Pakistan is in the heart of a tough neighbourhood. With India to the east and Afghanistan to the west, no wonder it is considered a security state. Its relations with Iran cannot be described as stable, though the Biden administration’s prudent policies have minimised dangers of war in the region.
Pakistan is facing the consequences of strategic choices made by foreign policy elites at the time of independence in 1947. Decades on, still, we must embrace an extra-regional power to remain globally relevant, an extra-regional power that could help neutralise the Indian threat, provide financial support against Afghanistan and heed to Pakistani officials’ security concerns on Iran’s relations with the West, especially the US.
Over the decades we have not had one extra-regional power on our side. Initially Washington provided the assistance to the Pakistan military to raise the formations needed for defense against India. Then we turned to China and Saudi Arabia for military and financial support.
Of late, our security environment has become more complicated. If we consider the Afghan Taliban as our strategic ally, we have to deal with the threat of Pakistani Taliban along the western borders. If we rely on the Arab states for our financial support, sectarianism would become a threat for us. We cannot ride the wave of anti-India hysteria, as it would affect our internal security environment. Also, to consider the ultra-religious right our ally against India would be a strategic folly.
The slogans for an independent foreign policy have fallen on deaf ears of our foreign policy and military planners that believe we cannot afford an independent foreign policy because we need an extra-regional power to bolster our military, economic and political position in the region.
The security complications that the Pakistani state is faced with are enough to compel our political and strategic elite to resist adventures in foreign policy. Yet, the slogans for an independent foreign policy have fallen on deaf ears of our foreign policy and military planners that believe we cannot afford an independent foreign policy because we need an extra-regional power to bolster our military, economic and political position in the region.
It was interesting to watch former Prime Minister Imran Khan praise Indian “independent foreign policy” during the Cold War era in a recent televised speech. This he perhaps did to strengthen his argument in support of an independent foreign policy.
However, Imran Khan’s understanding of Indian foreign policy is flawed. India’s stable political conditions has led to the growth of a political elite committed to an independent foreign policy or non-alignment or strategic autonomy — the various nomenclatures used by Indians to describe it. In complete contrast, the Pakistani political elite is deeply divided on national interests, and Imran Khan has played no small part in stoking it.
The Indian strategic and political elite has throughout demonstrated that they are attracted to realpolitik and not fashionable slogans. Although Prime Minister Nehru clearly displayed an anti-western bias in his initial years, he didn’t show any qualms in kneeling before Americans for requesting immediate and urgent military assistance in the shape of military hardware when China came knocking at its gates in 1962. Nehru adopted a pragmatic foreign policy in the face of military defeat at the hands of China.
Pakistan needs a well thought out strategy to keep the US and the western powers — and Russia — engaged in the security affairs of our region to avoid major conflicts.
The Pakistani elite on the other hand is not capable of displaying such flexibility. We have wasted our precious years in the arms of the American security establishment during the Cold War. And now when the relations with Washington have turned visibly cold, we think that putting all eggs in the Russian basket may solve all our problems.
Signs of pragmatism were visible in some speeches by COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa when he told his audience that Pakistan was no more interested in becoming a party in the new Cold War. But this is not enough. Pakistan needs a well thought out strategy to keep the US and the western powers — and Russia — engaged in the security affairs of our region to avoid major conflicts. The appointment of a full-fledged US ambassador in Islamabad and the opportunity provided to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington to present his credentials to President Biden are good signs.
Lesson for Imran Khan: This is no time to pretend to be Che Guevara, which you are obviously not. You might win a few extra votes, but you will inflict irreparable damage to Pakistan’s security interests.