Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pakistan: a Geopolitical Crux

Drafted By: Federico Bordonaro

Two recent events have increased Pakistan's already remarkable geopolitical importance. The first was an ambitious and complex geostrategic move by India -- Pakistan's main geopolitical rival -- consisting in a two-fold strategic partnership with China and the United States. Such an initiative by New Delhi, aimed at enhancing India's role as the Indian Ocean's central power, amplifies Islamabad's security concerns regarding its adversary's strategy. The second event was the wave of terrorist attacks which struck London on July 7 and July 21: Scotland Yard rapidly identified some of the perpetrators as British Muslims of Pakistani descent. [See: "India's Project Seabird and the Indian Ocean's Balance of Power"]

Islamabad's Perilous Game in the Post-9/11 International Context

Pakistan's policy is nowadays perceived in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, its regime is considered by diplomats and scholars to be among the most pro-American due to President Pervez Musharraf's official commitment to tackling al-Qaeda and assisting U.S. operations in Afghanistan. On the other hand, its society is regarded as one of the greatest hotbeds of Islamic radicalism, spreading terrorist ideology around the Muslim world. Islamabad is still the only Muslim power to possess a nuclear weapon, which, together with its flourishing demography and Islamic schools' activities, gives it the status of a regional great power.

At a time of China's rise as a global power, the somewhat fragile balance in Islamabad's political and military milieus is to be carefully monitored. Analysts know that both Pakistan's army and its intelligence agency, the I.S.I., are less than monolithic in their support of the current administration. A strategic partnership with Beijing, consisting in defense technology sharing, is allegedly the preferred option for some influential Pakistani decision-makers.

Musharraf's position is similar to that of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: a pragmatic statesman who aligns with the U.S. notwithstanding the presence of a permanent radical opposition, of a fundamentalist character, deeply rooted in society. Cracking down on religious institutions and political movements that solidly backed al-Qaeda had been Musharraf's card for staying in power with U.S. support after September 11, 2001. It is clear that the terrorist attacks against Britain have put once again an enormous pressure on the Pakistani government.

Reacting to allegations about the possible involvement of some Pakistani citizens in the July 22 Sharm el-Sheikh bombing, Musharraf declared on July 25 that al-Qaeda has been eradicated from the country following Islamabad's anti-terror policy. However, both the U.S. and the E.U. member-states are showing growing concern about Pakistan's inability to effectively tackle terror cells' activities. One of the most worrisome aspects of the problem, Western intelligence agencies say, is that some European citizens of Pakistani descent apparently maintain very close relations with their ancestral home-country's radical elements, being said to flock back to their country of origin to receive extremist indoctrination and, possibly, terrorist training. Moreover, some of the most radical imams in Europe are also suspected of furthering al-Qaedaist interests using the local mosque as a training facility.

Although the United States seems to be willing to continue promoting a balance of power in the South Asian region by enhancing cooperation in security and defense policies with both India and Pakistan, the Bush administration is increasingly worried about Islamist activities in Pakistan's north-western tribal region of Waziristan, and also about growing Sino-Pakistani military cooperation -- leading to Chinese use of the Gwadar naval base in the Arabian Sea. [See: "India's Project Seabird and the Indian Ocean's Balance of Power"]

On June 15, Pakistani military sources said that U.S. forces killed 24 pro-Taliban militants on Pakistani territory. This seems to show that Washington is determined not to leave the task of fighting Islamist militants to Pakistani forces alone. However, it entails a clear violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty, despite the good relations between Washington and Islamabad. This fact, coupled with the U.S. perception of India as the more important military regional partner -- given the U.S.-China rivalry -- could complicate, if not jeopardize, the future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Pakistan's Geopolitical Cycles and Constants

Our decade's conflictual international landscape could very likely mark the beginning of Pakistan's third geopolitical cycle, characterized by a much more fluid, unsettled system of alliances and strategic partnerships. The first cycle was in place during the 1947-71 period when the country incorporated today's Bangladesh (formerly Eastern Pakistan) and was integrated into the U.S.-led geopolitical system devised to contain the U.S.S.R.'s drive toward the Indian Ocean. A Moscow-Delhi axis then rivaled with a Washington-Islamabad counter-combine.

After the 1971 war and the subsequent separation of Bangladesh, Pakistan's geopolitical balance turned toward the Middle East, and a second cycle began. However, the country continued to serve as an indispensable strategic ally for Washington, for in 1978-79 the concomitant Iranian revolution and Russian invasion of Afghanistan put Islamabad in the ideal position to function as a geostrategic counterbalance to Moscow and Tehran.

This latter period consolidated a U.S.-Pakistan-China triangle directed against Moscow-New Delhi-Tehran. Two major events started to change this context in the 1990s: the end of the Soviet empire and China's rise as an ambitious global power. As Washington aggressively and pre-emptively contained a resurgent Russia by means of continuous N.A.T.O. expansion and the promotion of its geostrategic and economic interests in Central Asian countries, the Moscow-New Delhi axis soon appeared to be less dangerous for the U.S. On the contrary, both the Pentagon and the American business community started to look at China's rise with growing concern.

These developments inspired a U.S. pro-India turn in the late 1990s, a shift which is consolidating in our days. However, a strong U.S.-Pakistan relationship was still in place at the beginning of the 21st century. But a quick look at Pakistan's internal geopolitics will better clarify the current imbroglio, and reveal why a third cycle could be starting.

Born in 1947 as a result of the British de-colonization of India, Pakistan rapidly found itself in a volatile environment. Whereas the conflict over Kashmir is without a doubt the most serious geopolitical controversy opposing Islamabad to New Delhi, Pakistani political geography was and is a source of internal instability. Punjabis traditionally dominate the country's political life and the history of other ethnic groups such as Balochis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns is inextricably linked to that of Iran, India, and Afghanistan. In this mosaic, Islamic radicalism often functions as an identity-catalyst, thus juxtaposing itself to the more traditional nationalism. As a result of the Islamist grip on society, moreover, secular leaders like General Musharraf are regarded by many citizens as mere pawns of foreign powers (i.e. the United States in the present phase).

This social context can fuel the fire of international terrorist cells. As Pakistan has been a nuclear power since 1998, an Islamist regime in Islamabad is considered to be an unacceptable risk by the U.S., India, and their allies. Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the current systemic transition from a U.S.-dominated unipolar phase to a proto-multipolar one prevents Islamabad from finding a fixed set of alliances. [See: "The Coming World Realignment"]

The U.S., China and Iran, but also the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) countries (which recently gave Islamabad the status of observer), are all interested in various types of partnership with Pakistan. Nonetheless, they are also ready to contain it and to try to control its unstable political landscape. A third geopolitical cycle could very well be the most dangerous one for Pakistan, precisely because the new era gives Islamabad many different options for re-orienting its foreign policy, while simultaneously having to cope with social unrest -- a dynamic that could end up in an explosive combination.

An Uncertain Future

The geopolitical future of Pakistan looks uncertain. The first big question is the evolution of Musharraf's relations with Washington. The main variables here are the Islamist activities in Waziristan -- connected with al-Qaeda and Taliban militants -- and the new U.S.-India defense cooperation, which is likely to worry Islamabad.

In addition, India's rise as a modern military power in the Indian Ocean and New Delhi's balanced diplomatic initiative with both Beijing and Washington is likely to diminish Pakistan's relative power in the Arabian Sea, thus triggering off a new arms race in the naval and aeronautic fields. [See: "India's Project Seabird and the Indian Ocean's Balance of Power"]

On the other hand, Pakistan could soon become a major player in the Central Asia geopolitical game. A geographic issue will be decisive here: both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lack any sea access. Consequently, Pakistani harbors on the Indian Ocean could very well function as outlets for the new Central Asian energy routes -- a major stake which attracts the interest and investments of not only China and Russia, but also of Western powers.

Beijing, as mentioned, already enjoys Islamabad's permission to use the Arabian Sea naval base of Gwadar. Hence, a renewal of Sino-Pakistani strategic partnership appears likely for both energy and military security reasons.

In a more grave perspective, Islamabad's know-how in nuclear technology could potentially function as a pillar of a hostile North Korea-Pakistan-Iran "nuclear axis" directed against the U.S. and its allies.


Given the recent increase in Islamist terrorist activities -- which directly involve Pakistani radical circles -- and the country's inner political instability, Islamabad's position emerges as one of the world's decisive geopolitical pivots. At a time of intense competition between Washington and Beijing, coupled with India's rise as a regional power, Pakistan occupies a geostrategic space open to dangerous developments.

A U.S.-India axis could endanger the role of Islamabad as a decisive Washington ally in the region, and this will be even more true if the U.S. administration perceives that Musharraf's commitment in the "war on terrorism" is unsatisfactory. Should that occur, the likelihood of U.S. direct intervention in Waziristan would become stronger. Such a move, however, might not only destabilize Pakistan even further -- hence opening the question of an early Musharraf succession -- but would likely cause a further deterioration of Sino-American relations.


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