Pakistan’s Defense and Foreign Policy Community Suffers from a Narrowly Defined Vision: Interview with Ayesha Siddiqa

By Dr. Qaiser Abbas

After publishing the second edition of her seminal work “Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy,” known defense analyst and scholar on South Asian politics, Ayesha Siddiqa is working on her forthcoming book focusing on a vastly different subject. She is currently working on this project as a Research Associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

In this interview, she addresses several critical issues, including Pakistan’s foreign policy, its role in the emerging international alliance, civil and military relations in the country, freedom of expression, democracy, militancy, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

You recently examined Pakistan’s defense and foreign policy and how it is developed speaking as part of the Asma Jahangir Memorial Lecture 2020, organized by South Asia Democracy Watch (SDW) and Wilson Center in Washington DC. Would you like to elaborate further on it?

Pakistan’s defense and foreign policy community lacks independent thinking and diversity of viewpoints. Over the years, alternative voices have been silenced. I was talking to a diplomat, who said that during her two postings to the country between 2016 and now, many people that she would talk to are no longer in the country.

The security community that we have now comprising faculty at the known public sector universities and think tanks only preach to the choir by communicating dominant narratives of the establishment back to them through their reports. In any case, it is interesting to note that the bulk of the think tanks are on the Grand Trunk Road – from Lahore to the capital city Islamabad with little input from other parts of the country. In any case, independence from the establishment of these existing think tanks is an issue.

With this methodology, only a limited perspective can be promoted in developing defense and foreign policy, which ultimately reflects the ideologies of the dominant security establishment in Pakistan. I have yet to come across a foreign policy practitioner or a politician whose portfolio was foreign policy, but who would honestly speak about the control of this policy. Over the years, the Foreign office has little input. Any control that individuals may boast about is tactical, not strategic. A significant problem is that the establishment perspective dominates our foreign policy. There is no societal or cultural connect with any country with whom we have relations. This includes countries that are important to us or those with whom we desire to build relations.

The nature of our foreign and security policies community is such that it seems to have limited potential to evaluate Pakistan’s three key foreign policy objectives: to fight India, seek financial support as we have never developed our economic strength, and getting recognized as a regional power or leader of an Islamic block. Objectives have to be in sync with political, social, and economic capacities. Resultantly, we falter in our alignments. For me, the gap between our goals and our ability to fulfill these objectives is a matter of concern as we shift gears and move from the US to China. The issue for me is not that we are shifting from one to the other, but we may be unable to fully comprehend the challenges. 

The dynamics of the international power structure are fast-changing with new loyalties and emerging alliances. Do you think Pakistan will also be affected by these changes?

Yes, the nature of US-Pakistan relations is drastically changing. Even though it has played a vital role in the US-Taliban negotiations, no one expects the continuation of American financial assistance to Pakistan. Islamabad joined the American alliance against the Taliban after 9/11. While the dominant narrative popularized by Islamabad was that it was forced into alignment, governments stuck to the narrow prism of extracting financial resources from the US, which also meant delivering reluctantly. The foreign policy debate in Pakistan is silent about our own responsibility in supporting the Taliban or keeping Osama bin Laden. Ultimately, the relationship collapsed at a point of overselling of our capabilities with limited capacity to deliver.

Now China appears to be the only option. It may be Pakistan’s only hope for economic assistance, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic crisis.

In the wake of the fast-changing world dynamics, as the existing coalition among the United States, India, and Saudi Arabia gains strength, Pakistan is drifting away from the US towards a potential alliance between China, Russia, and perhaps, Iran. There are a lot of issues that still need to be worked out between these countries mentioned above. Pakistan will only benefit if it can do its homework and go beyond the idea of extracting limited benefits.

There is an expectation that Pakistan and Iran will come close as a result of both being part of BRI, especially if Beijing and Tehran sign an agreement that is being talked about. Right now, we don’t know if the agreement will get signed, but even if it does, I am not sure that we are domestically talking about the competition between Iran and Pakistan that will happen naturally. It was there even when both neighbors were once part of an American alignment. The hype being generated by the security community is as if benefits to Pakistan are inevitable. It goes without saying that Pakistan aught to improve relations with its neighbors, including India, Iran, and Afghanistan. But more important is to see what will be the challenges as both Iran and Pakistan will compete for greater BRI resources? We must wait and see. Also, it is essential to evaluate the reaction from elements inside the country that were produced as part of our older alignment with the US and serving its security policy goals. One can already hear the background noise of Shia-Sunni tension in the country. We are just disengaging from Saudi Arabia that will have its repercussions. How is it to be balanced for our benefit is a million-dollar question. 

For some analysts, the establishment has become extremely strong during the last seventy years, and it will take some time to strengthen democracy in Pakistan. Is it true?

Because of the powerful security establishment which refuses to allow a free exchange of ideas on social and political issues, democratic norms are systematically wearing in Pakistan.

We have entered from a period of weak democracy to a hybrid rule in which democracy will weaken even further. The establishment has weakened the political party system, which I see as an extension of the establishment and not politics. The present government and how it is clamping down on media; the case of Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, Dawn leaks, abduction of Matiullah Jan – there are so many incidents that are a reminder of where we have gone amiss in strengthening a democratic process. Sadly, because of the weakening of the political process within the political parties, there is no encouragement to the idea of a political movement.  

Under the current circumstances, the national assembly is there mainly to rubber stamp preapproved decisions. Political parties are weak in challenging any decision or raise their voice on any issue. Anti-corruption has just become a political slogan, which means nothing. Let us not forget that the main political parties were equally involved

The only way of communication between the civil and establishment is NAB, which is actively being used to pressurize political opponents. 

As we can see, PTI and the establishment are also trying to weaken the judiciary, so they do not dare to challenge any actions. Justice Faiz Isa’s reference is a case in point where he and his family have become a target of threats.

General Zia, unfortunately, left more things behind than he took away with him when he died in a plane crash. The will to resist is one of those things. Citizens are so afraid of the ongoing suppressive environment that they do not dare to fight anymore. The political parties, in particular, are in a bad state. While we constantly get distracted by political rallies, the fact of the matter is that political parties have no vision to energize people and bring back political vibrancy. The media and academia are both in an unenviable state. The conditions today are far worse than what was there during the 1980s.

The establishment claims that it has fully controlled militancy as terrorist attacks have gone down in the country. Do you agree?

Has militancy been wiped out? Yes, the incidents of violence have reduced substantially, which doesn’t mean that militants are not operating with relative independence. At least, they have greater freedom than you and I. In fact, jihadi outfits are roaming around, revisiting some of the tribal agencies and have become selectively visible on social media. The telecom authority seems to show greater efficiency in blocking non-militant voices but don’t care about militants spreading their message. Although the frequency and number of terrorist attacks have decreased, in reality, there is no antidote to extremism and radicalism that is growing side by side with the presence of militants. This is indeed a flawed formula.   

There seems to be a prevailing stalemate in Kashmir in the aftermath of its annexation with India. We also do not see any direct or backchannel deliberations between India and Pakistan. Your analysis?

After the August 5 annexation of Kashmir as an Indian territory last year, Pakistan’s position was not appropriately presented to the global community. In any case, the Kashmir cause has suffered due to the involvement of Pakistan based militants. This has led to the narrative that the issue is either a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan or that it is a religious-ideological matter. This is not true. Kashmir is about people of the land wanting their rights to determine their lives and their future. Sadly, Islamabad was not prepared for what it encountered on August 5th, and this continues to be the case. The Kashmir issue has to be presented as a human rights problem that the world must consider and push India on that score. But for Pakistan to become more effective, it will have to clean up its own house. You cannot have human rights atrocities inside Pakistan and talk about it internationally. Also, human rights around the world will have to be prioritized.

Right now, India and Pakistan are not in the conversation. According to the grapevine, there re murmurs of some back-channel conversation that may start. We have had talks before that stop, start, stop, and start again. It will be a good idea to see if we intend to go any further. Will Kashmir remain the central point of our negotiation, or will we think of starting a dialogue through prioritizing other issues but using those channels to see what relief could be brought to the Kashmiris. A zero-sum strategy cannot bring the resolution of the Kashmir issue or relief to the people.

One of the strategies to silence alternative voices has been to suppress freedom of expression. PTI and the establishment are using direct and indirect methods to control media outlets in Pakistan. As a result of economic pressures, many media workers and journalists are unemployed. How do you analyze the grim situation?

Alternative voices are systematically silenced in the country. During 1990-2000, we were able to critique and analyze significant issues facing the nation. After 1988, there was a relative opening up that allowed people to express themselves. It is not possible now. All direct and indirect methods, including violence, are being used to silence alternative views. A very recent example of coercion is the harassment of women journalists by government trolls. Today, there is so much self-censorship, which was unimaginable even a decade ago. Fear seems to be guiding people’s instincts.

President Donald Trump has announced to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. Do you think they can ever leave this strategically critical location?

Even though the American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, their military infrastructure will remain. So, it is not that they are removing every single soldier. What withdrawal actually means is that the US will no longer strategically engage with Afghanistan and get involved in its internal crisis. The departure and re-entry of the Taliban into power will result in a lot of complexities for Afghanistan and the region in general. The different forces will try to struggle for more power resulting in instability and possibly a civil war. But generally, the Taliban influence on its ideological partners in Pakistan, in particular, is a matter that we have not even touched upon. We imagine that the peace deal between the US and the Taliban will now start an era of peace. There is a need to be more careful about such an analysis. 

We heard you are working on a forthcoming book in London. Would you like to discuss your new project?

I have been working on this book for quite a while. It is about looking at extremism in Sindh and Punjab not just in terms of organizations but its societal connect. Our imagination of extremism is inspired by events as they took place after the 1980s. In Pakistan, we believe that radical ideas are foreign. However, I am using personal stories of people to argue that ideas that we find extreme today have always been there. The states have also not encouraged every idea but have been selective in who they support and who they don’t. Also, that Sufism is a counter to extremism is a myth. Many of the extreme ideologies have emerged from Sufi houses. In fact, radicalism’s growth is a result of the intense power-play inside the ideological strongholds.

The author has recently published his co-edited book, “From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society in Pakistan” (Routledge, 2020). He is an academic scholar and freelance writer based in the United States.

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