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Flip-Flops of Foreign Policy in Pakistan

by Khaled Ahmed

A look at history suggests Islamabad’s alliances with Washington were not only logical, but also essential for the country’s economic prosperity

For several decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy has largely been India-oriented: principles of sovereignty matter less when it comes to considerations of defense.

In the Cold War, where the U.S. and USSR faced each other in a global faceoff, Pakistan was on the winning side: the U.S. In the post-Cold War period, as India moved away from its “socialist” model, Pakistan got into trouble. A “capitalist” India was too strong and captured the imagination of the U.S., the erstwhile protector of Pakistan. The Democrats in the U.S. always had a soft corner for “democratic” India while Republicans were “pragmatic” about “ideological” Pakistan. All this changed in the post-Soviet world; and Pakistan had to contend with it, all its latent contradictions with the U.S. coming to surface.

Pakistan’s Foreign Policy 1947-2019: A Concise History (OUP 2006) by the late Abdul Sattar (1931-2019), a former foreign secretary, is the only readable book on how the foreign policy vicissitudes were tackled by Islamabad. The book can be considered the rare warts-and-all assessment of how Pakistan has behaved internationally.

Abdul Sattar’s turning-points

The first turning point in Pakistan’s foreign policy, from non-alignment to alliance with the United States, was dictated by the necessity of containing the tyranny of power-disparity with India. It was “unobjectionable in principle as collective defense is a sovereign right affirmed in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, and qualified Pakistan for U.S. aid to accelerate economic development and strengthen defense capability.”

The dissolution of anti-Soviet alliances was a logical consequence of transformations in the policies of the two allies. Islamabad took steps to consolidate peaceful cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, for which Washington penalized Pakistan while disregarding the contradiction with its decision to give military aid to non-aligned India, aggravating the threat to Pakistan. The U.S. refusal to come to Pakistan’s assistance against Indian aggression in 1965 led to termination of the alliance.

The third turning point followed the disaster of 1971, the fall of East Pakistan. Since conventional means proved inadequate to deter Indian military intervention to cut Pakistan in two, Islamabad decided to develop the nuclear option. It involved no breach of law as Islamabad was not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty; but the United States decided to impose sanctions, cutting off economic assistance and military nuclear reprocessing technology to Pakistan. Once again, Pakistan felt aggrieved, and relations with the United States were embittered.

Soviets in the region

The fourth turning point was a consequence of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. The superpower’s advance to its border exposed Pakistan to the nightmare of Indo-Soviet collusion. Past experience inhibited Islamabad from seeking U.S. assistance. It was two years later, when Moscow threatened use of force, that Islamabad agreed to negotiate terms of cooperation with Washington in support of the mujahideen struggle for liberation. The alliance proved beneficial, but fizzled out after the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan and Washington revived sanctions, leaving Pakistan in the lurch having to cope with civil war in a ravaged Afghanistan.

Equally radical was the transformation after 9/11. Pakistan was dragged into partnership in the war on terror, which brought more problems than benefits. The most serious consequence was the rise of religious extremism and ruinous terrorism within Pakistan. The U.S. strike in Abbottabad and bombing of a Pakistan Army contingent at Salala drove bilateral relations down to their lowest level, and it took a period of mature diplomacy by both sides to revive cooperation.

Abdul Sattar’s insights

The above retrospect on foreign policy permits noteworthy conclusions. First and foremost, policy decisions were all made autonomously by Pakistani leaders in light of their own assessment of the nation’s interests. The perception that Pakistan was trapped in alliances by the United States is factually wrong: Islamabad took the initiative to ask for them within two months of independence in order to strengthen its defense capabilities and economic sinews to consolidate the state, and for seven years Washington refused to oblige. Criticism that non-alignment would have better served Pakistan’s interests was uninformed. Pakistan needed aid and the U.S. was the only country after World War II in a position to provide assistance.

Pakistan’s decision to develop strategic cooperation with China was also made independently, as was the 1972 decision to develop the nuclear option. Both have stood the test of time. The opposition to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 was a strategic compulsion. Had the Soviet leadership exercised foresight and listened to the collective judgment of non-aligned nations, it might have saved the Soviet Union from ruin and spared both Afghanistan and Pakistan trouble and travail.

Fallout of the U.S.-Soviet faceoff

The United States exploited the opportunity to humiliate the World War rival but then blundered in 1991 by hurriedly disengaging from the region while Afghanistan was without a viable government. Pakistan was infuriated as the U.S. revived nuclear sanctions it had lifted in 1982. Burdened by millions of refugees and lacking adequate funds, Pakistan was unable to cope with chaos and infighting in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden. The U.S. 9/11 Commission criticized the precipitate U.S. disengagement, and 15 years later, penitent American leaders and Congressmen recognized that Pakistani mistrust of the U.S. “had some legitimacy as we (Americans) walked away from them after the Soviets left.”

Objectively evaluated, the decisions Pakistani leaders made were logical. Even with hindsight, it is difficult to identify better alternatives. As for the post-9/11 partnership with the United States it was not sought by Pakistan, nor was its rejection a viable alternative. Pakistan’s fury at Washington’s decisions in 1965 and 1991 was product partly of clash of cultures: the United States tended to consider “friendship” a transactional arrangement while Pakistan vested the word with expectations of loyalty and faithfulness till condemnation of a “strategic partner” was improvident and unbecoming of a nation pledged to “friendliness and goodwill.”

On relations with India

Too often the tension and hostility between Islamabad and Delhi is incorrectly ascribed to religion and history. Actually, Partition was decided by consensus between Britain and representative political parties of British India on the basis of exercise of the right of self-determination in territories with a Muslim majority. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah notably envisioned good-neighborly relations between both states.

The relations turned sour because India refused to abide by the agreed principle of Partition and the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council calling for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, India decided to exploit power disparity to impose its preference. Difference of religion need not be an obstacle to mutually beneficial cooperation between states, as seen in Pakistan’s relations with Hindu-majority Nepal and with other states irrespective of differences of race, religion or political systems.

Living with power disparity

Another memorable point for diplomacy is the reality of power disparity. Great Powers are by definition self-sufficient in defending their security, but middle and small powers need to take greater care to secure peace. Apart from respect for principles of peaceful co-existence, they need to court international goodwill, cultivate friends, and strengthen the United Nations, which was established to maintain international peace and security and promote international cooperation. The U.N. has not always succeeded in resolving international disputes, but negotiations, conciliation, mediation, arbitration, adjudication, and reference to Security Council remain the best means for settlement of disputes.

Abdul Sattar’s final verdict: “Pakistan can take pride in the right decisions of our leaders to take lessons from mistakes to avoid repetition. Policies should be viewed in the light of ever-changing circumstances; aims remain permanent. Our founding fathers envisioned Pakistan as a moderate Muslim state, committed to economic development, political and social progress, and peaceful coexistence in conformity with the universally recognized principles of the United Nations Charter. Better governance and more efficient utilization of national resources are key to financial independence and the world’s respect.”

A Sad Postscript: The most shameful expression of the Pakistani mindset came from Abdul Sattar after joining Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI): He predicted that Sharif would be ousted from power “like former rulers who compromised Kashmir’s interest.” Sattar’s recall of history was striking. Of the assassinated prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, Sattar claimed that “in 1949 Liaquat Ali Khan was involved in a sell-out and he had to leave (sic!) in 1951.” Military ruler Ayub Khan’s exit he singularly linked to the 1965 ceasefire. Khan, he said “sold out with a ceasefire in 1965 and he also had to go in 1968.” After the coup of October 1999, General Musharraf appointed Sattar as his foreign minister.

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