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So Who's Running Pakistan's Foreign Policy?

General Kayani, shadow foreign minister

General Kayani, shadow foreign minister

There was a revealing detail about Senator John Kerry’s visit to Pakistan a few days ago.

The first place he stopped, immediately after his arrival on May 15, was the office of Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani. Neither President Asif Ali Zardari nor Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was so favored. Both men had to wait until the second day of the visit to get face time with the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Shortly thereafter Gilani set off to China, where he hinted that his government might favor an expansion of ties with Beijing if relations with the U.S. continue to go downhill.)

So what about the foreign minister, you might ask?

Well, ever since previous officeholder Shah Mehmood Qureshi resigned back in February over the brouhaha involving U.S. spy Raymond Davis, that position has been held by Hina Rabbani Khar, who was bumped upstairs from her spot as a junior minister of state. She is now the acting minister until parliament and the government can get their act together to appoint a full-fledged replacement.

As a result, Pakistan’s formal foreign policy apparatus is effectively on hold – at a time when the aftershocks of the bin Laden killing are still rocking the country. If Pakistan ever needed a steady hand on the foreign policy tiller, it’s now. Relations between Islamabad and Washington have hit a new low. The war in Afghanistan is entering a possibly crucial phase. And internally Pakistan is still struggling to come to terms with a persistent culture of terrorism that also has a direct impact on the country’s image overseas. (Note the recent Karachi attack on a diplomat from Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan’s closest friends.)

Okay, someone might argue that the lack of a foreign minister makes little difference in real terms. The military, after all, has always played on outsized role in Pakistan’s internal and external affairs.

True enough. But the problem right now is precisely that the army’s already disproportionate role is additionally inflated by the power vacuum in one of the country’s key civilian institutions.

And this is happening at precisely the moment when it’s the military that’s trying to cope with the indignities inflicted upon it by the U.S. raid to get bin Laden. (First, the Americans didn’t trust the Pakistani generals enough to share information about the raid beforehand. Second, the military has also been embarrassed, in the eyes of many locals, by the apparent ease with which U.S. special forces were able to perform the operation in the midst of a city filled with Pakistani army installations.)
It’s precisely at times like this that it would be good to have a heavyweight civilian interlocutor around – a professional diplomat, perhaps? – to offer a bit of calming perspective.

Of course, the Americans are not entirely innocent in all of this. By so obviously putting General Kayani in the foreground, they’re also implicitly contributing to the militarization of Pakistani politics – something that they have always claimed to oppose.

- Muhammad Tahir and Christian Caryl