By Irfan Husain (Dawn)
FOR decades, Pakistan has had a single-item foreign policy: Kashmir. Of late, drones have been added to this short list.
Long gone are the days when Pakistan commanded respect on the global stage, and was seen as a spokesman for the developing world. Now, wracked by two violent insurrections, an unsustainable population growth, and a tottering economy, Pakistan is viewed with pity and alarm as an international basket case.
Our prime minister has never been accused of being a deep thinker, and foreign affairs leave him stifling a yawn. In Washington recently, shuffling his prepared notes, he was clearly out of his depth. That he hewed so closely to his brief must have pleased his Foreign Office handlers.
In fact, our diplomatic corps has much to be pleased about: after years, one of their own has been named Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States. For a long time, this prized post has been the preserve of political appointees, and all of them have acquitted themselves well.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Washington embassy is now back with our mandarins must have raised morale at the Foreign Office. In fact, one retired diplomat, Iftikhar Murshed, said as much in a recent article in The News (‘The Hamlet in Nawaz Sharif’).
While listing a few outstanding professional diplomats, Murshed conveniently forgot several lateral entrants who served with great distinction: the names of Jamsheed Marker and Dr Maleeha Lodhi spring to mind.
And let us not forget that before he was laid low by the mysterious memogate scandal, Husain Haqqani was a highly effective and respected representative for Pakistan on the Washington scene.
In his article, Murshed also criticises the appointment of Kamran Shafi as our high commissioner to the United Kingdom because the columnist has opposed the army and the ISI.
Professional diplomats have always defended both institutions stoutly. That is a matter for their conscience. But to expect the rest of us to accept military rule and the interference of the ISI in the political process without criticism is taking loyalty to the military too far.
And quite unnecessarily, he refers to vague allegations about Kamran Shafi’s misappropriation of embassy funds while he served as press minister in London in the 1990s.
I have known the columnist for many years, and I can safely say that I have never known him to act less than honourably. The fact that he has always taken a stand for democratic values should make him an excellent high commissioner.
The reason both political and military governments have appointed prominent people known to be close to them is that host governments are aware that these envoys enjoy direct access to those in power. Thus, messages can be passed on without going through the delays and the filtering process that occur when dealing with the Foreign Office machinery.
Having served at our mission in Washington years ago, I can safely say that diplomacy is not rocket science. Anybody reasonably intelligent can learn the ropes fairly quickly.
Of course, some terrible political appointments have been made in the past; these have been rewards handed out to loyalists as patronage. But this system exists in the US as well: scores of ambassadors are appointed on the basis of their contributions to the election of the incoming president. I have met some lousy professional diplomats as well as several outstanding ones.
Returning to Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the US, if expectations were low, the results were even lower. Both Kashmir and drones were trotted out more for consumption back home than with any serious hope of these issues being resolved.
We must get used to the idea that the rest of the world is not as fixated on the Kashmir conflict as some Pakistanis are. To be fair, these people mostly inhabit TV studios, GHQ and the Foreign Office. It is hardly the stuff of animated dinner table conversation.
As for drones, a recent study commissioned by the UN has suggested that they had killed some 400 civilians while ridding us of nearly 2,000 militants. But a recent report in The Economist informs us that there is considerable support for the drone campaign in Fata. Three years ago, when I was researching my book, an ex-chief secretary of KP province told me that the further away from ground zero people were, the more hysterical they became about drones.
The Economist cites an elder from North Waziristan as saying: “No one dares tell the real picture. Drone attacks are killing the militants who are killing innocent people.”
There is ample evidence to indicate that in the past, both the military and the political leadership have secretly supported the drone campaign. In view of these ground realities, it was surely a waste of time to raise this issue in Washington. Clearly, Nawaz Sharif was playing to the gallery.
But that’s pretty much what most leaders do during their visits abroad. Substantive stuff is dealt with behind the scenes, while politicians posture before the cameras. Even before the prime minister got on the plane, Washington had quietly released $1.6 billion in economic and military assistance that had been frozen when relations between the two countries plunged.
The fact that we have not had an ambassador in Washington since May, when Sherry Rehman resigned, has actually not affected relations one way or another. With instant communications available, personal diplomacy no longer plays a crucial role in shaping inter-state ties. A leader can now pick up the phone and talk to his or her counterpart at moments of crisis, bypassing the Foreign Office.
However, given the Snowden leaks about the vast scale of American eavesdropping, a sealed letter in the diplomatic bag might be the safest way to communicate.
By Irfan Husain (Dawn)