Benazir Bhutto’s foreign policy

—Zafar Hilaly

How better to demonstrate that Benazir Bhutto truly lives in their hearts than to practice what she preached, namely, to take on and defeat the obscurantist threat facing Pakistan while forging closer and more meaningful cooperation with regional countries and, pre-eminently, India

The outcome of the battle against the Taliban, Benazir Bhutto believed, would not only determine Pakistan’s fate but her own. It would be her final battle. Hitherto, everything that had happened in her life and that of the country was in a sense a preparation for the war ahead.

The “deal” with Pervez Musharraf and the National Reconciliation Ordinance were meant to clear the decks in preparation for the coming fight. As she told me herself, she did not need the NRO. Musharraf had been more than agreeable to withdraw all cases against her. However, she had insisted on the NRO so that those who in exile with her could also return; and also to ensure that Musharraf did not break his word.

What Bhutto did not want was to have Musharraf and or his political sleuths conspiring against her while she led the war effort. Of course, she would have preferred Musharraf gone altogether and, in fact, in early December 2007 said as much. However, she knew that although Musharraf had shot his bolt, as far as the public was concerned, “others” still wanted him around hence, she said, he would have to be eased out.

“It is going to be a battle of wits, Zafar,” she remarked to me, in the presence of Zia Ispahani, as she left to chair a meeting of party officials.

Bhutto knew that Pakistan could not hope to prevail over the Taliban and their foreign backers without outside assistance. The role of foreign policy, therefore, was paramount. The thrust of the policy would have to be determined exclusively by Pakistan’s war needs. Nothing else would matter. One maxim which appealed to her was “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and another, “We will sup with the devil, if need be.” Both accurately reflected her single-minded determination to win.

In this war, Bhutto said, America’s support would be vital: “We will fight the war on our own. This is our war, no doubt, but if they want a part of it so much the better.” She did not rule out US troop presence in Pakistan: “If we are seen to be failing, the Americans will come in anyway. If the US remains involved so will the world; and the world will be on our side.”

Besides, Bhutto was confident of her ability to handle America; it had been her forte in office and during her years in exile. She was familiar with the main US actors and on first name terms with many of them. She was aware of their concerns but, more importantly, those of her own people. Pakistan, Bhutto said, wanted a relationship that was not tied to the US-India nexus or, for that matter, any single issue, but one that was deep, abiding and multifaceted. In other words, a relationship that was not opportunistic but comprehensive; and long-term, not temporary. This was crucial, she believed, if public sentiment in Pakistan was to shed its suspicion of the US as a fickle friend.

In return, Bhutto promised to end the suspicion and bickering between their respective militaries and intelligence agencies which were rife under Musharraf; to concert and cooperate closely to defeat the forces of extremism in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir; continue Pakistan’s efforts for a durable peace with India; forge a tension-free and productive relationship with Afghanistan; and last, but not least, rigorously maintain the ongoing safeguards to prevent the unauthorised use, transfer or theft of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

Unlike some, Bhutto welcomed the strategic partnership the US had formed with India. Sulking and complaining about it like a jilted lover served no purpose. In fact, the stronger the US-India nexus the more it would facilitate Pakistan’s own attempts to forge better relations with India and hopefully dissuade it from taking advantage of Pakistan’s preoccupations with the Taliban to make mischief in Balochistan and FATA.

In fact, Bhutto did not view India as much a threat to Pakistan as a market for our products; and its burgeoning economy as a source of capital and investment for Pakistan. Indian investments, she believed, would act as a spur to both countries to manage their relations sensibly, and, more importantly, the goodwill and confidence so generated would enable the billions spent on defence to be diverted to development.

Bhutto used to rattle off figures about how much cheaper it would be for Pakistani companies to import some of their raw materials from India, rather than Australia or the West, a disparity that made all the difference between the industry’s survival and failure. It is remarkable, she often mused, how prone we are to cutting our noses to spite our faces, a propensity for which she squarely blamed the military and its civilian followers.

Energy pipelines to India from Iran and Central Asia across Pakistan were also very much on her mind, so too trade and transit routes. Indeed, Bhutto placed so high a priority on befriending India that had the Mumbai attacks happened on her watch, she would have pressed on with her policy of engaging India in the belief that Delhi’s anger would abate in due course when no conclusive proof of official Pakistani involvement had been established.

Meanwhile, she would have seized the opportunity that Mumbai offered to revamp the intelligence services to ensure greater civilian oversight, perhaps by appointing a civilian to head it. I say this because, like Bhutto, politicians of all hues in Pakistan know that as long as the military has a vehicle to dabble in politics, a predilection to which it is addicted, talk of a stable democracy or civilian supremacy is just hot air.

As for Kashmir, Bhutto’s position was unequivocal. Both India and Pakistan, she maintained, had in the Simla Agreement forsworn war as a means of resolving the dispute, consequently a peaceful settlement was mandatory. If, however, this were not forthcoming, as it was not, both countries would have to live in hope.

Short of forsaking the sacred right of the Kashmiris to determine their own future, Bhutto was open to any and every proposal that would make life easier for them to live, work, travel and trade; and be fully empowered to handle their own affairs singly or jointly with their brethren on the other side of the Line of Control. Her only condition to any arrangement was that it should be acceptable to the Kashmiris. As for the LoC, her goal was to render it, as she once mused, “as relevant as a line drawn on the sea shore at high tide”.

India and Pakistan, according to Bhutto, had reached the proverbial fork in the road. One road led to confrontation and ultimately to conflict, perhaps a nuclear conflict, while the other held out the prospect of the two countries living as peaceful neighbours cooperating and collaborating whenever possible for mutual benefit. And with the Taliban knocking at the gates of Peshawar, Bhutto felt the time to choose had come; and for her the choice was a no-brainer.

The promise Bhutto had made in Washington to establish a better relationship with Kabul came to light when, in their meeting in Islamabad on December 27, 2007, Karzai let on, in so many words, that he believed her when she had said that the hostility and mistrust that had hitherto plagued relations between their two countries under Musharraf would end when Bhutto was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan.

In her view, the problem with Musharraf’s Afghan policy was his inability to foresee that a successor regime to the Taliban would perforce not be docile and pliable; and that the prism through which Kabul viewed bilateral relations, regional and international developments would not only be different but starkly so.

Musharraf should have been prepared for a volte face by Kabul’s new rulers when they replaced the Taliban. He should have known that the Afghan Tajiks, now in control of Afghanistan, loathed Pakistan. Instead, he was taken aback when Karzai resurrected the Kabul-Delhi axis and forged a fairly substantial military and economic relationship with India. Musharraf probably felt hurt, angry and deceived; although when it came to double-dealing by permitting the Taliban to establish a safe haven in Pakistan while brazenly denying any such intention, Musharraf showed that he was no novice.

Although the mindset of the mullahs of Iran never appealed to Bhutto, she considered Iran’s goodwill and support too important to be put at risk. So much so that a few weeks before her arrival in Karachi in October 2007, she heeded advice not to respond to former Iranian President Rafsanjani’s uncomplimentary reference to her (published in a foreign journal in September 2007) while recalling his meeting with Bhutto in Tehran in 1995. “I agree. There will be time enough to set the record straight,” was her reply to me in an SMS copied to Farhatullah Babar.

Without the cooperation of Iran, Bhutto believed, peace in Afghanistan would remain a chimera. Alas, the Pakistani military saw Iran as a rival for influence in Afghanistan, and during Bhutto’s second term, they had bullied her into fighting a proxy war with Iran in Afghanistan which had led to much ill will on both sides, a lot of which continues to linger.

“It had been madness to sacrifice good relations with Iran for the sake of the Taliban,” Bhutto once told me. Neither Iran’s strong relationship with India nor Tehran’s diffidence when it came to supporting our stance on Kashmir was reason enough, Bhutto believed, for allowing 60 years to pass without a single pipeline or transmission pole connecting Pakistan to energy rich Iran. “And who suffered as a result?” She asked. “Not Iran.”

BB intended to insulate Pakistan’s from a possible US-Iran conflict by refusing to take sides or acting in a manner that would appear inimical to Iranian interests. And, unlike the present government, Bhutto would have positioned Pakistan’s best diplomat in Tehran so as to benefit from his informed assessments rather than someone, like the present incumbent, whose knowledge of diplomacy and expertise in foreign relations, through no fault of his own, is non-existent. Apart from demonstrating a regrettable insensitivity towards a vital neighbour, his appointment suggests that Iran’s importance for Pakistan is marginal when, in fact, the reverse is true.

Conscious of the need to forge an anti terror coalition of regional states comprising China, Iran, Russia, the Central Asian republics, SAARC and Saudi Arabia, and adept at taking initiatives, Bhutto would have had by now several special envoys bearing messages winging their way to the CARs and Russia to sound out opinion on formulating a joint strategy to deprive the Taliban of their source of weapons and funds. Russia, in particular, which has been vocal about the need for regional action to combat the Taliban menace, would have welcomed such an initiative.

In retrospect, what Bhutto proposed was a seismic shift of policy, outlook and attitudes. These do not occur overnight; and when they do, they engender resistance, perhaps even revolt. However, the knowledge that Bhutto would want such a transformation in relations between Pakistan and our neighbours as her legacy must surely encourage the government, led by her husband, to aspire to it.

How better to demonstrate that Benazir Bhutto truly lives in their hearts than to practice what she preached, namely, to take on and defeat the obscurantist threat facing Pakistan while forging closer and more meaningful cooperation with regional countries and, pre-eminently, India. If Bhutto gave her life for Pakistan, surely they can stake theirs to follow the trail that she blazed.

The writer is a former ambassador


Filed under Pakistan

4 responses to “Benazir Bhutto’s foreign policy

  1. Milind Kher

    Had Benazir Bhutto lived, she would have greatly facilitated the peace process in the region.

    What has been written shows that she had a very positive outlook. The Taliban menace is a very real one that needs to be combated.

    Let us hope Zardari is able to do something.

  2. azhar aslam

    one cannot say for certain but had Benazir lived i doubt very much if she had done all that has been said above. and i say this on the basis of her past record. also lot of what ie written by mr hilaly is idealism that she may have spoken about in exile. but as everyone tells us, including mr hilalay’s reasoning for nro as above, she was ‘pragmatic’ (another word for opportunist). and i doubt therefore, that she would have carried out the actions outlined above. most probably she would have been ” bullied ” by military once again.

    that she left a ‘will’ inheriting chairmanship to zardari, is evidence enough of her intellectual depth and sincerity. here was a chance for her really establish her legacy. and look how she choose to do that ?

    of all the people, should benazir have not known better about zardari ?

    and yet the question is right. Does Benazir live in their hearts ?

  3. Anwar

    This post is typical “ifs” and “buts”. The whole business of NRO was an orchestrated attempt by Washington to have new puppets run the show. BB was desperate for support from Washington and her knocking at all doors on the Capital for the white man’s blessings are well reported in the press….
    I doubt her political posturing and/or intellectual pursuits would have gone anywhere without a nod from her handlers.

  4. we say to the Great Soul of BB Ameen
    my take on SAFMA peace mission to India