Debating Pakistan’s Foreign Policy
Weekly Pulse
April 6-12, 2007
The popular perception is that successive leaders of Pakistan took major foreign policy decisions—such as becoming an American ally after Partition, joining the Cold War CENTO and SEATO alliances, sponsoring anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, and fighting the post-9/11 War on Terror—under American pressure. Former foreign minister Abdul Sattar thinks otherwise. According to him, all of these decisions were instead taken rationally, keeping in mind the prevailing international realities, national security interests of the state and welfare of the people.

Mr Sattar’s Pakistan’s Foreign Policy 1947-2005: A Concise History was the subject of a seminar organized by the Department of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad. At the seminar, Mr Sattar first presented a comprehensive summary of his book and its main conclusions. Then two discussants, former foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmad Khan and QAU’s former dean of social sciences Dr Ijaz Hussain presented their respective assessments of the book.

Published by the Oxford University Press and launched in January 2007 in the Federal Capital, the book is essentially a historical account of Pakistan’s foreign policy, a narrative rather than a critique. It fills important gaps in the available literature on the subject.

The book has 23 chapters, which cover almost all the important areas of concern in Pakistan’s foreign affairs. Among others, the chapters include Foreign Policy: Beginnings; The Kashmir Question, 1947-57; Search for Security; Alliances: Costs and Benefits; Relations with China; Policy Ups and Downs: 1965-71; Shimla Agreement; The Nuclear Programme and Relations with the USA; The Afghanistan Crisis; Pakistan-India Disputes and Crises; Nuclear Tests; Increasing Isolation, 1990-2001; Post-9/11 Policy; Terrorism; Pakistan-India Relations, 2001-05; and Policy in a Changing World.

Ambassador S. M. Burke’s pioneering work on Pakistan’s foreign policy in the 1960s seems to have influenced Mr Sattar to update the readers on the subject, or, in his words, “to contribute to the transfer of knowledge acquired, at times, through participation in policy implementation and formulation, but more continuously by osmosis, during my association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for over forty years. My assignments at the Foreign Office and in missions abroad provided useful opportunities to form perspectives on key foreign policy issues.”

He further writes: “I have put together a plain narrative, faithfully recalling the facts and constraints of the time when the policy decisions had to be made, and their rationale, as far as possible in (he words of the policy-makers. This book is not a critique but I hope it will provide a factual basis for objective appraisal and help identify lessons useful to future policy makers.”

National Interest

At the seminar, Mr Sattar began by saying that Pakistan’s major foreign policy decisions were made after carefully calculating the national security interests of the state. This is what a factual analysis of the prevailing realities at each juncture when a major decision was made suggests. According to him, Pakistan’s decision to become an ally of the United States was borne out of the peculiar post-Partition circumstances facing the country, especially India’s refusal to share financial and military assets agreed in the Partition Plan, and its leadership’s irredentist ambitions vis-à-vis Pakistan.

The same point is elaborated at the start of chapter 4. Mr Sattar writes: “On almost every issue that arose in relations with India, Pakistan found itself faced with New Delhi’s refusal to resolve the differences on the basis of principles of law and justice. Whether it was the transfer of Pakistan’s share of the assets inherited from British India, accession of princely states, or continued flow of river waters, India sought to impose its own will, in disregard of the principles of the partition agreement between the two countries. Exploiting power disparity, India dismissed reason and equity in negotiations, spurned resort to impartial peaceful means of resolving differences, and did not hesitate to use force or threat of force to impose its own preferences.”

“Pakistan’s response to the objective problem posed by the tyranny of power imbalance, and the agony and humiliation of dictation,” in his words, “was in classical style. As other states have done throughout history when faced with a more powerful neighbour intent on exploiting disparity to achieve its inimical aims, Pakistan embarked upon cultivation of sympathy and support wherever it could be found. It sought friends and allies, and assistance to strengthen the ‘sinews of statehood’ and to preserve its sovereignty and security. The contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy were thus shaped by the desperate need for arms to ensure the security of the new state and for funds to finance its economic development.”

It was in this backdrop that Pakistan’s decision to become an ally of the United States was made. The same factor pushed Pakistan to seek defense alliances such as CENTO sponsored by the United States. However, according to Mr Sattar, becoming a Cold War ally of the United States, or joining US-sponsored defense pacts during the hey days of the Cold War did not mean that Islamabad surrendered its ability to make national security decisions on its own. From ties with China to the country’s nuclear pursuits to its post-1979 Afghan policy to the post-9/11 policy, the leadership in Pakistan always resisted US pressure.

For instance, writing about the Afghan policy, the author poses a question in Chapter 15 of the book: Was Pakistan’s policy misconceived? His answer: “In retrospect the answer is easy to give but, alas, humans are not gifted with prescience and policies have to be devised—and can be fairly judged—in the context of the time and contemporary knowledge. Given the history of Soviet expansionism, Islamabad’s sense of alarm in 1979 was not a figment of its imagination. Pakistan was neither in a position to challenge the Soviet super-power nor could it ignore the intervention without peril to its security.

“An alternative to the middle course it pursued seems difficult to conceive even in retrospect. Success and failure can be a measure of policies, but human struggle cannot be appraised in it from the nobility of the cause. The Soviet intervention was and legally wrong, the Afghan resistance was right. Pakistan’s decision in favour of solidarity with the fraternal people of Afghanistan was not only morally right but also based on enlightened self-interest.

“Could the consequences of (he protracted conflict in terms of the Kalashnikov culture and narcotics proliferation be anticipated and obviated? Surely, these could have been minimised if not precluded. These problems, as well as malfeasance and venality in transactions between the Mujahideen and their friends, surfaced during the struggle in Afghanistan. Priorities and vested interests did not permit timely remedies, however.”

War on Terror

At the seminar, the former foreign minister claimed that decision to become a frontline state in the US-led war on terror in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was also taken rationally, by calculating the costs and benefits of the policy change on Afghanistan. Mr Sattar’s argument about the rationality of Pakistan’s post-9/11 policy, as stated in Chapter 19, is worth quoting in detail.

According to him, “Objective analysis of the situation pointed to an obvious conclusion: Pakistan had to pursue a strategy that would reduce risks to Pakistan’s own security and strategic interests. It had to steer clear of defiance and avoid offence to the United States. The question was not whether Pakistan could exploit its strategic location for economic or political benefits from the United States, the weightier and decisive factor was the predictable cost of non-cooperation. At the same time, long term considerations and cultural and geographical bonds with Afghanistan precluded any actions that might offend the interests or sensibilities of the Afghan people.

“The crisis called for a policy that balanced global and regional constraints, immediate imperatives and long-term interests, national priorities and the norms of an international order based on principles of international law. Cautious cooperation in a UN-approved action against the Taliban emerged as the only feasible alternative. Its components would include: (a) Pakistan should join the global consensus; (b) it could not and should not oppose US attacks on targets in Afghanistan; and (c) in the event of US request for Pakistan’s cooperation, it should indicate a generally positive disposition and negotiate details later. Such a ‘Yes-but’ approach would allow Pakistan tactical flexibility. It could then also seek modification of US policy and its expectations of Pakistan.

“It should be noted that Pakistan’s strategy was decided, in broad outline, on the evening of 12 September-still forenoon in Washington—on the basis of objective analysis of contingencies and anticipation of the likely course of events, and before, not after, any specific requests were received from the United States. Until then US leaders had said little. Public statements by President Bush and administration officials on 12 September were heard in Islamabad either late that night or on 13 September, due to the time difference with Washington.”

The Critique

The two discussants at the seminar, Dr Ijaz Hussain and Tanvir Ahmad Khan, were quite critical of Mr Sattar, especially regarding the key conclusion in his book almost all of the major foreign policy decisions were taken in the national security interest of the state.

Dr Ijaz praised the book for being a text for the students of Pakstan’s foreign policy. He, however, stated the book did not have a critical analysis. In his view, Mr Sattar had been associated with the foreign policy establishment for almost four decades, and was privy to the process that resulted in major policy decisions. “I expected him to reveal more. The foreign minister could have been bolder in his assessments. After all, he was a direct participant in many of the key episodes in our history, such as the signing of the Simla Pact,” he said.

However, Dr Ijaz did indeed praise the author for his detailed narration about the Simla agreement. The point on which he, being Pakistan’s foremost expert in International Law, differed with the author was the latter’s argument that Pakistan had the right to revoke the Simla Pact.

As for Tanvir Ahmad Khan, his contention was that Mr Sattar has only attempted to legitimize the major foreign policy decisions taken by successive regimes by contextualizing them in specific circumstances prevailing at the time; rather than presenting a critical appraisal of these decisions. He underlined the importance of casual analysis while writing about history, which helps us understand why the decisions taken eventually proved right or wrong. In his words, if the decision makers made wrong choices at the time, they should be held accountable.

Dr Tahir Amin, Chairman of the Department of International Relations at QAU, also spoke briefly on the occasion. To him, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy 1947-2005: A Concise History was basically a practitioner’s point of view, official in content and lacking in critical analysis of the objective reality. The post-9/11 analysis is sketchy and one-sided. In his view, Pakistan could have extracted a major concession on Kashmir from the United States while undertaking the post-9/11 policy shift on Afghanistan.

However, in Mr Amin’s words, the book indeed provides unique insight into a number of important facets of Pakistan’s foreign affairs. It will serve as an important guide for those interested in learning about the subject, especially given the fact that there is so much paucity of relevant literature.