Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial May 16, 2018

Tit-for-tat diplomacy

Not entirely unanticipatedly, the US and Pakistan have now entered the terrain of tit-for-tat diplomacy. Pakistan has announced retaliatory measures against restrictions on the movements of its diplomats in the US with a raft of steps to match those of Washington, and a few added for good measure. In recent days, reports emanating from Washington had indicated the US would restrict the movement of Pakistani diplomats and their family members to within 25 miles (40 kilometres) of their station of posting. The two countries had been negotiating over the matter, because of which the US postponed the implementation of the restrictions by 10 days on May 1, 2018. Though reports say the dialogue is continuing, Washington did not extend the deadline. The measures by the US therefore came into play on May 10. The US, reports say, did this in response to the years-old Pakistani practice of asking all foreign diplomats, not just American, to notify the Foreign Office (FO) at least five days before travelling out of the city in which they were based. Pakistan holds the restriction was not US-specific and purely security-driven. Now of course, the new restrictions are US-specific and include scanning of diplomatic cargo (allowed by Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) and enforcement of rules governing interaction between government officials and US diplomats. In addition, seven “special facilities” enjoyed by US diplomats have been withdrawn. These withdrawn facilities are: permission to use tinted glass on official and rented vehicles; use of non-diplomatic licence plates on official vehicles; use of diplomatic number plates on unspecified and rented vehicles; use of biometrically unverified/unregistered cell phone SIMs; hiring or shifting of rented properties without prior NOC; installing radio communications at residences and ‘safe houses’ without prior NOC; visa overstay and holding of multiple passports.

These tit-for-tat measures come amidst the deteriorating relations between the two countries, which by now appear to be losing common ground and reaching an unprecedented low. The main bone of contention of course is Pakistan’s harbouring of, and support to, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network. All the verbiage from Islamabad or Washington about shared interests vis-à-vis the outcome of the Afghan war, i.e. peace and reconciliation, cannot hide or obfuscate the real boil on the increasingly thin skin of relations between Pakistan and the US. This diplomatic ‘exchange’ may be only the latest blip, but other recent indicators are the US Congress’s wish to withhold at least 50 percent of the Coalition Support Funds owed to Pakistan (these are not aid but payments due for logistical and other support for the US war in Afghanistan), and the reported blocking by the US in the UN Security Council of Pakistan’s request to have Omar Khalid Khorasani of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), listed as a terrorist. Whereas Pakistan has protested against this blockage as indicative of the US’s dual standard of blaming Pakistan for support to the Afghan insurgents while ‘protecting’ or ‘allowing’ the TTP to operate from Afghan soil against Pakistan, the blockage apparently, apart from perhaps other reasons, occurred because Pakistan had listed Khorasani as based in Afghanistan. Whether the US did it to avoid being tarred with the brush of Islamabad’s (post facto) accusations or simply as part of the increasingly parlous state of mutual relations is anybody’s guess. The fact of the matter however is that as usual, our FO has been slow to wake up to the fact that US President Donald Trump is a different kettle of fish from his predecessors and unlikely to rein in his impulses to come down as hard as possible on Pakistan for its ‘misdeeds’. Partly this FO paralysis is also the result of not having a full time foreign minister for four years (former prime minister Nawaz Sharif held the post himself but was unable to do it justice along with his duties as the chief executive), the late appointment of Khawaja Asif having fallen foul of his disqualification a la Nawaz Sharif, and the latest incumbent, Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir given the additional charge but yet to settle in with only a few weeks to go before the government’s term expires. Hardly a progression adequate for the long view required by foreign policy. The hope in certain quarters that China (and Russia) can replace the US as donor may be exaggerated and misplaced. Even with feet of clay, the Colossus of Washington remains militarily and in terms of influence, bilateral and multilateral, a force to be reckoned with. Pakistan is faced with the difficult but not impossible choice between its dream of a ‘friendly’ regime in Kabul via the Taliban et al, or at least normal relations with Washington. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain both at the same time.

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