he pall bearers of Pakistan’s foreign policy – GHQ as represented by General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Prime Minister’s Office as represented by Imran Khan and the Foreign Office as represented by Shah Mahmood Qureshi – are seemingly on different pages. Nowhere is this comedy of errors more starkly evident than concerning India. Consider.
In a hastily assembled National Seminar on March 18, 2021, in Islamabad, a speech read out by General Bajwa succeeded in stirring a lively debate by proposing a “paradigm shift” in Pakistan’s policy outlook from “geostrategy” to “geoeconomics”, a core plank of which was “normalization” of relations with India in order to reduce the defense burden of continuing military conflict. Shortly afterwards, the ISPR handpicked two dozen journalists to explain, clarify and solicit support for General Bajwa’s “historic” initiative.
The “take-away” by the media of a seven hour-long interaction with General Bajwa can be summarized. (1) An intel “backchannel” between India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval and Pakistan’s DGISI, General Faiz Hameed, initiated as early as 2017 with the approval of the then PMLN PM, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, led to the important LoC ceasefire agreement effective February 24/25, 2021. (2) The Indian side had assured the Pakistanis that they were now ready to talk about other issues not as part of a composite dialogue but on an issue-to-issue basis after some “normalization” steps had been taken, with a dialogue on Kashmir included in this process.
However, perceptive analysts were quick to note certain points. (1) Pakistan had engaged in backchannel discussions with India despite its official public stance that it would not do so until India reversed its August 5, 2019, annexation of Kashmir. (2) These “talks” were conducted by the military establishment and not by the civilian government, even though they purported to go beyond the ceasefire agreement. (3) An attempt was being made to peg a degree of legitimacy to the proposed outcome by claiming that the civilian PMLN government of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had approved the initiative as long ago as 2017, which he was quick to disavow, confirming that the backchannel earnestly kicked off in late 2020. (4) The Indians were mum about all this, implying that their take was very different and they didn’t want to accept or deny anything.
The PM now gave a green light to the Commerce Ministry to allow imports of sugar and cotton from India which the ECC duly approved. But when questions were asked whether this signaled a U-Turn on policy of no trade with India until Article 370 was restored, the Cabinet reiterated the old policy, did a U-Turn and retained the ban.
Now GHQ and PMO were at odds over how to proceed further. Enter the more loyal than the king Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Mr Qureshi brazenly told a TV channel that the abrogation of Article 370 by India was “an internal matter of India”, suggesting that “normalization” steps could take place without any reference to it.
An uproar ensued. This compelled PM Imran Khan to brief a select group of journalists that, whatever GHQ’s compulsions, he simply couldn’t afford to “normalize” with India when his government was being tossed about in a storm of protest by the people over unemployment, inflation and impoverishment and the opposition was baying for his blood. Two days ago, he formally put an end to General Bajwa’s “paradigm shift” initiative of “normalization” with India by announcing that there would be no talks about anything with India until it reversed the actions of August 2019. Mr Qureshi had paved the way earlier by thumping the rostrum, clenching his teeth and claiming “Pakistan’s Foreign Policy is made here, in the Foreign Office!” meaning that GHQ can go fly a kite.
This is the latest twist in a tug of war between GHQ and PMO, with the FM in the middle, over how to make friends and influence people. An equally problematic approach has manifested itself in relations with Saudi Arabia. While the Miltablishment is keen to woo Riyadh for a host of reasons – ex COAS (retired) General Raheel Sharif heads the Saudi Coalition Force Command, the new Pakistani Ambassador to Riyadh is ex-CGS, General (retired) Bilal Akbar, and the COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has paid countless visits to the Kingdom to smooth the crown prince Muhammad bin Salman’s ruffled feathers, over transgressions by Imran Khan. These include an attempt to set up a rival bloc comprising Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia against the OIC headed by Saudi Arabia and don the mantle of an interlocuter between Saudi Arabia and Iran without the blessings of MBS!
It may be recalled that relations hit rock bottom in August 2020 when the overzealous Mr Qureshi, launched a stinging attack on the OIC for not censuring India over its annexation of Kashmir in 2019, sending General Bajwa scrambling for cover once again. Understandably, Mr Qureshi was not on board Pak Air Force One carrying PM Imran Khan to Riyadh last week. Equally, MBS has not immediately showered his largesse on Imran Khan, who has returned with nothing more than a promise of investment of up to half a billion dollars (peanuts) in undefined investment projects for Pakistan in the future.
Meanwhile, the stage is being set for new strains in the relationship between General Bajwa and Imran Khan. Regardless of the truth or merits of the case, the release of Shahbaz Sharif has fueled rumours that some sort of “deal” has been engineered by the brass with the opposition that will lead to regime change in the near future. This has provoked Imran Khan’s army of trolls to accuse the judiciary of kowtowing to the generals and the government has unleashed the FIA and NAB to “get Shahbaz” again.
The budget season is upon us. Hardship looms for the “common” man. All that is needed is a wink from somewhere to the PMLN, PPP and JKT Forward Bloc to spring into action and stop the budget from being passed, effectively reposing no-confidence in the prime minister. But Imran Khan is not about to be caught lying down.