The opportunity costs of Pakistan’s national security state: the lost decade of the 1990s

In the post-Cold War era, the continuation of Pakistan's military-centric national security state came at a considerable cost to the democratic and socio-economic development of the country and also undermined its domestic and regional security. The military elite have shown little interest in adapting to a new strategic environment. Nevertheless, the country had alternative options to adjust its foreign and security policies in the new global context of the post-Cold War era.

Towards the end of the Cold War, Pakistan had the option to transform itself into a modern Islamic democratic country. For instance, parliamentary elections were held in August 1988 that gave a window of opportunity for democracy to prevail in the country. In the post-Cold War period, this was an important occasion to uphold democratic institutions which would have brought necessary political stability to the country and sustained its alliance with the US in the changing global security environment (Fair et al. 2010). Internationally, the US had linked its aid with democracy and human rights. More importantly, Bhutto was leading the civilian administration and understood the regional and international politics of a changing global security environment after the Cold War. Therefore, she pushed for a peaceful transition in Afghanistan and normalization of relations with India. In 1988-1989, India and Pakistan agreed to form a joint ministerial committee to boost trade and cooperation in science and technology. There was also a consensus to reduce conventional arms and resolve the disputes over the Siachen Glacier. The success of Bhutto would have led to a major shift in Pakistan-India relations after the end of the Cold War. However, this opportunity was lost when the Kashmir uprising started in 1990 and the Pakistani military diverted many Afghan mujahedeen to support the uprising. Likewise, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Lahore to normalize relations with Pakistan in February 1999. During his visit, Vajpayee reaffirmed his country’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan. However, the peace initiative was soon thwarted by the Pakistani military offensive in Kargil in 1999.

On the Afghanistan front, Pakistan had also an opportunity to have a peaceful transition after the Soviet forces left the country. During the Afghan war, Pakistan hosted about 3 million Afghan refugees and provided military aid to anti-Soviet mujahedeen. In return, Pakistan could have nurtured the goodwill of the Afghan refugees by supporting a peaceful transition in Kabul and the return of these refugees who had put significant pressure on Pakistan’s weak economy. Consequently, the Pakistani political leadership emphasized a diplomatic solution to the Afghan conflict after the Soviet withdrawal. The foreign office and Bhutto insisted on supporting political groups that had roots in the Afghans (Memon 1994). In February 1989, Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, visited Pakistan to devise a political plan dealing with the post-Soviet situation in Afghanistan. Shevardnadze discussed the exiting plan with Bhutto which envisaged a peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan, under which the then Afghan President Dr. Mohammad Najibullah would remain in power for the transition period. Pakistan would return 3 million refugees to Afghanistan (Bhutto 2008). However, the Pakistani military was against this transition in Afghanistan and favoured instead an Afghan interim government in Kabul. Consequently, Pakistan lost the opportunity to have a peaceful transition in Afghanistan, a stable country in its backyard, and a new relationship with Russia after the end of the Cold War.

In addition, the post-Cold War security environment offered some opportunities for Pakistan to bolster its position in international politics. Islamabad was a key US ally during the Cold War and played a major role in the defeat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistani leadership established both official and personal relations with the US Congress and the State Department. The US became the sole superpower after the demise of the Soviet Union. The major US concern was anti-liberal, nationalistic, Islamic revisionist states, and Islamic fundamentalism. Islamabad had the potential to mediate between the US and anti-liberal and Islamic revisionist states in Muslim countries such as Iran, Libya, and Sudan (Travis 1994). Also, Pakistan was a key member of the QIC, in which it could have provided a moderating role. With real democratic transition in 1988, Islamabad could have offered a moderate Islamic democratic model to the new Central Asian states after the collapse of Soviet Union, which would have enhanced its international stature (Memon 1994). In return, Pakistan could have asked the US for support to protect its strategic interests vis-à-vis India and the removal of sanctions under the Pressler Amendment (Travis 1994). So Pakistan had the opportunity to sustain its close alliance with the US and improve its international stature following the Cold War.

More importantly, Pakistan had many options to present itself as a “trading nation” instead of a “warrior nation” by exploiting its strategic position for regional trade and energy connectivity. Economic connectivity would have given an upperhand to Pakistan in neighbouring countries as Afghanistan is a landlocked country which was largely dependent on Pakistan’s sea routes and its trade. So Pakistan could have used its economic influence to have a good neighbourly relationship with Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Muslim states in Central Asia opened new economic and strategic opportunities for Pakistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to its geographical proximity and cultural affinity, Islamabad could have strengthened its relations with Central Asian countries. Islamabad could have become a trade route for energy-rich Central Asia to reach the rest of the world through Pakistan’s deep seaports in Karachi and Gwadar (Memon 1994).

Pakistan could have looked for alternative economic opportunities which in return would have not only boosted its weakening economy but also the regional connectivity would have guaranteed the sovereignty of the country due to investment from the other countries. As a result of such changes, the political gravity would have automatically shifted towards Islamabad that could have provided the necessary strategic balance in the region.

Despite numerous opportunities throughout the 1990s, the Pakistani military has not accepted diplomatic solutions to the country’s outstanding issues with India and Afghanistan. In the post-Cold War settings, Pakistan had failed to establish a liberal democratic system and exploited its geostrategic position for economic development. The major reason was that Pakistan’s national security state was unable to adapt quickly to the changing global security environment in the post-Cold War era. More specifically, this national security state provides a privileged role to the Pakistani military, and any change in this security approach would have downgraded or undermined its privileged role in state affairs.

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