Almost a month after the mini war that began with India’s invasion of Pakistan through an attempted attack in Balakot district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there is still a substantial amount of confusion in India about what happened. How did an Indian Mi17V5 helicopter go down at 10:10 am, the day after the Balakot attack, almost at the exact same time that at least one Indian Air Force Mig-21 was taken down by the Pakistan Air Force? How did a supposedly “surgical” strike on terror camps generate no casualties, and no ground zero of damage? How did mighty India burn so much military capital—losing multiple aircraft, and having to bank on Pakistani generosity in the handing back of an IAF pilot—to achieve so little?
The post-Balakot fog of war has been replaced with the clouds of doubt that these questions raise. The long-standing consensus about Pakistani conventional weakness in India, in Western capitals such as Washington DC, and even among many observers in Pakistan has been disrupted. It turns out Pakistan is not so weak after all.
The resolve and professionalism of Pakistan’s response to the Balakot attack should not have surprised anyone. It is true, of course, that Pakistan took a long time to collect itself and respond to the challenge of a terrorist insurgency. The TTP umbrella came into being in 2007, but the war on the TTP took on the ferocity it merited only in June of 2014. The total number of fatalities from terrorist violence in Pakistan peaked in 2009 at over 11,000. In 2014, this had been halved to nearly 5,500. But by 2018, total fatalities had fallen to less than 700. Simply put, Pakistan has been at war for over a decade. It has learnt many costly lessons since 2007. The most important of them may be how to win a battle.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the conventional military advantage that Pakistan’s smart and efficient response to India’s Balakot offensive had created is not permanent. The word “traditional” is thrown around with very little care when it comes to South Asian security and foreign policy. One realm in which it is wildly overused is the notion of Pakistan’s so-called tradition of diplomatic excellence.
The truth is that Pakistan’s diplomatic excellence is no longer a tradition that can be counted upon. And this uncertainty is not new. The new tradition is that Pakistan’s entire foreign policy is reactive and defensive. This tradition began to take root in the late 1990s—and one may begin the count from any number of dates, including Pakistan’s recognition of a Taliban regime in Afghanistan in May 1997, or Pakistan’s response to India’s testing of nuclear weapons in May of 1998, or the Kargil fiasco that unravelled beginning in May of 1999.
Within Pakistan, there is a robust debate about whose fault this new tradition is. Supporters of traditionally democratic parties argue, not without merit, that one of the costs of long periods of unaccountable military regimes has been a tendency for foreign policy to be designed, and delivered via bypass—causing untold devastation to the capacity of the Foreign Office in the bargain. Critics of these parties, including the ruling party, argue that when given the opportunity, democratic parties did little to beef up foreign policy capacity in the country.
The fallout from India’s attack on Balakot offers a historic opportunity to bridge the gap in this debate. Not only is there a reportedly strong convergence and high degree of mutual trust between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, but there is clearly a boost in national confidence that the prime minister’s and army chief’s joint response to the Balakot attack has generated. How can this best be leveraged to help Pakistan counter the more foundational weaknesses in its system that leave it vulnerable to India’s relentless anti-Pakistan campaigning in the international arena?
The easy answer is for there to be a material change in the status of organizations that have been banned by both the Pakistani state, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1267 sanctions committee. But Pakistan’s relentless and unequivocal pursuit to end the freedom of any and all terrorist groups is a policy shift that must be rooted in a domestic policy consensus. Borne out of international compulsion, such a shift may lack both the permanence and thoroughness that it merits.
More importantly, this material change in status would represent a tactical change of circumstance in South Asia, not a strategic one—meaning that even if organizations like Jaish e Muhammad were to be completely neutralised, India’s anti-Pakistan campaigning will not cease or desist. The new South Asian tradition, from the perspective of Indian strategy, is the strength of Indian efforts to undermine and weaken Pakistan, through sustained diplomatic offensives, beginning in the late 1990s, anchored in the issue of terrorism, and largely enjoying the dual-track advantage of not only aligning with the eighteen-year-old Western intervention in Afghanistan, but also to launder India’s continued brutalities in Occupied Kashmir.
Since the late 1990s, Pakistan’s incredibly hard working and industrious diplomats have been forced to play defence, and to react to the undulating waves of Indian diplomatic offensives. Each major national security event in India is now followed by a massive campaign to conceal India’s worrying levels of security readiness, and its increasingly clumsy atrocities in Kashmir, under a mountain of narratives about Pakistan. The pre and post Balakot attack positions adopted by four of the P5+1 powers speak elegantly about just how deeply these narratives have buried Pakistan’s various truths.
The officially stated positions of France, Germany, the US and the UK all essentially endorse India’s position on the Pulwama suicide attack, and therefore, almost organically, also endorse India’s invasion of Pakistan on February 26 in Balakot. This is a worrying new factor in the wider dynamic that Pakistan must navigate as it emerges from the age of terror and seeks to enter an age of rapid economic growth.
In addition to a more robust and demonstrable compliance with international obligations that prevent any country from wrongly accusing Pakistan of harbouring malign actors, Pakistan needs to invest in a substantial overhaul of its diplomatic capabilities. This overhaul must be driven by purposive clarity or fitness for purpose. And it must be built upon four key pillars.
The first pillar is a strategic re-orientation of foreign policy to align with the country’s strategic objectives. For nearly seventy years, Pakistan was almost explicitly a national security state. But since roughly 2008, which aligns with the timeline of the post Musharraf Pakistani military, there is a clear strategic shift underway—especially within the military—that recognises the existential centrality of economic growth to Pakistan’s primary strategic and security concerns. As it is currently located (within the wider expanse of governance and administration), and it is currently configured (as a 19th century machine bureaucracy), Pakistan’s diplomatic service (the Foreign Service of Pakistan) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are not capable of supporting the country’s key strategic objectives of sustained, and spectacular economic growth. This does not mean they cannot be made capable—it just means that some substantial changes are needed to enable them to do so. Chief among such changes is to explicitly put consular services, and international trade at the heart of the identity of the Foreign Office. This is not a simple proposition that can be tackled with a notification, or two, or even twenty. It would require making Pakistani diplomats more comfortable with acting as agents for Pakistani businesses. It would require a substantial investment in preventing conflicts of interest and ensuring that our diplomats are not made vulnerable to the ridiculous pressures that senior bureaucrats in the provinces and at the federal level have come under thanks to an ill-informed and overly active nexus between media headlines and judicial intervention. All of this must begin with an explicit signalling that the primary purpose of Pakistani diplomacy is to make Pakistanis better off.
The second pillar is an internal re-configuration of the diplomatic capabilities of the country—which simply means a massive re-engineering of how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is organized and, how it is staffed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Pakistan’s diplomatic missions abroad, currently represent what technologists refer to as legacy systems. The Foreign Office has two key structural edifices, the Ministry headquarters in Islamabad, and the 115 foreign missions including embassies, high commissions, consulates, and missions for multilateral organizations (for comparison’s sake, India has a total of 162 missions abroad). The headquarters suffers from serious understaffing, but even more worryingly, the morass of an unwieldy twenty-four divisions, of which nine are geographical desks, and seven deal with multilateral organizations and international systems. Of the remainder, three are dedicated to the internal working of the Foreign Office, such as human resources, finance and audit. These internal functions of the ministry take up more than ten percent of the total diplomatic strength of the country—leaving most geographic regions’ desks badly understaffed (for example, Africa Division has never had more than four officers working in it). Meanwhile, Pakistan’s foreign missions have an average of only 2.75 diplomatic officers per mission – which means that the average Pakistani embassy has an ambassador, supported by usually no more than three members of the diplomatic corps. Whilst it is true that many missions also enjoy the benefits of having members of other service groups, such as the information service, the commerce and trade service and members of the armed forces—these officers do not constitute the country’s diplomatic corps and do not have career trajectories that lead to heading embassies or leading Pakistani engagement with other countries. Pakistan needs to invest in a substantial re-organization inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focusing on a renewed sense of mission and purpose that helps shape a Foreign Office built to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, not the residual structures this country adopted in the late 1940s, or even the mid 1970s. Concurrent to a re-configuration inside the Ministry is a strategic review of the current numbers and locations of Pakistani missions abroad and what they seek to achieve. Establishing single officer, or 1+1 missions just to establish a diplomatic presence may effectively cause an understaffing of missions that need larger human resource allocations. Equally, it may be time for a major expansion of the total size of the Foreign Service of Pakistan. Either way, maintaining status quo and expecting Pakistani diplomats to perform any better is the very definition of insanity.
The third pillar of a holistic overhaul of Pakistan’s diplomatic capabilities is the administrative and functional coherence that Pakistan’s diplomatic capabilities demand and require. Pakistan has at least four government functions (or divisions) that merit consideration for being housed inside or aligned with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These are the Commerce Division (for trade promotion), the Economic Affairs Division (so that Pakistan’s assessment of other countries’ interests are aligned with Pakistan’s acceptance of other countries’ economic assistance), the External Publicity Wing of the Information Division (to cohere the public diplomacy function), and an outward facing counter terrorism function (to deal with the various externally sponsored terrorism that is directed at Pakistan). In addition, Pakistani national security and Pakistani foreign policy are deeply intertwined—yet this intricate symbiosis is not reflected in the institutional arrangements between the respective ministries, nor between the functional cadres that serve the country in the respective roles (foreign policy and defence). How should the civil service cadres be organized to address the issues of coherence and alignment? What measures can be taken to energize underperforming areas of the wide expanse of foreign relations? These are difficult questions to answer. The one question we know the answer to is whether the current system is working. It is not.
The fourth and final pillar is a realistic fiscal arrangement for Pakistan’s diplomatic capabilities. Given the extreme understaffing at the Foreign Office and the small size of Pakistan’s diplomatic corps, it is unsurprising that the total outlays for the Foreign Office are vastly inadequate. But the more pressing concern is the degree to which the Foreign Office is treated like an ordinary ministry, with the same intense centralisation of the power of allocations and appropriations vested in the Finance Division. The diplomatic corps requires a dramatically more autonomous culture when it comes to the ability to spend money—both for run of the mill, operational needs, and for wider promotion of national priorities through Pakistan’s foreign missions.
This kind of wide-ranging overhaul of the country’s diplomatic capabilities cannot be achieved overnight. In the short run, it is important to invest in at least three tactical quick fixes that can stop the bleeding and generate the requisite energy and vitality within the system to deal with the full scale diplomatic offensives that Pakistan must contend with, not only from India, but from multiple international fronts.
First, Pakistan must appoint at least six special envoys to deal with areas and issues of extreme importance. Each one of these envoys would represent a bridge between the MOFA headquarters and foreign missions, as well as an added resource for the political leadership. Where existing foreign missions are lacking the adequate energy or leadership, special envoys would prompt a swift competitive reaction. In cases where such envoys enjoy privileged access to the country’s leadership, these bridge-builders would represent a third layer of protection and promotion for the country’s interests and narratives. Special envoys must be appointed for three regions: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (jointly), and the European Union (especially as the UK teeters at the precipice of Brexit). They must also be appointed for two issues of vital importance for Pakistan’s future in which the country must take global leadership, Counter Terrorism, and Climate Change. Finally, a special envoy for Occupied Kashmir is a long overdue diplomatic appointment that must be made to ensure that the entire edifice of Pakistani foreign policy is infused with the readiness to highlight the indefensible treatment of the people of Kashmir by India.
Second, Pakistan must conduct an immediate needs assessment for economic diplomacy. More difficult and complicated reforms, such as the alignment and integration of the commerce and trade function with MOFA, or the opening up of diplomatic leadership roles to the Commerce and Trade Group will take longer to sort out. But the immediate needs of the country include the capacity to comment and advice the Ministry of Finance on a wide array of issues related to the economy, including but not limited to trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and reciprocity in trade and commerce matters.
Finally, Pakistan must appoint diplomats to key roles in the relevant ministries and organizations to help the wider system with a better understanding of Pakistan’s international obligations and the standards of compliance that are required to meet them. Ultimately, in the short run, the best defence to manage the diplomatic onslaught of malign international actors is the same as the one Pakistan deployed after India’s Balakot attack: resolute, professional, smart and efficient. Pakistan’s diplomats have been left in the lurch for too long. They too merit the same support, the same reforms, and the same resources that a victorious Pakistan has invested in its incredible armed forces. Better times for Pakistan are within grasp. Stronger, more resolute and more efficient diplomatic capabilities shall guarantee them.
Mosharraf Zaidi is a Senior Fellow at Tabadlab, a public policy think tank.