COMMENT: Military dictation on foreign policy —Zafar Hilaly - Friday, December 03, 2010

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Some of the most honourable and brave men in Pakistan wear the uniform of the armed forces. Their bravery, skill and their ceaseless sacrifices have kept Pakistan safe. However, what they cannot and must not do is to think that they have a monopoly of wisdom and therefore know best

Pakistan does not really have a foreign policy. It has a defence policy of which the foreign policy is an adjunct, an offshoot. Hence, as the military shapes defence policy, it also has a commanding role in foreign policy. But that has not been enough, so on occasions it has also sought a hand in its implementation. Generals, admirals and air marshals have held key ambassadorial appointments and a general has even been the foreign minister.

According to those in the know, the control exercised by the General Headquarters (GHQ) over foreign policy is greater today than in the past. So much so that the initiative for dispatching notes, verbal demarches and policy announcements originate from the GHQ. One informant wondered whether majors and colonels do the actual drafting.

It has been common fare to have soldiers sounding off on foreign affairs with the confidence and the abandon of seasoned diplomats. In the past when listening to their soliloquies the adage ‘one who knows nothing, doubts nothing’ often came to mind. And some of them were not especially well read. One high flier did not know who came first, the Greeks or the Romans. Following an impromptu lecture on the ‘vital importance’ of Central Asia to Pakistan, I recall Benazir Bhutto remarking, sotto voce, “It is remarkable what comfort ignorance brings.” To believe that anybody can be a foreign minister or an ambassador or that soldiers know best is harmless enough; it is when it gets reflected in policy that we need worry.

The judgements of the military and the Foreign Office (FO) have often clashed in our vexed history, sometimes with devastating consequences for the nation.

The belief that East Pakistan could be retrieved from Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the autonomy sought by the Awami League by force, and that while this was underway the world and India would stand by idle, is one example.

A very senior ambassador, reflecting at the time what was the general view of his colleagues, concluded his report on the military’s take of the situation thus: “I will not be worth the salt of my country, Mr President, if I do not report — that what you are doing in East Pakistan is wrong and — that there is no military solution to a political problem.” He was sacked and replaced by a general.

Another consummate professional of the foreign office, despite being warned against speaking his mind to Ayub Khan, told him in 1965 that initiating hostilities in Kashmir would almost inevitably lead to an Indian attack on Pakistan across the international border. Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and some non-FO advisers were of a contrary opinion. They ignored the advice and the rest is history.

The military and its chosen politicians made out that Benazir Bhutto was about to surrender Kashmir to India on the occasion of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Islamabad in 1989. The FO on the other hand felt that it was a historic opportunity to mend relations with India. Rajiv came to Islamabad, Benazir did not sell out on Kashmir, and a much-needed agreement was signed for a mutual pullout from Siachen — on which India subsequently reneged.

Again it was the military that thwarted every attempt over the past two decades to arrive at an agreement with Iran over the construction of a gas and oil pipeline to Pakistan from Iran with the possibility that it would eventually extend to India. The very same project that it presently supports but which, alas, seems a non-starter today. We could have had the pipeline many years ago and benefited immeasurably had the FO view prevailed.

Contrary to repeated cautions in the mid-90s to tread cautiously and to carefully weigh the grave consequences and the huge damage to Pakistan’s security and image before identifying Pakistan with the cause of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the regime in power rushed in heedless, following bullying by the military. Our support ensured that a movement comprising of men of a medieval mindset and perhaps the worst advertisement for Islam in modern times gained control of Afghanistan. They, and the vicious ilk that they have spawned, now pose an existential threat to Pakistan arguably greater than that posed by India. In the process we earned the abiding hostility of our neighbour Iran, the scorn of progressive Muslim states, and raised the hackles of our ally China. The west excoriated us and our image suffered a reverse from which it has never recovered.

Kargil, of course, was yet another disaster over which the military consulted no one, not even its own, what to speak of the FO. And, instead of being court-martialled for his folly, Musharraf was given a long lease of life in office followed by an honourable send-off.

The military has also at times wanted the last word on postings and promotions in the FO. Many a good man was deprived of his just rights as a result. Thankfully, Kayani has done away with this practice but careers ruined by misreporting by overzealous and meddlesome sleuths cannot be restored.

Some of the most honourable and brave men in Pakistan wear the uniform of the armed forces. Their bravery, skill and their ceaseless sacrifices have kept Pakistan safe. However, what they cannot and must not do is to think that they have a monopoly of wisdom and therefore know best. Costly mistakes and blunders have been committed as a result. We cannot afford to repeat them and ignore, during the decision making process, the views of those who have dedicated their entire lives to mastering their profession.

Lest we forget, an enduring example of FO advice that has served us well over the years was the one heeded by Ayub Khan in the 60s to befriend China as a key ally. That relationship has become even more important for our future in the fast changing global scenario, especially in the economic field, and its full potential awaits a return to internal stability.

The writer is a former ambassador. He can be reached at

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