The Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mehmood Qureshi is increasingly giving the impression that he is running amok. The scale of his many recent transgressions can be gauged from the fact that his reported slapping of Azam Khan, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Principal Secretary, which otherwise would be a juicy, scandalous story for the modern-day media to gleefully lap up, received the least attention in the press. Azam Khan had apparently prevented Qureshi from barging into a room in which PM Khan was in the midst of a meeting, and this triggered the violence by an enraged Qureshi. This incident, as unsavoury as it was, was overshadowed by Qureshi’s exposure of his shallow understanding of the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), as also the insensitivity displayed by him towards one of Pakistan’s long-standing patrons, Saudi Arabia. Qureshi, over the last fortnight, has indeed generated serious questions about what have traditionally been pillars of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
At a press conference on 24 August, Qureshi spoke at length on the statement issued on 22 August by six political parties of Indian-administered J&K in which these parties, which were signatories of the ‘Gupkar Declaration’ of August last year, demanded restoration of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that granted a greater degree of autonomy to J&K. The articles had been diluted by India on 5 August 2019. The statement read, “We are committed to strive for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, the Constitution of J&K and the restoration of the state and any division of the state is unacceptable to us. We unanimously reiterate that there can be 'nothing about us without us'”. Expressing support for this statement by the political parties of Indian-administered J&K, Qureshi said, “This is not an ordinary occurrence but an important development… There is now a political, peaceful uprising where we see leaders like Farooq Abdullah who always sided with India now demanding rights for the people of Kashmir. This is a new phenomena and a new movement from the valley”.
Qureshi’s commendation of the 22 August statement and the earlier ‘Gupkar Declaration’, in which the signatory political parties had pledged to unitedly “protect and defend identity, autonomy and the special status of the J&K”, raised serious questions on what exactly Pakistan’s policy towards J&K was. It also suggested that for Pakistan, the people of J&K were mere pawns to be used to further its geostrategic ambitions. Qureshi’s assertion that Farooq Abdullah, one of the most prominent political figures of J&K, had always sided with India but was only now demanding rights for the people of J&K was misleading on several counts. It not only belittled the Abdullah family’s three generation long fight for the rights of the people of J&K, but also completely glossed over the critical fact that the demands that the Abdullahs had made from India over the years had invariably been within the framework of the Indian Constitution, not outside it.
The statement of 22 August, which Farooq Abdullah also signed as the leader of his party the National Conference, was no different. The signatories were leaders of political parties that had participated in state elections supervised and conducted by the Election Commission of India. Their demand for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A pertained to the Constitution of India, and fell well within its purview. Quite plainly, a demand for restoration of the greater autonomy within India that had earlier been enjoyed by J&K made it a domestic matter for the government in New Delhi and the political leadership in Srinagar to thrash out amongst themselves. How Pakistan could have a say in this matter is rather difficult to comprehend.
Qureshi decided to wade in nevertheless. In doing so, he demonstrated exactly what the perils of obsessing over an issue and artificially and forcibly converting it into the glue that tenuously holds a nation together were. The fact that an important section of the political leadership of J&K had articulated grievances of a serious nature to the central government in New Delhi, for which they had also sought remedies, meant that Pakistan, given the position that it has historically taken on J&K, had little option but to cheer from the gallery. The problem with the clapping and shouting was that the political leaders now being applauded by Pakistan were, till the time they came up with the statement on 22 August, sworn enemies of the Pakistani State. Pakistan had, over the last several decades, repeatedly ridiculed these leaders of J&K and called them stooges and agents of India. The Pakistani military establishment’s terrorist proxies had consciously been used to eliminate hundreds of leaders and workers of the very same political parties that Qureshi was now applauding for signing the 22 August statement and the ‘Gupkar Declaration’.
Despite having no legal basis to do so, Pakistan has historically laid claim to the whole of the territory of the erstwhile Princely State of J&K. It has created and sponsored organizations such as the Hurriyat Conference to articulate and further its spurious claim. Since the late 1980s, Pakistan encouraged the youth of Indian-administered J&K to join the various terrorist organizations that Pakistan had set up. The dreams and narratives sold to entice these impressionable young teens were as lofty as they were unrealistic, with the common thread being the rejection of India. Wave after wave of young Kashmiris, in their thousands, died while violently pursuing dreams of the utopia that had been pledged to them by Pakistan. They would flinch in their graves if they were to learn that the vision that Pakistan actually had for Indian-administered J&K involved merely a return of the autonomy that it had earlier enjoyed, and not merger with Pakistan or independence that they were falsely led to believe was the end-goal, and in pursuit of which they had sacrificed their young lives. The realization that they were only pawns in Pakistan’s game and were fulfilling an agenda that was purely Pakistani would also doubtlessly rankle.
Qureshi, while supporting the demand of the political parties for restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, seemed to have completely lost sight of the stellar role that Pakistan had played in getting the articles diluted in the first place. The imperative of dealing more effectively with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and the need to better address the deleterious broader impact that violence was having on all aspects of life and governance in J&K were among the weightier arguments that India had put forth to justify the dilution of Articles 370 and 35A. The irony and the hypocrisy that came across in Qureshi’s profession of support for the demands of the J&K political parties were, therefore, quite stark.
Just over a fortnight ago, in a move described by some Pakistani experts as bold but by most others as daft, Qureshi issued a shrill warning to Saudi Arabia which has been one of Pakistan’s primary patrons for decades. Each time Pakistan has approached the cusp of bankruptcy, and this has happened with remarkable frequency over the years, Saudi Arabia has been one of the first destinations that Pakistan has rushed to for succor. The latest such instance was as recently as in 2018. Hence, it came as a huge surprise when in a talk show on ARY News Qureshi said, “I am once again respectfully telling OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. 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”. Saudi Arabia is the undisputed leader of the OIC, and Pakistan’s threat to set up what would virtually be an alternate Islamic organization would have been viewed as a huge affront by the Saudi leadership.
Quite obviously the Foreign Minister could not have made such a defining statement without the concurrence of the Pakistani military establishment. That was also revealed when Qureshi chose to add bravado to his threat by saying that “We have our own sensitivities. You have to realize this. Gulf countries should understand this”. Asserting that he understood the implications of his statement fully, Qureshi stressed, “It’s right, I’m taking a position despite our good ties with Saudi Arabia”.
Saudi Arabia has in recent months been wary of Pakistan’s burgeoning relationship with two of its main rivals, Iran and Turkey. Imran Khan’s ill-considered decision last year to confirm his participation in a summit hosted by Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in which the other invitees included Iran, Turkey, and Qatar had also irked the Saudi leadership. It bore down on Khan to cancel his participation, which the Prime Minister eventually reluctantly did. Qureshi confirmed this when he revealed at the 24 August press conference that because Pakistan had skipped the Kuala Lumpur summit on the request of Saudi Arabia, it was now demanding that Riyadh “show leadership on the (OIC) issue”.
The potential adverse implications of Qureshi’s threat, however, soon dawned on the Pakistani leadership. The big guns, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, rushed to Riyadh to try to mend fences. Reports in the Pakistani media suggested that despite the apologies proffered by the two military men for Qureshi’s statement, the Saudi leadership believed that this time Pakistan had gone too far. The depth of the Saudi displeasure and its reluctance to come around were apparent from the fact that the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman refused to even meet the Pakistani visitors. The Saudi fiasco prompted Pakistani commentator Zeeshan Haider to write in the Pakistani daily The News International that “The foreign minister should take the parliament into confidence on his visit to China as well as state of Pakistan’s relations with the Gulf countries. The anxiety among people cannot be removed through feel-good stories. Pakistan’s political, economic, and security as well commercial interests are at stake, which requires our leaders to show utmost responsibility and prudence while dealing with these matters. A lopsided or flawed strategy can only cause harm to national interests which needs to be avoided at all costs”.
In recent years, several of Pakistan’s relationships with its long-standing and close allies have come apart rapidly, and sometimes, as was the case with Saudi Arabia, abruptly. This trend has had the effect of driving Pakistan deeper and deeper into the Chinese net, which in turn has enabled China to tighten its grip over Pakistan.
With China coming under increasing international pressure, especially from the United States (US) and its allies, it is looking to find as many friends in the international arena to stand by it as it possibly can. The difficulty for a country that has consistently displayed a reluctance to adhere to the rules of engagement of the international order is that the only friends it attracts are of a similar character and disposition. An axis led by Communist China, with theocratic Iran, rebellious Turkey, and military-dominated Pakistan as members, therefore, seems to gradually be coming together. Such a grouping, if it is eventually formed, has the potential to be a potent threat to the democratic world.
From Pakistan’s perspective, the churn in its international relationships is not something it can hope to benefit from. Pakistan finds itself in the unenviable position where it has no option other than to go along with whatever it is that China dictates. Judging from the experience that other countries have had in dealing with China, Pakistan will find out before long that not only is its debt to China an extremely heavy burden to shoulder, but also that aligning itself too closely to China will result in Pakistan getting dragged into a dangerous spiral of unwanted conflicts and strife.
Pakistan will eventually discover the hard way that riding on the back of the Dragon is no easy task.