NEWS ANALYSIS: Pakistan’s ‘New Look’ Foreign Office – Tough, but not Autonomous

The Foreign Office is hardening its stance – but where is the inspiration for the art of gaining the upper hand on Delhi coming from?

Pakistan’s FO has never been the most independent of organizations. It is not news that Pakistani foreign policy has long been the domain of GHQ – Rawalpindi has always had a particular interest in Islamabad’s handling of the six vital ‘nodes’ of Pakistani diplomacy: Beijing, Kabul, London, New Delhi, Riyadh and Washington – other missions, as they say in the military, do not make it on ‘Pindi’s radar.

But suits do what boots can’t, and after all, civilian functionaries are supposed to be inherently more diplomatic than their uniformed counterparts. Despite decades of systemic quasi-autonomy, Pakistan’s Foreign Office has remained one of the country’s more functional bureaucracies – even during recent times of gross mismanagement by a beleaguered and distracted central government. Islamabad’s diplomats have seen it all, and the new international dispensation has forced them to reshape their tactics, fast.

New York and Washington were the latest battlegrounds for the FO. On the margins of the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi exhausted the think-tank circuit, building a case for that guarded crown-jewel of Pakistan’s existential raison d’etre: Kashmir. He even sent a signal by not taking his foreign secretary along – Pakistan, the message went, was in a ‘no-nonsense zone’ – enough meanderings, he declared at the UN itself. Stop the repression in Kashmir.

The falling out with India was expected, and it came.  Qureshi’s Indian counterpart, S.M. Krisha, went on a classic, terror-centric anti-Pak rampage – and both diplomats went home without even a joint photo-op.

But the FO’s recent handling of Kashmir has been particularly telling of a new, aggressive evolution that Islamabad’s legates have undergone of late. The ‘flexible’ and ‘out of the box’ thinking of the Musharraf era has been dropped, at least publicly. A highly placed FO official, comparing the diplomacy of Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs versus that of his predecessor, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, made a sharp comparison, criticising the systemic of the former administration’s foreign policy approach.

“Publicly, one should not dilute their basic positions. That is left to negotiations, behind the scenes,” he said, citing Musharraf’s famous ’06-’07 submissions to India that Pakistan was willing to ‘move away’ from its conventional policies on Kashmir.

“When you say publicly you are willing to move beyond your ‘stated position’, that too without a quid pro quo from the other side, you gain nothing. We believe in flexibility, but … our stance has been that you don’t need to go public on everything…it becomes difficult to change your position.”

This traditionalist, discrete approach of the FO follows the classic tenets of old-school statesmanship – and the end of the Musharraf era has seen Pakistan’s diplomats snap back into their former, cautious modes. Wardrobes are a good comparison; if the general had a ‘business-casual’ approach to dressing down his foreign policy, today’s Foreign Office is, undoubtedly, attired in ‘formal’ regalia.

“The Foreign Office was always very different, tactically, from Musharraf. But the man was a one-man show – he could take positions and decide on behalf of the whole country, that was his prerogative. But now things are different. Now, the Foreign Office, through an elected Parliament, has a mandate.”

He might have a point, but not completely. Today, even a less than astute observer of Pakistani diplomacy will agree that Islamabad’s new self-declared ‘democratic diplomats’ have hardened their approach on several, if not all foreign policy fronts. But orders are still taken from men wearing three or four stars, not the ‘suits’ and ‘waskets’ in Islamabad. As for the FO’s missions abroad, most observers agree that the defence attache is still the key opinion-maker, outweighing the views of most ambassadors. Perhaps that is why Pakistan’s relationship with India has witnessed the biggest turn-around.

Exemplary are the events of this summer, which saw the unveiling of Foreign Minister Qureshi’s new ‘tough love’ approach towards India. At the end of an over-hyped visit to Islamabad by S.M. Krishna in July (both countries had not talked formally at the foreign ministerial level since the Mumbai attacks in 2008), and after a round of tedious and obsessively secretive meetings, Pakistan published its new foreign policy tagline: exercising zero eye-contact with Krishna even as he shared the podium with his counterpart, an aggressive and irked Qureshi declared Pakistan was not interested in “talks for the sake of talks”.

Since then, strengthened by the Intifada-style uprising in Indian-administered J&K, Qureshi’s summer quip has now become the mantra of an increasingly confident Foreign Office.

But Qureshi’s actions were not conjured by his own whimsy, nor were they the studied and independent view of an all-powerful Foreign Minister. Islamabad was rife with rumours that the FM had chosen to tow GHQ’s tough line with the Indians, and this had led to serious tensions with the softer-leaning President Asif Zardari, who evidently even coined a devious nickname for the bespoken, immaculate Qureshi: ‘Mr. Aabpaara’, referring to the Islamabad suburb that headquarters the ISI. Reportedly, Mr. Qureshi was also sent a more direct message by the Presidency when he was denied accompanying Mr. Zardari on the latter’s recent, controversial trip to France and the UK.

Regardless of the FM’s branding and treatment by the Presidency, GHQ’s stamp resonates far and wide at the Foreign Office. This ‘Run it all through Pindi’ systemic – not new to Pakistani bureaucracy – is only reinforced in the current dispensation by a weak and divided centre. The recent dismissal of Indian overtures of talks on all issues, including Kashmir, is reflective more of the establishment’s firm grip on the bureaucratic core of Pakistani diplomacy and not the muddled footprint of the PPP-led government over its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“They want to confuse the issue, making it look like a concession when it is not one – Kashmir was always a part of the Composite Dialogue. There is nothing new about the offer…all they are buying is time,” said the Foreign Office source. “That’s why there is an impasse.”

Since this summer, the FO’s India-centric tactics have evolved fast. The Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Omer Farooq inspired “Protest or Die” rebellion in Indian-Administered J&K – which is armoured by the passionate spontaneity of a generation of Kashmiri teenagers who have grown up in probably the most militarized and over-policed region in the world – has forced India out of its old ‘Blame Pakistan’ knee-jerk defence of the dispute. It seems the Kashmiris have a case and, finally, they are making it themselves.

But Pakistan’s FO, instead of gloat with a ‘we told you so’ rebuke to India, has been cautious, even controlled about using the protests and India’s mishandling of them as a ready made diplomatic weapon.
 At this point, with New Delhi embroiled in a crisis of its own making, it seems that for Islamabad, less is more.

“We are cautious because the stone-pelters have redefined the whole struggle. Even the Indians themselves are saying that this uprising is indigenous; the situation is just like the Palestinian Intifada. And Pakistani involvement – none! Back in the day, you could have said we inspired all of this. But, not now. Whatever [Syed Ali] Geelani wants, happens. And even he is not friendly with Pakistan anymore.”

But Srinagar’s rock-throwers have also inspired a daring, paradigm breaching policy shift at the typically conservative Foreign Office. This ‘change the discourse’ move is being seen as a nuanced variation in Pakistan’s diplomatic brinksmanship with India. At a time when India is tied down in J&K, Pakistan doesn’t want to lodge the diplomatic kick – rather it wants to take the moral high ground and shepherd the fury of Kashmiri nationalism from a distance.

“Right now, you want to operate with utmost circumspection. You don’t want Pakistan linked to it [J&K unrest]. As long as they [anti-Indian protests] are going on fine on their own, we don’t need to push it,” said the source.

Instead, what the Foreign Office is pushing for is a change in that classic tool of diplomacy: language.

“Our approach is nuanced now. We are asking India things [regarding J&K] we have not tried in the past. We now, officially, are demanding three things. One, stop saying it is internal. Two, stop saying it can be by solved by just the Indian Constitution alone. And three, stop calling Kashmir an integral part of India. There can be no progress if the discourse doesn’t change. Stop with the hackneyed approach.”

Such evolved tactics reflect a new, dynamic ‘counter-attack’ school of diplomacy in Pakistan, a big shift from the ‘your place or mine’ approach of the Musharraf-Kasuri Foreign Office. For instance, defending Islamabad’s links to the Mumbai attacks has usually been an embarrassing case for any official to make on behalf of the country. But the Foreign Office has finally chiseled a new, libertarian argument based on the contemporary buoyancy of fair and balanced judicial freedom – effectively stalemating India’s demands for immediate and punitive measures against the accused.

“Don’t politicize the judicial process [for Mumbai]. For the trials, we need India’s assistance. We can’t do it alone,” explained the FO source with smug reason.

“Remember, the crime scene was in India. Processing a crime there in court here cannot just happen within a certain timeframe, given that they [India] convicted one man, [Ajmal] Kasab, in one year, and acquitted two in the same period. Meanwhile, we have seven men facing trial here! How do they expect us to conclude those trials on demand?! We have a newly independent judiciary, after all, which is following the course of the law, and that takes time. The Indians have to live with that fact.”

But Pakistan’s new-look Foreign Office, tougher than ever, is not totally in control. Islamabad’s new ‘diplomats with a mandate’ have not been able to damage-control every burning issue, and even admit to making critical mistakes, usually due to structural inefficiencies – like sharing the information platform with organizations like the Directorate of Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military’s media arm.

“Offering India the dossier on its involvement in Baluchistan was a mistake,” said the FO source, referring to the controversial offer by ISPR chief Lt. General Athar Abbas earlier this year – a promise Pakistan could not – or would not – deliver on, and which encouraged Indian diplomats to further chide Pakistan’s claims for New Delhi’s involvement in Baluchistan. It was a critical error of diplomacy mistakenly committed by a military spokesperson who should have talked about just weapons and tactics – but it was the Foreign Office which had to the heavy, political fire-fighting.

“After all, India has been claiming for decades that there is infiltration across the LoC, but has never provided any proof. We did not have to make that offer [of providing evidence on Baluchistan] either.”

Though stronger than ever before, the FO’s decades old relationship with GHQ is still that of a subordinate to a principal. Perhaps that is why the Foreign Office is not dynamic enough to handle the demands of the new, 24/7 news cycle that now shapes South Asian diplomacy.

Recent underperformances are evident. Even 12 hours after last Monday’s startling disclosure by Afghanistan’s ISAF that its combat helicopters breached Pakistani airspace last weekend and killed 30 alleged militants on its soil – this less than a week after a previewed book by Washington ace reporter Bob Woodward claimed that the CIA has been running a brigade-sized Afghan ground force in and out of Pakistan on ‘hit and run’ missions – the Foreign Office was not ready with a firm response.

Given the political mood of the country that day, it seemed that Rawalpindi – with the COAS tied down due to his ‘routine’ meeting with the Prime Minister and President as the Chief Justice was considering the government’s appeals in the NRO case – seemed too busy to have issued immediate directives for the right language to shape an appropriate rebuttal.

“I do not know what happened, what they [ISAF] are trying to do…The whole nation is engaged in handling the flood, the NRO, Afia Siddiqui and all. We will make a demarche…but I don’t know if there will be a press release or not,” said the FO official.

Rather, an open-ended introspection that only the finer diplomats in the world can provide was offered by the FO source.

“Hopefully we are summoning someone [American]. This is a new element. We will not let it go like this. We are considering our options.”

When it eventually came, late on Monday night, the Foreign Office’s statement was both diplomatic and aggressive: reflective of what is, perhaps, Pakistan’s ultimate political nexus – that between the Bureaucrat and the Battalion.

“There are no agreed ‘hot pursuit’ rules…ISAF/NATO has been asked not to participate in any action that violates the UN mandate and infringes upon Pakistan’s sovereignty. In the absence of immediate corrective measures Pakistan will be forced to consider response options.”

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