March issue 2002

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 22 years ago

If states are known by the enemies they have, then Pakistan has largely been known by the very country it seeks to avoid: India.

Culturally, ethnically, and geographically, the world has viewed Pakistan through Indian eyes. And, until September 11, even the analysts invited by international news organisations for commentary on Pakistan-related reports were often Indian. After a half-century of independence, there exists a strong undercurrent in think tanks all over the world on account of which sovereign Pakistan has continued to be considered as some kind of Indian ‘rebel province.’

Until the Afghanistan war, that is.

America’s ‘War Against Terrorism’ did for Pakistan what its strategic planners failed to do for over 50 years. The war in Afghanistan pulled Pakistan back into the mainstream cultural fold of the Middle East and Central Asia. The two interlinked regions — almost inseparable — together represent a natural ‘strategic depth’ for Islamabad, and the core of the proverbial Muslim belt that holds the rest of the world in both trepidation and admiration following 9-11.

But for Pakistan, the argument here is not about religion, according to the people involved in redefining the ‘strategic depth’ theory in Islamabad’s official circles.  It is about asserting Pakistani nationalism (by emphasising the nation’s unique cultural and historic characteristics), exploring more opportunities for economic gain, and seeking increased political stature in the region.

The argument goes something like this: if the emergence of Pakistan marked a symbolic end to a millennium of Muslim involvement (read ‘invasion and occupation’) of India, then 50 years of independence failed to extricate the country from India-centered politics. For Islamabad, all politics was — and remains — Indian politics.  Throughout the past decades, the nation seemed to be angling for its place in the world not in concert with the tenets of its rich historical past, but solely in accordance with its evolving rivalry with India. Instead of searching for new economic gains in the larger domain of West and Central Asia, Islamabad curiously restricted itself to the forlorn and limited playing field of the ‘Indian subcontinent’ and Indian-dominated South Asia.

The key here is that, in conducting diplomacy over the just cause of Kashmir (which required intense focus on India), Pakistan overlooked the parallel and equally crucial task of expanding the country’s ‘regional playing field’ toward West Asia primarily, and, after 1991, towards Central Asia. Half-hearted and incomplete efforts to rectify this policy in the nineties didn’t help much. Now, failure to pay attention to this policy gap could eventually force Pakistan to accept living in the shadow of hegemonistic and bellicose India.  Already the signs are ominous.

Decades of this India-fixation unintentionally brought Islamabad within the Indian ‘cultural sphere of influence.’  Example: as the Cold War raged between Islamabad and New Delhi, some Pakistani singers, musicians, and actors began flocking to India for what they perceived to be better career opportunities.  No Indians were running toward Pakistan in return. Cynics in New Delhi were telling their foreign visitors that ‘the prodigal children were finally coming home.’ In the eyes of the world because of the influence of Indian satellite television, Pakistan was developing all the trappings of an Indian satellite state, culturally speaking. And in world politics, perceptions matter most. No wonder the Central Intelligence Agency, in an internal strategic review, suggested to senior US policy-makers to consider the possibility of Pakistan’s disappearance from the world map in the first half of the 21st century. The most likely cause for this eventuality, as implied by the review’s authors, was cultural assimilation into India.

The Pakistan military was attacked from left and right after the November 13 collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.  Critics ridiculed the concept of seeking a ‘strategic depth’ next door, while some Pakistani liberals seized the opportunity to settle scores with the religious right and with what they saw as its military patrons.

Although there is a sense of realisation within the Pakistani military establishment that the country’s Afghan policy went wrong, there remains a deep belief about the inevitability of Pakistan’s strategic links to Central and West Asia within the institution.  This is not propaganda spread by right-wing Taliban-sympathisers within the ruling establishment, rather a proposition sponsored by a pool of eclectic, strategically-oriented civilian and military minds.  The ultimate aim is not lofty religious idealism but simple economic and political concerns. What lies dead somewhere beneath the rubble in Afghanistan is not the ‘strategic depth’ theory, just the religious tool for its advancement.  And the theory, in its re-definition, is no longer exclusively about ‘ensuring a friendly government in Kabul’ “The Americans will take care of that,” in the words of a Pakistani official; rather it seeks to ally Islamabad with what a Pakistani official terms as “progressive, liberal, and open societies” of West and Central Asia. The policy would make it easier for the current Pakistani government to sell its liberal policies to the people by citing the example of other secular Muslim countries such as Syria, Jordan and the UAE.  And Islamabad would seek bigger regional political stature and increased economic benefits by breaking away from the gridlocked politics and the limited economic scope of South Asia. The latter will not be abandoned altogether, only downsized in terms of priorities.

This line of thinking is more evident and strong among military advisers and some civilian policy analysts than it is among the country’s political class.  A military-affiliated analyst, in an informal discussion with a reporter, referred to a statement made a few weeks ago by General Rashid Qureshi.  At the peak of India’s coercive military concentration along Pakistan’s borders, the President’s chief spokesperson warned New Delhi saying, “Pakistan is no Palestine or Afghanistan.”  The analyst read meaning in the statement beyond its strong assertive tone.  “You wouldn’t hear one of our politicians or career diplomats resorting to this kind of comparison or reasoning in public,” he said. “If you think big in strategic terms, it would reflect in the vocabulary you use, and vice versa.”

Although the phrase ‘strategic depth’ gained currency in the Pakistani foreign policy community following the rise of the Taliban in 1994, the concept is as old as Pakistan itself.  Pakistan’s name is a clear extension of the ‘-stans’ of Central Asia and Afghanistan.  And immediately after independence, when there was no regional Islamic grouping except for the Arab League, Pakistani officials sounded out their Arab counterparts on the possibility of Pakistan joining the forum.  Although it sounds impractical and improbable now, Pakistani officials then saw the move as a symbolic gesture of asserting Pakistan’s intrinsic relationship with West Asia.  The common thinking among the senior theorists of the Pakistan Movement viewed the new nation as the natural eastward extension of the Muslim world.  The idea was dropped later because of the Arab League’s then exclusive pan-Arabist leanings and the fact that Turkey and Iran showed no interest in the Arab council.

That did not deter Pakistan from seeking clues for future direction from its Central and West Asian neighbourhood.  Field Marshal Ayub Khan, in deciding on the idea of building a new capital, was inspired among other factors by the example of Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s decision to build a new capital at Ankara in place of the traditional trading hub of Istanbul. And in the ’50s Pakistan joined Iraq, Turkey, and other regional western-friendly countries in creating the anti-Communist military alliance known then as the Baghdad Pact.

The job of further consolidating Pakistan’s integration into the politico-economic system of West Asia was accelerated under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose personality and leadership were successful in wooing Arab leaders, from the king of Morocco to Libya’s Gaddafi to Syria’s Assad, not to mention the sheikhs of the Gulf emirates.  The fruits of that cooperation are the stuff of Cold War spy novels.

General Zia-ul-Haq indulged West Asia in a manner unprecedented by previous Pakistani leaders, building on the successes of Bhutto but offering a new kind of vision and direction made necessary by the regional imperatives of the time.  Egyptian diplomats still remember with respect how General Zia successfully maneouvered to end the Arab diplomatic boycott of Egypt following Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. After 1979, during the war against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, Arabs and other West Asians rediscovered Pakistan, leading to a new kind of people-to-people interaction. Arabs, particularly in the Gulf, started serious attempts to integrate the  Pakistani economy with their own (example: the rise of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International). Another noticeable feature of the time was a dramatic rise in mixed marriages involving Pakistanis and Mideast nationals.

Pakistani military advisers were scattered all over the Middle East during the eighties, training local armies and air forces. A decade earlier, Pakistani soldiers helped the Hashemite ruling family of Jordan in preserving a delicate internal order threatened by some Palestinian militants. Pakistani GIs performed similar low key tasks in Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states.

In 1996, when Islamabad needed some diplomatic help in support of its Afghan policy following the rise of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates obliged, offering Kabul’s new rulers full diplomatic recognition and providing regional cover for Islamabad’s policy objectives. Of course, the Saudis and the Emirates were looking out for their own interests, yet the Islamabad-Riyadh-Abu Dhabi nexus was a testimony to the extent of shared goodwill in the policy-making circles of Pakistan and the two Arab countries, largely attributable to feelings of shared history and culture, not to mention common interests borne out of geographical proximity.

When Islamabad performed a stunning about-face, casting its Taliban allies aside, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi didn’t cringe, despite facing considerable international embarrassment because of the militia’s hardline policies and the resultant inconvenience caused by Pakistan’s sharp turn. In November, a senior Saudi diplomat in Islamabad privately told a Pakistani reporter, “We are with Pakistan.  What you do, we do.  You accepted the Taliban; we did too.  You refused them, we followed.  This is a strategic relationship. There’s no joking about it.”

Therefore, considering this history, it was ironic that in the 1990s Pakistan’s West Asian relations went cold. Islamabad’s civilian governments, which were given many opportunities to leave their mark on the nation’s foreign policy and future direction during the 1990s, seemed unable to develop and demonstrate a vision befitting the fast-paced developments of the post-Cold War years.  At a time when foreign policy institutions in world capitals reformed their operations and developed new doctrines, Islamabad’s politicians were busy in endless mudslinging. Interestingly, most of the strategically important decisions during the decade were the work of Pakistan’s military planners, or were taken at their behest. And although Pakistan’s decade-long investment in Afghanistan backfired in the end, the nationalistic and patriotic motives lying behind it were indisputable.

But why should Pakistan attempt to get closer to Central and Western Asia? An indirect but important reason for this is the imperative of the “de-Indianisation” of Pakistan.  The unfinished business of the ‘partition’ of the Indian subcontinent must be completed. Some Pakistani analysts have been noticing a disturbing trend over the past decade.  Pakistan and its people were   increasingly becoming the target of ‘cultural assimilation’ with India, while being pushed politically and geographically toward a final resting place in a politico-economic regional system of Indian-flavored South Asia, in the shadow of Indian political and military domination.

Another reason is that many Arab and Muslim nations, such as Tunisia, Turkey, and Syria, made strides in successfully introducing liberal and secular laws in their societies. Islamabad can learn from those examples of social experimentation as it strives to become a progressive and religiously tolerant society.

In doing so, Islamabad is likely to open up culturally and socially to Arab, Turkish and Iranian music and art. Culture has been used extensively by Pakistan to consolidate relations with Turkmenistan in the past five years. And plans are already underway for increased Pakistani trade and a cultural presence in the Middle East and Central Asia, cashing in on the huge interest in Pakistan in the two regions evoked by the latest Afghanistan war and the new vigour it created in Pakistan’s ties with both Iran and Turkey.

It is ironic that the United States was the primary reason behind Pakistan’s intermittent forays into West Asia. Thanks to the Americans, Pakistan first made the effort to be part of the West Asian politico-economic system in the 1950s as part of the military alliance known as the Baghdad Pact. Later, when Washington needed to rely on regional allies to prop up weak friendly Arab regimes, and couldn’t rely on Israel, Turkey or Iran to do the job because of political sensitivities, Pakistan sprang to Washington’s help as a candidate least objectionable to all parties concerned. Islamabad left many footprints in the Middle East; in a peace-keeping capacity in Somalia; in symbolic Muslim military participation in the Gulf’s  anti-Iraq war; and finally in Afghanistan’s recent war, which blurred distances between Central Asia and the Middle East and firmly established the two regions’ association with Pakistan as a nation intrinsically part of both, even as it straddles the South Asian fence.

As before, Pakistan’s tilt toward Western and Central Asia will not be in conflict with Islamabad’s newborn alliance with the United States.  On the contrary, the policy is mutually beneficial and complementary.  Some of the most strategically important nations in the area — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan — are strong US allies.  Also, Washington is keen to see moderate Muslim regimes working together to encourage a tolerant interpretation of Islam, all while remaining reliant on the region’s friendly governments to further her energy policies in the Gulf and Central Asia.

Although it is of no consequence for the Western and Central Asian Muslim nations whether Pakistan remains part of South Asia, Pakistan certainly needs to decide — and decide fast — whether it is willing to cash in on the twin cards of religion and history and claim its piece of the political and economic cake of Western and Central Asia.

The tool for the advancement of the earlier version of the ‘strategic depth’ theory was primarily religion, and the nature of the policy was essentially intrusive and interventionist (meddling in Afghanistan). The new tool is intrinsically diplomatic, premised on exploiting the unprecedented position enjoyed today by Islamabad as a celebrated member of the international community to effect long-term strategic changes in the country’s future. Deciding the nation’s identity, it seems, is an unavoidable first step.