Nov 22, 2010

Foreign policy options

A conference on foreign policy issues of Pakistan discards the old rules and suggests a new shift

By Raza Khan

At a time when Pakistan is facing the consequences of decades of controversial foreign policy choices it made there is a need to have an appraisal of the existing and previous foreign policy directions which the decision-makers of the country have followed. That is to ascertain to what extent policy objectives have been achieved or otherwise.

This is indeed important to have an informed debate on the extremely critical aspect of state functioning in order to point out the wrongs and avoid repetition of the same.

There is too much talk about Islamabad’s foreign relations with other countries, particularly the US, India, and China but little debate on serious issues regarding foreign policy the state has followed. Through debates on Pakistan’s foreign policy, its objectives, and the tools employed to pursue these goals, inputs from the federating units can be incorporated as policy options.

Debates involving local experts and communities could help shape direction of country’s foreign policy. This is really important for what we may call democratising foreign policy-making processes in the country, in particular against the backdrop that Pakistan’s foreign policy has never been reflective of people’s sentiments and aspirations.

This is one aspect of the process of democratization our politicians have failed to realise. However, international community, especially the Friends of Pakistan are fully cognizant of the need of having public debate in different provinces on state’s foreign policy.

German think-tank cum NGO, Hanns Seidel Foundation, recently held an international conference on Pakistan’s foreign policy in Peshawar. The two-day international conference the German Foundation organised in collaboration with Department of International Relations, University of Peshawar, was titled Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Analysis at Domestic, Regional and International Levels.

As a participant, one felt a bit nervous about the fact that foreigners are organising debates and discussions which we should have organised ourselves as part of the democratization process. Nevertheless, one still felt it was great that at least some kind of a debate was being held on one of the most important subjects that is Pakistan’s foreign policy in Peshawar.

The holding of the conference in Peshawar was appropriate because the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA are arguably the most affected due to the wrong foreign policy decisions.

Here, one should take into consideration anti-communist and USSR policy of Pakistan which brought Peshawar to a brink of virtual extinction. It was when Soviet Union’s Brezhnev had ordered to eliminate the city after the 1958 U-2 incident in which an American reconnaissance aircraft U-2, taking off from Badabher airbase in Peshawar, was shot down in Soviet Union and its American pilot arrested.

Afterwards, it was KPK and FATA which served as a frontline region of Pakistan during the capitalist world’s anti-communist Afghan resistance. Subsequently, efforts in Pakistan were made to make Afghanistan its strategic backyard. Scholars from Germany, Nepal, China, India and different Pakistani universities participated in the conference.

Presenting a paper on Pakistan-India Relations, Dr Andreas Jakob from Germany maintained that had Pakistan being a purely democratic, federal and secular country Islamabad’s foreign policy responses to India would have been quite different. He said this would have salubrious effects on Pakistani-India relations and stability of the region. He maintained that due to wrong foreign policy objectives, which Islamabad pursued, Indian influence in the region and the world has increased which would further narrow Pakistan foreign policy choices in the coming years.

President of Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Dr Maqsoodul Hassan Nuri, presented a paper on The Impact of Middle East on Pakistan’s Foreign Policy and pointed towards the fact that for right answers regarding foreign policy people must ask right questions. One was a bit surprised to hear someone from Pakistan pointing at the loopholes in Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Dr Noori said, "Pakistan committed several mistakes in formulating foreign policy, however, this was high time for a course correction." In this regard, he emphasized that Pakistan’s foreign policy in contemporary world should be formed on the principles of economic nationalism, good relations with the US and West and, above all, Islamabad’s de-ideologization of its foreign policy.

Many participants at the conference agreed with Dr Noori that the so-called ideology-laced foreign policy has been unrealistic and has added to the problems being faced by the people. Dr Noori also pointed towards the fact that the policy of pursuing nuclear technology for Pakistan was good, adding though that terrorism and poverty, main issues of Pakistan, could not be fought with nuclear arms. One could not agree more with Dr Nuri’s assertion that ‘Arabization’ of Pakistani and its Pakhtun sub-culture had had its role in the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan.

Dr Babar Shah from Area Study Centre, University of Peshawar, during his presentation on Emerging Dynamics of Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations, maintained that radical shift has taken place in Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan in the post 9/11 period. Babar said that in the pre 9/11 period Pakistan’s policy about Afghanistan rested on promoting religious rightists or clerics; countering Pakhtoon nationalism emanating from Kabul, and to make Afghanistan a ‘strategic backyard’. He made an interesting point saying that Kabul’s accusation of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan meant that Kabul had come to recognize legitimacy of the Durand Line as a permanent border between the two countries.

Professor Zhao Rong from China, while making a presentation on Chinese Perspective on Pakistan’s Foreign Policy said that the world and regional powers must know that the security and stability of South Asian region depended on a strong Pakistan. To give an example of Pakistan’s diplomatic importance, the Chinese scholar called upon US and his own country (China) that both should not forget the historic role which Pakistan had played in bringing them together in the 1970s.

Professor Dr Savita Pande of Jawahar Lal Nehru University, India made a presentation on Indian Perspective on Pakistan’s Foreign Policy through video conferencing. He maintained that Pakistan never had a coherent foreign policy; rather it only had foreign relations with different states. She said due to this anomaly Pakistan’s policy has been a failure. The participation of an Indian scholar in a conference in Pakistan and that too on such a sensitive topic was indeed a welcome development. This should give Indians an idea that Pakistan is an open society.

The richness of the debate in the conference could be gauged from the fact that a large number of other national and international scholars not only presented papers but gave a lot of food for thought. Dr Janardan Raj Sharma from Nepal made a presentation on Pakistan’s regional role. Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) read a paper titled, Exploring Alternative Foreign Policy Paths for Pakistan from Nonsensical to Sensible; Mr Imdad Chandio from Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, read a paper on Domestic Leftist Perspective on Pakistan Foreign Policy, and Ms Salma Malik, from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, spoke about radicalization and its impact on Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Students of the University of Peshawar also fully participated in the debate on Pakistan’s foreign policy and asked some very critical and pertinent questions from experts. After hearing questions, observations and comments of students, who represent the new generation of educated Pakistani youth, it was clear that they were largely dissatisfied with the formulation, conduct, and objectives of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

It goes without saying that there is a need to hold more such debates and discussions on Pakistan’s foreign policy in different parts of the country. Collective wisdom of the people must give our rulers a policy direction. One expects that such conferences are also held in Balochistan.

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