Kissinger on the Margalla

Engineer Khurram Dastgir-khan
Sunday, Mar 03, 2024

Henry Kissinger’s ghost will haunt Pakistan’s new coalition government. Shehbaz Sharif takes office in the milieu of a Europe flinching under the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ambitious Saudi Arabia leading the Gulf, inscrutable Afghanistan, unremittingly hostile India, an ascendant China filling the vacuum being created daily by a waning United States, and the post-World War II era well and truly over. The world is indifferent to Pakistan and reverting to Kissingerian realpolitik.

Some consider Kissinger to be a great strategist; some a war criminal. His legacy distils to this: international law and human rights are convenient fictions. Only power counts and only citizens of powerful countries count. The rest of humanity is fodder for the pursuit of superpowers’ interests. He might have died in Connecticut, but Kissinger is alive in Ghazzah, Indian-occupied Kashmir (IIOJK), and in Ukraine.

Ghazzah is a Kissingerian carnage like Laos half a century ago, with nearly 30,000 civilians killed of whom many were children, more than 70,000 injured, and millions displaced without food, water, shelter, and medicine. Citizens across the world have protested and are protesting, but their governments – including ours – have limited themselves to condemnation and staid statements in the International Court of Justice. No country has lifted an actual finger to stop the carnage.

Just as no country lifted a finger when Narendra Modi gobbled IIOJK in August 2019 after thirty years of active, bloody repression. The then-government in Pakistan was ineffectual, yes, but it faced an oceanic indifference by the world to the plight of the Kashmiri people. The West affected listening to Pakistan when it needed our support for both Afghan wars. China and OIC support us at international fora but advise us that Kashmir is a very long game. The game is as long as Pakistan remains economically weak, dependent on the IMF, and extraneous to the West’s current worldview.

Our China conundrum looms large. Pakistan could play a win-win game between China and the United States as long as Pak-China relations were low-key and China was a languishing power. The signing of CPEC in 2015 started shifting our game from win-win to zero-sum. The West’s increasing anti-China stance will hurt Pakistan. Difficult choices for Pakistan will arise over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the coming clashes over technology.

Sustaining balance between China and the West will be the toughest strategic game of Pak diplomacy in the years to come. A particularly knotty aspect of this game is and will be the external dimension of our economic weakness. A begging bowl has become a ubiquitous dress accessory for Pakistani diplomats. China has become Pakistan’s financial lifeline post-CPEC, but it is yet to supplant the IMF’s role as a certifier of national financial accounts.

After exhausting Chinese patience, our ceaseless quest for the stability of the external account has led to the prospect of non-Chinese external funding through the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). Though the SIFC is yet to produce results, it is already a part of the strategic-balance game of our friends in the Gulf. The Gulf’s view of Pakistan has changed with a change in its ruling generations. Pakistan can no longer count on spontaneous empathy and brotherhood from a region that was ready to make peace with Isra'il before the recent conflagration and is drawing ever-nearer to India.

Post-US withdrawal, Taliban-led Afghanistan remains a riddle after two-and-a-half years. Is it part of the regional instability challenge or a potential solution? Will it continue to offer sanctuary to Pakistani Taliban who continue their terrorist attacks? Maintaining the sanctity of its border and the inviolability of its trade regime while extending humanitarian cooperation with Afghanistan is a massive headache for Pakistan. Part of the riddle is the viability of two Western-financed energy-connectivity projects that are mired in Afghanistan.

The latest salvo in Narendra Modi’s decade-long, remorseless warmongering is completion of Shahpur Kandi barrage on the Punjab-IIOJK border and consequent gobbling of 1150 cusecs of water allocated to Pakistan from the River Ravi. Our traditional endeavor to maintain at minimum the Clausewitzian 1:3 strategic parity with India has been obsolete since the turn of the century, when the United States chose India as its strategic partner, followed by a US-India civil-nuclear agreement, and a US-orchestrated waiver for nuclear trade sanctions on India.

Thirty years of rising economic growth in India and thirty lost years of Pakistan’s instability have sharpened the contrast to the point of derision. Modi started testing Pakistan’s capability in 2017 with a threefold increase in firing on the line of control. He challenged Pakistan in Balakot in February 2019. When the then-government gave up Flt Lt Abhinandhan under threat and without quid pro quo, Modi tasted blood. Six months later India called our bluff in IIOJK. We are still reeling from the shock.

The principal factor driving Pakistani diplomacy since its inception has been the search for foreign aid to defend militarily against a hostile India. The foreign policy that emerged has been composed traditionally of four strands intertwined: an alliance with the US, a patron-client relationship with Gulf countries strengthened by a common alliance with the US, a shallow friendship with China until 2015, and anxious relations with Afghanistan and Iran. All strands have unraveled.

Pakistan is caught between its traditional alliances and present economic interests on the one side and the future shape of the globe that might fracture along the China-Russia versus the West line on the other. Avoiding this binary will require complex and skillful statecraft.

What does the new government need to do? First of all, use the 2018-22 fascist interlude as a model of what not to do. Not to conduct megaphone diplomacy. Not to speak out of spite or frustration. Not harangue diplomats. Not appoint lackeys to positions demanding proficiency. Not declare victory until victory is achieved. Most importantly: not abuse foreign policy as grist for the domestic political mill.

What to do? Step one: appoint highly able individuals at the top posts at the Foreign Office. Two: review and analyze Pakistan’s interests ruthlessly by “fitting foundations to the ground on which they rest” as J L Gaddis recommends. This means, in the first instance, deepening strategic and economic relations with China and nurturing simultaneously the relations with the US and Europe.

Three: rebuild skillfully, patiently, and discretely our relationships with our benefactors and create new friends. Four: create a dialectic between foreign relations and security imperatives. Five: make a sustained effort to open and connect the region economically. Six: reinvent the Foreign Office as a 21st-century organization that carries economic interests, democratic values, and instantaneous communications as part of its DNA. Seven: provide adequate resources to the diplomats to do their job.

Finally, learn from the late Henry Kissinger the art of balancing power against power, conducting diplomacy vigorously, and pursuing the national interest ruthlessly free from traditional prejudices and outmoded emotional slogans. With resolve and unceasing toil, we can make Pakistan’s foreign policy a beacon of peace in the world and an engine of prosperity for the Pakistani people. “We have it in our power” Thomas Paine reminds us, “to begin the world over again.”

The writer is a former member of the National Assembly. He tweets/posts @kdastgirkhan