Pakistani military and foreign policy


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MOST analyses looking at the Pakistani state end up faulting the military for the country’s many ills. From supposedly misplaced priorities where the security policy is seen as trumping development to subordinating the conduct of foreign policy, blame is laid at the door of the Pakistani military. The exercise is generally conducted as tracing back the cause-and-effect trajectory to causa sui, the first cause uncaused, namely the military’s desire to dominate the system and retain and perpetuate that dominance at all cost for reasons of institutional interests.

While there is a kernel of truth in the argument that the Pakistani military is desirous of retaining its primacy and has traditionally acted as the frontline guardian of the state, it is somewhat simplistic to consider this military dominated paradigm as emanating merely from a set of vested institutional interests.

My argument here does not necessarily disagree with certain findings that are almost common to analyses by different scholars and even informed generalists among whom I shall include some discerning journalists. But I believe, based on historical events, internal military literature, talks and seminars at various military institutions and conversations, public and private, with scores of servicemen – from subalterns to army chiefs – that the vested interest theory fails to take account of the earnestness, even if misplaced, of the military’s ‘guardian mindset’ that in combination with its acculturation processes, has guided its conduct both internally and externally.

In other words, I argue that the Pakistani military should not be seen simply as a large-scale bureaucratic organization that, having tasted power, is primarily interested in maximizing its own gains, but as an entity that is convinced of its own sincerity in terms of guarding the state of Pakistan and is prepared to act to ensure that outcome. Additionally, while it is convinced of its own genuineness to safeguard Pakistan’s interests, a term that is much broader than a simple reference to external aggression, it remains sceptical of other institutions in this regard. As should be obvious, this is also where the problem begins.

Before we get down to how this ‘mindset’ – perpetuated by a combination of tutelary concerns and acculturation, starting with the Pakistan Military Academy – and institutional memory operates, it is important to see what galvanizes it. At this point we also have to disagree with analyses that define the problem as a self-caused cause. At the centre of the problem stands India.

I am aware of how Indians look at the issue and how they argue it, i.e., the adversarial relations between Pakistan and India are a doing of the Pakistani military rather than the other way round. However, this argument fails, even if unwittingly, to see India as it is – and how its actions are seen by its neighbours, especially Pakistan, in terms both of the actual operationalization of India’s capabilities as also its perceived intentions. Put another way, while India is all too ready to slap the charge of hyper-realism on Pakistani military, it would like to not only retain its own realist choices, but has been working, even if in fits and starts, to project power within South Asia and beyond.

In a way then, for Indians to understand how the neighbours feel, they will have to begin to look at their own country from the neighbours’ perspective. To make the point clear, when Americans talk about a security threat from Iran, it would perhaps be instructive for them to begin to see how Iran, a much weaker country, perceives the threat level from America. That it is difficult to do so is one of the tragedies of interstate relations but that’s another debate.


To avoid the danger of someone running away with this argument and misconstruing it, let me clarify that my point relates to the importance of perceptions and does not take away from other arguments that many of us in Pakistan have made – and continue to make – about the imperative of addressing the civil-military imbalance and the structural anomalies it has created. My effort here is to understand the conduct of the Pakistani military, even as one can, as I hope to, argue that this imbalance has not redounded to Pakistan’s advantage.

To recap and make it clear, there are two arguments here: one deals with why the Pakistani military operates the way it does; the second relates to whether its ‘guardian mindset’ has strengthened the Pakistani state. I believe that if the answer to the second level of analysis is in the negative, then it is important for Pakistan internally to find a response that understands – and appreciates – the first level of analysis. This is also imperative in the same measure for non-Pakistani analysts.


Apropos of the threat perception from India, two issues are important. In the immediate wake of Partition, the two states went to war over Kashmir. (This statement eschews the fact that on the Pakistani side the uprising began in Poonch by the local population, a phenomenon also repeated in Gilgit-Baltistan.) In July-August 1951, there was another scare with mutual allegations of troop deployments close to the border. The issue of sharing river waters was also hanging fire. As Ayub Khan writes in his book, Friends Not Masters, this was a crucial issue and given that India had earlier threatened to block Pakistan’s share of the rivers waters and released the flow only under strict conditions, he had to move fast and decisively. In a meeting at Lahore’s Governor House, Khan told technical experts very clearly that ‘the policy is going to be mine’, essentially telling them to stop putting a spoke in the wheels of the Indus Waters Treaty.1

As Commander-in-Chief, Khan and his generals were clear about the fact that ‘India’s military strength would always be greater than ours’ and therefore Pakistan’s ‘aim should be to build up a military deterrent force with adequate offensive and defensive power.’ This had to be done, Khan argued, because ‘India’s aim is to expand, dominate and spread her influence.’2

The issue, therefore, is not just India’s military strength but the natural inclination of the Indian state, from its own perspective, to increase its influence within and outside the region. As Moeed Yusuf argued, it is important to develop ‘a system-level model focusing on Pakistan’s outlook vis-ŕ-vis India to explain the country’s domestic interplay among development, politics, and security.’ Yusuf calls it the ‘outside-in’ analysis.3 The important point in this ‘India factor’ is not so much a fear that India could conquer and hold Pakistani territory, though at the tactical level that cannot be dismissed, but that India should not be allowed to get into a position where it can use a mix of non-kinetic and kinetic means to coerce Pakistan into accepting its terms. There is empirical evidence that India has reached a state of peace with only those neighbours who have accepted New Delhi’s terms for peace.


It is, therefore, important to view and analyze Pakistan’s responses, in this case its foreign policy and the military’s influence on it in terms of the peculiarities of the ‘make up and structure of South Asian state-to-state relations, and how India and Pakistan have positioned themselves within it.’ Put another way, the argument here is different from the generally, and more often discussed, real or perceived Indian threat to Pakistan. Threat levels can fluctuate and whether they are/were real or perceived can be, and are, debated. The point is both broader and more structural and relates to Pakistan’s and the Pakistani military’s drive to avoid falling within India’s ambit of influence.

The argument is grounded in realism. The realist school argues that relative power is the most important determinant of interstate behaviour. This means that total peace can be achieved in two ways: through an adequate balance of power – acquired either by a state’s own strength relative to the other (or others) or by bandwagoning with an ally to make up for any weakness; the second is by submitting – i.e., the decision by one state to allow relations to be shaped according to the will of the other or for it to be coerced by the other into taking the submission option.


There are some realities of the South Asian region. For a system-level analysis, Moeed Yusuf uses the hub and spoke model. The region originally comprised a set of six, now seven (Afghanistan being the seventh entrant) spokes tied to a hub, India. With nearly 80 per cent of the region’s GDP, a vast majority of the population, nearly three-fourths of the total regional exports, by far the strongest conventional military, and geographical and historical centrality in South Asia, India is the natural pivot for this region. Its overbearing presence leaves little doubt of its supremacy in terms of relative power.

Since relative power is the most important factor in system-level analyses in international relations, it would predict that India’s de facto hegemonic presence would give it the ability to dominate relations with its neighbours. The overwhelming power differential has meant that peace and/or conflict in South Asia depend on how India is able to establish ties with its neighbours on terms preferential to itself. Wherever and whenever India and a spoke in the wheel (one of its neighbours) are able to find equilibrium that approximates the power realities of their bilateral equation, relative peace has ensued. In every instance that one of the spokes has tried to defy the hub (India) on issues the latter considers central, tensions, crises, or worse yet, conflicts would result.

It is a matter of record that India has had troubled ties with all the surrounding spokes at one point or another. Each of these instances can be explained as efforts by the hub and the particular spoke in question to find an equilibrium that would suit them respectively, keeping in mind, of course, the power imbalance; on each area of disagreement, India would seek an outcome in line with its position, while the spoke would attempt to gain whatever concession it could.

With three of the spokes – Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives – the power differential and/or the level of dependence of these countries on India is so acute that New Delhi has managed to have much greater say in the overall tenor of these bilateral equations. Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka, relatively stronger states, have held out more often and thus witnessed oscillatory patterns to their relationship with India. However, neither of these states has openly chosen to pit itself against New Delhi. Despite instances of considerable tensions for brief periods, there has never been any consideration of adopting a foreign policy line overtly hostile to India.


Afghanistan, while being a spoke, does not have geographic contiguity with India. Kabul, in its relations with India, has, therefore, to be mindful of how Islamabad perceives them. For the most part that country has seen the Pakistan-India rivalry played out on its soil. In the end, however, Afghanistan cannot ignore Pakistan because of the tyranny of geography. This leaves Pakistan as the only state that stands between India and its drive into West and Central Asia. Additionally, Pakistan has so far refused to accept India’s terms in settling their outstanding disputes, including Kashmir. To this end Pakistan has bandwagoned first with the United States and also with China to balance the relative power asymmetry with India. Islamabad’s relations with the US have been complex and recent years have seen a clear shift by Washington in favour of India.


The upshot of this has been skewed priorities with Pakistan spending far more money on security than development, a term I use broadly. The stress on security has also meant that the military, the managers of violence, have remained centre stage in Pakistan’s domestic politics. But, as argued earlier, this is not because of the military’s desire to control the conduct of foreign policy just for the sake of being the dominant player. The military thinks, quite sincerely, that politicians have repeatedly failed to streamline public life in Pakistan, resulting in poor governance and economic mismanagement. The military also believes, and this runs like a motif through memoirs penned by many senior officers, that politicians have no regard for national priorities and aspirations and tend to involve themselves in the low cut and thrust of politics.

In my own conversations with officers and during question and answer sessions at military institutions, officers at all levels talk about policy-making inertia, corruption, nepotism, the lack of a leadership that has vision and can set national objectives and pursue them in earnest. The military also feels that the system is not geared for throwing up national leaders. All of this emanates from the military mindset which looks at the world in terms of clear operational imperatives and prides itself on its managerial skills. Even the officers who believe that democracy must function in the country – and their numbers are increasing – show frustration with the political governments’ lack of capacity and unwillingness to do what must be done. The military mind simply cannot figure out the fact that politics is much more than a sound exhibition of managerial skills and that a country like Pakistan requires aggregation of often conflicting and contradictory interests. Put another way, it means that very often the civilian governments have to accept the trade-off between administrative efficiency and political compromise.

The interesting bit is that when one points to the fact that military and quasi-military governments have had to do the same, the response normally is to nod in agreement and express disappointment at the generals for doing so; if only they had not done it. The concept of the limits of public policy, especially in a complex and diverse society, seems lost on the military which thrives, as it must for its own efficient functioning, on a strict vertical hierarchy.

Not only has this had a negative impact on domestic politics, it has also meant constraints on the Foreign Office and the conduct of foreign policy. The basic anomaly in all this is that security policy has turned foreign policy into its subset instead of the other way round, in turn helping develop a narrative which puts undue premium on military options.


In an article for the October 2014 issue of Hilal, the armed forces’ magazine, while discussing the nonlinear, hybrid wars of the 21st century, I argued: ‘How strong or weak a state is in the face of such a threat will depend on how internally strong and cohesive it is – or can be. A state’s strength in such a situation is a function of political stability, economic prowess, diplomatic outreach and, consequent to these preconditions, military strength. In other words, military strength flows from non-military factors. This should clearly indicate that our national strategy to put military strength ahead of the very factors that can ensure and sustain it, has been a flawed policy and has resulted in weakening rather than strengthening the state. Unfortunately, it also means that we are extremely vulnerable to the ravages of nonlinear or hybrid war.’


The approach to security has not only resulted in lopsided priorities, though things have been improving on that front, but has also allowed the military to put a foot in the door and occasionally kick it open to enter the room and occupy the high table. The Foreign Office did put up a lot of resistance during General Zia-ul-Haq’s time when he created the Afghan cell for conducting the covert war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, but it ultimately lost out. Since then some core aspects of foreign policy have remained subservient to the military’s approach to security.

However, it is important to flag a crucial point: the military’s interest in the core aspects of foreign policy does not mean that the civilian enclave would conduct it in a drastically different way, given the broad, structural reasons addressed above. What it means is that the civilians are likely to restore foreign policy to its primary place and conduct it in ways that increase the emphasis on non-military options without losing sight of the geopolitical and geostrategic determinants of an over-arching national security policy.

I stress this point because some analyses tend to argue that everything flows from the Pakistani military. The situation, in reality, is less linear. There are a number of decisions that emanated from civilian leaders and, in some cases, like nuclear testing or supporting the Taliban, the military and its intelligence agencies went along rather reluctantly. The very effort to develop a nuclear weapons option was pushed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at a time when the military was still recovering from the East Pakistan debacle.

Moreover, and this is also interesting, the civilian enclave in Pakistan has emerged stronger over the past seven years at a time when, ironically, the country has been at war internally. Most theorists of civil-military relations argue that militaries emerge stronger during periods of conflict because civilian principals need their input in larger doses than is the case during periods of peace. Yet, Pakistan has seen a reverse trend and while the military hasn’t been pushed out of the room, it has, from a position of clear dominance become primus inter pares. This is because of diffusion of power in Pakistan and the rise of multiple centres of power within the civilian enclave. However, in all fairness to the military, there is an increasing realization within the officer corps that Pakistan is a complex entity and does not lend itself to managerial solutions. The point of concern, however, is that while there’s been a decline in the power of the military, there’s not been a proportional improvement in the capacity of political leaders to lead.


Finally, in terms of the conduct of foreign policy, it is important to understand that the military, even if fully subservient, would continue to give its input on matters that concern security. A good example of this would be the inability of successive Indian governments to find a solution to the Siachen dispute in the face of concerns voiced by the Indian Army. The civilians in Pakistan will continue to conduct foreign policy within the realist perspective and the way interests and strategies in pursuit of the goals are self-defined. In that sense, there will be nothing unique about Pakistan’s (and India’s) stance towards this bilateral relationship.



1. Ayub Khan, Friends Not Masters: A Political Autobiography. Oxford University Press, New York, 1967, pp. 109-110.

2. Ibid., p. 47.

3. Moeed Yusuf, ‘The Intersection of Development, Politics, and Security’, in Anita Weiss and Saba Gul Khattak (eds.), Development Challenges Confronting Pakistan. Kumarian Press, Sterling, 2013.