The Puzzle of Pakistan, or Why I Just Can’t Wish FM Khar Success

I clearly haven’t been paying as much attention as I should to Pakistan. Clearly. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a woman take the rostrum at the General Assembly this afternoon. I immediately set about Googling her, to see just what I missed in the months since Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was appointed the youngest person and first female to hold the seat of Foreign Minister of Pakistan. What I discovered is that she’s 34 years old, only ten years older than I am, and has already managed to restart peace talks with India. Unfortunately, most of the rest of what came up was commentary on her wardrobe choices.

Those publications would do well to take her more seriously; she one of only two women to hold a seat in the Pakistani National Assembly that isn’t set aside specifically for women. Moreover, she has a tough job in front of her with US-Pakistani relations at a serious low and India as pervasive a threat in the Pakistani mindset as ever, but one that she seems willing to face head-on. In her speech to the General Assembly, she began by highlighting the fact that Pakistan will be seeking a seat on the UN Security Council next year, in the election that takes place during this session of the Assembly, filling the seat that Lebanon will be leaving vacant. Unspoken was the fact that India currently holds a seat on the SC, and so the two of them would be sharing the Horseshoe Table until 2013 when India’s term expires. The two countries have served on the Council three times since the founding of the UN, most recently in 1984.

Perhaps seeking to alleviate any concerns about this arrangement that fellow members of the Asian Group might have, Khar stressed that India and Pakistan are in the process of holding substantive dialogue, and expressed her hope that the talks will be “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”. That last phrase was more directed at India than any other state, an unspoken acknowledgement of the last interruption in talks, the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Whether she has the power to follow through and actually keep the Lakshar-e-Toiba in check is yet to be seen.

FM Khar then devoted a substantial chunk of her speech to the situation to Pakistan’s west, in Afghanistan, emphasizing that Pakistan is devoted to supporting peace and backs Afghan President Hamid Karzai and attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban. At the same time, Pakistan condemned the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. Here’s the thing about that, though. Just recently, outgoing US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen accused Pakistan of supporting the attack. The pushback by Pakistan has been forceful, but relations have turned almost glacial since then. FM Khar worked to defuse the situation saying that “perhaps understandable that there is a high level of anxiety and emotions”, stressing the need for the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan to “work closely and as responsible partners” and “not rush to judgement or question each other’s intentions”.

It’s not at all certain that the Foreign Minister has the power in the government to truly lead to a breakthrough in relations with the US. She did manage to cite some impressive figures in Pakistan’s commitment to fighting terrorism, saying that over 30,000 Pakistanis have died because of terrorism, fifteen times the number of Americans that died on September 11th. That might not be enough this time. Suspicion towards Pakistan is high and rising in the United States, the case certainly not helped by today’s New York Times article which ties the Pakistani Army with a 2007 border ambush on American and Afghan troops. This leaves, among other things, the prospect of the US supporting a Pakistani seat on the Security Council as shaky at best.

Pakistan is a puzzling case for US policy, in that we’ve clearly seen a situation where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. After aid was cut off to Pakistan following the successful test of its nuclear weapons in the 1990s, we saw no alteration of its policy towards proliferation, towards combating terrorism, or supporting the Taliban. After aid was restored and boosted in 2002, we still have been on less than solid ground with both the military regime of Musharraf and the civilian governments that have followed. Pakistan’s policy in the last decade, as it was in the 1980s, is one where you never, ever find yourself holding a losing hand, and doing everything in your power to make sure that at the end of the game if you haven’t won, you at least haven’t lost. This is the case in Afghanistan, hedging against the US losing against the Taliban, and in dealing with India, making sure that despite talks its oldest foe does not think that it can trample Pakistan.

This sort of runaround makes sense in the short-term but is an abject disaster as a long-term strategy, which seems to be the case here. Rather than cutting ties with groups like the L-e-T and the Haqqani Network once and for all, the Pakistani government is still hedging its bets. While I like the new Foreign Minister, and wish Ms. Rabbani Khar well, the underlying fact is that until she and the rest of Prime Minister Gilani’s Cabinet prove that Pakistan has not only chosen a side but it’s one that does not act against the US’ interests, I can’t really bring myself to wish her success.

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