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Pakistan's Fortunes Can't be Rescued by Celebrity PM and Recycled Foreign Minister

Husain Haqqani

Few friends or presumed enemies seem willing to trust Pakistan’s promises even under a new leader. Reluctance of ‘friends’ Saudi Arabia and China to pump in billions of dollars in a faltering economy forced Prime Minister Imran Khan to turn to the IMF for a bailout. Ironically, he had said at one time that he would “rather commit suicide than go round the world begging for money”.

The offer of a ‘reset’ in relations by the United States is also not panning out. The US wants Pakistan to help with the peace process in Afghanistan and remains concerned about terrorism. Washington refuses to restore suspended economic and security assistance until it sees signs of change in Pakistan’s conduct.

India, often painted as Pakistan’s ‘eternal enemy’, has refused to hold high-level talks unless Pakistan stops supporting Kashmiri militants and other terrorists. Pakistan, it seems, has a credibility problem with most countries that matter in its foreign policy. American and Indian concerns about Pakistan are quite old but now even China and Saudi Arabia are indicating wariness over unfulfilled promises.

China is concerned that Pakistan is trying to revise the terms of the approximately $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). From the Chinese perspective, a nation must honour its contracts and the Pakistani penchant for revisiting international business deals with every change of government in Islamabad is unacceptable.

Saudi Arabia is also unwilling to continue giving cash first and making requests later – something it has done as a friend of Pakistan in the past. Its current leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud, wants Pakistan to shed ambiguity and stand by the Kingdom against Iran, in addition to providing troops or other material support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen.

The Saudis say they are willing to invest in Pakistan but, like the Chinese, would want security and a good return for their investments. Pakistan has a poor track record in cancelling projects and using engineered judicial verdicts and criminal cases to deprive foreign investors of promised returns.

Independent Power Producers (IPPs) learnt the lesson on Pakistan’s unreliable investment environment in the 1990s. Over the years, several foreign investors have won hefty international arbitration awards against Pakistan because of allegedly unfair cancellation of contracts.

Tethyan Copper Company Pvt Ltd, a joint venture between Chilean mining giant Antofagasta and Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation, is claiming more than $11 billion in compensation in the Reko Diq project after proving to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) that Pakistan’s decision to cancel its mining contract in Balochistan was unlawful and unfair.

To be fair to Khan, many of these problems are the result of policies that have persisted for decades. But Khan still supports the hyper-nationalist Pakistani narrative that has given rise to Pakistan’s lack of international credibility. It persists with myths about Pakistan’s external friendships and animosities that are at the heart of the country’s global isolation.

The entrenched establishment that brought Khan to office had hoped that a new government, led by a fresh face, would be enough to convince the world that a new Pakistan had been born. In this view, renewed national pride and a celebrity prime minister was all that was needed to make other countries see Pakistan differently than they had in the past.

But a new prime minister and a recycled foreign minister do not change harsh realities. Pakistan does not honour United Nations’ terrorist designations nor does it abide by commercial contracts and agreements considered sacrosanct by the rest of the world. Such attitudes have consequences. Appointment of a new top management cannot help sell the old, bad product.

India was the first to burst Khan’s bubble. Khan wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought talks between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. India initially agreed, leading to premature euphoria in Islamabad.

For years, Pakistan’s leaders have defined the ability to keep India engaged diplomatically as an accomplishment in itself, even when no substantive progress is made in India-Pakistan talks.

As nuclear-armed neighbours, it makes sense for both sides to continue talking. But after terrorist attacks in India following Modi’s trip to Lahore in 2015, Indians had decided to stop talking.

There has been much speculation over why the Modi government initially agreed to the foreign ministers meeting in New York and subsequently changed its mind. The language of the statement by the Indian ministry of external affairs announcing the cancellation was definitely undiplomatic and provocative. But the argument that Pakistan must act against anti-India terrorists operating from its soil before there can be meaningful talks was certainly not new.

As if to prove India’s point that the Pakistani side only wanted talks to score a point, not to solve any outstanding problems, Khan’s response to the cancellation of talks was worse. He tweeted about Modi being among “small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture”.

Those familiar with Pakistani hawks’ characterisation of Indian leaders in the past could see the pattern in Khan’s egomaniacal bravado. Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s propagandists had described Lal Bahadur Shastri as “a little man” during the 1965 war and General Yahya Khan had been dismissive about Indira Gandhi being “that woman”.

Of course, the outcome of the anti-India bombast in 1965 and 1971 was not favourable for Pakistan and, notwithstanding the Modi government’s purported mishandling of ties with Pakistan, nor will the current swagger. But in the Pakistani establishment’s worldview – which is shared by Khan and his hyper-nationalist supporters – that is beside the point.

While India’s refusal to talk could be chalked up to the historic India-Pakistan dynamic, the lukewarm response of China, Saudi Arabia, and the United States to Khan’s diplomatic initiatives represents greater challenges. It seems that major partners around the world want Pakistan to change its policies, not just its prime ministers, and that change in policy does not seem to be on the cards.

If anything, the Khan government, backed by the establishment, has doubled down on the failed policies of the past. Foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, insisted recently that there can be no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan, implying that Pakistan must be given a veto on the future of Afghanistan. This defies the notion of a peace process that is owned and led by Afghanistan’s government.

Similarly, Pakistan’s UN ambassador recently called on the international community to differentiate between ‘terrorists’ and ‘freedom fighters’ – an argument that was effectively buried by UN Security Council Resolution 1566 of 2004. That resolution defined terrorist acts and declared that they are “under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature”.

Instead of insisting on an ideologically driven, unrealistic agenda for engagement with the rest of the world, Pakistan needs to see itself from others’ eyes and embrace some humility. Whether it’s the issue of terrorism or the question of abiding by international contracts, Pakistan must change its policy direction.

Until that happens, Pakistanis can express to each other as much optimism as they like about their future, based on the ‘dynamism’ and ‘incorruptibility’ of their new leadership. The rest of the world will not be swayed by such rhetoric.

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