New FM’s options

Aug 8, 2017
IN the more than four years since the country last had a foreign minister, much has changed on the external front. India, Afghanistan and the US have had significant elections and leaderships changes. CPEC is an acronym that did not exist before. The Syrian civil war became even more complex and turned into an epochal humanitarian catastrophe. Iran and Saudi Arabia have clashed. And the Gulf has been thrown into upheaval. Bewilderingly, long after it became apparent that Nawaz Sharif had no special purpose in retaining the foreign minister’s portfolio for himself, the former prime minister refused to appoint a full-time foreign minister. Meanwhile, with two rival power centres installed in the Foreign Office, foreign adviser Sartaj Aziz and special assistant to the prime minister Tariq Fatemi, the institutional linchpin for civilian input in external affairs was allowed to drift and descend into infighting.
The arrival of Khawaja Asif, an experienced politician with an uncouth side, in the Foreign Office could help reverse the unfortunate trend of the past four years. If Foreign Minister Asif takes the job seriously and is not too distracted by pandering domestically and politically to his party boss, Mr Sharif, he can help inject some much-needed purpose and direction into his new portfolio. But that is very much an open question, especially after Mr Asif chose to speak to the media from his constituency in Sialkot for the first time as foreign minister and not from the much more recognisable, more appropriate setting of the Foreign Office. Certainly, his Twitter account since a change in portfolios suggests a preoccupation with domestic politics rather than a deep interest in the complexities of Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges. More promising was the thrust of Mr Asif’s comments in Sialkot: recognising the centrality of India and Afghanistan to Pakistani foreign policy and national security, and arguing for a reciprocal relationship of trust and cooperation.
The PML-N government, for all its weaknesses in the foreign policy and national security domains, and with the existence of a serious civil-military imbalance, has consistently offered peaceful cooperation with India and Afghanistan in all areas. Perhaps the Indian and Afghan governments are sceptical of the Pakistani civilian government’s ability to negotiate or deliver on matters of importance to those countries, but each of the three countries independently recognises that long-term peace and stability can only come about through dialogue. Given that reality, Mr Asif should work with his ministry, in consultation with other ministries and institutions, to draw up a statement of policy on India and Afghanistan that is sensible and pragmatic. The Pakistani parliament may be into its final year, but a fresh push towards regional dialogue could help lay the foundation for future breakthroughs. The foreign minister has a choice: treat his new portfolio with the disdain Nawaz Sharif did or use its potential to achieve a modicum of diplomatic success.
Dawn, August 8, 2017

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