Given domestic economic weaknesses, security competition with India and an antagonistic relationship with Afghanistan, Pakistan has traditionally sought external alliances with strong powers and pursued an offensive security policy. Nevertheless, there has been a dawning realization in Islamabad that a new approach is necessary, and as a result, Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies are undergoing important transformations, including a normalization of relations with neighbors and a renewed focus on domestic security threats.
With a low growth rate, high inflation, budget deficits and unsustainable debt, economic weakness is the single biggest challenge for Pakistan. A major energy shortage, which both results from limited economic development and causes further economic losses, is another pressing problem. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s primary security threats now come from unconventional actors, such as insurgent and terrorist groups, who form a motley crew of tribal rebels, criminal groups and national and transnational Islamist militants. By extension, then, radicalization and extremism remain real risks within Pakistan. To a lesser extent, India also poses a security threat with the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities, its Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) and its support for nationalist separatist forces within Pakistan.
Pakistan also has several opportunities that could be catalysts for growth and stabilization. First, its geostrategic location makes it a key land route linking Central and South Asia while offering China and landlocked Central Asia access to the Arabian Sea for maritime trade. A second opportunity is the growth in telecommunications in Pakistan and its contribution to commerce and the strengthening of civil society. While Internet connectivity has steadily increased, it remains limited to 9 percent of Pakistanis. By contrast, cellphone usage has doubled since 2006 to 62 percent. Finally, there is a shared interest among the world’s leading powers in ensuring Pakistan’s stability, which Islamabad can leverage to seek assistance with economic development.
Over its 67-year history, Pakistan’s foreign policy has undergone several significant and diametric shifts. From the beginning, Pakistani leaders sought great-power alliances to cope with domestic economic and infrastructural weakness and to provide security guarantees against its hostile neighbors, India and Afghanistan. Though Pakistan briefly flirted with the Soviet Union soon after independence, its orientation quickly became pro-Western when it joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization in 1955, embracing Washington’s anti-communist sphere of influence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Simultaneously, however, Pakistani leaders also developed strong relations with communist China, despite Beijing’s international isolation at the time. This alliance helped Pakistan balance Indian power and also assured China’s support for Pakistan at the U.N. Security Council in the Kashmir dispute. With the restoration of civilian rule in 1971, Pakistan’s foreign policy shifted again, prioritizing nonalignment and bolstering pan-Islamic relations. While Pakistan remained officially nonaligned during the 1980s, it entered into an informal alliance with the U.S. to become the frontline state in efforts to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan.
During the 1990s this posture evolved into Pakistan’s strategic depth policy, which aimed at installing the Taliban in Kabul as a client regime, denying India its historic alliance with Afghanistan and bringing Kabul under Pakistan’s influence. This policy was, of course, forcibly reversed after 9/11, when the U.S. recruited Pakistan as a critical partner in the global war on terror. Pakistan’s foreign policy then became focused on fighting al-Qaida and bolstering relations with the U.S. In the mid-2000s, while Pakistan’s foreign relations were dominated by the war on terror, another foreign policy doctrine, known as Vision East Asia (VEA), emerged, parts of which had been in effect since the mid-1990s. VEA focused on “economic diplomacy” (.pdf), with the objective of forging strong economic, cultural and security ties with countries of East and Southeast Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand.
A Regional Pivot
Since 2009, Pakistani policymakers have increasingly focused on the pursuit of economic diplomacy in South and Central Asia. Described by its architects as “Pakistan’s Regional Pivot,” the policy has four major objectives: normalization of political relations with India and Afghanistan, increased trade with India, access to Central Asian energy sources, and making Pakistan a land-bridge for trade and energy transportation from Central to South Asia.
India. Improving ties with India is a key pillar of the new policy and has support within Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments as well as the country’s major political parties. Since 2011 there has been an unparalleled focus in Islamabad on de-escalating tensions with New Delhi. In 2012 alone, a dozen visits took place between various Indian and Pakistani government officials, including three rounds of dialogue between parliamentarians (.pdf), reviving the dialogue process India had suspended after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Pakistani leaders want to make progress with India in several areas, including trade, travel, communications, water-sharing and energy cooperation.
Pakistan’s economic objectives regarding India include increasing direct bilateral trade, as opposed to relying on indirect transactions through Dubai or Singapore, as is often the case today. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, in fiscal year 2011-2012 bilateral trade between India and Pakistan stood at $1.65 billion. Both countries aim to increase this to $6 billion by 2015. Moreover, Pakistan is seeking the reduction of Indian nontariff barriers on Pakistani goods and permission to invest directly in India. The Pakistani government is also trying to finalize the granting to India of most-favored nation status, an initiative that, although opposed by Pakistan’s agricultural lobby, finds support within the business community.
Easing travel restrictions to boost cross-border trade and increase cultural contacts between Indians and Pakistanis is another major goal. A new visa agreement signed in 2012 was a first step in this direction. Moreover, Pakistani leaders are keen to cooperate with India on energy trade, for example through the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and petroleum imports from India.
Despite this evidence of slow improvement in India-Pakistan ties, progress remains elusive on four major issues: resolution of the Kashmir conflict, Pakistani opposition to Indian damming and development projects on the Indus River, demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier and the Sir Creek dispute. Given the centrality of security to Indo-Pakistani relations, the failure to resolve these issues leaves the rapprochement on weak ground and vulnerable to collapse, as highlighted by recent tensions in the aftermath of skirmishes at the Kashmir border.
Afghanistan. The second-most important country in Pakistan’s regional strategic calculus is Afghanistan, where Islamabad seeks to achieve at least four major objectives. First, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders do not want Afghanistan to plunge into another civil war. Such an outcome would exacerbate Pakistan’s Afghan refugee crisis. It would also force Pakistan to invest resources in backing the Afghan Taliban, hence distracting it from fighting anti-Pakistan militants. And it would potentially strengthen the Pakistani Taliban, some of whom are hostile to Islamabad.
Second, and notwithstanding the first objective, Pakistan wants to prevent a long-term American presence (.pdf) in Afghanistan, especially in light of the deepening partnership between the U.S. and India, which Islamabad fears could undermine its own security. Third, the Pakistani military also wants to limit India’s military presence in Afghanistan, which it claims New Delhi uses for espionage and covert support to Baluch separatists. And fourth, Islamabad wants its Taliban and non-Taliban Pashtun allies to have greater representation in the Afghan government. To achieve these objectives Pakistan has long advocated a negotiated settlement of the Afghan crisis, and Pakistani officials have increasingly emphasized the importance of a “responsible transition” of U.S. and NATO forces out of the country.
Lately Islamabad has sought to improve ties with Kabul and has committed to playing a more productive role in the stymied negotiation process through, for example, the release of Taliban leaders it has periodically arrested. In early 2012 it also allowed former Taliban diplomats living in Pakistan to relocate with their families to Doha, where the Taliban have a political office. Furthermore, Islamabad’s ambassador in Kabul has been pursuing dialogue with members of Afghanistan’s northern parties, many of which are antagonistic toward Pakistan. These are perhaps important signs of Pakistan’s desire to build trust among Afghanistan’s various stakeholders. The impact of these policies remains to be seen, however. Pakistan can hardly guarantee progress on talks with the Taliban, while many in Afghanistan’s north remain unsure of both whom to trust in Pakistan and the extent of civilian control over policy.
Central Asia. In the context of the regional pivot, Pakistan’s priorities in Central Asia are similar to what they were in the 1990s: gaining access to energy resources, positioning itself as a corridor for energy transport into South Asia, and increasing commercial trade. Central to the latter goal is Islamabad’s desire to extend the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement to Central Asian countries, in the hopes of connecting them to international markets through Pakistan’s ports. In recent years energy trade has received significantly more attention in the form of the TAPI and the Central Asia South Asia Regional Electricity Trade Project, known as CASA 1000, through which Pakistan seeks to import Turkmen gas and Kyrgyz and Tajik electricity respectively.
Some former officials and observers of regional politics agree that many of these regional trade and energy goals face severe obstacles, including security and governance issues in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan’s own production capacity challenges. Similarly, there is currently no focused investment and development policy in place to make Pakistan a transit corridor for energy into South Asia. In short, Pakistan’s Central Asian objectives are long-term and will not come to fruition soon.
Key Bilateral Relationships
Six countries that figure prominently in Pakistan’s foreign policy are China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and the U.S.
China. China is Pakistan’s closest international ally, with one Chinese diplomat having described Pakistan as “our Israel.” China-Pakistan relations span the political, economic, security and energy sectors. For example, China has historically supported Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir dispute, and Pakistan played a critical role in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s “opening” to China in 1971. In 2008, Pakistan and China signed a comprehensive free trade agreement, which strengthened trade relations. China is now Pakistan’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in fiscal year 2011-2012 standing at $8 billion, and also an important source of foreign direct investment. Since 2000, China’s net investment in Pakistan has reached $860 million, though this is still only a fraction of U.S. investment in Pakistan. China’s most notable project in Pakistan is the Gwadar port, which it now operates after having invested almost $200 million. China has helped develop other infrastructural projects as well, including highways and power generation plants.
China-Pakistan defense cooperation has included China providing equipment, technology and technical expertise to develop Pakistan’s nuclear program, and helping Pakistan develop medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). Pakistan and China are also currently producing the JF-17 fighter jet and cooperating on civil nuclear technology.
The relationship does, however, have its limits and tensions. While balancing Indian power was traditionally a major objective of the partnership, China now prioritizes stability in South Asia. As a result, Beijing is now taking a more impartial stance on Kashmir and sees peace between India and Pakistan as being in its interest. Moreover, China is troubled by the safe havens that Uighur militants have enjoyed in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as by the killing and kidnapping of Chinese workers in Pakistan. In both instances Chinese leaders have publicly told Pakistan to tackle the problem of Islamist militancy.
Japan. Japan is Pakistan’s other strong partner in East Asia, with the relationship dating to 1948, when the two signed a trade agreement. Pakistan was one of Japan’s largest trading partners during the 1950s and a major recipient of Japanese aid in the 1960s, which helped infrastructural and economic development projects. Though Japan enacted sanctions against Pakistan in 1998 after Islamabad’s nuclear test, from 2002 onward relations normalized again. Bilateral trade between the two was roughly $2 billion in fiscal year 2011-2012. Japan has also invested approximately $500 million in Pakistan since 2000, and carried out infrastructural development projects, such as the Indus Highway and Kohat Tunnel projects. Finally, Japan has again become an important source of foreign aid, having given almost $2.8 billion (.pdf) between 2000 and 2010, while also hosting international donor conferences for Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia. Within the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey have been important partners for Pakistan. With Saudi Arabia, ties are partly defined by a strong religious bond, as the kingdom is home to two of Islam’s holiest sites. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have traditionally been aligned on security issues, especially in Afghanistan, where both supported the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets and then the Taliban in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia was Pakistan’s third-largest trading partner in fiscal year 2011-2012 as well as a major net investor.
Nevertheless, ties have at times been complicated. Last year Riyadh turned down Islamabad’s request for oil on long-term credit. Simultaneously, Indian-Saudi cooperation has increased. Moreover, in its regional competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia has stoked the sectarian fire in Pakistan through its financial support for extremists and anti-Shiite militant groups. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia remains concerned by militancy in Pakistan, especially the presence of al-Qaida and its affiliates.
United Arab Emirates. Pakistan’s relations with the UAE are dominated by economic considerations. With a trade volume of $8.9 billion, the UAE was Pakistan’s largest trade partner in fiscal year 2011-2012, as well as an important investor. The Emirates are also home to more than 1 million Pakistanis, almost all of whom are migrant workers. Their presence there reduces employment pressures on Pakistan and also makes the UAE a leading source of remittances to Pakistan.
Turkey. Pakistan-Turkey relations date back to the Central Asian Treaty Organization. The two countries have also had close economic cooperation under the Economic Cooperation Organization and enjoy strong military coordination. Despite this, according a former Pakistani diplomat, Turkey has been uncomfortable with Pakistan’s support for Islamists, and both countries compete for influence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, Turkey has increasingly figured in Pakistan’s list of regional pivot countries, and both have been cooperating to improve Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and help reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
United States. Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, however turbulent, remains key to its foreign policy. The U.S. is an important trade partner, the largest export market for Pakistan’s goods, and the country’s biggest foreign investor. In 2012 U.S.-Pakistan trade stood at $5.2 billion. The U.S. is, of course, also a major aid donor, having given roughly $6.9 billion in military aid and $7.8 billion in economic assistance since 2002. In addition, Pakistan has received nearly $10 billion in Coalition Support Funds for its role in the war on terror. Finally, the U.S. is also Pakistan’s leading supplier of military hardware.
U.S.-Pakistan relations are now at a critical juncture. In the short term, both sides are focused on the transition in Afghanistan, with Pakistan wanting the U.S. to withdraw having left a political settlement in place. In the context of the withdrawal, Pakistan is important to the U.S. for helping deliver political buy-in from the Taliban and also for logistical reasons. Furthermore, a total break in relations beyond 2014 seems unlikely. With a reduced force in Afghanistan, the U.S. will remain dependent on Pakistan to continue the fight against al-Qaida. Moreover, Washington’s strategic pivot to Asia and growing partnership with India will keep stability in South-Central Asia relevant to U.S. regional policy. Nevertheless, questions abound about the future of U.S. aid and military assistance to Pakistan.
In addition to these countries, Pakistan also enjoys strong relations with the United Kingdom and several European countries, especially Germany and France.
Transformations in Foreign Policy
In recent years Pakistan’s traditional foreign policy positions have undergone important changes with regard to three countries: India, Afghanistan and Russia.
India. With regard to India, Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has changed significantly and is drastically different today than at the beginning of the millennium. First, since 2002 Pakistan has suspended its sponsorship of an insurgency in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Second, peace plans offered by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf between 2004 and 2006, which ranged from the redrawing of borders to demilitarization and mutual administration, illustrated Pakistan’s willingness not only to abandon its historical claims to all regions of Kashmir, but also to negotiate bilaterally rather than through the U.N., as it had previously wanted. Finally, since 2008 Pakistani leaders have tacitly agreed to delink talks on Kashmir from the broader normalization process, thus giving up on the long-held “Kashmir first” policy, under which Pakistan maintained that no issue could be resolved without first resolving the Kashmir dispute. Notably, in 2008 President Asif Ali Zardari declared that the “Kashmir issue should be left aside for future generations to solve.” Since then bilateral dialogue has focused on all issues but Kashmir.
Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, subtle policy changes have also come about. First, the concept of strategic depth in its 1990s form has been retired. Islamabad no longer wants the Taliban to control Kabul, but instead seeks a political accommodation through which Pakistan can count on allies within the Afghan government. Second, Islamabad wants to normalize relations with groups in Afghanistan’s north to strengthen the prospects of stability. Third, Pakistan is also ready to tolerate a limited Indian role in Afghanistan focused on trade and development.
Russia. Finally, after a troubled and hostile relationship through much of the Cold War, Islamabad has also begun a rapprochement with Moscow. Notwithstanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cancellation of a trip to Pakistan in 2012, several high-level bilateral visits took place between Russia and Pakistan in 2012. Zardari and Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani visited Russia separately, while a high-level Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Islamabad.
The thaw in relations is a product of geopolitical and economic factors. Russia wants a larger political and economic role in South Asia and also sees Pakistan as essential to stability in Central Asia. For Pakistan, Russia is an alternative to the U.S. for its defense needs. For example, Russia will provide RD-93 engines for JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan, and joint military exercises have also been discussed. Moreover, Pakistan wants Russia’s assistance in infrastructural development, especially in expanding the Pakistan Steel Mills, which the Soviet Union helped establish, and improvement in its railways. Finally, energy politics is also a driver of closer ties. Islamabad wants Moscow’s assistance in coal mining projects, while Russia’s Gazprom has sought a financial role in the Iran-Pakistan and TAPI pipelines. Such projects would increase Russian influence in South Asia and make Pakistan central to Russia’s regional energy trade.
The Pakistan armed forces remain the strongest state institution in Pakistan, and in addition to dominating national security, they exert control on key foreign and domestic policy issues. Pakistan’s traditional military posture has been conventional and India-focused. Over the past decade, however, the ability to meet unconventional threats has gained prominence.
Hard Power Capabilities. With 642,000 active duty personnel, Pakistan’s military ranks as the 11th-largest in the world, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) “2012 Military Balance” report. The report also highlights other key statistics that illustrate Pakistan’s hard-power capabilities. Pakistan’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal includes 100 warheads and 60 strategic missiles, including the “Ghaznavi” Hatf-3 and “Shaheen-1” Hatf-4 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and “Ghauri” Hatf-5 and “Shaheen-2” Hatf-6 MRBMs. Pakistan has more than 100 tactical SRBMs with a range of up to 312 miles, while its MRBMs have a range of at least 932 miles. In 2012 Pakistan successfully tested the “Babur” Hatf-7 land-attack cruise missile and developed the Hatf-8 air-launched cruise missile, both capable of carrying nuclear and conventional weapons. It is now developing similar undersea capabilities.
Pakistan’s air force, equipped with 454 combat-capable aircraft, including F-16s and JF-17 Thunder multirole fighters, is now modernizing, with an increasing focus on improving precision strike and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities. Pakistan has also developed an unmanned aerial vehicle for surveillance purposes, though it claims it currently lacks strike capabilities. Pakistan’s navy, though slow to modernize, increasingly boasts impressive hardware, which includes eight tactical submarines and at least four P-3C Orion aircraft that can be used in anti-submarine warfare. Pakistan is said to be building a nuclear submarine in response to India’s Arihant.
Furthermore, in 2011 Pakistan jointly conducted at least six major military exercises, three of which it hosted, with various countries, including China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The exercises focused on counterterrorism, air interoperability, anti-submarine warfare and low-intensity combat capabilities, among others.
Arms acquisition and intensification of defense capabilities are major goals for Pakistan. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2001 and 2011 Pakistan purchased major conventional weapons worth $9.7 billion. Aircraft made up half that amount, followed by ships, missiles and armored vehicles. Moreover, according to the IISS, in 2010 Pakistan was one of the top three recipients of arms among developing countries, with a value of $2.2 billion.
Pakistan’s defense expenditures have traditionally been high in an attempt to close the gap in military capabilities with India. According to SIPRI, Pakistan ranked as the 33rd-highest defense spender in the world in 2012, despite being a low middle-income country. According to the IISS, in 2010-2011 Pakistan had the second-largest share of South Asia’s defense expenditure, though its budget was still one-sixth of India’s, which accounts for 78 percent of regional defense spending. In fiscal year 2012-2013, Pakistan’s defense budget was $5.6 billion, roughly 19 percent of the central government’s total budget. Despite the high defense spending, however, as World Bank data illustrates, Pakistan’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been steadily decreasing since 2003, falling from 4.2 percent then to 3 percent in 2011.
Pakistan’s forces are primarily deployed on its eastern front. Nevertheless, over the past decade a significant portion of the armed forces has been redeployed to the west to fight al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan maintains a force of nearly 150,000 in FATA, which includes around 100,000 army and 50,000 Frontier Corps paramilitary personnel. Pakistan has also decided to create light commando battalions to aid the military in counterinsurgency efforts.
Conventional Doctrines. Pakistan’s military is primarily a conventional force trained to counter threats on its eastern front. Its conventional doctrine is informed by the reality that Pakistan’s major cities, industrial centers and lines of communication are located near India, and the need to defend a long and penetrable border from invasion. Pakistan’s defense strategies have included maintaining strategic deterrence against an Indian attack through a large force on the eastern border, relying on the concept of offensive defense and attempting to gain the first mover’s advantage, as well as arming and training insurgents.
Despite the military’s increasing focus on counterinsurgency, the ability to meet conventional threats from India has remained important. In recent years the Pakistani military undertook a set of exercises known as Azm-e-Nau III to respond to India’s Cold Start Doctrine (.pdf). The CSD envisions a rapid Indian response to a terrorist attack from Pakistani soil in which the Indian military will invade up to 50 miles of Pakistani territory, and within 72 to 96 hours use eight integrated battle groups, with air and naval support, to fix the Pakistani military through simultaneous tactical maneuvers in major cities, while destroying its northern and southern army reserve corps. India will then use the territorial gains to extract concessions from Pakistan.
In response, Pakistan’s Azm-e-Nau III exercises have featured anti-tank battalions that use dispersal tactics to rapidly regain occupied territory. Moreover, Pakistan has also tested a Hatf-4 SRBM, a high-accuracy tactical nuclear weapon with a 37-mile range that can target brigades and divisions attempting to move into Pakistani territory. Despite these developments, it is unclear how seriously Pakistan takes the CSD, since it was not put into effect after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Pakistan’s own response was validated only in 2010, six years after CSD emerged.
Nuclear Doctrine. Since 1998, Pakistan has also had to define its nuclear doctrine and create a command and control system to ensure weapons safety. According to Brig. Feroz Khan, a former official of the Nuclear Command Authority and Bhumitra Chakma, an expert on South Asia’s nuclear weapons, Islamabad’s nuclear doctrine, which emerged slowly, is India-focused and based on four major principles: minimum credible deterrence, nuclear first use, massive retaliation and counter-value targeting.
Given its inability to match India’s conventional capabilities, Pakistan views nuclear weapons as an equalizer. Nevertheless, Pakistani leaders have often clarified that even within the nuclear realm Pakistan does not seek parity with India, but aims to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrence. How this concept is operationalized, however, remains unclear. Furthermore, Pakistan has traditionally listed four major Indian moves that could propel it to use its nuclear weapons: an Indian invasion, sizable destruction of Pakistan’s armed forces, political destabilization and economic strangulation. Beyond this, however, Pakistan’s “red-line risks” remain ambiguous.
Proliferation and the safety of nuclear weapons are major concerns associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program. Since 2000 the Nuclear Command Authority, composed of chief civilian and military leaders, has been responsible for decision-making on the program’s policy, planning, procurement and use. It was not until 1999, however, that Pakistan developed a command-and-control system through the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) that brought bureaucratic oversight and control over the program. The ability of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to proliferate nuclear technology has been attributed to this lack of oversight. In the aftermath of the Khan fiasco, Pakistan revised its export control laws. Furthermore, the SPD made two major reforms to buttress security: using assessment tools, such as Personnel and Human Reliability Programs, to screen personnel, and creating a security force with an intelligence unit to counter assaults, espionage and other threats against nuclear installations and weapons.
Counterinsurgency Doctrine. Over the past decade the Pakistani army has had to bring about fundamental doctrinal and capability changes to contend with the growing threat of irregular warfare. In 2013 these doctrinal evolutions became official. In its new “Green Book,” the army described internal threats as Pakistan’s greatest security risk, displacing India for the first time. Pakistan’s operational priorities have also changed, with an emphasis on tackling guerrilla warfare and sub-conventional threats, including the Pakistani Taliban insurgency and terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities.
The Pakistani army is no stranger to guerrilla warfare, having sponsored and countered multiple insurgencies. Yet until recently it lacked a counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and traditionally relied on coercive tactics against rebels and civilians alike. Therefore, when it entered the mountainous tribal areas in 2004 to fight against al-Qaida and local Pashtun Taliban, it lacked the strategy, training and equipment to succeed. This resulted in battlefield losses, low troop morale and instances of soldiers surrendering to the Taliban. Moreover, use of heavy firepower and human rights abuses, such as collective punishment of tribes, alienated locals. This, coupled with popular opposition in Pakistan to such operations, resulted in the military signing several failed peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban and withdrawing from the areas in which they operated.
As Haider Mullick explains, beginning in late-2008 during operations in Bajaur Agency, changes emerged in Pakistan’s COIN strategy. The new approach aimed at increasing collaboration with pro-government local tribes, elder councils and militias, and incorporated “hold” and “build” elements of COIN doctrine. After clearing operations, the military created small bases in civilian areas, enforced curfews and helped the local government regain power and legitimacy. Swat district, where the Pakistani army defeated the Taliban after two major operations in 2009, became the publicized model of this approach.
While Pakistan’s COIN strategy is the outcome of a “learning by doing” (.pdf) approach, in 2009 the army also began institutionalizing COIN training in its academies. U.S. military trainers have also been conducting training inside Pakistan. From 2009 onward, the military has launched operations in South Waziristan, Mohmand, Orakzai and the Kurram agencies of FATA. While Bajaur and Mohmand have been officially declared “clear” of militants, fighting continues in the remaining agencies of FATA, with particularly intense clashes in Kurram and Orakzai.
In the mid-to-long term, Pakistan’s strategic priorities will include establishing domestic security, ensuring regional security and accessing energy resources.
With the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the major question facing Pakistan is whether it will continue COIN operations in FATA or cut a deal with the Pakistani Taliban. Despite offers of peace talks by the militants and some political parties’ support for negotiations, it presently seems unlikely that the military will negotiate peace. Its silence amid the recent clamoring on the issue is telling. Defeating al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban is a national security priority for the army, and it seems prepared for the long war. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s war will remain selective, and groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and most sectarian outfits will not be targeted. Moreover, low-intensity COIN operations will also continue against Baluch separatists.
While the military has continued to improve its counterinsurgency capabilities, Pakistan still lacks a national counterterror strategy and requisite improvements in its civilian law-enforcement capabilities. Pakistan must also improve its militant deradicalization programs (.pdf) and create a national counterradicalization strategy and disengagement programs.
Afghanistan is the other major strategic priority for Pakistan. Like all countries in the region, Pakistan’s principal goal is to avoid an outcome through which Afghanistan becomes a security threat. Despite Islamabad’s avowed noninterference (.pdf), it has already vigorously maneuvered so that its interests are not ignored. Moreover, it has also stressed the importance of an “intra-Afghan” dialogue process, hoping that American influence on Afghan leaders’ decision-making is limited. Barring radical changes, in the short term Pakistan will remain focused on delivering the Afghan Taliban to negotiations and ensuring that the process, still in its latent phase in Qatar, is sustained, with the medium-term goal of its Taliban and non-Taliban Pashtun allies gaining greater political representation in Kabul.
The search for energy resources has quickly become a major strategic priority for Pakistan. According to a recent study, at least 48 percent of Pakistanis cannot access electricity regularly. Massive power cuts have also adversely impacted the economy. In fiscal year 2011-2012, natural gas and energy shortages limited GDP growth by 2-4 percent, halving actual growth. Pakistan is pursuing the CASA 1000 project to cheaply access electricity and remains committed to building the TAPI and Iran-Pakistan oil and natural gas pipeline. While the Central Asian projects face uncertainties, Pakistan has moved forward on the Iranian front despite opposition from the U.S. and India’s retreat from the project. Construction of the $7.5 billion pipeline, which is due to begin functioning by December 2014, was officially inaugurated on March 11. China is partially financing the project through a $1 billion loan.
In addition to these areas of principal strategic focus, three other issues are key to Pakistan’s vital national interests. Primary among them is maintaining a credible minimum nuclear deterrence against India. Pakistan sees this as the optimal defense against India’s growing conventional and nuclear capabilities. Thus, Pakistan is making technological advancements through the induction of ballistic and cruise missiles and developing a second-strike capability. Nevertheless, it is unclear if Pakistan also interprets credible deterrence in terms of a static number of nuclear weapons, and if so, what the optimal size is.
Uninterrupted access to the Indus waters is also a vital national interest. India has launched various dam and development projects currently underway on the Indus River, such as the Wuller Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, and the Kishenganga and Nimoo-Bazgo power projects, which Pakistan opposes. As a lower riparian, Pakistan fears that India will divert waters through these projects, which Islamabad claims violate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). Pakistan will continue to challenge Indian projects on the Indus that Islamabad deems threatening to Pakistani water security. Nevertheless, such disputes have always been resolved peacefully through the multitiered dispute-resolution mechanisms created by the IWT, and there is no indication that Pakistan will resort to force to seek a settlement.
Finally, beyond traditional and evolving strategic priorities, stabilizing the economy and managing external debt are two areas critical for Pakistan’s viability, but they lack serious policy attention. Since 2008, when Pakistan’s growth rate hit an abysmally low 1.6 percent, Pakistan has grown at an average rate of 3.6 percent up until fiscal year 2011-2012, and is expected to grow at around 3.2 percent in the current fiscal year. This is nearly half the growth rate registered between 2003 and 2007. Furthermore, many Pakistanis continue to face joblessness. Even according to official figures, the unemployment rate was 6 percent in 2011. Simultaneously, rising prices have crippled the average Pakistani consumer. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, Pakistan’s current inflation rate is around 8 percent.
Furthermore, Pakistan also faces a severe budget deficit that has been worsening since 2009 and for fiscal year 2011-2012 stood at 8.5 percent of GDP, twice the target. As Akbar Zaidi, a leading Pakistani political economist explained (.pdf), Pakistan’s expenditures are continually in excess of its revenue, primarily due to Pakistan’s low tax-to-GDP ratio of 10 percent — 5 percentage points below the International Monetary Fund’s guidelines. To make up for this deficit the government borrows from foreign and domestic sources, with the net result being lack of revenue for development and unsustainable debt.
The problem of external debt, which stands at $60 billion, is now heightened by falling reserves resulting from declining capital inflows and foreign direct investment. In January 2013 Pakistan had only $9 billion remaining in its foreign exchange reserves. With a $1.3 billion debt repayment due soon, a balance of payments crisis is looming. There is a high likelihood now of Pakistan returning to the IMF for a new loan package for the second time in five years.
Economic policy planning, which according to many observers was nearly absent under the Pakistan People Party-led government, will be a major challenge for Pakistan’s next government. One interviewee close to military circles explained that the military remained very concerned about the economy, thus the impetus to make progress may be especially high now.
Pakistan’s foreign policy has traditionally been defined by its security competition with India. This competition has in turn determined alliances and caused policymakers to prioritize defense over other national priorities. It has also meant that Pakistan’s foreign relations were not governed by a singular commitment to an ideological bloc or country, a trend that persists today.
In the past few years Pakistan’s foreign policy goals and security objectives have changed slowly but crucially, and the causes are multiple: changing regional geopolitical realities, economic needs, desire to limit dependence on the U.S. and power transitions in the international system that have altered the raison d’être of Pakistan’s traditional alliances. Global stakeholders must closely watch Pakistan’s evolving strategic priorities, especially because policy transformations can generate confusion and uncertainty, and increase the problem of miscalculation.
These transformations in Pakistan’s foreign policy will most likely continue even if the PPP does not return to power in 2013. Most interviewees agreed that there is an increasing realization in Pakistan that its approach toward its neighbors has to change. The regional pivot policy enjoys support from Pakistan’s mainstream parties, especially with regard to India, with whom all favor increased trade and political normalization.
Pakistan’s military is also in a period of transformation imposed by the demands of the battlefield. As an institution, its focus will likely remain on increased professionalization, which includes allowing for greater civilian control. On the security front, Pakistan will continue to modernize its nuclear and conventional capabilities, while simultaneously enhancing its ability to combat insurgent and terrorist threats. The shape of Pakistan’s endgame in the tribal areas, however, is unclear.
With the increasing consolidation of democratic rule and major policy changes in Pakistan, several questions arise. Primarily, will changes in approach translate into long-term changes in actions? Will there be greater shifts in Pakistan’s foreign policy decision-making centers? Will democratically elected representatives gain greater control over national security matters? And if so, will these transitions result from conflict or cooperation between Pakistan’s military and civilian establishments?
The answers to these questions will help determine the future course of Pakistan’s strategic policymaking in the years to come.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a research associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.