Getting the math right

By: Nasim Zehra      Published: 08:10 AM, 11 Aug, 2021
Getting the math right
File photos.

What Pakistan does occasionally, it ought to do every time – when dealing with foreign policy matters, it must work out the ‘math’ of an issue, of both its content and communication.

Math, so goes one definition, is "...the study of the measurement, relationships, and properties of quantities and sets, using numbers and symbols...” Hence ‘math’ simply means – in the context, content, relationships, policy objectives, your own and of the interlocutor state – what we seek to gain from what we communicate, what the word-power is being deployed for, examining policy-related words made within and outside of Pakistan for their impact on the target audience and beyond, factoring in the prevailing inter-state dynamics etc.

Working out the math is an elaborate undertaking. It therefore cannot ‘just happen’. It must be an intentional and well-prepared undertaking. It must be a priority and not be replaced merely by a top huddle. Especially in non-institutionalised setups or ones where power is overly concentrated at the top, ‘working out the math’ may seem a waste of time; the powerful seem to believe they know it all. Additionally, in a verbose culture with social media enticements, the tendency is for all to speak on all issues.

But our math we must do. Otherwise, much can be lost, our gains frittered, bargaining position weakened. For example, a few days ago, Pakistan's articulate and confident NSA appeared to have misspoken; when a formal sit-down interview was over, the conversation with the interviewer was continuing. Although the prime minister and the NSA had both brushed aside in TV interviews the Biden call as an insignificant matter for Pakistan, in the post-sit down interview chat with the 'Financial Times' interviewer, reportedly the NSA spoke about the phone call. The Financial Times got what any media would want – off-guard comments on a newsy issue. So, Pakistan's internal irritation regarding the phone call surfaced, and was broadcast.

“The president of the United States hasn't spoken to the prime minister of such an important country who the US itself says is make or break in some cases; in some ways, in Pakistan we struggle to understand the signal, right?” He continued: "We’ve been told every time that [the phone call] will happen, it's technical reasons or whatever. But frankly people don't believe it. If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options". Correct points, but too much about a phone call in the public domain.

The US administration did not leave much to imagination. Biden didn't call. It will happen “when the time is right.”

At this juncture Pakistan's own position needs to be fine-tuned, to be ably articulated. Pakistan’s policymakers occasionally demonstrate a tendency for bravado over sober articulation and for public venting, often about genuine disappointments, as opposed to learning from bitter experiences in bilateral experiences to make better informed policy.

For Pakistan, through its official team there needs to be a wise and credible public messaging about key points about Pakistan's Afghan policy and related concerns. Also what Pakistan will and will not do; spelling out the red lines is equally important. Much of this the NSA covered – but the no-call anxiety was unnecessary.

Pakistan has a mixed track record in doing math work on policy. For example, years after Pakistan had made the historic China-US engagement happen, Henry Kissinger had revealed to his guest Sahibzada Yaqoob Khan, then Pakistan’s foreign minister, that once Pakistan had agreed to facilitate the opening up, in the Nixon White House a long consultation among top security officials was held to determine what possible quid pro quo Pakistan would likely ask for in exchange. Kissinger proceeded to tell his guest that when Pakistan asked for none it left the US policymakers shocked. What a great opportunity lost for Pakistan.

A classic case of inflicting self-damage in making a policy move with minimal comprehensive calculation is the ‘the gang of four’ led 1999 Kargil operation. Their belief was that after the Pakistani soldiers had interdicted the NH1 Srinagar to Leh Highway and got the Indians “on their knees” the international community would step in to salvage the situation. They believed that either Kashmir would be resolved or at least India would vacate Siachen. We know what subsequently happened. The ‘math’ went terribly wrong.

More recently, during backchannel negotiations with India some in policy-influencing circles believed that genuine progress in Pak-India relations was possible, that soon low hanging fruits could be plucked, and that the Kashmir issue could be dealt with later. This led Pakistan to erroneously put on hold a well-conceived and well-managed post-August 5 policy.

Good and timely math has also served Pakistan well. For example, after the November 2011 Salala attack, Pakistan led by the prime minister and with the participation of all national security stakeholders held a marathon session to consult on an appropriate response to the US forces' cross-border attack which had martyred several Pakistani soldiers. The result of this comprehensive math work was Pakistan's fairly sober yet firmly conducted policy. This finally led to the US apologizing to Pakistan.

Similarly, good math work by Prime Minister Imran Khan, his team and the armed forces top command, after India's attack on Balakot, led to an appropriate response at the military, diplomatic and political level. The consequence was Pakistan’s ascendant military position militarily and a credible diplomatic position.

Similarly, Pakistan's response to the 1999 Vajpayee offer to improve relations led, under the then prime minister’s leadership, to elaborate math work to assess the offer. The historic Lahore summit and subsequent multi-issue dialogue, including on Kashmir, was thus initiated.

Interestingly even after August 5, 2019 when the Indians flagrantly violated the UNSC resolutions in Occupied Kashmir, Pakistan had done the math right. Its response was a high-gear global broadcast of Indian atrocities against the Kashmiris and violation of international law. The prime minister had personally led the initiative. However, India’s December 2020 Indian offer wasn't correctly assessed; past Indian policy trends and the current policy steps were not factored in.

So sound math delivers good policy outcomes. What we need is to work with facts and goals, with fewer words on public platforms –all for ‘good math’ which will serve Pakistan better .

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: nasimzehra@gmail.com

Twitter: @nasimzehra

 

Courtesy The News