Pakistan’s changing geopolitics

As the third decade of the 21st century dawns, Islamabad needs to overhaul its foreign policy

The geopolitics of Pakistan is still stuck with the thinking prevalent in the previous century. Pakistan’s geopolitical strategy is marred by its obsession with India and Kashmir, resulting in a disproportionate stress on religious identity that has spawn a plethora of problems for its governments, people, and the state itself.

Pakistan’s perpetual inability to establish good relations with three of its major neighbours i.e. Afghanistan, India, and Iran; and even with Bangladesh, shows a prolonged paranoia that has consumed not only precious resources but has also turned Pakistan into a country still unable to give its citizens a decent education, basic health services, and even safe drinking water. The recent annexation of Kashmir by the BJP government in India has exposed not only the Modi government as a violator of human rights and the UN resolutions, but has also put Pakistan in a difficult situation in which its narrative of Kashmir being the jugular vein is being questioned by people.

Pakistan’s geopolitical strategy has had a reciprocal relation with its domestic policies of denying people their democratic and human rights. An Ethiopia-like overhaul is needed in its geopolitical strategy, if Pakistan is to prosper and survive as a democratic country that commands respect from the world community.

Geopolitical analysis

Geopolitical analysis is not a tool to predict when certain events would take place in national and international politics. In the 1980s, nobody would have anticipated that the Soviet Union as a country would disappear from the map of the world in 1991. In early 2019, who could have foreseen in Pakistan that the Indian occupied Kashmir would be annexed into India, and Pakistan would not be able to do much about it apart from delivering speeches at international fora, making phone calls to world leaders, and trying to use electronic, print, and social media to keep a semblance of battle readiness.

What use is there of any geopolitical analysis if it cannot tell you when something is going to happen? Well, not being able to tell the time does not mean that a geopolitical analysis is unable to forewarn you about an impending outcome of a series of events. In the case of the USSR, the timing was not known but the unfolding events did predict an ultimate collapse if certain measures were not taken. Similarly, in the case of Kashmir, again timing was less important than the events preceding it.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had time and gain promised his electorate that a second victory in elections for the BJP would enable him to annex Kashmir. So, the use of a geopolitical analysis is that it ‘focuses the attention of policy makers on conditions that are likely to bring about geopolitical change’ (Cohen, 2015). Geopolitical analyses also forewarn us about any changes in the balance within the international system. For example, the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003 did anticipate a prolonged war in this region.

A geopolitical analysis of Iran-Saudi conflict and the Turkish incursion into Syria foretells of an impending doom in this region which may plunge the territories from Istanbul to Islamabad and from the Caspian Sea to the Red Sea into turmoil. According to Saul B. Cohen, an expert in geopolitics, a nation’s claim to power rests on four pillars: Military strength and the willingness to use it; Surplus economic energy to enable it to provide aid and invest in other states; Ideological leadership that serves as a model for other nations; And a cohesive system of governance. Let’s have a brief overview of how Pakistan has fared in geopolitical terms in the 20th century.

Geopolitical strategy of Pakistan in the 20th century

Right from its inception in 1947, Pakistan has faced the challenge of establishing good relations with four major countries: America, China, India, and the USSR. Though, Afghanistan and Iran were its immediate neighbours, they figured less in Pakistan’s geopolitical considerations. Afghanistan was not happy at the creation of Pakistan as an independent country, and Iran was concerned about Balochistan being taken over by Pakistan. If Afghanistan was under the Soviet influence, Iran had considerably good relations with the USA. For Pakistan, the Soviet Union was geopolitically closer in comparison with the USA.

But the religious inclination of the early Pakistani leadership, including the first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, and senior bureaucrat and federal secretary, Chaudhary Muhammad Ali, led Pakistan away from the Soviet Union, into the lap of the USA. The occupation of the Hyderabad Deccan state and most of Kashmir by India in 1948 prompted Pakistan to seek support. The then Indian premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a soft corner for the Soviet Union since his youthful days. He was able to forge better friendship with the USSR much more quickly than Pakistan could do it with either America or the Soviet Union.

The acceptance of the Objectives Resolution by the Constituent Assembly in 1949 set the religious tone of the polity to come. This religious bent, though an internal matter, had a profound impact on Pakistan geopolitical strategy too. The Soviet Union, being a communist country was not likely to be a good friend, or so the argument went. The war in the Korean Peninsula also brought Pakistan closer to the USA. The decision of Liaquat Ali Khan to visit the USA instead of the Soviet Union — from where the invitation had come earlier — displayed Pakistan’s desire to align with the USA rather than the USSR.

The 1950s was the decade when Pakistan took two important turns. One, it failed to inculcate and develop a democratic polity within the country; and two, it continued with its tilt towards the USA, joining Cento and Seato; and offering airbases to American planes to fly and spy over the Soviet territory. Even HS Suhrawardy, the premier of Pakistan for 13 months in 1956-57, who was earlier considered a slightly left-wing politician, displayed his complete disregard for the opinions of his own party workers of Awami League who were mostly anti-imperialist.

Suhrawardy not only sided with the USA but also antagonised the Arab countries during the Suez Crisis. Perhaps the only positive step he took in the geopolitical strategy of Pakistan was initiating good relations with China. By 1958, it was clear that the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan was being trampled by Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza who had become the first president of Pakistan after the promulgation of the Constitution. The first general elections were supposed to be held in the country but could not be held for two reasons that decided the geopolitical future of Pakistan.

The first reason was Iskandar Mirza’s desire to continue as the ruler of the country. He knew that after the elections he would lose his post as the president of Pakistan. The second reason had more to do with the geopolitical realities surrounding Pakistan. The Muslim League, the founding party of Pakistan, had lost support of the people and a new countrywide left-wing party, National Awami Party (NAP), had come into being. NAP had become very popular after the merger of Pakistan National Party of West Pakistan and the disaffected elements of the Awami League and the Jugto (popular) Front in East Pakistan.

An impending victory for the National Awami Party led by politicians such as Bhashani, Bizenjo, Bacha Khan, GM Syed and Mian Iftikhar Uddin would mean a sea change in the geopolitical strategy for Pakistan. The Pakistani establishment led by the likes of President Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza and Commander-in-Chief, General Ayub Khan, could not tolerate a left-wing victory in Pakistan leading to a possible government by NAP. The USA was a keen observer of these developments and was more than eager to precipitate a coup led by the army, toppling any nascent democratic dispensation Pakistan might have had.

The 1960s saw an early closeness of General Ayub Khan with the USA, but this bonhomie was shattered when the misadventure of 1965 war proved that America was not a friend but a master who could not be trusted anymore. The geopolitics of Pakistan took a dangerous turn after the 1965 war. It became clear that India and Pakistan were not going to be friends anytime soon. General Ayub Khan had won the presidential elections thanks to massive riggings in election by his state machinery; and his proclaimed victory in the 1965 war gave him a sense of pride and self-confidence that he needed to continue as president of Pakistan.

By the late 1960s, the tables had turned against General Ayub Khan and his own protégé General Yahya Khan was the new master of the country’s destiny. With growing discontent in East Pakistan, the first countrywide general elections were held in 1970, resulting in a landslide victory for Sheikh Mujib of the Awami League. The refusal of General Yahya Khan to hand over power to the elected representatives on various pretexts led to the military action against the Awami League, culminating in the second Indo-Pak war in 1971, and the creation of Bangladesh. The geopolitics of Pakistan was now in the hands of its new leader, ZA Bhutto.

Bhutto’s Islamic socialism was not a favourite theory for the USA. His Pakistan Still Mills agreement with the USSR; insistence on initiating Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and rebuilding of the Pakistani army had far-reaching impact on both internal and external affairs of the country. Bhutto’s removal by General Ziaul Haq in 1977 was the result of both internal and external factors. Internally, Bhutto had antagonised not only the left-wing elements by imposing a ban on National Awami Party, he had also become a target of the right-wing parties in the form of Pakistan National Alliance (PNA).

The PNA had refused to accept the results of the 1977 general elections on charges of rigging, and hobnobbed with the army to topple Bhutto. The removal of Bhutto by General Zia was projected as an international conspiracy. Some observers were of the opinion that the USA did play a role in the events of 1977 in Pakistan. The hanging of Bhutto in 1979, on dubious charges of a murder, isolated General Zia internationally, but his fortunes brightened when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, and the USA had to rely on General Zia. The geopolitics of this region was about to see a new phase.

The geopolitics of the 1980s witnessed a complete dedication of General Zia to the civil war in Afghanistan. That civil war turned Pakistan into a wellspring for Afghan mujahideen supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the USA, and other Western powers eager to see the Soviets entanglement and collapse. Throughout the 1980s, General Zia almost forgot about Kashmir, trying his best not to annoy or instigate India. Rather, his entire efforts were concentrated on Afghanistan as a trusted ally of Saudi Arabia and the USA. Pakistan did become a hotbed for religious militancy that was soon to affect the social fabric of the country.

By the end of 1980s, the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan, General Zia had died in a plane crash, and democracy had been restored — albeit with shackles. The 1990s saw a musical chairs of political governments in Pakistan led by either Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. The geopolitical strategy remained in the hands of the military establishment that never trusted both, Bhutto and Sharif. The biggest gamble was the installation of the Taliban government in Afghanistan who established a medieval-era theocracy that was misogynist and anti-human rights in the modern sense of these terms.

During the second government of Nawaz Sharif from 1997 to 1999, at least three important geopolitical events took place. First was the detonation of atomic devices by India led by the BJP premier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This elicited an atomic response from Pakistan. The second event was the visit of Vajpayee to Pakistan to normalise relations with Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif responded positively but the security establishments in both the countries were not very happy about it. The third was the Kargil adventure by General Pervez Musharraf that ultimately led to the downfall of Nawaz Sharif on October 12, 1999. Musharraf appointed himself the chief executive of Pakistan.

Geopolitics of Pakistan in the 21st century

At the turn of the century, Pakistan was one of the very few countries in the world that were ruled by a serving army general who had mounted a coup against a democratically-elected government and sent the previous prime minister to jail. Just like General Zia was isolated in his early years, Musharraf also did not find many supporters in the world community who considered him a usurper. Fortunately for General Musharraf, but unfortunately for the world, September 11 attacks took place in America in 2001. Suddenly, the geopolitical situation changed and the US — with NATO allies — braced for an attack on Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban who were reportedly harbouring the terrorists who planned and executed the attacks. For Musharraf, it was a godsend. He wasted no time in accepting the US demands to side with it in its operations against the Taliban. Here was an opportunity for General Musharraf to prolong his rule and be part of the so-called “War on Terror”. From 1996 to 2001, Pakistan was one of the only three countries in world who had recognised the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. As the world was wary of the Taliban, Pakistan had no qualms in according them full diplomatic protocols.

After September 11, 2001, General Musharraf upended the geopolitical strategy of Pakistan and, apparently, he had no other option. General Musharraf’s regime supported the allied forces in Afghanistan, and received wholesome rewards. General Musharraf’s rule from 1999 to 2008 had two distinctive features: one, he supported the USA; and two, he genuinely tried to seek a solution to the Kashmir problem with India. Both attempts backfired and his unconditional support to the USA resulted in his increasing unpopularity in the country and his Kashmir policy was not liked by his own constituency i.e. the armed forces.

After Musharraf, during the second decade of the 21st century, Pakistan has vacillated between China, Saudi Arabia and the USA. China is increasingly playing a greater role as evidenced by the CPEC; Saudi Arabia gives financial help to Pakistan and expects to toe its line in foreign policy as became clear when Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to attend the summit in Kuala Lumpur and even chose not to send Foreign Minister Qureshi. The USA under Trump is fickle and wants Pakistan not to rely on China. Under these circumstances, as the third decade of the 21st century dawns, Pakistan needs to overhaul its foreign policy.

But that hardly seems possible under the present dispensation led by Imran Khan, but dominated by the security apparatus. Only a truly representative government in Pakistan with civilian supremacy can take drastic steps and that too would be possible only if the army and the judiciary both are supportive of democracy.


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Pakistan’s changing geopolitics