The foreign policy line

February 12, 2023

A look back at the foreign policy choices under the Musharraf regime

The foreign policy line


akistan’s foreign policy had its challenges in the 1990s. In the Cold War context, the country faced US-led Western resentment in terms of the Pressler Amendment (1985), which tightened the flow of military and economic assistance. Moreover, when Pakistan responded to India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, it faced economic sanctions. In other words, Pakistan’s foreign relations with the US and its European allies were already at a low ebb when Gen Pervez Musharraf took over after having toppled the Sharif government in a military coup in October 1999. The US-led North registered its disapproval of the October coup, which had derailed the fragile democracy the country was experimenting with in the post-Zia period. Bill Clinton’s visit to India and Pakistan in March 2000 reflected the American strategic mindset: Clinton stayed in India for five days and hardly five hours in Pakistan.

In the non-North, Pakistan maintained cordial ties with China and key members of the OIC, especially Saudi Arabia. In South Asia, under Nawaz Sharif Pakistan had tried to normalise with India. Vajpayee’s Pakistan visit to Pakistan in early 1999 and the signing of the Lahore Declaration were a case in point. However, Sharif’s initiative was resented by some of the country’s military leaders. The Kargil war reflected this disapproval of Sharif-led normalisation with India.

Pakistan’s foreign policy was radically shifted towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11. Musharraf’s advisers urged him to align Pakistan with the US in order to pursue personal as well as institutional interests. Military dictators in Africa and elsewhere have always sought external legitimacy in addition to domestic legitimacy obtained usually through referendums and judicial verdicts. However, rational choice-institutionalism would focus more on the military as an institution, not Musharraf’s person. The military desired closer contact with the American government especially the Pentagon in order to neutralise the economic repercussions of various sanction regimes. Neorealism can explain Pakistan’s foreign policy behaviour as a rational actor intending to enhance its capabilities by siding with the US on its War on Terror.

Put differently, had Musharraf-led Pakistan opted not to cooperate with the sole superpower of the world whose liberal values, institutions and people were attacked by a non-state actor on September 11 the former could have faced severe consequences ranging from economic sanctions to military action in, at least, its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Indeed, American drone attacks in what used to be the FATA were cited by some critics as a violation of state sovereignty. However, there is a view that the drone attacks were ordered following a tacit understanding between by the two countries.

Regardless, it was a rational decision. The country escaped the perceived threat of an American military onslaught on its territory in the conventional sense and its fragile economy improved somewhat with high remittances and economic and military assistance. Commercially, Pakistan’s trade ties improved with key economies of the European Union. Moreover, owing mostly to American concerns to have a relatively peaceful sub-continent while they were busy fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Musharraf also tried to normalise with India.

However, his regime faced some of the unintended consequences of his foreign policy choices. For example, (suicide) terrorism by Al Qaeda and its local affiliates started as a reaction to his pro-US foreign policy stance. From 2001-2008 (and afterwards), hundreds and thousands of unarmed civilians, police and military personnel lost their lives. Ironically, the US was not satisfied with Musharraf’s performance in the War on Terror. This resulted in the “do more” mantra and the “good/ bad” Taliban binary that survived the Musharraf era. Also, Musharraf’s bid to negotiate a peace with India backfired.

As far as Pakistan’s relations with China, Saudi Arabia and the OIC are concerned, Musharraf acted conventionally. There were thus discussions with the Chinese to enhance military-to-military ties and promote trade relations. Some scholars argue that the antecedents of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can be traced back to the Musharraf era. In addition, Musharraf also initiated interaction with Russia.

His foreign policy preferences and plans were, overall, carried forward by his fellow men in uniform, who shaped foreign policy contours in the post-Musharraf period. Little wonder, Pakistan’ relations with China have increasingly been predicated on economic cooperation. The CPEC is a case in point. Pakistan’s ties with Russia are warming up and the recent visit by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari marks bilateral engagement. In addition, Saudi Arabia still matters for financial and petroleum reasons. Importantly, India’s centrality as the archrival has continued despite several phases of Track II talks. Even the “good/ bad” Taliban binary is intact. The deadliest effects of foreign policy choices on the masses, economy and the state are not likely to go away until the ruling elite start viewing foreign policy from a people’s perspective.

The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at

The foreign policy line