Pakistan’s Foreign Policy 1947 – 2016

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M. Saeed Khalid


A Concise History
by Abdul Sattar
Fourth Edition(Oxford Paperbacks)


Pakistan’s trials, tribulations and achievements in foreign relations were first comprehensively analysed by the country’s former Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, in his book “Pakistan’s Foreign Policy” published in 2006. In its foreword, Agha Shahi, one of the most outstanding Pakistani diplomats, wrote that the Mr. Sattar’s book recapitulated the rationale of some major policy decisions taken by Pakistan in relations with neighbours and big powers. Among these he cited the challenge posed to the country’s right to peaceful existence by the tyranny of power disparity in the region.

Always anxious to provide an accurate and updated account of Pakistan’s foreign relations to scholars and students, Mr. A. Sattar brought out a second edition of the book in 2010 followed by the third edition in 2013. Events thereafter such as Narendra Modi’s coming to power in 2013 and suspension of the dialogue with Pakistan, withdrawal of the bulk of US troops from Afghanistan and the advent of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were important enough for the writer to undertake another revision of the book that is now available as its fourth edition, published in 2017.

Abdul Sattar explains that some of the information in earlier editions has been updated in the light of recent publications e.g. declassified archives of India which provide “insights into Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s grand strategy of Indian hegemony over the South Asian region, the contrast between formal acceptance of UN resolutions pledging plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir, and the contrary secret intent aimed at exploiting power disparity to impose his preferences on Pakistan.”

The book is pertinent in the manner it juxtaposes Pakistan’s search for security in the face of disparity of power with India, and steadily building an alliance with the US, which would regularly turn dysfunctional. China comes to occupy the third corner of the triangle as it finds working with Pakistan beneficial to safeguard common interests in view of the steadily growing Indo-US partnership. The author has extensively surveyed the most critical element namely Pakistan’s cyclical closeness and frequent parting of the ways with the US over several decades.

The author, a former foreign secretary and foreign minister, considered it useful to visit the genesis of Pakistan’s ties with the US. He recalls that “Jinnah’s concept of Pakistan as a Muslim, liberal, democratic, and modern nation state naturally predisposed him in favour of close relations with democratic countries.” The Muslim League under his leadership had supported the Allies against the Fascist powers during the Second World War. Jinnah also praised the United States for inspiring nations striving for freedom from colonial rule.

The Soviet Union, despite its opposition to colonialism and imperialism “was unattractive to the League leaders because of its restrictions on freedom, atheist ideology, and sponsorship of subversion in other countries.”

Pakistan was initially averse to becoming involved in the ideological contest between the emergent blocs led by the US and the Soviet Union. Thus Pakistan was not motivated by the Cold War, as illustrated by its policy to develop friendly relations with the People’s Republic of China, disregarding the objections and sanctions by its partners in military alliances led by the United States.

According to the author, Pakistan’s moves to seek partnerships outside the region were driven by economic and security challenges confronting the country. In the chapter “Search for Security” he explains that India’s refusal to honour partition arrangements, followed by military intervention in Jammu and Kashmir, “injected a sense of urgency to the fledgling Pakistani state’s search for ways and means to bolster its capacity to resist dictation”. He adds, “The contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy were thus shaped by the desperate need for arms to ensure the security of the new state and for funds to finance its economic development.”

Britain was the first country to be approached for assistance. But the country itself was exhausted by the war and was more sympathetic to India than Pakistan in the subcontinent. The Soviet Union was never a serious option because of its own economic conditions as well as Pakistan’s anti-communist policy, yet some effervescence was created by an invitation from Stalin to Prime Minister Liaqat Ali to visit Moscow. The visit did not materialize but made the US realize the need to extend an invitation to the Pakistani premier in view of the one President Truman had already extended to Mr. Nehru.

The US, the world’s premier economic and military power was not sympathetic to the Pakistan movement. As the partition neared, the Muslim League leader M A Jinnah sounded to the US charge d’affaires in New Delhi that Pakistan’s foreign policy would be oriented towards the Muslim countries of the Middle East, and they would stand together against possible Russian aggression and would look to the US for assistance. That struck a chord in Washington as evidenced in Truman’s sympathetic response to Ambassador Ispahani’s expose of Pakistan’s need ‘to balance our economy, to industrialize our country, to improve health and education and raise the standard of living.”

Yet, Pakistan’s initial request for large scale US assistance drew a blank. A change in American thinking came only with the Korean war and an emerging tussle between the US and the Soviet Union for global influence. Pakistan fully backed South Korea and the US against North Korean aggression. When approached for contributing troops to the UN action, Pakistan offered one brigade provided her security was assured in the event of Indian aggression. He recalls, “The United States balked at the suggestion for such a commitment.”

Pakistan’s supportive actions in Korea compared to India’s neutral stance won sympathy in the US but not sufficiently to make a significant commitment to the country’s security needs and economic stability. A parallel development was Pakistan extending recognition to the People’s Republic of China and opening a diplomatic mission in Beijing as early as 1950. There lay the basis of Pakistan’s future ties with China and the US – which keep evolving – with India for ever being a major influence on US actions.

A meeting of the US ambassadors to South Asian countries held in Colombo in February 1951 ‘favored the idea of Pakistani participation in the defence of the Middle East.’ In April 1951, American and British officials agreed that Pakistan’s contribution would probably be the decisive factor in ensuring defence of the area. Yet, Washington remained indecisive in lending defence assistance ‘lest arming Pakistan ensnare the Unites States in India-Pakistan disputes.’ This assessment, according to the author, was largely influenced by Britain which always deferred to India’s concerns.

US realization of Britain’s reduced capabilities in the Middle East would eventually lead to the initiation of contacts for building a new defence network viz-a-viz the Soviet threat under president Eisenhower who took office in January, 1953. Secretary of State, Dulles undertook a tour of the Middle East and South Asia. “Nowhere did he receive a warmer welcome or was impressed than in Pakistan” where leaders emphasized the desire to join ‘the free world’s’ defence team. Dulles returned with the feeling that Pakistan was one country ‘that has the moral courage to do its part in resisting communism.’

Pakistan’s leaders diligently pursued their efforts to firm up Washington’s commitment to help meet the country’s urgent security and economic needs. One is tempted to point out that they not only succeeded in attaining that goal but may have gone over target. The Pakistani interlocutors could not have foreseen that one day their country would become the linchpin in US plans to roll back communism in the region and thereby hasten the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and that Pakistanis will live to rue the disappearance of the bipolar system that ensured US support to Pakistan.

US intentions to provide military assistance to Pakistan had an immediate and dramatic reaction in India where Nehru exploited the situation by renouncing his pledge of a plebiscite in Kashmir. The US decided to limit aid to Pakistan so as not to threaten India’s military preponderance. Washington tried to assuage New Delhi by offering a similar package to India. President Eisenhower wrote to Nehru assuring him that if the aid to Pakistan was misused against India, the US would take immediate action to thwart such aggression. Nehru gave a strong public rebuttal while telling his officials that the US wanted to check India’s power in the region.

Thus began Pakistan’s complete integration in the US-led anti communist alliances like SEATO(1954) and Baghdad Pact(1955). The two countries entered into Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement(1954) and Bilateral Defence Cooperation Agreement(1959). Pakistan also agreed to the establishment of a secret intelligence base at Badaber near Peshawar, and permission was given for the US aircraft to use the Peshawar airbase.

Sattar’s account of Pakistan joining the Baghdad Pact later renamed CENTO after the coup d’etat in Iraq, reveals that military calculus had overtaken other considerations and the civilian prime minister, Chaudhri Muhammad Ali who expressed reservations about the pact was overruled by president Iskander Mirza in league with the commander-in-chief, Gen Ayub Khan.

The 1959 Bilateral Defence Cooperation Agreement contained provisions for US commitments in support of Pakistan’s defence. Article 1 stated that the US ‘regards as vital to its national interest and to the world peace the preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of Pakistan.’ Specific clauses stipulated that in case of aggression against Pakistan…the USA will…take action including the use of armed forces as “may be mutually agreed upon” and as envisaged in the Joint Resolution to Promote Peace and Stability in the Middle East, in order to assist Pakistan at its request. This meant that aid would be forthcoming in case of aggression by a communist country and not India as was witnessed in 1965 and 1971 wars.

The book explains that though Pakistan, over the years, did benefit from large scale military and economic assistance from the US, the country had to contend with an immediate storm of protest from the Soviet Union and the Arab world led by Nasser’s Egypt. Moscow stepped up ties with New Delhi and vetoed all UNSC resolutions aimed at resolving the Kashmir dispute. India also reaped benefits in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, where Nehru was given a grand welcome.

Pakistan’s big loss in strategic terms was the deterioration in its ties with the Soviet Union. Moscow’s anger grew after its air force had shot down a US spy plane U-2 that had flown out of Pakistan as part of American operations run from the Badaber base near Peshawar. The Soviet leaders spewed venom against Pakistan and exponentially increased their political, military and economic support to India. The US which had been upset over India’s neutralism gradually came round to the view that it could not ignore India. Thus began a sustained US policy to woo India inter alia by offering economic assistance and improved overall relations.

The Eisenhower administration that had started cutting aid to India, took a u-turn as the country was increasingly seen as a democratic counterweight to communist China. Aid to India was raised from $93 million in 1956 to $365 million in 1957 and went up to $822 million in 1960. The wooing of India became more pronounced under president Kennedy. The trajectory of burgeoning Indo-US cooperation now being presented as a strategic partnership has had the China factor as a locomotive through all these years.

Reacting to this trend, Pakistan started to normalize relations with the Soviet Union. In December 1960, Pakistan signed an agreement with the Soviet Union for exploration of petroleum resources. Moscow contributed significantly to Pakistan’s industrial base by building Pakistan Steel Mills.

In parallel and no less important is Pakistan’s growing partnership with China. According to Abdul Sattar, unlike the Soviet Union, China understood that Pakistan’s motivation in joining alliances was its security against the Indian threat, not hostility against China or any other nation. An important step was taken in 1959 when Pakistan approached China for border demarcation between the two countries. Beijing was hesitant as the matter involved Kashmir and it did not want to have another argument with India.

A formula was found “whereby the boundary to be demarcated would be between Xinjiang and the contiguous areas, the defence of which was under the control of Pakistan, thus bypassing the question of sovereignty over the territory.” There was no truth in Indian allegations about Pakistan ceding a part of Kashmir’s territory to China as the agreement involved no transfer of territory.

Confirming the unique chemistry of Pakistan-China friendship, Abdul Sattar recalls that Beijing respected Pakistan’s sovereignty in its relations with other states. “When Pakistan embarked on improvement of relations with the Soviet Union, the Chinese leaders did not try to hold Pakistan back although Beijing-Moscow relations had begun to sour, and even expressed understanding of Pakistan’s reasons.”

Pakistan provided valuable support to China in the multilateral fora and defied US strategy to isolate China by establishing air links. China consistently supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir by stressing that the dispute should be resolved in accordance with the wishes of the people of Kashmir as pledged to them by India and Pakistan.

The India-China border war in 1962 profoundly impacted America’s strategic calculus for South Asia. Nehru’s hysterical appeals to Kennedy for help resulted in the US switching allegiance from Pakistan to India as a bulwark against China. Though Washington maintained assistance to Pakistan, it acted in coordination with London to massively increase India’s defence capabilities. Kennedy-Wilson efforts to have the Kashmir issue resolved through talks petered out due to India’s obduracy encouraged by India’s supporters in the US administration, who thought they had a unique chance to permanently co-opt India against China.

The author says that Washington’s attitude towards Pakistan stiffened further after Johnson succeeded Kennedy. Johnson took a tough line with Pakistan over its growing ties with China. US military aid to India increased to $100 million in 1963-64. Its confrontation with China was growing with the war in Vietnam. In Washington’s view, Pakistan’s entente with China contradicted the US plan for building a coalition of Asian countries against China.

Pakistan’s growing concern over US tilt toward India was evident in a letter written by Ayub Khan to Lyndon Johnson on 7 July, 1964, protesting against the $500 million military aid plan to India, that could oblige Pakistan to reappraise CENTO and SEATO. Sattar says that “Johnson’s response was even more curt, warning the US, too, would be obliged to re-examine its relations with Pakistan if it continued to develop its relations with China”.

The troubled trajectory of Pak-US cooperation and friction continued in the 1970s. Pakistan played intermediary in Washington’s overture to Beijing that miffed Moscow and New Delhi alike. The two entered into a defence treaty before India invaded East Pakistan. The US, under president Nixon, acquiesced in the emergence of Bangladesh but warned India over any aggressive design against West Pakistan. The Bhutto era witnessed further glitches in relations with Washington notably over the nuclear issue. The once close ally was target of sanctions by the US.

All that would change with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979. Revolutionary Iran on one side and a Soviet-friendly India on the other, Washington reversed its policy and began actively courting Pakistan as a friend, ally and partner in supporting the Afghan Mujahideen in their war of resistance against Soviet occupation.

The situation changed once again after the Soviet defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan. Washington tightened sanctions against Pakistan as it became disinterested in Afghanistan in throes of a civil war. Years later, the US was alarmed at the Taliban-Al Qaida nexus but it was too late. However, with the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 the US launched what would become its longest war.

Abdul Sattar was the foreign minister of Pakistan under Gen Musharraf and has devoted two chapters of his book to the post 9/11 phase of Pak-US relations. Pakistan’s response and strategy in the fast developing crisis after the terrorist attacks was decided in a meeting on 12 September, 2001 “on the basis of objective analysis of contingencies and anticipation of the likely course of events” before any specific requests were received from the US.

The US leaders made it clear that they expected full cooperation from Pakistan in the anti-Al Qaeda operations and failing that Pakistan too would be at risk. On 13 September, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage summoned the Pakistan Ambassador and DG ISI, then on a visit to Washington, to convey Washington’s wish list warning that Pakistan was either with the US or not. The demands included:

  • break of relations with the Taliban if they continued to harbour al-Qaeda.
  • stop al-Qaeda operations at its border and end all logistical support to bin Laden.
  • to give the US blanket over flight and landing rights for all necessary military and intelligence operations.

Pakistan’s response was positive but Sattar qualifies it by adding that the impression of Pakistan having ‘totally’ acquiesced to US ‘demands’ was incorrect. Pakistan allowed the use of three landing strips for logistic purposes. US war operations were conducted from naval ships or distant bases, not from Pakistani territory. Nor did Pakistan participate in US military action in Afghanistan.

 The US and allies appreciated Pakistan’s support and manifested their solidarity by visiting Islamabad. Pakistan was described as a ‘frontline’ state in the war on terrorism. The US , the European Union and Japan dismantled nuclear and democratic sanctions, resuming assistance to Pakistan. Pakistan’s debt was either written off or rescheduled.

Pakistan meanwhile had launched a manhunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives , arresting a thousand of them, transferring 300 to CIA’s custody. Pakistan also deployed 200,000 troops along the Afghan border to interdict foreign militants or prevent them from establishing hideouts at a huge financial cost, later disbursed as Coalition Support Funds.

Problems arose in Pak-US cooperation concerning Afghanistan primarily due to the US decision to expand war aims from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgencies, which in effect meant restructuring power to reward northern warlords who sided with Washington in the war against the Taliban, hailing mostly from the Pakhtun ethnicity. Islamabad, on the other hand , believed peace and stability in the country required equitable shares for all ethnic communities in order to prevent inter-ethnic strife.

US policies led to more Pakhtuns joining the insurgency as a jihad against foreign aggressors as well as against Pakistan, for collaborating with the ‘enemy’. Tens of thousands banded together to unleash terrorist attacks on the Pakistani state and its people. While the Pakistan army was preoccupied with efforts to contain the terrorist rebels, Washington pressed it to ‘do more’ against the Afghan insurgents.

The On-Off Chapter recounts the acts of omission and commission on both sides that took the Pak-US relations through their most troubled phase in 2011. Sattar, nonetheless, points out that despite a growing US penchant for India, the Obama administration rescued $1.7 billion for aid to Pakistan in 2017. It had underlined that Pakistan remained “critical to the US counter-terrorism effort, nuclear non-proliferation, regional stability, the peace process in Afghanistan, and regional economic integration and development.”

The Trump administration proceeded with a thorough review of the longest US war culminating in a public announcement by Trump which basically meant a continuation of the military mission with some increase of troops in Afghanistan. Trump said he would not reveal his exact plan but made strong demands on Pakistan to deny safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Pakistan has rejected the new US strategy with regard to Afghanistan, notably America’s reliance on India as her privileged partner in the region. Pakistan also stressed that it had contributed more than its share in combating terrorism and achieved more than what the combined might of the US and its allies had achieved by their actions since 9/11.

Trump’s policy review on Afghanistan was completed after the Fourth Edition of Abdul Sattar’s book had been published. The author wished that implications of Trump’s speech should be analysed and wrote me a letter along the following lines with the understanding that the contents would be reflected in this review. In Sattar’s view, “Obama had decided to wind up the Afghan war, his successor has reversed that decision. Neither consulted Pakistan nor could Pakistan expect to be consulted; we have long ceased to be a valued partner.”

Sattar writes that prime minister Abbasi did not categorically reply to accusations of safe havens, which Trump cited as a reason for the warning that ‘Pakistan has much to lose in case of non-cooperation.’ If the US and coalition partners respond positively to Abbasi’s suggestion to complement Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen border controls, that would help the problem of ‘safe havens’ on both sides.

Sattar takes note of Trump’s invitation to India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan and feels, “we can take it into account in calibrating our US policy. But publicly objecting to it serves little purpose. In general, he is of the view that confronting the US will aggravate the situation. In other words, Pakistan’s public rejection of US warnings and criticism of Trump leaning on India should not prevent us from conducting serious dealing with the US to find areas of cooperation.

Understandably, India occupies large sections of the book, covering conflicts as well as diplomacy. A section has been added to cover developments since Narendra Modi’s election in 2014.

The author takes note of Modi’s hawkish agenda against Pakistan, the rise of Hindu extremism under BJP’s government and India’s repressive measure to muzzle the Kashmiri’s movement for self determination. He acknowledges reactions within India to the BJP’s efforts to dismantle secular policies.

The author has also included chapters on Pakistan’s enduring entente with China, prolonged crises in Afghanistan, the Nuclear and Missile Programme, Post 9/11 policy and issues pertaining to the International Organizations, all containing valuable information for scholars and students. He underscores that the all weather friendship between China and Pakistan is based on mutual interests and principled policies. Their partnership has “entered an even more promising phase following the agreement on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, signed in 2015.”

In the final chapter titled ‘Policy in a Changing World’ Abdul Sattar gives his overarching assessment of Pakistan’s foreign policy and diplomatic endeavours. He is of the view that “policy decision were made by Pakistani leaders in the 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…Criticism that non-alignment would have better served Pakistan’s interests was uninformed. Pakistan needed aid and the US was the only country after World War II in a position to provide assistance.”

Pakistan’s decisions to develop strategic cooperation with China and to pursue the nuclear option were also made independently. Pakistan’s opposition to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the author says was a strategic compulsion but Pakistan ended up paying a heavy price. The US took the opportunity to humiliate the rival super power but “blundered in 1991 by hurriedly disengaging from the region while Afghanistan was without a viable government.”

The reader may disagree with Sattar’s assessments but as an active player on the diplomatic scene for three decades, his opinion merits attention e.g. when he contends that “the decisions Pakistani leaders made were eminently logical. As for post 9/11 partnership with the US, it was not sought by Pakistan nor was its rejection a viable option.”

Importantly, Sattar feels that condemnation of a strategic partner (US) was improvident and unbecoming of a nation pledged to ‘friendliness and goodwill towards all’ . As for India, he records that relations turned sour because India refused to abide by the agreed principle of Partition and the UNSC resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir. India decided to exploit ‘power disparity’ to impose its will over Pakistan.

The author concludes that “We can take pride in the right decisions of our leaders and learn lessons from mistakes to avoid repetition. While the state aims are permanent, policies should be reviewed in the light of ever changing circumstances. Better governance and more efficient utilization of national resources are key to financial independence and the world’s respect.”