The problem with Pakistan’s foreign policy

Diplomatic pressure continues to build on Pakistan from the West and China to dismantle anti-India militant groups.

Pakistani army soldiers take part in a security drill at the Islamia College, in Peshawar, Pakistan [AP]
Pakistani army soldiers take part in a security drill at the Islamia College, in Peshawar, Pakistan [AP]

If one were to pinpoint the specific juncture at which Pakistan’s foreign policy went awry, it would be the military decision in 1990 to ignore the recommendations of a task force that recommended that mujahidin returning from their successful war with the Soviets in Afghanistan be disarmed and prevented from transforming the Kashmir dispute into a violent jihad.

Two years later, at a Chinese diplomatic reception in Islamabad, Akram Zaki, the secretary-general of Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs, half-jokingly told me: “Pakistan’s foreign policy is in a minefield without a map”.

Ironically, two of the three army colonels of the 1990 task force subsequently spent a great deal of time cleaning up the mess caused by their superiors’ decision to ignore their advice.

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One was Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, whose 2007-13 double-stint as Pakistan’s army chief of staff was largely spent fighting the militant insurgents of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The other was Tariq Majeed, who rose to the position of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Turning the tide

Kayani’s successor, General Raheel Sharif, has turned the tide against the TTP, but like his predecessors, has not acted decisively against the Kashmir-focused militant groups that are the single-largest hurdle to a cordial relationship between Pakistan and India.

Privately, he has asked the global powers to allow him to disassemble Pakistan’s militant world one layer at a time, like a rotting onion.

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His request for good faith, in turn, had a great deal to do with India’s decision in December to diplomatically re-engagewith Pakistan for the first time since terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group (otherwise known as Jama’at-ud-Da’wah) massacred 166 people in Mumbai in November 2008.

Diplomatic pressure continues to build on Pakistan from the West and China, its closest ally, to dismantle anti-India militant groups.

That good faith was almost immediately tested by a January 2 terrorist attack on an airbase in the northwest Indian town of Pathankot, which India quickly and pointedly blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammed, another Pakistan-based terrorist group.

However, Pakistan’s investigation has since failed to find any evidence of the involvement the group or its leader Masood Azhar, infamous for being freed from an Indian jail in December 1999, in exchange for hostages on board a hijacked Indian airliner diverted to Kandahar in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Painful memories of the Mumbai massacre have also been revived by the testimony David Coleman Headley, Lashkar-e-Taiba scout turned state witness, to an Indian court this week.

Against that backdrop, it is uncertain whether India will proceed with the diplomatic process kick-started in December. Foreign secretary talks with Pakistan were to have been held in January, but were postponed by India as it awaited the outcome of Pakistan’s investigation of Azhar, who was detained shortly after the Pathankot incident.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has not yet reacted to Pakistan’s inability to find evidence against the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief; it is probably awaiting the outcome of investigations into other leads.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Lahore, Pakistan [Reuters]

Diplomatic pressure

Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure continues to build on Pakistan from the West and China, its closest ally, to dismantle anti-India militant groups.

That also has a bearing on Pakistan’s leading role in the four-country talks being held to arrange resumed direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, expected by the end of February.

In both cases, a successful outcome would go a long way towards securing Pakistan’s vulnerable borders with Afghanistan and India.

That raises the question: Why hasn’t Pakistani cracked down against Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammed and other such groups?

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Certainly, a major consideration is Pakistan’s need to maintain a split between pro- and anti-state militant factions. When military ruler General Pervez Musharraf ordered the disbandment of Kashmir Jihad Council, a coalition of such factions and jailed their leaders in 2002, many of their key commanders fled and joined the ranks of al-Qaeda.

Understandably, they were angry at being betrayed by Musharraf, who had used them to occupy Indian military positions high in the Karakorum Mountains, sparking the 1999 Kargil War. Azhar inferred that could happen again in an article he wrote for the Peshawar-based al-Qalam jihadist publication, published on January 26.

Another rising consideration is the spread into Afghanistan and Pakistan of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group. Echoing opinions that Kashmir-focused militants have often made, the head of ISIL’s regional Khorasan governorate, Saeed Khan Orakzai, recently dismissed Pakistan’s Kashmir policy as duplicitous and said the terrorist group would target the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Indeed, the Pakistani authorities in December revealed that a group of Lashkar members based in the eastern city of Sialkot, had switched allegiance to ISIL and were arrested for running a training camp alarmingly close to the nearby Indian border.

However, the biggest factor, by far, is plain indecision. The government’s narrative changed hugely after the December 2014 massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, but its propaganda against the TTP has been characterised as an Indian conspiracy, rather than as a soul-searching exorcism of jihadism from its body politic.

Zaki would probably say that’s because Pakistan still hasn’t got a map for the minefield created by its rejection of the 1990 task force’s recommendations.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst based in Islamabad.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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