Pakistan's Foreign Policy: Motivations and Constraints
Talk delivered at Pakistan Youth League Conference of National Union of Pakistani Students and Alumni (NUPSA), Oxford University Pakistan Society, Oxford, UK, February 11-13, 2011.
Pakistan’s foreign policy is generally portrayed as an aggregation of irrational undertakings in the region and beyond by the country’s politically powerful security establishment, with largely negative internal and external consequences. Such assessment of the country’s external conduct may be true—but only partly. For Pakistani foreign policy, like that of any country, is influenced by a host of factors, which have domestic, regional and international dimensions. Given the limitations imposed especially by geography and history, the broader orientation of the policy reflects continuity. However, since the process of foreign policy formulation is also determined by current considerations and future motivations, its specific aspects do overtime experience visible change.

In this context, perhaps the most challenging factor is Pakistan’s unique location in South Asia—between the Himalayan peaks, which link it with China, and the Indian Ocean, which ensures its proximity to the oil rich Persian Gulf. The country shares long borders with India on the east, and Afghanistan and Iran on the west. However, the geographical factor offers it enormous opportunities as well.

Two consistent themes in Pakistan’s foreign policy include fostering closer ties with the Muslim world and strategic relations with China. It was but natural for a country created in the name of Islam to identify itself with the Muslim world. The nuclear power status seems to have reinforced Pakistan’s self-perception as a pivotal Muslim world player. As for Sino-Pakistan relations, they have shown consistent progress in strategic domains in the last 40 years. In this time-tested relationship, the two countries’ interests are increasingly mutually compatible.

On the contrary, Pakistan’s other major foreign relationships, such as with the United States and Iran, have mostly oscillated between periods of cooperation to phases of competition and conflict. Recurrent appearance of international conflict in the region—from the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry culminating in the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and subsequent international war, to the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan since late 2001—has meant that Pakistan’s foreign policy remains regionalised and securitised.

Consequently, the country’s successive civilian and military rulers since independence in 1947 have spent more time tackling regional security challenges than solving massive economic and social problems at home. It is the security narrative that continues to articulate the country’s foreign policy pursuits. Security is viewed largely in military terms, including the preservation of territorial integrity, the defence of national frontiers, and the security of nuclear assets.

Decades-old conflicts in the region—such as Kashmir, which has caused several wars and standoffs between India and Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which has seen successive rounds of warfare in the last over three decades—have essentially produced a situation whereby the country’s security establishment plays a determining role regarding its core foreign policy areas, such as the nuclear issue and relations with India, Afghanistan and the United States. Criticize Pakistan, if you will, over why its security establishment dominates foreign policy, or, for that matter, domestic politics! However, a logical analysis of the country’s historical evolution since independence suggests that it has mostly been confronted with rather difficult and potentially threatening circumstantial realities, which significantly limit the national choice for a democratic system and a foreign policy decision making led by civilian governments.

There are, indeed, consequences when a country’s foreign policy, as well as domestic politics, is not consistently shaped by civilian forces. These consequences are, for instance, visible in Pakistan’s current preference for employing force to quell insurgency or combat terrorism, rather than adopting broader political economic and social measures towards the same end. However, again, the country’s long borders and unbreakable ethnic bond with Afghanistan, where a full-fledged international war has been underway in the last nearly a decade, makes the use of force an absolutely essential means of safeguarding national security.

The same holds true for the general notion about Pakistan’s foreign policy being Indo-centric. There is no doubt that the country’s security establishment generally has a final say when it comes to relations with India. It is equally true, however, that the same has mostly been the case even during successive civilian regimes of the 50s, 70s and the 90s. However, there have been several instances of civil-military differences over relations with India; for instance, at present, the leaders of both the mainstream political parties, the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N, see no harm in pursuing peace process with India.

The security establishment’s approach towards the matter is different. In its perception, the pursuit of peace process with India is futile in the absence of any meaningful gesture from New Delhi that it is serious in negotiating an amicable settlement of Kashmir with Pakistan. In its view, there is no change in India’s post-9/11 policy of isolating Pakistan by questioning its credibility in combating terrorism. This was true even during the former regime of President Musharraf, who had initiated this peace process, an initiative that can be expected from the country’s civilian leaders. It is still unclear whether the resumption of Indo-Pak peace process since early 2011 has brought about any perceptual shift in Pakistan’s security establishment’s approach towards India.

In retrospect, while there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the shaping of Pakistan’s Indo-centric foreign policy approach, just as in the case of the country’s policy towards Afghanistan, what India does or is unwilling to do in its relations with Pakistan is a major factor shaping the perceptions and approaches of latter’s security establishment and governing leadership.

On the more than one occasion since 9/11, for instance, India has raised security stakes for Pakistan on its eastern borders, especially at a time when Pakistani army and paramilitary have been engaged in combating al-Qaeda and Taliban. If one part of this battle is motivated by Pakistan’s domestic security consideration, the other is guided by the requirements of the US-led international war against terrorism in the region, especially Afghanistan.

Obviously, when a country is faced with an existential threat from non-state insurgent-terrorists inside and across its western borders with Afghanistan, the recurrent emergence of a third source of security danger from traditional foe India in the east must be worrisome for the security establishment. If this is not enough, at least in the latter’s perception, there is significant increase in India’s clout in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Sand-witched between two hostile states is the last probability that any country’s security establishment can contemplate.

It is, therefore, extremely important that the peace process between India and Pakistan has to be founded on concrete assurance by each side to guarantee the legitimate interests of the other in the region. Since Pakistani tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s eastern and southern areas are lived by Pashtuns, both parts ridden with insurgency and terrorism, Islamabad should naturally be expected to facilitate a reconciliation process inside Afghanistan whereby legitimate political, economic and security aspirations of the majority Afghan Pashtun population are accommodated.

If India’s security establishment perceives such settlement in Afghanistan as problematic for itself in the region, then it leads to a conflict of interest between New Delhi and Islamabad over realising peace in Afghanistan. In this context, it does not matter whether the civilian government or the security establishment is at the helm of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. The country’s unique historical, geographical and ethnic links with Afghanistan entail that the conflict in Afghanistan is resolved in accordance with the country’s complex ethnic composition.

For its part, Islamabad cannot expect India to move credibly on the path to peace without addressing New Delhi’s legitimate security concerns regarding the alleged presence of outlawed non-state actors such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) inside Pakistan, which are accused of perpetrating the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. So, in the end, it all comes down to realising a quid-pro-quo framework of bilateralism—one that will determine whether and how far ties between the two countries move from hostility to completion to cooperation.

But, then, the situation, especially in a theatre of global geo-politics and violent regional and international struggles that accompanies it, is generally so complex that its explanation without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ tends to be rather simplistic. For instance, with reference to the outlawed insurgent-terrorist groups like LeT or the Haqqani Network, allegedly using North Waziristan as a safe haven to attack Afghan and foreign troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan is often accused of deliberately overlooking their violent activities or even acting as a collaborator. Whatever the truth, if the ground realities are rationally analysed, there is indeed some scope for alternative explanation.

Consider, for example, the possibility that the very forces which Pakistan’s security establishment nurtured in the 90s to bleed India in Kashmir may have become a Frankenstein Monster for it in recent years—just as the Arab Mujahideen became for the United States in the form of al-Qaeda! Thus, rather than being unwilling to do as much as India or the United States expect from Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign, the country’s security establishment may be helpless in tackling self-created forces of insurgency and terrorism. In other words, it may be a simple case of former friends becoming current foes.

Suppose the accusation that Pakistani security establishment is unwilling to combat the forces of insurgency and terror operating from inside its territory is true. Even the justification for such unwillingness can, at least to some extent, can be rationally analysed. For example, like any other country, Pakistan can be expected to first attack home-grown Taliban groups who are attacking its soldiers and civilians. Once the existential threat they pose to the country is fully dealt with, only then it can focus on terrorist-insurgent groups using Pakistani territory to commit insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism in India.

Again, if and when the times comes or the opportunity arises for the second leg of Pakistan’s counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism campaign, its resoluteness should depend upon how far Kabul and US-led international forces in Afghanistan are willing to take care of Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns and interests in Afghanistan, especially in terms of any future process to resolve the Afghan conflict—or how much progress the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue makes in near future. The same, or even more, holds true in the case of India: how far it is willing to go to address, for instance, Pakistan’s legitimate demand of settling Kashmir, or, more generally, how much progress the Indo-Pak peace process makes in near future.

To conclude, as long as the South Asian region remains ridden with conflict, Pakistan’s security establishment may continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the country’s foreign policy. However, even while doing so, as the preceding discussion suggests, it can be expected to be guided by the same real-politick motivations and pragmatic interests on the basis of which great powers and regional players are playing a supposedly new great game in the region. What Pakistan does or does not do with reference to its external conduct is, therefore, something that cannot be assessed in isolation from what other countries in the region and players engaged in it are doing.