G Parthasarathy

Imran Khan’s foreign policy fiasco

G Parthasarathy | Updated on September 07, 2020 Published on September 07, 2020

With limited idea of historical animosities, Pakistan PM has been trying in vain to win support of Muslim nations on Kashmir

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was undoubtedly one of the best fast bowling all-rounders of his time. He, however, had a reputation of being rather intemperate in his references to India. This was an attribute of Pakistan’s present Prime Minister that this writer had personally noted when Indian cricket teams were playing in Pakistan in the 1980s.

Imran’s entry into politics, when the CIA and the ISI were busy training radical Islamic groups to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, inevitably led him into more closely embracing the tenets of “radical Islam” — propagated by Pakistan’s then fundamentalist dictator, General Zia ul Haq.

Imran’s mentor, a former ISI Chief, Lt. General Hamid Gul, once told this writer that he was confident that the Muslims across India would join their brethren in Jammu and Kashmir to overthrow “Indian (Hindu) Occupation” of Kashmir! It is evident that this mindset still afflicts the thinking of Pakistan’s present Prime Minister, who recently described Osama bin Laden as a “martyr”. Not surprisingly, the Americans deal with Army Chief General Bajwa on their Afghanistan policies, and not Imran Khan, who was jokingly known as “Taliban Khan”!

Since Pakistan has good professional diplomats, there is little doubt that Imran Khan did not care to listen to their professional advice on issues pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir. He suddenly got the bright idea of joining efforts of the 93-year-old Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed, and the intensely disliked and arrogant Turkish Prime Minster, Recep Erdogan, to set up a New Global Islamic Grouping. He was, however, forced to pull back from this proposal by Saudi Arabia’s expressions of strong displeasure.

Imran Khan seemed to have no clue of the historical animosities between Turkey and the Arabs when seeking to promote this grouping, till he was informed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, about Arab reservations. Salman also refused to accept Imran Khan’s proposal to convene an immediate meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to take action against India for its alleged human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir.

Frustrated that he could not persuade the Arab world to back his ill-advised proposal, Imran Khan made his bombastic Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, proclaim: “If you cannot convene it, then I'll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir, and support the oppressed Kashmiris.”

Imran Khan seemed to have forgotten that Pakistan’s economy survives on annual doles from Saudi Arabia and the Western world. The infuriated Saudis responded immediately, by freezing a $3.2-billion oil credit facility and demanded that Pakistan commence repaying a $3-billion loan. Imran Khan should have known better, especially after the UAE Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had only the previous year issued a special invitation to India’s then External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, to participate in a meeting of OIC Foreign Ministers in the UAE.

An infuriated Imran Khan instructed Qureshi to boycott the meeting, earning the displeasure of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. More recently, the Saudis snubbed Islamabad, denying Pakistan’s all-powerful Army Chief General Bajwa a meeting with Crown Prince Salman. Bajwa was visiting Saudi Arabia in an effort to mend fences after the Qureshi fiasco.

Plagued with problems

Pakistan’s foreign policy has been plagued with problems since its inception, because it has been based on the sole premise that it has to turn opinions of individual countries, regional groupings and international financial and security organisations against India. Joining military alliances like SEATO and CENTO may have won Pakistan some temporary support from the US and other Western democracies.

That support was, however, neutralised because it was ruled by military dictators. Moreover, the only cause that had widespread support in Islamic countries was the Palestinian issue, where Pakistan lost support, because it was seen as a partner of the US, which was opposed to Palestinian independence.

At the same time, Pakistan earned the wrath and suspicions of around half the membership of the UN, which did not take kindly to its support for global American policies. India, meanwhile, established full diplomatic relations with Israel, after some Arab countries like Egypt and Jordan had done so. Moreover, even today, India supports the Palestinian demand for a viable, separate state, living at peace with Israel.

The UAE recently joined Jordan and Egypt in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. It is now only a question of time before others follow suit. Pakistan, of course, pretends to be more loyal to the Palestinian cause than others, though it has done precious little in helping the cause of Palestinian Independence.

Ever since its birth, Pakistan has believed that the best way to obtain support from Islamic countries for its stand on Jammu and Kashmir is by pretending to be the champion of Islamic causes, worldwide. This is easier said than done, as individual Islamic countries have their own distinct ambitions. The bulk of the world’s Islamic population is located across West Asia, ranging from Pakistan, Central and West Asia, to Turkey and parts of North Africa.

The reality is that the countries across this vast area have, for centuries, been diverse and divided in sectarian (Shia-Sunni), civilisational (Arab-Persian), linguistic, economic and cultural terms. Pakistan’s foreign policy in the Islamic world has, therefore, inevitably failed. Islamabad unrealistically believed it could motivate these countries to come together against India. Sectarian Shia-Sunni differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia and civilisational rivalries between Turks, Arabs and Persians cannot, however, be ignored or overlooked in the conduct of international relations even today.

Pakistan should ask itself some hard questions, particularly on why its majority population in Bangladesh fell apart if Islam alone was an unbreakable and unifying bond? Why is its majority Punjabi population, which dominates the army, perennially at loggerheads with the minority Sindhi, Baluch, Pashtun and Muhajir populations?

India has learnt to conduct its diplomacy across the vast Islamic world, by keeping away from the sectarian and civilisational differences and rivalries. India’s citizens have lived peacefully in these countries for decades, bringing peace, progress and development. And, in more recent times, oil rich Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are finding that in the emerging global scenario, investing in and cooperating with India in energy and other sectors have their own distinct advantages.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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Published on September 07, 2020
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