Between Ambition And Constraints

Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is flanked by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and President Houari Boumédiène of Algeria at a reception at the Shalimar Gardens during the Islamic Summit in Lahore held between 22 and 24 February 1974. (Courtesy: DEMP Islamabad)
Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is flanked by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and President Houari Boumédiène of Algeria at a reception at the Shalimar Gardens during the Islamic Summit in Lahore held between 22 and 24 February 1974. (Courtesy: DEMP Islamabad)

IT is difficult to generalise, but a common thread runs through the critical decisions that have shaped Pakistan’s foreign relations over three-quarters of a century. The distinct and recognisable character of Pakistan’s foreign policy has been underpinned by security concerns rooted in the traumatic circumstances of its independence, a deep sense of injustice over Kashmir and an intrinsic pragmatism needed for restraint and the ability to pull back from the brink.

A country’s foreign policy cannot be separated from its domestic strengths and cohesion. Successes and failures of foreign policy are organically linked to domestic strengths and weaknesses and, by that token, to the quality of national leadership and institutions. Punching above one’s weight is often delusional, and often so is fixation with an activist foreign policy.

Foreign policy by itself cannot compensate for domestic ills. Adventures can be costly and only affordable by continental powers because of their size, wide options to act and capacity to withstand setbacks. Foreign policy suffers when dragged into domestic politics. Lack of essential institutional coordination frequently results in miscalculation.

Without offering an in-depth evaluation of their positive or negative impact, the text here highlights some of the significant decisions and developments relevant to Pakistan’s foreign policy to give a sense of its trajectory and challenges.

Pakistan’s foreign policy has been underpinned by security concerns rooted in its own traumas. It is largely independent and focused on self-interest but subject to pragmatic constraints and shaped by internal political impulses.

Controversies, partly fuelled by partisan politics, often swirl around major policy choices which mark milestones in our diplomatic history. They need to be judged in the context and pressures of the time.

Take two examples: Liaquat Ali Khan’s visit to the United States in 1950, and Pakistan’s decision to oppose the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. Many believe that Liaquat’s visit to the US was a wrong turn from which our foreign policy never recovered. Regardless of the doubts about the invitation from Moscow, the question is: what was the choice for a new country facing extremely stressful circumstances, with survival at stake? Moscow could not have accorded precedence to its relations with Pakistan over those with India.

The 1954 alliance with the US arguably contributed to Pakistan’s defence capability to the extent that in 1965, we initiated Operation Gibraltar, and our armed forces could thwart the full force of an Indian attack. Linked speculation that the US held Pakistan back from its advance in the Jhumb-Jorian sector ignores the fact that India had decided to attack across the international border. Prime minister Shastri announced India’s intention, which president Ayub Khan could not have overlooked. The decision about our US alliance was understandable, but our leadership clearly misjudged if not misinterpreted its limits.

We failed to take advantage of the alliance to build a broad-based relationship with the United States when that opportunity existed. India succeeded even in the absence of an alliance. Like their Soviet counterparts, American academics and policymakers nurtured a fascination for India. I recall Ambassador Aziz Ahmed expressing exasperation in his unpublished memoirs over his unsuccessful effort at an exclusive three-hour dinner (President Kennedy, Secretary Dean Rusk, Amb Aziz and their spouses) to convince Kennedy about the unreliability of the Indians. Perhaps a look at a map could explain JFK’s reticence.

Pakistan-China bond

Pakistan’s disappointment with the US tilt towards India after the 1962 Sino-Indian border skirmishes carried the seed for the singularly significant turn in shaping strategic understanding and cooperation between Pakistan and China. Pakistan was among the first few countries to recognise the Peoples Republic in January 1950, and Muhammad Ali Bogra met Zhou Enlai at Bandung in April 1955.

In the early 1960s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto recorded a perceptive note on a file: “In the vastness of Asia, buffeted by currents of history, Pakistan and China appeared to be poised to forge a bond like that between India and the Soviet Union”. Bhutto was prophetic on Pakistan-China relations, which enjoy a rare consensus in Pakistan as a foreign policy success.

Our role in 1970-71 as a trusted channel instrumental in the momentous rapprochement between China and the US was eventually reduced to a footnote in history. At the time, it won the gratitude of Beijing and Washington, and drew the ire of Moscow. Both factored into the fateful events of 1971, which were essentially of our own making and unfolded as if with a preordained certainty.

Afghanistan conundrum

The assessment of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is still tentative. The defeat of two superpowers’ military interventions in Afghanistan largely owed to their errors and the intrepid valour of the Afghans. Pakistan’s policy decisions, especially to oppose the 1979 Soviet intervention, were also critical.

Pakistan made mistakes. We failed to respond to Gorbachev’s offer in late 1986 (well before the Geneva Accords) for cooperation to put together a broad-based government in Kabul. We mishandled the Jalalabad operation in 1989. Success could have led to an Afghan Mujahedin interim government inside Afghanistan. Another egregious misstep was the space provided to foreign jihadist elements.

The question arises: did Pakistan have another strategic option in 1979? I recall discussions about Moscow’s motive and possible Soviet thrust towards ‘warm waters’. What weighed in decisively was the historical pattern of Soviet pressure on countries once Moscow consolidated its control over neighbouring territory. Pakistan was, however, cautious and resisted naming the Soviet Union in UN resolutions. The Mujahedin groups coalesced in part by default rather than by a wilful Pakistani plan.

Experience in Afghanistan and then in Iraq and Syria, and now in Ukraine, has lessons that should deter ambitious powers. As for Pakistan, the Afghan conflict inflicted on it huge economic and political costs and loss of human lives. The country saw the rise of extremism and religious militancy.

Pakistan drew a wrong lesson from its encouragement of non-state actors in Afghanistan and for their possible role in finding a just resolution to Kashmir. The Afghan jihad had a different global context as the last front of the Cold War. Later, when Pakistan tried to control them, these elements turned their guns inwards. Politically unsettled Afghanistan also attracted alienated extremists from all over the Islamic world.

Then, 9/11 sucked Pakistan into the so-called ‘war on terror’. Strategically, Pakistan had little choice: it could not deny the United States air/land corridors or even use of airbases for access to landlocked Afghanistan. However, Pakistan should not have allowed the Americans any say in handling problems in our border regions.

The US gained leverage through a poorly negotiated Coalition Support Fund. Pakistan did not, but should have charged for air/ land corridors and bases instead of reimbursements for its own deployments along the border. In 2008-11, Pakistan also failed to restrict US drone attacks.

The return of the Taliban has placed an avowedly Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul. Yet, this government is antiquated, internationally unacceptable, and an encouragement to religious militancy in Pakistan. The TTP remains based inside Afghanistan and largely unchecked.

The other Pakistani concern, regarding the Durand Line, is complex. No Afghan government is likely to settle this emotive issue. Pakistan should be satisfied with Afghan acquiescence in treating the Line as a de facto border. In fact, the Soviet and the American interventions have practically reinforced the Line as a de jure international border.

Nuclear deterrence

A significant benefit accruing to Pakistan was that the Afghan conflict deflected the early US pressures on its nuclear programme. In a conversation with Najamuddin Sheikh and myself in 2011, former Secretary of State George Shultz remarked that, “We [the Americans] knew what Pakistan was doing”, but “we turned our face away” in the interest of cooperation (on Afghanistan).

Pakistan crossed the threshold for uranium enrichment well before the Soviet withdrawal. The political decision for the programme was taken by Bhutto. It became a national priority following the 1974 Indian test. Credit for the success must go to the scientists, especially to Dr A.Q. Khan, who brought an untested technology and with his team improvised it to introduce a third route for producing critical fissile material when the other two methods, developed at the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, were barred to Pakistan.

The domestic effort for the programme was accompanied by a complementary diplomatic approach led by Agha Shahi, with proposals such as a joint commitment with India not to test, the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in South Asia, and negative security guarantees for non-nuclear-weapon states. Even as a cover, this was successful diplomacy, especially in multilateral forums.

Nuclear deterrence is now integral to Pakistan’s security. It provides unconventional equivalence in a country’s defensive ability to face a more powerful adversary, but carries little advantage for a military offensive. Pakistan maintains a doctrine of minimum credible deterrence, which subsumes ample latitude to develop what we need and is within our capability. Any further qualification, such as full-spectrum deterrence, is unnecessary.

An exceptional responsibility that devolves on a state possessing nuclear weapons is their safety. Like in the other cases, Pakistan’s armed forces are the custodian of these strategic assets. Therefore, the discipline and integrity of the armed forces is an imperative that must weigh uppermost in the minds of the country’s civil and military leadership under all circumstances.

Pakistan possesses a fairly developed nuclear deterrent with reliable delivery systems. Pakistani political narratives sometimes express fear of Indian hegemony. Yet no nuclear weapon state is known to accept hegemony, regional or global, or to act as a satellite of another state. Pakistan cannot be an exception, notwithstanding that Pakistan is the only nuclear-weapon state with shaky politics and chronic dependence on outside economic assistance.

For nuclear power generation, a timely diplomatic initiative in 2003 led to an overarching agreement for cooperation with China which has already added four nuclear power plants (2700MW capacity) with more in the pipeline.

Missed Opportunity

A most consequential cost of its involvement with the Afghan conflict was that Pakistan lost opportunities created by globalisation. The neglect of the economy at the policy levels has, however, deeper roots.

First is the overarching security-state paradigm. Following the 1998 tests, the argument that Pakistan could afford to divert some resources from defence to socio-economic development drew a counter-assertion that to keep the deterrence threshold high, it was necessary to maintain a high level of conventional preparedness.

Second, Pakistan never recovered from the 1973 nationalisation of industry. No less a person than Premier Zhou Enlai had advised against this step when Bhutto revealed his intention during his Beijing visit in January 1972. Zhou cited China’s own adverse experiences.

Third, although Ziaul Haq partly reversed the nationalisation of industry, he remained preoccupied externally with the Afghan conflict and internally with Islamisation. Educational institutions came under Islamist influences, in particular Jamat-i-Islami. Education in science and engineering regressed.

Fourth, extremist violence, partly the result of Pakistan’s participation in the ‘war on terror’, spawned an environment toxic to economic investment. Foreign assistance helped, and economic reforms under Musharraf were meant to be investment-friendly, but nothing could offset insecurity. Furthermore, as Mahathir told him in April 2000, Pakistan had “already missed the bus”.

Fifth, Pakistan’s dysfunctional political system is not conducive to sustained economic growth. Institutional capacity is weak. The Foreign Office lacked focus on economic diplomacy. Many distinguished Pakistani diplomats had a certain élan for geopolitics and intellectually often conflated national interest with the security interest. Debate on geo-economics is recent, although it now enjoys the blessing of the security establishment.

Responsibility for the promotion of foreign trade and investment is shared among the Foreign Office, the Commerce Ministry and the Economic Affairs Division, with inevitable turf friction. The larger issue is, nevertheless, the national economy itself. How much can officials be blamed when there is little surplus or diversity of exportable goods?

Nationalisation followed by decades of religious conservatism depleted business culture, inhibiting the outreach necessary for the private sector to compete and operate internationally.

Picking up the pieces

The year 1971 was the most traumatic of our national experience. It was essentially a domestic crisis. Speaking to the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 1971, Bhutto had ominously remarked, “There are three forces in Pakistan; two must clash so that one can come up.” This is precisely what happened. As a consequence, the country was split, and residual Pakistan diminished in stature. It is moot how history would have been shaped if the crisis were resolved amicably instead of by bloodshed.

Regardless of his role in 1971, Bhutto is rightly credited for picking up the pieces. He moved with alacrity, taking initiatives on both internal and external fronts. He mobilised consensus for a new Constitution which has withstood the vagaries of the country’s turbulent politics. He negotiated a respectable agreement at Simla under grim circumstances without relenting on the deeply emotive issues of POWs and war-crime trials.

On Kashmir, India claimed to have restricted negotiations to a bilateral format, but Bhutto managed to secure a text that could be interpreted to protect Pakistan’s position on UNSC resolutions. Here, it is relevant to recall that in a late-night meeting in September 1972, Agha Shahi convinced Zhou Enlai of the need for China to help Pakistan by vetoing Bangladesh’s admission to the UN.

The 1974 Islamic Summit in Lahore was a high watermark of Pakistan’s diplomacy. It launched the PLO. The aura of Muslim leaders gathered in Lahore enabled Pakistan to cross an important hurdle: the recognition of Bangladesh. This facilitated the completion of Pakistani POWs’ return from India. Thus, the 1971 self-inflicted wounds started healing, but the scars remain permanent.

Facing India

Permanent Pakistan-India hostility is untenable philosophically and considering challenges such as climate change. Nevertheless, they have fought four wars and accused each other of terrorism, while periods of calm in their relations have been patchy.

More than communal hatred, Kashmir is the source of tension. Pakistan regards the dispute as an unfinished agenda of independence, and it stirs deep emotions at least for one simple reason: a large part of the thickly populated belt between Rawalpindi and Lahore is of Kashmiri extraction.

On the other hand, India nurses deep fear of disintegration if any territory under its control appears to secede. Meanwhile, Kashmiris in the valley have not reconciled to the Indian control.

The Kashmir dispute could have been resolved at the time of independence. Subsequently, the UN Security Council resolutions called for a plebiscite, which India formally rejected in 1952 (reacting to UNSC Resolution 98) on the pretence that Pakistan’s emergent military alliance with the US had altered circumstances.

Nehru believed that, with an increasing power differential, time was on India’s side. Nonetheless, he did commit his government to the idea of autonomy for Kashmir, which echoed in the approach adopted by Manmohan Singh, and distinguished the Congress’s position from the BJP’s insistence on absorbing Kashmir into the Indian Union.

The Musharraf-Manmohan Singh Four-Point Formula was meant to ensure maximum comfort and self-governance for the Kashmiris on a sub-regional basis while safeguarding the essential interests of both countries. There was substantial progress. The last draft cleared by the Indian side in March 2007 needed to address a few resolvable points from Pakistan’s angle. The process was stalled by the judicial crisis in Pakistan and then the Mumbai attacks, and later by the fog of politics bereft of political courage. There is little chance of the BJP agreeing to revive the proposal. India will only relent if there is a strong Kashmiri movement in the valley.

India faces no international pressure. The weakness of Pakistan’s international card became evident as early as 1993 when it failed to garner support for a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. Since the mid-1990s, India exploited the rising international concern over terrorism by attributing unrest in Kashmir to non-state actors. Modi’s August 2019 steps and harsh clampdown in the valley have drawn criticism in the media, but the international environment favours India, which is now aligned with Western interests in Asia.

Modi’s approach to exclude Kashmir from any discussion with Pakistan removes the heart of the Simla framework for dialogue. Recent debates in Pakistan on geo-economics brought up an idea to defer the Kashmir dispute to a propitious timing in the future while at present focussing on “low hanging fruits”, including trade. This is questionable.

In 2006, distrust derailed progress on a potentially viable proposal for turning Siachen into a zone of disengagement, ad referendum agreed between the two Foreign Offices. On trade, past discussions have shown that India’s tariff structures and non-tariff barriers are a major hurdle.

The current circumstances offer little optimism and have reduced the relations to minimum interaction. While escalation must be avoided, Pakistan can wait if India insists on its terms for dialogue and normalisation. Alternatively, if the BJP government shows willingness to revisit its policy on Kashmir and to restrain its anti-Muslim Hindutva rancour, Pakistan-India relations can move towards upgradation, dialogue and normalisation.

There is an ideological rationale for Pakistan to have improved relations with India. Today, Muslims in India and in occupied Kashmir are the target of Hindutva-driven forces. Hostility between the two countries worsens their plight which is contrary to the purpose the founding fathers of Pakistan had in mind.


Geo-economics cannot be leveraged without taking into consideration geopolitical imperatives and difficult decisions for adjustment. Pakistan claims the advantage of being a communications and commercial bridge among South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia, whereas, on the ground, it only geographically links South Asia with the other two regions.

In South Asia, India is the elephant in the room. The important prospective energy pipelines make economic sense only if extended to India, which is unlikely to join without normal conditions for assured supply. China has a definite interest in commerce through Gwadar; CPEC projects are the mainstay of FDI in Pakistan, but security is the primary requisite.

Connectivity supplements development, however, much depends on stable domestic policies and conditions. Once developed, a country’s economic strength generates economic gravity to attract outside economic interests.

For example, the Ukrainian situation may well lead to a new economic configuration. Are we positioned to take advantage of it? Countries with substantial foreign currency reserves are already buying cheap Russian oil. Climate change would add to the influence of countries with large food reserves. Much of geo-economics is common sense, capacity and clarity of purpose.

Essentially its own path

Wherein lies pragmatism in Pakistan’s foreign policy? Joining alliances at an early stage may have been prompted by expediency or opportunism. But its major decisions to accept a ceasefire in 1965 and on the Western front in 1971 were based on a realisation of the futility of continuing the armed conflict.

Conceived in the shadows, Kargil was a diplomatic disaster, especially for its timing on the heels of the nuclear tests and the Lahore Summit, but then the mistake was realised, and retrieval worked out. Later, Musharraf declared a unilateral ceasefire along the LoC, which led to the 2004 Islamabad SAARC Summit, followed by his peace initiative. The February 2019 escalation was diffused partly by a fortuitous diplomatic gesture to return the captured Indian pilot.

These and other examples cited here also suggest that Pakistan’s initiatives and policy decisions, right or wrong, were driven by its own national impulses and perceived interests rather than outside diktat. Besides a lingering sentiment against its joining the US alliances, the view that Pakistan has not followed an independent foreign policy goes back to the angst felt in the 1960s at Pakistan’s exclusion from the Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM was then an influential grouping at international forums led by Yugoslavia, Egypt and India, although in these forums, Pakistan also kept a remarkably high profile.

Pakistan’s positions on most issues resonated with the large majority of world community. Pakistan also successfully coordinated with this majority to defend its positions. The 1980s UN vote on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s initiatives within the like-minded group on UN reforms readily come to mind in this regard.

Overall, given global pressures and domestic limitations, Pakistan’s major foreign policy decisions and positions have followed a fairly independent course. Pakistan has been resilient and a significant regional power wanting to be a factor of balance and stability in a region prone to conflict and tension.

Some credit must go to Foreign Office professionalism, but, as the dictum goes, foreign policy is intrinsically a function of internal political cohesion and economic and military strength. The extraordinary problems Pakistan faces today are essentially internal, and demand extraordinary measures. They cannot be overcome by external manoeuvring.

The writer is an author and a former foreign secretary.



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