In challenge to army, Pakistan seeks 'uninterrupted dialogue' with India

Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he will seek talks with neighboring India and Afghanistan as part of a regional peace initiative and claimed that foreign policy would be determined by the civilian goverment, setting up a potential clash with the powerful military.

Qureshi, of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf that formed the government this month, called for an “uninterrupted dialogue” with India and said he would visit the Afghan capital Kabul to bridge trust in a tense bilateral relationship. He said India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sent a letter to Khan that also stated a desire to restart talks between the two nuclear-armed rivals. A government official in New Delhi said Modi had sent a general congratulatory letter and declined to comment further.

Pakistan and India “have no other option but to engage,” Qureshi told reporters in Islamabad on Monday. “I want to go to Afghanistan with the message of a new beginning,” Qureshi’s comments reiterate Khan’s olive branch to India last month, which was greeted with skepticism across the border. Pakistan’s armed forces have for years been accused of supporting and providing sanctuary to militant groups that strike at India and Afghanistan. The army has repeatedly denied the charges, but the military has directly ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 71-year existence and it continues to assert its grip on foreign and national security policies.

In an answer to a question about military influence, Qureshi said “the foreign policy of Pakistan will be formed here at the foreign office.” Those comments set up a potential rift with the top brass, who were said to have supported Khan because they thought he wouldn’t challenge their authority.

Military Dominance

Khan and the military have repeatedly denied those charges and the 65-year-old former cricket star told Bloomberg News in early July that the army was filling a vacuum because Pakistan has “such incompetent people dealing with the government’s foreign policy.”

However, no sitting prime minister has ever completed their five-year term and analysts say the military turned against Khan’s predecessor and now jailed former premier, Nawaz Sharif, because he challenged their dominance.

The government’s outreach to India stands in contrast to Khan’s previous comments on Modi, who he called an “anti-Muslim politician” in an interview with Bloomberg News last year. Khan said Modi’s handling of the 2002 riots in Gujarat -- where roughly 1,000 people were killed, mostly Muslims -- constitutes “a black mark on Indian society.”

Qureshi also said Pakistan would seek “straight talks” with the U.S. and that trust in the troubled relationship has to be rebuilt. This year U.S. President Donald Trump has pressured Islamabad to act against terror groups inside the country and suspended military aid. Washington also pushed for Pakistan’s inclusion on a global terrorism financing watch list.

Yet it’s the military that own these relationships, said Shaista Tabassum, chairwoman of international relations at the University of Karachi. “Verbally these statements look good, but how will they do it practically remains to be seen.”

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