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Growing up in Pakistan with a hunger for books I found one Pakistani title rather alluring. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s The Myth of Independence has the kind of ring to it that instinctively gets what generations of Pakistani policy pundits have been failing to underscore so succinctly. But that is where the book’s miracles end. In plain speak, it is yet another uninviting explainer of a politician’s career and choices. A smart politician of course. But a politician, nevertheless. His role in building a relationship with China should be lauded. But that is the extent of his big foreign policy influence.

Every five-six years circumstances bring us to a situation where our leaders or at the very least our pundits are found complaining about our alleged, helpless and hopeless propinquity to the west. The yarn of counterfactuals that then is woven takes us to the lackadaisical journey of make-believe opportunities. But pray, treat all such attempts to reinvent history with extreme prejudice. Second-guessing the past is the most useless of enterprises imaginable because none of us has a time machine to go back and change what was done. And that’s not all. The diplomatic options you were told you had throughout the country’s history, in all likelihood, are lies invented by people like this scribe to make you or your favourite rulers happy. In the realm of foreign policy, Pakistan never had the luxury to choose between blocs. The only freedom of action it had was regarding its own behaviour — competence versus incompetence. The country tried both. When we were competent we did more damage to ourselves. When we were not, the fallout was restricted to the ruling elite. You live in a rough neighborhood. If you have anything valuable, your first responsibility is to draw attention away from it, rather than bragging about it. By being inconspicuous. But I don’t think that is one test our political class can pass. Because there is nothing marketable or sexy in it.

Pakistan is not an unimportant country. With a population of 210 million and endowed with countless resources it can expect to be treated exceptionally. But that has only compounded its problems rather than offering solutions. When your citizens instinctively know that the country is exceptional they expect exceptional results. But then the country’s policymakers know that it is neither the only important, nor the most important country around. For one it is encircled by nations with far older cultures and even more significance. China and India with their over one billion population. Iran with its oil reserves and unique religio-cultural and geographical clout. And Afghanistan, the tip of the spear of every great game played in the region. Some of these neighbours have an unrelenting history of trying to undermine Pakistan. Never a dull moment. Leaders can make clever use of the country’s underutilised dimensions but cannot invent new ones. The variables that define a country’s foreign policy trajectory remain finite, inflexible, and often very limiting. These leaders then often pick and choose between their nation’s relative strengths to leverage foreign relationships and enhance prestige at home. By a remarkable coincidence, Pakistan’s most leveraged feature under every government is its geography and not its people.

Now let us revisit some key myths about Pakistan’s foreign policy choices. First, the Soviet Union invited the first premier of Pakistan to visit but Liaquat Ali Khan chose to visit the US on President Truman’s invitation instead. This story somehow aims to convince us that Pakistan’s elites were so desperate to join the western camp that they openly rejected Moscow’s invitation. But here is a funny thought. There is no record of such an invite neither in Pakistani records nor, to the best of our knowledge in Russia. So what happened? Nehru had already been to the US and Liaquat had not. The report of this invite generated enough interest and shock in Washington to lead to a formal counter-invitation. There is a serious chance that the whole thing was a figment of someone’s overactive imagination, albeit a highly useful figment. Likewise, the country’s entry into SEATO and CENTO came after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, another implausible scheme that feels specifically congealed to endear the country to the western bloc. If it was, it worked. Please do not judge too harshly. A newly born country with little to show for and faced with a powerful if influential adversary, in desperate need of aid, did what it could and I for one am proud of it. Shuja Nawaz in his book Crossed Swords tells us the dilapidated state of military hardware that the country invaded and how a Pak-US military agreement led to a dramatic improvement in the country’s defences. Similarly, the country did not have much choice when faced with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and more recently the US-led war on terror. Today, the ruling party says it did not support the Afghan war. But it was among a few major parties (major now) that publicly supported Gen Musharraf’s referendum that took place after the invasion which amounts to roughly the same thing. I know it because I was aggressively opposed to the invasion at the time and no political parties, not even the religious ones, were truly against the intervention. Twenty years later I can tell you with confidence that the country had no choice.

So today when we hear the promise that Pakistan will not succumb to partisan pressures one fears that those promising this do not even realise what is really wrong with the whole thing. We are conditioned by our circumstances. Our circumstances force us to take sides. Usually, we fear that if we don’t take a position we may lose salience. This fear takes a general to Kabul, a PM to Moscow right when these photo ops could seriously injure the country. In that context, I really wonder what has truly changed.

There are only two reasons why you would be insecure about such things. Fragile economy. And disputes with the neighbours. So, ideally, a truly independent foreign policy would lead you to build peace with all your neighbours in such a fashion that it complements the country’s economy. It matters little who rules these neighbours if it is your national interest that drives the decision. I know it is not easy to make peace with an India ruled by Narendra Modi. But when you establish relations with Russia when Putin is in the middle of invading a sovereign country you are well past moral dilemmas.

Does all of this ring a bell? Geoeconomics over geopolitics? While it is a politician’s job to reach these conclusions independently, in Pakistan it is a man in uniform who reached there first. General Bajwa has delivered a number of public talks so far on the subject. And it all adds up.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2022.

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