Islamabad has been reactionary, rather than anticipatory, and the last-minute backing out from the ongoing Kuala Lumpur summit could further isolate the country when it needs committed friends the most.
Ever since former cricketer Imran Khan took office as prime minister in August last year, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been in disarray.
The diplomacy emanating from Islamabad has been reactionary, rather than anticipatory, suggesting that the Pakistani government is not listening to its diplomats. Had it done so, it would not have enthusiastically committed to the ongoing Kuala Lumpur summit on issues affecting the Muslim world, only to back out on the flimsiest of pretexts.
There is no other plausible explanation for Pakistan’s failure to anticipate Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the event. Surely, somebody in Khan’s diplomatic retinue must have raised the prospect at the UN General Assembly in September, when he joined hands with Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia to launch an anti-Muslim sentiment initiative.
The Khan administration’s diplomatic ineptitude has echoed the populist messaging that swept it into power. Rather than strategic, it is driven by domestic political narratives which, inherently, are shallow and ill-informed.
At home, this has earned the government a reputation for embarrassing U-turns. By spilling over into the international arena, however, it has undermined Pakistan’s diplomatic credibility, even with its closest allies.
That was again exemplified by Khan’s address to the Global Refugee Forum, made within hours of his withdrawal from the Kuala Lumpur summit. Quite absurdly, he warned the international community that millions of Muslims would soon attempt to flee from India to Pakistan because of persecution by Narendra Modi’s Hindutva government.
This, too, echoes the domestic narrative spun by Pakistan’s government since New Delhi annexed Indian-administered Kashmir on August 5. The Khan administration claimed it did not know Modi would take such a provocative, brazen decision. That pathetic admission has since been swept under a carpet of rhetoric, aided by the international community’s dismay at India’s brutal repression in Kashmir.
Yet the question remains: how could Pakistan not have known that arch foe India was about to tip the scales of the Kashmir dispute, the very cornerstone of Islamabad’s foreign policy since the 1960s?
At best, the Pakistani state misread the situation. During the early phase of India’s general election in April, Khan even expressed hope that strongman Modi would be amenable to peace talks during a second term in office. However misplaced his optimism has since been proven, it is far more probable that Islamabad decided not to act, for fear of sparking war.
Pakistan had been on a state of high alert since Indian warplanes crossed the Line of Control in February, triggering a fatal dogfight. As border skirmishes extended into the summer, all concerned branches of the Pakistani government, particularly the powerful military, would have been bombarded by diplomatic cables and intelligence reports, including a constant stream of reportage by the Indian media. By July, it was patently obvious, even to the layperson news addict, that something major was afoot on the Kashmir front.
That presented Pakistan with a choice. It could either seize the opportunity to ramp up its pre-existing diplomatic campaign about Indian aggression, and reinforce that message with military maneuvers such as intensified air patrols along the disputed Kashmir border.
Instead, Islamabad froze, and sought to disguise its inaction with rhetoric that played better to domestic audiences than it did to the international community. Pakistan struggled to generate diplomatic support for its position on Kashmir, particularly amongst the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Just two – Turkey and Malaysia - took a principled stance at the UN General Assembly, earning Khan’s enthusiastic endorsement of their anti-Muslim sentiment initiative. Iran’s powerful clergy also criticised India, its long-standing regional partner, for revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, on the other hand, remained steadfastly neutral. Nonetheless, Pakistan has continued to appease Riyadh, because it depends on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to fix its relations with the US, after they hit rock-bottom in spectacular fashion two years ago.
The outcome of that strategy is bound to the success of Pakistan-backed peace talks between the US and Taliban. Shortly after the Kuala Lumpur snub, however, Iran threw a huge spanner into those works by for the first time voicing outright opposition to the dialogue, despite hectic efforts by Pakistan and the Taliban to keep it onboard.
If the dialogue with the Taliban fails, and the US pulls its forces out of Afghanistan without a negotiated political settlement, civil war will become inevitable. The longer the process lingers, the more likely US President Donald Trump is likely to give that order, just as he did in northern Syria. This threatens Pakistan with the nightmare scenario of hostile neighbours on both flanks.
Pakistan’s decisionmakers need to reevaluate their priorities. They should start by insulating Pakistan’s national interests from its nonsensical domestic rhetoric, and listen to professional diplomats, rather than imposing decisions upon them.
Otherwise, Islamabad may once again find itself diplomatically isolated when it most needs friends.
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