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Khar addressing OUPaksoc and the Oxford Union

The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar, was hosted on 20th February for a talk at the Oxford Union by the Oxford University Pakistan Society and the Oxford Union Society. As the young female foreign minister of a country embedded in popular media imagination as a haven for all sorts of retrogressive elements, Ms. Khar’s visit was bound to generate a lot of interest among the student body. And so it proved as around 200 students attended Ms. Khar’s address which was covered by Pakistan’s major media outlets.

The content of Ms. Khar’s speech was quite broad and overarching wherein she not only covered her own domain of Pakistani foreign policy but also set out what she believed were the positive indicators of a state which is often characterised as dysfunctional. Ms. Khar mentioned the great potential she, like many others, sees in Pakistan’s young demographic with over 60% of people below the age of 30. Her observations on this up and coming, dynamic age group centred on their yearning for a positive change in the country and an increasing realisation that the only way out of the current muck is by adopting a ‘do-it-yourself attitude’. Ms. Khar also commented on the emergence of a dynamic middle class (according to some estimates, around 30 million out of a population of 180 million) which she believed would not only act as a fulcrum for greater economic growth but could also potentially act as agents of change for a more democratic polity.

During her talk, Ms. Khar also touched upon the crucially important issue of the civil-military (im)balance in Pakistan in a very direct manner. She lamented the years of military rule in Pakistan and the devastating effects it has had on the organic growth of Pakistan’s civilian institutions. Vitally, during her talk, she was able to link this imbalance in the dynamics of power between state institutions to the implementation of a security-focussed and, ultimately, retrogressive foreign policy towards Pakistan’s neighbours and in the state’s linkages with the global imperium. Khar showed a strong commitment towards the continuation of the democratic process in Pakistan and in refocusing the state (and its foreign policy) towards a more pro-people polity rather than security focussed one.

The Q&A session turned out to be the most engaging and candid part of the whole evening. Ms. Khar’s earlier remarks on the Pakistani state’s supposed ability to take/absorb criticism and adopt corrective measures were brought into question through examples such as the ongoing brutal military operation in Baluchistan and murders of journalists like Saleem Shehzad. It was disappointing to note that Ms. Khar, while recognising the Baloch issue as an internal one, seemed to take the establishment line of ‘proxy wars’ in the province and thus, in the process, delegitimizing a peoples’ movement as a hand maiden of great games played by world powers. Her response to the Saleem Shehzad inquiry was also weak as she alluded to a judicial commission report which has been unable to identify the culprits and has refused to hold the security apparatus accountable for what is, alleged to be, a grave (and not irregular) transgression of justice by Pakistan’s much feared and ubiquitous intelligence agencies.

The audience for Khar’s talk

Critical questions were also asked about the Pakistani state’s policy of pursing ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan through proxy militias. Her response to that alluded to the capitalist powers’ global jihad project of the 1980s and their unwavering support for the anti-Soviet guerrilla war in Afghanistan. It is in this context, she said, that Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan should be viewed. She said that it should be taken into account that Pakistan is situated in a turbulent and hostile neighbourhood where every state has a legitimate right in pursuing what it believes to be its national interest. This linked well to a later question which candidly asked Ms. Khar as to whether Pakistan’s foreign policy was made by the civilian cabinet in Islamabad or by the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Her response that foreign policy took into account the military’s security interests but is made on wider considerations of national interest raised the vital question of who defines ‘national interest’ in Pakistan. Considering the country’s chequered history of military dispensations and the military’s deep penetration of almost all organs of the state, the answer to such a question is neither difficult to grasp nor is the conundrum of establishing a genuinely progressive, democratic state easy to solve.

Questions also touched upon the role or lack thereof of Pakistan’s state institutions in possibly abetting Osama bin Laden’s hiding in Abbottabad. Ms. Khar refuted any links between any of Pakistan’s institutions and OBL’s hiding in Pakistan and characterised this as a failure of not only Pakistan’s intelligence agencies but also a massive failure of global intelligence networks from whose radars OBL had disappeared almost nine years earlier in Tora Bora. Questions on Pakistan’s relations with India produced answers focussed on regional peace and increased cooperation on human and economic terms. Ms. Khar emphasised the need for a strong South Asian bloc and recognised that such a regional bloc was impossible to comprehend in an atmosphere where security and strategic concerns dominate foreign policy. What was very interesting to note however was that throughout the almost one and a half hour session, Ms. Khar hardly, if ever, touched upon the Kashmir issue while admitting frankly that for her, currently, Kabul’s priority outweighs that of Delhi. This might be indicative of a crucial strategic shift on part of the Pakistani establishment which seems to be now willing to put the historically significant Kashmir issue with India on the back burner while concentrating all its efforts in ensuring a favourable settlement in Afghanistan in the backdrop of the impending NATO withdrawal.

Overall, while the Foreign Minister’s talk was interesting in its commitment to a pro-people polity, her responses during the Q&A session were revealing in their insight towards the Deep State’s shifting strategic objectives in the foreign policy domain. The prioritisation of Afghanistan over Kashmir/India was a particularly interesting feature and it remains to be seen as to how this translates into tangible policy measures. The talk however was lacking in focus on the vitally important, and often turbulent, domain of US-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani state’s organic linkages with the American establishment have been a vital pillar of support to authoritarian regimes and it remains to be seen whether the recent coldness between the two countries has resulted in any kind of weakening in these links.

The interaction was also revealing in how those in the highest echelons of policy making in Pakistan still view the Baloch nationalist movement in terms of ‘proxy wars’ by great powers in the region. Such a static and retrogressive view of what are essentially peoples’ movements fuelled by genuine concerns of power devolution and resource control, and accentuated by wide spread human rights abuses by military and para-military forces in the province, is indicative of the security establishment’s pre-eminence in decision-making with regards to this and other issues. Such an argument also feeds into the wider narrative which legitimises and perpetuates the security state and acts as a considerable roadblock towards the formation of an alternative, progressive narrative for the country’s existence and position in the comity of nations. Four years of a weak civilian dispensation have not seen major changes in the balance of powers between GHQ and parliament and it remains to be seen whether, in light of the deep penetration of the military into the various organs of the state, an ongoing democratic process can wrestle back the domain of foreign policy from Pakistan’s generals.

Ayyaz Mallick is a research student at the Free Speech Debate Project at the Dahrendorf Centre for the Study of Freedom at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. He graduated from Oriel College, Oxford in 2011.

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