Prioritizing foreign policy issues
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Foreign policy choices of developing countries are often constrained by their dependence on development and security assistance, and absence of levers that are generally available to more powerful states. Pakistan shows some of these symptoms, but given its geopolitical location, population, nuclear capability and partnerships with the United States and European powers in the Soviet-Afghan war (1980-88) and American intervention (2001-2020) in Afghanistan, it can have some more influence.
By maintaining one of the largest and most powerful armed forces with robust security training institutions, it has also played a constructive role in training, advising, and on critical occasions, providing security assistance to friendly Arab countries.
Pakistan has made attempts to play a leading role in the international politics of Muslim countries. Its leaders – from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (197-77) to the current Prime Minister Imran Khan – have harped on the themes of unity and solidarity among Muslim-majority countries. By doing this, Pakistan wished to garner Muslim support against India. It also sought economic assistance, job opportunities for its labor force surplus, and supply of oil on concessional and deferred payment, particularly from Saudi Arabia.
But Pakistan has not been able to create a space for itself in the Middle East’s dynamics. During the Cold War, it was just one of the regional countries drawn closer to the US for geopolitical reasons.
In the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia were with the western bloc, while Egypt was in the Soviet fold.
In the new era, it is Saudi Arabia and Gulf states that have gradually emerged as the central players in the regional geopolitics. On the other side of the Gulf, it is Iran that for decades has pursued a policy of political and security expansion.
The question is what role can Pakistan hope for itself in this region where multiple international, state and non-state actors are involved. The Arab-Iran issues are the center point of it.
I believe Pakistan understands its limitations and has given up the old pretensions of acting as a regional power across the Middle East. The recent moves it made were less about reviving its old dreams, and more about expressing its anxiety over escalating tensions that could lead to a war between the US and Iran or between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has many domestic vulnerabilities, and one of them is its sectarian divisions that get mobilized along pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran lines. For this reason, even wanting to take a pro-Arab position, it has opted for neutrality.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi’s recent multiple foreign trips had two objectives – to show concerns over the escalation and to ask what role can Pakistan play in defusing tensions. He was well received and every side listened to him, but the mission ended up being just a good gesture. Perhaps, it was more for domestic consumption.
Given its complex regional foreign policy environment – rising tensions with India, change in the status of Indian-held Kashmir, and ongoing conflict across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistan should rather stay focused on the situation in its neighborhood rather than venture into the troubled landscape of the Middle East.
Afghanistan has been and will remain a primary concern, as its long cycles of conflict have been spilling into Pakistani territory. From the very beginning, Pakistan insisted on a political solution, which actually meant dialogue with the Taliban. It took a long time for the US to realize that its Afghan war was futile, wasteful and unwinnable. After years of accusing Pakistan of playing a double game in it, the US now finds Pakistan on the same page in the agreement it is currently negotiating with the Taliban.
US-Pakistani relations have improved in recent months, also as a consequence of Pakistan’s role in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table. When the agreement is reached – which is expected to happen very soon – it will open up much diplomatic space for Pakistan within the region and beyond, putting it in a better position to counter hostilities from India, obtain more access to Western markets and capital, and improve its international image. All these should now be Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities.