Pakistan:A Geo-Political Appraisal

Kapil Kak, Senior Fellow, IDSA



Pakistan's fractious and Byzantine political ways continue to haunt its current political leadership. That hot Thursday afternoon of May 28, 1998 at Chagai Hills (Baluchistan), when the dramatic announcement of its nuclear tests caused worldwide shock, served to remind thinking Pakistanis of how the costs of crucial decisions may sometimes far outweigh the benefits. The crushing burden of economic sanctions, leading virtually to the country's default in its debt repayments has brought about a painful bankruptcy crisis. The country's woes have been exacerbated by the heightened tensions following the American Tomahawk attacks on the Zhawar Kili Al Badr Camp near Khost (Afghanistan), Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's self-survival initiatives at stricter "Shariatisation" under the 15th Amendment, ever-escalating internal dissonances, and what now appear as the painful strategic costs of its politico-military misadventure in Afghanistan. While the overall situation is far from reassuring, recent references in the international and Indian print media on Pakistan being a "failed state," "sinking nation" or "failing country" clearly appear to be instances of journalistic hyperbole. Such doomsday prognostications have proven wrong in the past as well when Pakistan successfully weathered crises of equally serious proportions.

Today Pakistan conveys the impression of being a heap of paradoxes. It has the requisite wherewithal for a middle power, but a great incongruity exists between its external facade of a regional achiever and fundamental internal contradictions. A nuclear weapon state virtually in control of 80-90 per cent of neighbouring Afghanistan through its proxy warriors, the Taliban, it continues to command a high degree of influence in West Asia and possesses impressive strategic strike capabilities, acquired or indigenous, thanks to its 600-km Hatf 3 and 1,500-km Ghauri ballistic missiles. Yet Pakistan is in the throes of a near economic meltdown. The fractured nature of its internal politics, extraordinary regional imbalances and inability to create a national ethos even after 51 years, are reflected most dramatically in the frequent ethnic violence in Sindh and sectarian clashes in Punjab. This article would endeavour to present a short survey of the dominant historical, political, social, economic and national security aspects of contemporary Pakistan and how the dynamics of the internal-external dimensions of its policies would tend to impact India's security.

The Irrelevant Two-Nation Theory

It seems that the question of internal dynamics is a fundamental one and perhaps began with the very creation of Pakistan. Other than Israel, Pakistan is perhaps the only nation of the 20th century whose birth resulted from the demand by a religious community for a political entity in which it would be dominant. During the early years, in the so-called glow of freedom, religion may have served as a binding force, but given the structure of the polity, cracks had to appear sooner or later. This happened in the aftermath of the first ever general elections held under direct universal suffrage in 1970. The results were scuttled thanks to the inability of the political establishment, notably Zulfiqar Bhutto, to accept Bengalis assuming leadership positions. Consequently, the brutal and savage civil war, followed by the Indo-Pak War of 1971, generated two defining events that continue to haunt Pakistan even today: secession of Bangladesh and Pakistan's humiliating military defeat at the hands of India (This, when the people had, for decades, been fed the line that each Pakistani equals eight Indians !).

With the emergence of Bangladesh, the frequently tom-tommed two- nation theory, the very raison d' etre for Pakistan, stood discredited and turned on its head. It was said then "the monsoon Islam of Bengal is not the same as the desert Islam of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and NWFP." This point has a ring of authencity even today. Ultimately, the Pakistani establishment will have to reconcile to the objective reality of Pakistan being a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society. The establishment might have to acknowledge that Islam itself is not a monolithic religion which can find expression in a uniform politico-territorial identity as a single state.1

Sectarian Shia-Sunni Violence

Pakistan's persistence in the belief that the validity of the two-nation theory can be reaffirmed only if the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) secedes from India and joins Pakistan, strikes at the roots of its identity crisis. Its leadership refuses to accept that Islam is not a homogenous religion. There are the Wahabi and Hanafi schools even within Sunni Islam, quite apart from the distinctive sects of Sunnis and Shias. Even amongst the Baathists in West Asia, there are the Iraqi and Syrian variants. Existence of such heterogeneities amongst the 50 odd Muslim countries in the world gives a lie to the pernicious theories on "clash of civilisations" and threat of Islamic fundamentalism that appear to emanate primarily from Western countries. This is not to dilute in any way the role played by religious extremism in several regions of Asia in fanning conflict situations amongst traditionally pluralist societies.

In Pakistan, not surprisingly, the Zia ul Haq-introduced Islamisation laws based on Wahabi Islam continue to be resented by the Shias, who constitute 23 per cent of the population. Recent initiatives towards greater "Shariatisation" by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may well serve to compound the problem. As Ahmediyas, a religious sect of Islam, stand declared non-Muslims, Shias reportedly apprehend they may meet the same fate. The level of success attained by the Shias does not seem to sit well with the Sunni majority. Over the years there has been a rising trend of bloodletting through sectarian violence between the two communities. According to Pakistan government statistics, during the decade 1987-97, 1,015 clashes occurred in Punjab alone resulting in over 2,500 casualties. The will of the establishment to broker peace and end the sectarian tensions does not appear strong enough. The Sunni-dominated leadership needs to revert to the concept of inclusivism so eloquently articulated by their Quaid-e-Azam in his address to the Constituent Assembly soon after independence.

Sindh Imbroglio and Problems of Sub-Nationalism

The Sindh imbroglio constitutes another Achilles heal for Pakistan's internal security. Sindh absorbed the lion's share of Urdu speaking refugees (Muhajirs) from north and central India following partition. In 1951, 46 per cent of the urban population in Pakistan comprised Muhajirs. Over the years, greater levels of education and a preponderance in commerce and the professions have invested them with greater demographic and economic clout. They also retain links with India at the socio-cultural levels and even when constituting only 10 per cent of the population are the only ethnic group that speaks the national language, Urdu. The Mutahida Quami Movement's (MQM's) agitational politics against Punjabi domination has often impelled the government to dub the MQM as Indian agents. In a comical twist to such accusations against India there are reports from Pakistan that a distinguished Minister (former Interior Minister Maj. Gen. (retd.) Naseerullah Babbar) "accused the Government of India of sending coded messages to the Muhajirs in Karachi through Zee TV's programmes and beaming similar messages on the ethnic TV channels in the United Kingdom."2 The leadership does not appear to realise that by calling the MQM leadership Indian agents, Pakistan's two-nation theory gets further eroded with the ethno-social paradigm of national identity inducing further re-definition. In other words, only Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis and Pakhtoons of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) are the real Pakistanis.

Karachi's multi-ethnic profile creates its own dynamics: Sindh has more Baluch than Baluchistan, and a substantial Pakhtoon emigre' population. The government's handling of Muhajir alienation has epitomised gross incompetence, human rights violations and lack of sensitivity. At one time, Karachi, Pakistan's largest city (population 10 million) had spun out of administrative control. In 1994 alone, the city reportedly lost $1 billion worth of foreign direct investment due to extreme societal turbulence. While the situation appears to have been contained, according to Pakistani media reports, it is far from being under control. The follow up of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's reported September 1998 meeting with MQM leader Altaf Hussain in London may offer some clues.

The Baluch sub-nationalism based on tribal identity and resistance to Punjabi dominance has also resurfaced from time to time. It is not quite well known that during the anti-Baluch counter-insurgency operations in 1973-77, Pakistan reportedly employed Iranian Huey Cobra helicopter gunships to quell disturbances there. Iran appeared to have been forthcoming in this initiative because it feared insurrection amongst its own Baluch ethnic groups.

In the NWFP, there are rumblings over erosion of its provincial autonomy, particularly after the renaming of the province as Pakhtoonkhwa, approved by the Provincial Assembly with a huge majority, was stonewalled by the federal government. This issue, amongst many others, appears to have caused a split in the decade-long political coalition between the Awami National Party and Pakistan Muslim League. As Begum Nasim Wali Khan complained in an interview "Dismissing an assembly resolution as a piece of trash amounts to trashing the standing of that very assembly. Why do we have provincial assemblies at all then ? In plain words, this shows that there is only one unit in the federation of Pakistan."3 The reference is obviously to Punjab. Rivalries dividing Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh and NWFP run so deep that their four governments cannot even agree on the vital Kalabagh Dam, needed to generate more electric power and irrigation for the benefit of all Pakistanis. The North-West complains that its lands will be flooded; Sindh and Baluchistan say precious water will be diverted away.4

All things considered, the prospects of accommodating provincial aspirations can only be enhanced through greater political decentralisation. Even more problematically, bonding the four provinces in an acceptable and workable federal structure will demand a great deal of attitudinal readjustment by the Punjabi-dominated federal leadership. Trend lines do not appear to support such a development taking place for quite some time into the future.

Nexus of Drugs-Weapons-Religious Extremism

While the Shia-Sunni and ethnic conflicts have strong political underpinnings, the third Pakistani internal security dynamic is the heady cocktail of religious extremism, weapons trade and extensive smuggling of drugs. Thanks to serving as a conduit for the West's military aid to the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against Soviet occupation, the Pakistani establishment, particularly its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) allegedly siphoned off nearly 40 per cent of the assistance worth $ 5-6 billion, whatever its form. Drug cultivation and trafficking expanded dramatically in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region since the 1970s coinciding, as it were, with the Martial Law regime of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In less than a decade, as Khalid Mahmood Malik of the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad, was to write in the summer of 1990, Pakistan transformed from being "a stranger to heroin addiction till 1978 into having a population of 2.5 million drug addicts by 1989."5 The number of drug addicts today is estimated to vary between 3 to 4 million.

The main infrastructure of the Afghan heroin industry lies in Pakistan, with half to three-fourths of the street-bound heroin entering the US and Europe reportedly originating in Pakistan. The business of weapons-for-heroin or cash-for-drugs is flourishing and keeps the bulk of the four million Afghan refugees occupied in drug smuggling and trafficking. They have a higher standard of living than back home and are unlikely to ever return to Afghanistan. A salient trend worth noting is that Pakistani society is getting increasingly drug addicted and militarised. Drugs and drug money have come to play a dominant role in the power politics of Pakistan, there being no likelihood whatsoever of a reversal in this trend. There have been media reports on the ISI possessing a reserve stock of one million AK 47s, Baluchistan having one gun per family and Karachi city being home to 1,00,000 weapons. In this worrisome scenario, disgruntled elements take more and more to lethal weapons, in the process rendering themselves invulnerable to control by local police.

Weapons also seemingly serve as meaningful "training aids" in the 5,500 odd religious seminaries (madrassas), most of which also impart military training. Their role in sectarian bloodshed, mainly in Punjab, is well known. The Deobandi-linked Jamaat-Ulema-e-Islam-run 700-odd schools for religious education and weapon training operate in Punjab, scores of former state-run foreign-funded centres impart similar knowledge, while institutions reactivated by sub-state actors train boys (15-21 year-old) in handling AK 47s, 60mm mortar, 82 mm mortar and RCLs for jehad in Tajikistan, Chechnya and the Indian state of J&K. These layered sectarian inner structures survive with the active support of political elements who see profit in violence and instability. This factor, combined with a huge internal and regional black market for weapons, creates a mindset of proxy war as a cheaper option that is difficult to dispel. The proxy war in J&K is reported to cost Pakistan no more than Rs.10 crore (approx. $1.5 million) a month. Consistent with the overall scenario, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Pakistan's internal dissonance is unlikely to subside for a long time. Externally, the multi-faceted dimensions of drug trafficking, its weaponised society and elements of religious extremism constitute a security threat not only to Southern Asia but the surrounding regions as well. This is a trend India would need to factor into its calculus of security policy options.

Political Establishment

For a geo-political appraisal of Pakistan, the role of its political establishment and decision making, as also its current state of economy assume a salience of their own. Pakistan's biggest systemic weakness is that its power structure has remained elitist, feudal, militaristic and unrepresentative of the masses. This is in sharp contrast to India, where the foundation of the country's class and caste structure, unchanged for thousands of years, has been shaken to its very roots by 50 years of democracy and the electoral weapon. "Nobody of the category of a Lal Bahadur Shastri, or a Laloo Prasad Yadav or a Mayawati has figured or can ever figure in the centres of power in Pakistan."6 Institutions, the hallmark of a democracy have got substantially weakened, the erosion of faith in them being all pervasive. Diminution of trust in established channels leads to a search for non-conventional avenues for support and justice, the Army, for example. In a classical Catch 22 situation, the Army's role creates its own non-democratic paradigms. As Kalim Bahadur says "The army, for all the expedient verbal acknowledgement made of its neutrality and professionalism, is commonly pursued to nurse a strong political itch and is continually and not-so-discreetly pressed to throw its weight in the political balance."7

Decisions in Pakistan are in reality made by a small coterie called the Establishment, which comprises the President, Prime Minister, the Army's Chief and its top brass, a select group of former civil servants and retired armed forces officers and some leading feudal families. In nuclear policy, Kashmir and Afghanistan, the Army Chief's word is final. For over a decade, the Army has gone along with the elected government provided the defence budget is not overly reduced and its decision making power and prestige are not undermined. The ISI, tenuously controlled by the Army, appears a state by itself, often answerable to no one. Many people see the Army as an antidote to the indeterminacy of politics and as an insurance against the so-called Indian threat. It is for this reason that Pakistani politicians acquiesce in the Army's agenda and choose never to contest it. On their part, many top level progressive elements in the Army are keen on "a political clean up, widespread reforms in the police, the bureaucracy, the justice system and the economic field. But, at the same time, given the international climate, it (the Army) cannot afford to intervene directly by imposing martial law or abrogating the constitution."8 While there may be differing perceptions on the precise nature of the role of Pakistan Army in the country's polity, there would appear little doubt regarding its continued dominance of the national security decision making system.

Pakistan's Economy

With a population of 130 million, birth rate of 4.6 per cent, literacy rate of under 20 per cent (female literacy is substantially lower), poor health care and increasing drug abuse, Pakistan's economic challenges are formidable. Trade in drugs and small arms constitutes a substantial chunk of the parallel (black) economy which itself is reportedly 120 per cent of the mainstream economy. Nearly 90 per cent of the nation's budget is accounted for by debt servicing and defence expenditure. Small wonder that the country is in the throes of a near economic melt- down.

Pakistan's land, resources, industry and personnel are closely linked to the predominantly feudal, industrial, bureaucratic and military classes, with the bulk of the wealth being in the hands of a microscopic fraction of the population. The politically powerful land-owning classes which have resisted land reforms for decades "do nothing but receive their share of the produce income from the hard work put in by their tenants. At the other end of the spectrum, specially in the canal-irrigated land of Punjab, there is extreme fragmentation in land ownership due to the Islamic law of inheritance and the trend towards having large families. Both these factors aggravate the general backwardness and poverty and contribute to low productivity in agriculture."9

So far Pakistan's economic crisis is perceived as one of balance of payments but the problem is holistically more worrisome. Annual external payments total $ 8 billion of which $ 5 billion goes towards debt servicing. In the past, aid flow of $ 3 billion annually mitigated the problem somewhat but after the nuclear tests and imposition of sanctions by the West, the government lost market confidence. Virtual confiscation or default on deposits by non-resident Pakistanis and a highly publicised threat of defaulting on external payments have impelled economic experts and Opposition groups to predict a Mexico-like economic collapse.

Macro-economic fundamentals tell their own story: savings rates, investment rates, productivity growth rates are all low. During 1998, economic growth rate may not exceed 3.5 to 4 per cent, inflation notches 20 per cent and the Pakistani rupee is half its value eighteen months back. Political will for economic reforms will be the clearest test of the government's ability to manage this unprecedented economic squeeze. In the scenario of a debt trap, assistance by Saudi Arabia, Islamic Development Bank and perhaps even China could get Pakistan out of the woods. As far back as March 1998, a Pakistani commentator had said, "At most Pakistan will not be allowed to default on its debt commitments, which means lending agencies and foreign commercial banks will continue to provide $2 to 3 billion a year. The plug, it seems won't be pulled on the life support system, even though no one is harbouring any hopes of a miraculous recovery."10 A related impact of the economic crisis is that the defence budget would remain under pressure, and the six-year-long trend of reduction in defence expenditure, both as a percentage of gross domestic product and central government expenditure would continue.11 Perhaps such economic compulsions may serve to impell both India and Pakistan to undertake balanced mutual force reductions in the conventional realm in a phased manner.

External Environment

Whilst examining Pakistan's management of its external security environment, the underlying geo-strategic compulsions stand out, more so in the light of Freud's saying of "territory being destiny." Pakistan's geography and location present its security planners with serious, almost insoluble strategic and tactical problems. It borders a powerful India, an ambitious Iran, a three-decade-old strategic ally China, and Afghanistan, which Pakistan has transformed in less than a decade as a client state that is perceived as a gateway to its commercial-strategic ambitions in Central Asia. Pakistan's ties with Iran, following the Taliban's triumphant territorial gains in north Afghanistan and the murder of Iranian diplomats at Mazar-e-Sharif, are currently at their lowest. A near war situation prevails on the Iran-Afghanistan border with increasing sabre-rattling by both sides.

"No longer a bulwark against falling dominoes in Afghanistan, Pakistan hopes to portray itself as a moderate Islamic state that can buffer extremist Iran, chaotic Afghanistan and an uncertain Central Asia."12 But the face of moderation does not sit well with Pakistan's decade-long reputation as the epicentre for three major internal security upheavals in India's state of Jammu and Kashmir, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. All these conflicts involve fundamentalist devouts who have been clandestinely trained and supported by Pakistan's religious parties or its military. "Besides their obvious repercussions in Central Asia and Afghanistan, these struggles could have potentially spill-over effects on India, with the world's second largest Muslim population and China with its restive Turkik Muslim minorities."13 In the overall geo-economic and strategic configuration, involving West Asia, Central Asia, China and Afghanistan, Pakistan will continue to find its relevance to American (and Chinese) interests in Southern Asia and would increasingly seek to astutely balance India in strategic terms.


For seasoned observers of historical developments and future trends, it should be obvious that the attention of Pakistan's security planners would remain riveted on India. Few believe India has the desire or military wherewithal to break up Pakistan, yet fears persist in Pakistan that India's leadership may see the strategic advantages of having four week a, demilitarised states in place of the four provinces of a well-armed, nuclearised and unified Pakistan. The goal of the Pakistani leadership has always been to ensure that such an Indian move would be far too costly for India to attempt. This would explain Pakistan's psycho-pathological obsession for parity with India and its quarter-century-long determined quest for the nuclear weapon to balance India's predominant conventional military strength and strategic reach.

Another point that needs to be underscored is that no government in Pakistan appears to reflect the average Pakistani's wishes for peace and stability, and a secure political environment in the subcontinent. The establishment's role in reorienting the educational and cultural inculcation of the young towards an anti-India attitude has been well documented. In such a dispensation, Pakistan's history starts with the Arab leader Mohammad bin Qasim's invasion of Sindh ! "The syllabus at the Pakistani Military Academy in Kakul has a separate course on the ideology of Pakistan. The emphasis is on the inculcation of an anti-Indian attitude of mind as an essential component of Pakistani patriotism."14 Without a reversal of these pernicious practices, effective India-Pakistan rapprochement in the new millennium would in all likelihood be hostage to renewed adversarial impulses.

It is hoped that the plans for a comprehensive Indo-Pak dialogue addressing all the contentious issues, unveiled at the informal Vajpayee - Nawaz Sharif meeting in New York on September 23 1998, would successfully restart the stalled bilateral negotiations. But caution on this count is in order. The existentialist reality is that any government in Pakistan taking a bold and positive initiative with regard to relations with India would always be hamstrung by counter-forces in the Pakistani establishment. These do not constitute only the so-called fringe religious elements which were trounced in the last two elections and attracted no more than 5 per cent of the vote. The opponents to peace with India in the political establishment would also comprise the armed forces, landlord-led political parties, intelligence agencies and others who would stand to lose their stranglehold over the internal socio-economic matrix. These forces choose to remain irrationally obstinate about their two-nation syndrome and find it galling that the Muslim population in India (larger than that in Pakistan) undergoes no persecution and is well-represented at all levels of society despite their historical disabilities.

In terms of security challenges, pessimistic as it may appear, co-existentialist sub-conventional conflict proceeding at multiple levels below the conventional threshold under the nuclear umbrella could operate for about a decade or so. Pakistan would be under no illusion that it can ever annex Jammu and Kashmir. But the Kashmir bogey serves as a convenient symbol of national consolidation. Moreover, the low cost option of controlled support for militancy in the state helps Pakistan keep the issue internationally alive. Its initiatives in the low intensity conflict and efforts to gnaw at India's internal cohesion would need to be countered by appropriate pay-you-back-in-the-same coin strategies. Pakistan's nuclear and missile capability, notably the 1,500-km Ghauri IRBM and its possible 2,500-km follow-on variants have enabled it to balance India's strategic depth and stake its claim as a regional influential. It can provide extended deterrence to West Asian countries against Israel. These factors would doubtless need to be factored in India's strategic calculus. It does appear that despite the "ugly stability" of Indo-Pak relations in the near and medium term, nuclear deterrence over the long haul would stabilise bilateral ties for peace and mutual security.

China-Pakistan Axis

In geo-political terms, the decades-long convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan is inherently India-centric with China seeking an added bonus of a toe-hold in West Asia and possibility of egress into the Arabian Sea through the trans-Himalayan road highway.

Their friendship is often described by Pakistanis and Chinese as "loftier than the Himalayas and deeper than the Indian Ocean." Peculiarities of geography and history have linked the two in the India-China strategic friction and territorial dispute. China would for decades remain India's strategic challenge. Pakistan got from China not only a range of nuclear-capable missiles—M-11, M-9 and D-F 21/21A, meant specifically to counter India but also the design for a nuclear warhead that the latter had tested at Lop-Nor in 1966. This enabled Pakistan attain de facto nuclear power status in 1987, which India reportedly acquired only in 1990 or so.

Beijing wilfully fuelled Pakistan's ambitions to be a regional influential, a development which may one day boomerang on it. By way of a delicious irony, China's intensified support for Pakistan's nuclear-delivery missile programme, culminating in the April 1998 test-launch of the 1,500-km Ghauri, coincided with Rajiv Gandhi's path-breaking visit to Beijing in 1988. That China chose this unalterable course just when its bilateral relations with India were thawing makes one inference clear. Beijing wilfully introduced an adversarial impulse in India-China relations by encouraging and endorsing Pakistan's ambitions to be a regional influential. The means adopted were to equip it with ballistic missiles having ranges well beyond those needed to balance India. From among developing countries, Pakistan's economic and military value lies as much in its being the foremost importer of China's nuclear and weapons technology as in its serving as an excellent source of hard currency earnings. These linkages are expected to be sustained over the years. Today about 70 per cent of Pakistan's military hardware is of Chinese origin. A trend of significant military consequence to India is that the on-going military modernisation in China, including induction of force multipliers, would provide Pakistan a siphon-off technological benefit through access to these systems apart from Su-27s, MBTs, Kilo class submarines and other equipment. Armed with these capabilities and nuclear-tipped Chinese-supplied ballistic missiles, Pakistan may well perceive itself as a lynchpin of China's grand design for South Asian security in the 21st century.

American Role

America's role in Pakistan's geo-political transformation as a regional influential, notwithstanding its extant internal and economic travails, needs to be addressed briefly. During the concluding Cold War years, Pakistan was cultivated as a "frontline" state in America's sustained drive to reverse the former Soviet Union's influence in Afghanistan. As a quid pro quo, Pakistan's determined and often clandestine attempts to become a nuclear power were conveniently overlooked. These supportive influences largely facilitated Pakistan in acquiring the necessary capabilities from China. Lamentably, the global non-proliferation regime, so assiduously created by the West over the years, has been powerless against China's repeated successes in flouting the same through missile transfers to Pakistan. The United States leadership has consistently chosen to turn a blind eye to such sales even when these transgressed the Missile Technology Control Regime, Sino-American agreements and solemn Chinese promises.

Despite claims to the contrary from both the United States and China, their implicit strategic congruence on the latter's nuclear-missile assistance to Pakistan has been palpable. Yet it is ironic that many influential sections in Pakistan's top leadership, particularly the military elements, do not consider America a trustworthy ally. It would be instructive to recall the mindset of Islamic solidarity that prevailed within the Pakistani leadership just prior to the Gulf War in 1991. General Aslam Beg, then Army Chief, had propagated the concept of "strategic defiance" against American prescriptions. In fact, during the war itself, sharp polarisation between the pro-Saddam Hussein and pro-Saudi Arabian elements within Pakistan did tend to erode Islamabad's credibility in the Arab world to a large extent.

The anti-American perception would appear to have gained further momentum after the August 20, 1998, American Tomahawk attacks on the Saudi fugitive and terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. The apparent crushing impact of economic sanctions may well exacerbate matters as it could join the ordinary Pakistani's bitterness over Western antagonism to Islam with an outrage at alleged American betrayals of security commitments to that country. However, at the official levels, the country's leadership continues to perpetuate the myth of Pakistan being the only reliable bridge between the US and many areas of strategic interest to Washington.

During Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's September 21, 1998, meeting with President Clinton at New York, the former has reportedly projected Pakistan as one nation with the ability to defuse the tension between Taliban and Iran.15 He also appears to have pointed out Pakistan's earlier honest broker's role in the US-China rapprochement, de-Sovietisation of Afghanistan and how in a similar fashion Pakistan could ease the path to the Central Asian Republics.

The United States would need to relook at how an unintended consequence of its support to the Taliban could well result in eventual "Talibanisation" of Pakistan itself with dreadful consequences for the region, particularly India. Pakistan should be encouraged to go along with the broad trend in Islamic countries towards moderation and promotion of dialogue between civilisations as part of a cooperative paradigm of security. This would demand Pakistan having to throttle-back on its religious-extremism driven support for militancy in the region.

Central Asia and Afghanistan

Notwithstanding Pakistan's endemic internal turbulence, it seems seriously engaged in re-orienting its foreign policy goals to play a wider role. The preoccupation to exploit the Central Asian option is self-evident; for the United States, the importance of this area of potential strategic advantage, given the vast natural resources and untapped oil and gas in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, has been extensively documented in the media. Pakistan looks at the Central Asian Muslim states as the future arena for its diplomatic and economic initiatives as it can offer these republics the shortest outlet to the sea. Within the ambit of their Economic Cooperation Organisation, plans for joint ventures and economic linkages have been hamstrung by Pakistan's economic constraints. Besides, instabilities in the domestic and inter-state politics of these countries make it hard for Pakistan to devise a coherent approach. They are also wary of Pakistan's parallel agenda for Islamic resurgence and seem to give the impression of preferring a more moderate line. As any initiative for exploiting the economic potential of the Central Asian states is predicated to the early resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan, pressures for a lasting peace in the region seem very compelling.

Taliban's capture of Mazar-e-Sharif and most of the northern areas and its being in occupation of nearly 85 per cent of Afghan territory has doubtless created a new situation. The aggressive Islamic fundamentalist ideology that the Taliban espouses has worrisome implications for Central Asia, India and China. Ever since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Islamabad has been unwavering in its resolve to establish a Pakistan-dominated government in Kabul. Obtaining strategic depth against India, obviating problems with its own Pakhtoon and Baluch populations—which an unfriendly Kabul could exacerbate—and gaining access to transportation networks in Central Asia have constituted the dominant rationale in these endeavours. Creation and maintenance of the Taliban was thus central to Pakistan's strategy. As Zalmay Khalilzad averred, "Pakistan may have helped the Taliban with military training, fuel and weapons, including servicing of the military aircraft they captured in Kandahar and Herat areas. Islamabad may also have helped the Taliban recruit pilots....Additionally, hundreds of Pakistanis have been involved in fighting alongside the Taliban....There are many other sightings of Pakistani military personnel in various parts of Afghanistan.... some Taliban members have complained about the extent of Pakistan's involvement in the country's affairs."16

What should worry Pakistan is that its Taliban strategy is bound to boomerang some day. Revolutions have a way of eating their own children. Numerous impressionable young minds are being trained in the Islamic code laid down by the Taliban. "Should Pakistan continue to turn a blind eye to the presence of its nationals in Afghan guerilla training bases, the danger to Pakistan's internal security would also continue to mount....steps should be taken to curb the menace or else the country will have to pay a high price in the form of further sectarian violence and domestic instability."17 Perhaps this is the biggest legacy of US-Pak collaboration during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The diseases created are evident everywhere, the fallout being visible as far as Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam, as so tellingly evidenced by the bombing of American embassies in these capital cities.

For India, there is the added danger that the Islamic mercenary elements who participated in the Taliban's sweep across Afghanistan may now turn their attention towards India, and particularly the state of J&K. Osama bin Laden has reportedly hinted at such a prospect. This would place an even greater strain on the Indian Army, paramilitary forces and central police elements who are employed in counter-militancy operations. But the regional implications of trans-border Taliban incursions are far more serious and need careful consideration.

Given the framework of Pakistan's policy towards India as orchestrated and enumerated by that country's establishment, it would be tempted to keep tension at as high a level below India's "threshold of tolerance." Recent events, including the overt nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, have cast heavier responsibilities on the political leadership in the two countries to strive increasingly for peace and security so that the all too crucial socio-economic development of the poor in both countries can proceed unhindered. It is for the Pakistani intelligentsia to fight for reducing the stranglehold of the Army-bureaucratic establishment and not only restore genuine institutionalised democracy in that country but also embark on a path of peace and cooperation with its larger and more powerful neighbour, India. The 21st century era of compelling change would offer no other alternative.


Pakistan is not a "failed" or "sinking" state as some media reports have averred. Admittedly, the fractured nature of its internal politics, resulting from its inability to create a national ethos even after 51 years, is the cause of severe internal turbulence. The problems would persist unless the leadership's obsession with the two-nation theory gives way to the objective reality of Pakistan being a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. Such a measure would seek to bring the Muhajir and Shia communities into the national mainstream. The four provinces would need to be bonded in a truly federal structure through de-centralisation of political power without the overbearing Punjabi dominance.

The explosive cocktail of weapons trade, extensive drug smuggling and religious extremism is not only sapping the vitals of Pakistani society but could also threaten the entire Southern Asian region. A political establishment that is elitist, militaristic and unrepresentative of the masses can hardly succeed in grappling with Pakistan's many crises. The only hope lies in reducing the stranglehold of the Army-bureaucratic nexus and restoring genuine institutionalised democracy. Until then, the Army will continue to call the shots.

The country's economic crisis is a serious cause for concern. A wide-ranging economic reform alone can arrest the unprecedented economic squeeze. Meanwhile, the US, West Asian states and China would not allow the plug to be pulled on the life support system, even though no miraculous recovery is possible. The defence budget and force-modernisation would remain under pressure, perhaps impelling Pakistan and may be even India, which has a similar problem, to consider mutual balanced force reductions in the conventional sphere.

Pakistan would continue to find its relevance to American interests in the region, strive to strategically balance India and even serve as the lynchpin of China's grand design for South Asian security in the 21st century. It may be in the interest of both the United States and India to facilitate Pakistan towards the path of moderation because the prospects of its "Talibanisation" would be critical for the entire region. India (and its border state of J&K) would have to face entirely new challenges at the limits of tolerance under a nuclear umbrella.

Whilst the planned India-Pakistan comprehensive dialogue flowing from the Vajpayee-Sharif meeting at New York on September 23, 1998, has generated a great deal of optimism, a degree of caution would be in order. The existentialist reality is that any government in Pakistan taking a bold and positive initiative would be pulled back by the political establishment that stands to lose so much through improved Indo-Pak relations and reduction of tension. It is the Pakistani intelligentsia which must fight to reduce the stranglehold of the Army-bureaucratic establishment and help India and Pakistan embark on a journey of peace and cooperation in the 21st century which is nearly upon us.



1. J.N. Dixit, "Pakistan's India Policies : Role of Domestic Political Factors", International Studies, July-September 1995, p. 236.

2. See Ibid.

3. Rizwan Qureshi, "The Name is Not the Point", The Herald, March 1998, p. 59.

4. Shyam Bhatia, "The General's Verdict", The Indian Express, September 8, 1998.

5. Jasjit Singh, "Geopolitics of Southern Asia", World Focus, November-December 1993, p.12.

6. See n. 1. Lal Bahadur Shashtri, successor to the great Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister of India (1964-66), had a modest lower middle class background. Laloo Prasad Yadav, from a backward class, has been Chief Minister of Bihar, an office his wife, Rabri Devi, currently holds. Mayawati, despite severe caste and class handicaps, became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, in June 1995.

7. Kalim Bahadur, "Pakistan's Systemic Crisis", Journal of Peace Studies, September-December 1996, p.35.

8. Ahmed Rashid, "Pakistan: On a Knife-Edge of Uncertainty", The World Today, January 1997, p. 9.

9. M.B. Naqvi, "Reform or Rollback ?", Newsline, February 1994 p.79.

10. Ihtashamul Haque, "Hard Times", The Herald, March 1998, p.128.

11. Trends in global defence expenditure computed at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi reveal that Pakistan's defence expenditure reduced from 7.42 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 37.91 per cent of Central Government Expenditure (CGE) in 1992-93 to 4.86 per cent of GDP and 23.93 per cent of CGE in 1998-99 (estimated). For India, the reduction was spread over a longer period : from 3.56 per cent of GDP and 17.02 per cent of CGE in 1987-88 to 2.45 per cent of GDP and 13.76 per cent of CGE in 1998-99 (estimated).

12. Paula Newberg, "Date line Pakistan : Bhutto's Back", Foreign Policy Summer 1994, p.161.

13. Uma Singh, "Pakistan's Foreign Policy", World Focus, February 1997, p.12.

14. See n. 1, p.233.

15. N.C. Menon, "Time to End the Twinning", Hindustan Times, September 28, 1998.

16. Zalmay Khalilzad, "Anarchy in Afghanistan," Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1997 pp.48-49.

17. Ajith Pillai, "The Jehad Spillover", Outlook, September 7, 1998.