President Asif Zardari landed in London instead of Tehran last Friday, thanks to a last-minute change in his travel plans. Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Pervaiz Ashraf didn’t attend the Heads of Government Council Meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and dispatched his Information Minister to attend the important moot instead. The Prime Minister cancelled his trip to Bishkek on the pretext of important matters at home. However, his engagements during the days of the SCO meeting leave one guessing about his priorities. As far as the President is concerned, he didn’t consider it necessary to give an explanation for dropping Iran from the itinerary of his four-nation trip now reduced to three. Are these cancellations unconnected and without significance? Or is our government dancing like a puppet to the imperial anthem for the region, cutting its own hands and feet?

It should be obvious by now that all the fuss about fashioning a foreign policy independent of the US influence was mere noise. The President was supposed to sign the contract for constructing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline during his visit to Tehran, a project that has already been delayed for too long. While Iran is moving on a fast track, chasing officials in Islamabad, offering the much needed pipeline on a platter and even agreeing to finance it partially, our government is dragging its feet, delaying the execution of the project on one flimsy pretext after another, regardless of what shortage of gas is doing to Pakistan’s economy. The US has made no secret of its opposition to the pipeline, as it would upset its plans for isolating Iran in the international community. Every time some progress is expected on the project, the meddlesome Uncle Sam arrives with his bag of bad carrots.

Is it just a coincidence that the day President Zardari cancelled his Iran visit, the US Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs signed an MOU with Pakistan to “fund an international consultancy to assist Pakistan in acquiring Liquefied Natural Gas to overcome its energy shortage”? Earlier, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline was floated as an alternative to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. There was also talk about buying cheap electricity from Iran, and it was reported that all we needed to do for adding more than 1,000 MW to our electricity supply was to plug into the Iranian grid just across the border. One doesn’t hear a word about it anymore. What one hears instead is how the US is helping Pakistan in renovating, modernising, upgrading and constructing various dams to add 900 MW of electricity to the national grid by next year.

It is not only Iran that the US has a problem with. In October, President Putin had cancelled what was to be the first-ever visit of a Russian head of state to Pakistan. The Pak-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation had approved the text of various memorandums of understanding in an earlier September meeting, MOUs that may have been signed between the two countries during Putin’s trip. Moscow has shown special interest in investing in energy projects, including the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Besides, during his visit, Pakistan was to host the important Quadrilateral Summit to be attended by the Takijistan and Afghanistan heads of state as well. The Quadrilateral Summit and the signing of MOUs were postponed according to our Foreign Office. We haven’t heard from it about the new dates for moving ahead on these important matters.

The cold shoulder given to the SCO by our Prime Minister is also hard to explain. The important security bloc, comprising China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has added economic cooperation to its concerns, with a special emphasis on infrastructure and energy sector. It is also emerging as the entity most likely to fill the vacuum left by withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan. Pakistan, along with Iran, Afghanistan and India, has the status of an observer in the bloc. Though our Information Minister, filling in for the Prime Minister, expressed Pakistan’s keenness to be made a full member of the bloc, something that is very important for protecting and promoting Pakistan’s national interest, his words rang hollow. What spoke more clearly were the actions of the Zardari regime and the absence of Pakistan’s Prime Minister from the meeting convened for heads of government.

So, is the Zardari-led government just naïve and stupid when it comes to foreign policy? Or is it a case of our leaders being more interested in pleasing their masters, rather than acting on behalf of the nation that they are meant to represent; the nation whose interest they are meant to protect and promote, that pays their astronomical bills and bears their parasitic burden? It is highly unlikely that our leaders don’t understand the importance of building and deepening relationships with countries in the region, mutually beneficial relationships that could free us from the clutches of the predatory two-faced US-led empire, relationships that could bring economic prosperity and security not only for Pakistan, but also for the entire region. So why must they behave like powerless puppets, turning where their strings pull them?

Why must we look at our relationships with our neighbours through the divide-and-rule lens of an imperial power that is only interested in keeping its stranglehold on the region, regardless of the consequences for the people who live here? It’s a recipe for disaster. Seen through the divide-and-rule lens of the empire, neighbours are enemies. Will the Pak-Afghan relationship be so unfriendly once the US is taken out of the equation, along with its troops and ambition for military bases and economic control? Given the US predatory interests in the region, there’s no point in enhancing cooperation with it. To show the door to the US, and hence bring peace and stability to the region, Pakistan must align its strategy with other neighbours of Afghanistan. Of course, the US didn’t want the President to visit Tehran and the Prime Minister to join SCO leaders at Bishkek. The sad part is that they did as they were told.

The writer is a freelance columnist.  Email: hazirjalees@hotmail.com