. Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Indian Punjab, declined to attend the opening ceremony and representation was continuously downgraded.
Within hours of the opening, Ms. Swaraj also thundered that Pakistan must understand that “talks and terror cannot continue together” and India rejected Pakistani invitation to Indian premier, Narendra Modi, for SAARC summit in Pakistan in early 2019– making it impossible for the summit to happen.
Indian insecurities and its manifestations may have taken some shine away from the “Kartarpur Opening”, but the initiative attended by key media persons from India, wholeheartedly welcomed by the Sikhs from across the world and by many in the Indian civil society has its own positive dynamics.
A corridor with a bridge over River Ravi is being built with a view towards 550th death anniversary of Baba Guru Nanek, founder of Sikh religion, in November 2019. Thousands of Sikh pilgrims are expected not only from India but from across the world – including Canada and the UK. What Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, had over excitedly described as “Diplomatic Coup” in my discussion with him, continues.
Moeed Pirzada is a prominent TV Anchor and Editor Strategic Affairs with GNN News Network and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. He studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, the UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue, has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute and many others. Tweets @MoeedNj.