Pakistan’s Strategic Vision: With and Without the Taliban

In his recent trips abroad, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has articulated something that is going unnoticed.

During his visit to Japan, in a meeting on March 13 with the chief executives of 20 leading companies in Japan, he urged them to come forward and help in the economic revival of Pakistan. The president pointed out Pakistan’s efforts to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan, and particularly referred to the opportunities available in the gas and energy sector and called on Japanese entrepreneurs to consider investing in the gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan.

Similarly, during his visit to the US, he made an important statement at an address to the expatriate Pakistani community on February 13. He said that Pakistan and Afghanistan, working together, offered a gateway to the landlocked countries of Central Asia, which were only now entering the world and joining the global economic system. Pakistan and Afghanistan could work with the Central Asian countries to bring them out of their decades of isolation. Once Afghanistan is stabilized, it could be part of his vision for Pakistan.

What Musharraf has been articulating is nothing new. It is a thinking that has permeated the strategic vision of the ruling elite in Pakistan since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the early 1970s. It was a vision that notionally sought to detach Pakistan from South Asia and align it to the Islamic countries of West Asia. This was not only to strengthen its Islamic identity but also to integrate it closely to those economies.

This realignment did provide marginal benefits to Pakistan’s economy and foreign policy goals in the 1970s and 1980s. At the end of the Cold War, the opening up of the energy-rich but landlocked Muslim Central Asian republics heightened the importance of Pakistan’s geo-strategic location in the exploitation of these resources. The ruling elite’s strategic vision linked the exploitation of the rich energy resources to Pakistan’s economic prosperity and security. Unfortunately, the Taliban was a product of this strategic vision.

The flux at the end of the Cold War provided the context that allowed Pakistan to pursue this strategic vision. Even after the end of the Cold War, Pakistan’s rulers believed and hoped that Pakistan, because of its geo-strategic location, had the potential to play an important role in serving US strategic and geo-economic interests in the region. Pakistan sought to play the role of a self-assumed frontline state despite the withdrawal of the Soviets and Americans from Afghanistan.

In fact, contrary to popular perceptions, Pakistan had assumed the role of a frontline state much before the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. There is evidence that Islamabad’s involvement with the Afghan mujahideen goes back to 1974, much before the communist coup in Afghanistan in April 1978 and Soviet intervention in December 1979. The politics of aiding the Afghan mujahideen was largely linked with the geopolitical objectives of the Pakistani rulers. With foresight they had visualized a role for Pakistan, the contours of which went much beyond Afghanistan and included the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Part of this grand strategic vision was to install a pliant regime in Afghanistan. A friendly government in Kabul was to provide the much-needed strategic depth against India and a land bridge toward Central Asia. After the disowning of the Central Asian republics by the Soviet Union, Pakistan rushed in to fill the vacuum created in Central Asia as it saw itself as the main player in the region because of its geo-strategic location. Pakistan was one of the first countries to send a delegation to all the Central Asian countries in November-December 1991, led by the then minister of state for economic affairs, Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali.

Domination in Afghanistan was important to Islamabad to exercise control over the southern corridor to Central Asia. This was the only way to enhance Pakistan’s geopolitical standing with the West in shaping the future evolution of Central Asia. It could quietly fit into America’s political and strategic objectives in the Central Asian region, which provided a vantage ground for preventing Russian hegemony in the region, containing Iran and playing a balancing role against emerging powers such as China.

The control over the Pakistan-Afghanistan corridor and creating an opening from the south would also be vital for the West in gaining access to the oil and natural-gas resources of the region. This by itself had the potential to get Pakistan economic and political rewards by creating a regional dependence on Islamabad to ensure the safety of the communication and transportation networks and the international acceptance of Pakistan’s hegemony over the southern approaches to Central Asia. This was probably a far more important strategic role than that Pakistan played during the Cold War years.

Stability in Afghanistan was the main variable in this strategy. Since the creation of Pakistan, the relationship with Afghanistan has never been cordial; in fact, the two countries have been antagonistic to each other. The first concern, therefore, was that a future Afghanistan should pose no threat to Pakistan. Initially, Pakistan backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most fundamentalist of all the mujahideen leaders, in the hope that he would provide a pliant regime in Kabul in the post-Najibullah period and could serve as a platform for the expansion of Pakistani influence into the Islamic states of Central Asia.

However, Hekmatyar’s inability to take over Kabul dashed the hopes of installing a pliant regime in Kabul. The romance with Hekmatyar was to end in 1991, when Pakistan cut off support to him. Pakistan was never able to develop cordial relations with the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, which came to power after the fall of Najibullah. Therefore, the ouster of the Rabbani regime had become a high priority as it had become a big hurdle in the role Pakistan had assigned to itself in the new great game.

Since 1991, Pakistan was on the lookout to replace Hekmatyar’s radical party, the Hizb-i-Islami, with another Pashtun Islamic group more acceptable to the West and in particular to Saudi Arabia. Naseerullah Babar, then minister of the interior, had a significant role to play in nurturing a Pashtun militia called the Taliban to take over Kabul and deliver the southwest to Pakistan for it to open the routes to the Central Asian states. The Taliban was nurtured as Pakistan knew that it could not build bridges to Kabul as long as the Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masoud combine was not ousted from power.

Over a period of four years, the Taliban gained in strength and in September 1996 captured Kabul and gradually consolidated their victory until they controlled almost 90 percent of Afghan territory. Despite Pakistan’s best efforts, the Taliban were not able to capture the entire country because of the doughty resistance put up by the Northern Alliance. Pakistan was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban. After Musharraf came to power in October 1999, he tried his best to make the West accept the reality that since the Taliban controlled most of the territory in Afghanistan, they should be recognized as the legitimate regime. His constant refrain was that the Taliban had brought peace and stability to Afghanistan.

The international community was not enamored, and in fact placed sanctions on the Taliban for supporting and promoting terrorism. The simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which took place in August 1998, were suspected to have been carried out by followers of Osama bin Laden, who was being sheltered by the Taliban. The attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 was again linked to bin Laden. Pakistan’s support of the Taliban increasingly led to its international isolation.

It’s difficult to understand why Pakistan continued with its support of the Taliban even when the reason it was nurtured was not serving any purpose. The prospects of the international community accepting the Taliban reality and international oil companies still willing to invest in the oil pipeline through Afghanistan had more or less disappeared when the US fired a couple of cruise missiles into Afghanistan in August 1998.

Musharraf belatedly got wisdom about what was happening in the region and the image problem of Islam. In a speech on December 25, 2001, he said Pakistan had followed a path in recent years that had “undermined Islam to a level that people of the world associate it with illiteracy, backwardness, intolerance, obscurantism and militancy”, and the choice for Pakistan now was to make radical changes, or to court disaster. If any country in the Islamic world comes closest to that stereotypical image, it was Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. And yet Musharraf did not seem to have acquired this wisdom before September 11, and even when he was forced to abandon the Taliban, he did so reluctantly.

Pakistan had to abandon the Taliban after September 11—it simply had no other choice. When the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, Pakistan tried its best to prevent the Northern Alliance from coming to power as it hoped it could still cobble together a friendly regime. Despite a not-too-friendly regime in power in Afghanistan and for the time being Pakistan’s ability to influence and manipulate political developments within Afghanistan severely curtailed, Islamabad had no choice but to make friendly overtures to the new regime. This is linked to its severe economic compulsions.

Pakistan has been in a grave economic situation for some time. Since Musharraf came to power he has given a considerable amount of attention to improving the economy. One of the choices available to him is by regional economic cooperation through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But Pakistan has been a reluctant player in this process as it does not want to be integrated into SAARC because it feels it will be swamped by the Indian economy, which is more than six times the size of Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Anyway, Pakistan’s relations with India are in a deep freeze and it is unlikely that SAARC will be revitalized in the near future, so Pakistan stands to benefit very little from it. The likelihood of Afghanistan being stabilized has once again opened up opportunities for Pakistan in Central Asia.

While on one side Musharraf has been severely challenged by the developments after September 11, on the other he sees his decision to side with the international coalition against terrorism as having opened up opportunities to revitalize the Pakistani economy. And since then he has been looking for aid, rescheduling of debts and a whole host of other measures that are necessary to bail out the economy. That things will improve in the near future looks a tall order, though.

The international economic recession provides little scope for growth in Pakistani exports. Musharraf knows that without a corresponding increase in exports it will be difficult for Pakistan to achieve higher growth rates, and that is why he has been imploring for more market access to the US and Japan. He hasn’t succeeded much in these efforts. During his visits to the US and Japan he was unable to convince those counties to wipe out Pakistan’s debts either.

While the West has generally been sympathetic to Musharraf, it has really not bailed out Pakistan’s economy. Musharraf has to explore all options. Going by what Musharraf has articulated in the US and Japan about bringing the landlocked Central Asian states out of their international economic isolation, it is clear that he is focused on the prospects in Central Asian states and Pakistan’s centrality if oil and gas pipelines are to flow down to the Arabian sea bypassing Iran.

He knows that the US has not invested so much in its war on terrorism without eventually addressing the issue of energy pipelines. A moderate Islamic Pakistan will be well placed to benefit from these developments.

The strategic vision of the the Pakistani ruling elite since Bhutto has now come full circle. It took a lot of death and destruction for the Pakistani rulers to realize that they could not actualize their strategic vision with force. What Pakistan’s rulers had hoped to achieve with the Taliban, Musharraf has no choice but to attempt without the Taliban. Pakistan’s economic salvation may lie in that.