Pakistan’s Strategic Thinking

February 27, 2009
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar
Type: 
Only by Invitation
Time: 
1030 to 1300 hrs

Chair: V.G Patankar
Discussants: Kalim Bahadur and Ajay D Behera

Pakistan’s self image, geographical location and history have influenced the country’s strategic thinking. In the initial years, Pakistan perceived itself to be a weak state and believed that India posed an existential threat to its security. However, Islamabad’s thinking evolved over a period of time through its experience in various wars with India, tension on the western borders, developments in communications, military doctrines, military technology and weapons systems. For instance, after its defeat in the 1971 war with India, Pakistan decided to develop nuclear weapons. Following the acquisition of a nuclear capability was acquired in 1987, nuclear deterrence became an important element of Pakistan’s strategic thinking. Similarly, Islamic jihad based on young recruits from Pakistan mosques and madrassas played an important role in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Drivers for Pakistan’s Strategic Outlook

Pakistan has suffered from a small state syndrome ever since its inception. It feels a strong sense of disadvantage vis-à-vis India. Being one-fourth its territory and one-eighth of its population, Pakistan feels pressured by being in the vicinity of a much larger Hindu dominated India.

Pakistan was conscious of the fact that any attack from its perceived adversaries, India to its East and Afghanistan/erstwhile Soviet Union in the West would leave it with very little strategic depth. This led Islamabad to adopt a strategy of “offensive defence” vis-à-vis India, and on the other hand to develop relations with Iran and make vigorous attempts to establish its influence in Afghanistan.

The 1893 Durand Line created by the British profoundly embittered the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact in 1947, Afghanistan voted against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations because it laid claim to the Pashtun territories on Pakistan’s side of the Durand Line. In 1949, a loya jirga (grand tribal assembly) convened by the Afghan government declared support for “Pushtunistan”. The jirga which affirmed the position of the Afghan government was not willing to accept the validity of agreements like the 1893 Durand Agreement, as it considered Pakistan a new state rather than a successor state to British India, and considered past treaties with the British pertaining to the status of the border as null and void. Afghanistan’s support for Pushtunistan found expression due to Pashtun nationalism, the pride stemming from Pashtun political domination of Afghanistan historically and the implicit vulnerability that characterizes Afghanistan’s landlocked geographic situation.

Pakistan’s inability to establish a stable democratic system in the early years of its independence resulted in the repeated intervention of the army. Given its interest in remaining the dominant power centre it has not tolerated interference by civilian governments in matters it considers sacrosanct.

Pakistan’s internal ethnic contradictions and the dominance of the Punjabis in the power structure resulted in the movement for secession in East Pakistan. At the time of independence, it was hoped that a “common faith” would help overcome any ethno-linguistic contradictions

The excessive importance given by the Pakistani leadership to the views of the Ulema resulted in the gradual ascendancy of religious extremists. The Ulema have had significant influence over the Pakistani leadership

Pakistan has always used its Islamic identity and therefore its links to Islamic countries as an important factor in promoting its strategic objectives. Right from the beginning Pakistan’s leadership adopted a pan-Islamic approach, became a member of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) and later of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

The strategic location of Pakistan during the Cold War led to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States which determined its strategic outlook for a substantial period of history. Regime survival, Pakistan’s traditional policy paradigm of seeking leadership in the Muslim world, securing national unity through Islam and obtaining Western economic and military assistance were some of the imperatives guiding Pakistan’s behaviour.

Elements of Pakistan’s Strategic Thinking

First, it would be pertinent to emphasize that Pakistan’s strategic thinking has been dominated by the Army because of the Army’s continuous role in government, whether direct or indirect.

Second, it was therefore natural that Pakistan’s strategic thinking should have been characterised by a highly aggressive posture towards India. A number of assumptions on the part of the Pakistani leadership led it to attack India in 1965. It was believed that after Nehru’s death the potential for disintegration of India was higher, and Lal Bahadur Shastri was considered to be a weak leader. The flawed concept of “The defence of East Pakistan lies in the West” remained the basis of Pakistan’s military strategy till the surrender at Dhaka in 1971. Pakistan’s aggressive attitude was also evident from its strategy to destabilise India through covert means as in the state support for Sikh separatists through the 1980s. Since the late 1980s Pakistan has actively sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir with the help of the highly trained mujahideen who had returned from the Afghan war. The Kargil operations in 1999 were launched by the Pakistan Army with the aim of acquiring territory at Kargil in a bid to force India to solve the Kashmir problem on terms favourable to Pakistan.

Third, such aggressive behaviour was also reflected in Pakistan’s dealings with Afghanistan. Concepts like strategic depth provided legitimacy for military expansionism into Afghanistan, initially by giving support to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, and later by training and supporting the Taliban

Fourth, Pakistan’s strategists have followed a doctrine of “offensive defence” given Pakistan’s size, location, and terrain along its eastern border with India. In times of crisis, Pakistan has not hesitated to be the first to resort to use of force to gain initial advantage.

Fifth, though Pakistan’s belief in jihad as a weapon to achieve political goals is well known, it is interesting to note that in the late 1970's, efforts were made to interpret the Holy Quran and its relevance to war. The Quranic concept of Jihad seems to be the basis of Islamic strategic doctrine.

Sixth, Pakistan has relied extensively on irregulars to help it achieve its military objectives.

Seventh, Pakistan believed that it would be able to snatch Kashmir from India and “inflict a thousand wounds” on India, destabilise it or weaken it, through subconventional warfare. Taking advantage of its nuclear capability acquired in 1987, Pakistan started implementing its plan of achieving strategic goals first in Kashmir and then in the rest of India through a low-intensity conflict or proxy war.

Eight, nuclear weapons constitute the most important and advanced element in Pakistan’s strategic thinking. The essential logic of Pakistan’s nuclear programme is Indo-centric. Pakistan acquired a nuclear weapons capability in 1987, as has been admitted by General Mirza Aslam Beg himself.

It can be concluded that, Pakistan can claim only partial success in achieving its strategic objectives. Even recently, western leaders like David Miliband and Richard Holbrooke have been harping on Kashmir resolution as a pre-condition for peace in the region. Again, by relying on non-state jihadi organisations to fulfil their strategic objectives against India, and by reinforcing the Taliban to carry out Pakistan’s goals against Afghanistan, Pakistan has legitimised these terrorist groups to such an extent that they have become a threat to Pakistan’s own existence.

Some of the issues raised in the discussion were:

  • When Pakistan was formed as an independent state, there was no understanding of security problems that it would face. As the country was divided into two wings separated by a 1000 miles of landmass, the factors shaping strategic thinking were potentially lacking since the outset.
  • The 1947 Kashmir operation planned by Pakistan was not a part of its strategy. In fact this was the first time the word Jihad was used by the Pakistani establishment to give a symbolic connotation to the Kashmir issue.
  • The paper seems to be episodically analytical and needs some form of conceptualization and framework of explanation. The derivatives and meaning of strategy and strategic thinking need to be elucidated.
  • There is a need to focus on the nation building process in Pakistan, before outlining components of its strategic thinking. The fact that Pakistan is not a homogenous entity has to be reckoned with. The domestic aspect and the questions related to survivability of the state has to be underlined in order arrive at a comprehensive picture.
  • There is a need to underline the strategic objectives in Pakistan. In this context it is important to comprehend Pakistani understanding of India.
  • The paper needs to focus on 1971 as the turning point as there was a perceptible shift of Pakistan’s strategy.
  • Given the economic dependence of Pakistan on the United States and the I.M.F, is it feasible to discuss the possibility of independent strategic thinking in Pakistan.

The seminar was chaired by Lt Gen (Retd.) V.G Patankar. External discussants were Prof. Kalim Bahadur and Dr Ajay. D. Behera. Internal discussants were Dr. Smruti Pattanaik and Col. Ali Ahmed.

Prepared by Medha Bisht, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.