Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif has grabbed headlines with his statement that “we need to bring our house in order, to prevent facing embarrassment on the international level”. He went on to admit Pakistan’s “mistake” in participating as a “proxy” in America’s war in Afghanistan against the USSR in the 1980s. “We have baggage. We need to accept that history and correct ourselves.”
Khwaja Asif wants a “new foreign policy” to cope with a regional situation in which Pakistan faces isolation and censure. Following US President Donald Trump’s blunt criticism of Pakistan as “part of the problem” of Afghanistan, the recent BRICS Summit has now, for the first time, listed Pakistan based non-state actors like the TTP, Haqqani Network, LeT, JM, etc, as terrorist groups. This means that key regional stakeholders China, Russia, America, India and Afghanistan have jointly put Pakistan on notice. Until now, China had gone the extra mile to protect Pakistan at international forums from being targeted as such.
Pakistan’s formal reaction to these twin developments has been two-fold. First, the civil-military leadership has united to reject the allegation that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism and needs to do more to stop it from hurting neighbours India and Afghanistan. In defence, it is reiterating evidence of a huge loss of soldiers and civilians in fighting terrorism on its soil sponsored from across its eastern and western borders. Second, it has hastily-convened a Conference of Foreign Envoys to formulate an appropriate policy response arising out of recent regional developments. Khwaja Asif’s statement deliberately reflects the thinking of the core elements in the Foreign Policy establishment.
But the equanimity with which Khwaja Asif has articulated a public “mea-culpa” and the consequent need for a new foreign policy is striking. Not so long ago, much the same sentiment was echoed by a couple of civilians in a meeting of the National Security Council that provoked the ire of the military establishment whence it came to be named “Dawnleaks” and destabilized the administration of Nawaz Sharif. Now the same military establishment had nodded approval to the same civilian leadership to publicly announce a review of the same “national security” doctrine in order to assuage the concerns and fears of the international community.
Pakistan’s defence of its contribution to the war on terrorism is accepted on one count and rejected on another by the regional stakeholders, including China. The world acknowledges that Pakistan’s military has waged a relentless war against the TTP, IS and assorted religious extremist groups terrorizing the people and state of Pakistan from bases inside and outside Pakistan. But it rejects its assertion that groups based inside Pakistan such as the Haqqani Network, LeT, JM etc that are attacking both Afghanistan and India but not Pakistan has its implicit and explicit support. Therefore when Khwaja Asif demands a change of foreign and national security policy, it is obvious that he is referring to policy regarding the Haqqani network, Let, JM etc with whom Pakistan’s regional neighbours and the international community are concerned and not the TTP, IS etc. The “do more” international mantra is directed at the former and not the latter. The significant new development is that this is now acknowledged by the foreign policy community of Pakistan.
The problem, however, is how to “do more”. The Haqqani network, like the rest of the Afghan Taliban, was provided safe havens and nurtured originally for leveraging the Afghan civil war to Pakistan’s advantage. Now it is clear that far from being to Pakistan’s advantage it has become a liability for Pakistan. The problem is how to oust it from Pakistan without pushing it into the arms of the TTP inside Afghanistan or IS inside Pakistan and reinforcing terrorism inside Pakistan.
Much the same sort of problem bedevils action against LeT and JM. Both were nurtured to leverage an advantageous solution to the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Now even the Kashmiris are not prepared to accept help from such Pakistan-based jihadis because it means tarring their struggle for Azaadi from both India and Pakistan. The problem for Pakistan is how to disband them without pushing them into the arms of the TTP as happened when the Musharraf regime decided to merely close the tap on jihad in 2005.
Pakistan’s resolve to neutralise the LeT, JM and Haqqani network would doubtless be strengthened if Afghanistan were to commit itself to eliminating the TTP based in Afghanistan and end support to Indian proxies terrorizing Balochistan. Likewise, if India were to demonstrate a sincere readiness to resolve the Kashmir issue to the satisfaction of the Kashmiris at least, the need for Pakistan to retain jihadi leverage would vanish. But neither India nor Afghanistan are prepared to take such steps.
For these reasons, a mutually advantageous and trusting regional approach to terrorism is the need of the hour. India and Pakistan must normalize relations, Pakistan and Afghanistan must act against anti-each other’s terrorists. And the US, Russia and China must assist them all to resolve their mutual problems instead of ganging up against Pakistan.
–-Editorial published in The Friday Times