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How Pakistan Lost Its Strategic Autonomy

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We lost every chance to become a democratic country in the period between 1950 and 1990s just when a narrow ruling elite—comprising of military generals, feudal lords and financial-industrial groups—was consolidating its position in the power structure of the country with the help of their foreign masters, writes Umer Farooq.

In the initial years of its existence, Pakistan’s ruling elite perceived military threat from a much larger military power—India, which had inherited the military-industrial base of the British colonial government. Without giving much thought to the long term effects of such a decision, Pakistani military planners decided to jump into the bandwagon of western power led by Washington to secure military supplies as well as gain a political mentor at the world stage.

Since that fateful decision, Pakistan’s political and military leaders have always sought alliance with a powerful, extra-regional state, which can act as its backer and mentor in the regional politics of South Asia. The strategy of always engaging a powerful extra-regional mentor to balance the much powerful and militarily superior India in the regional politics of South Asia became part of Pakistan’s policy ever since.

In the initial years of Cold War, US acted as the extra-regional backer of Pakistan with all supplies of fighter jets, state of the art tanks and modern air-to-air missiles, which Pakistani army used in its fight against India in 1965 war. This led to imposition of military sanctions on Pakistan and withdrawal of Washington from the position of political mentor to Pakistani ruling elite under pressure from the liberal political establishment in Washington.

The next extra-regional mentor Pakistan engaged, as its backer in South Asian politics was China. Pakistan Armed Forces became the recipient of Chinese weaponry on large scale after 1965 war. China turned towards economic growth in late 1980s and decided to withdraw from all military conflicts on its borders in the 1990s. Though it continued to act as a political mentor to Pakistan, its focus on economic growth changed the perspective of Chinese leadership from military conflicts towards economic growth and cooperation at the regional level. In the process, Pakistan ruling elite realized that the classical concept of a political mentor or extra-regional backer it had in mind could not be fulfilled by Chinese state, whose focus on economic growth is pushing it in the direction opposite to what Pakistan needed.

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Pakistani state never had enough financial or economic strength to fulfill its wishes for large defense spending which could meet the challenges of a much larger military machine that Indian possesses. It needed cheap weaponry from its political mentors like Washington and Beijing or else it needed financial resources from its other political mentors to buy the required weaponry from the international market. This type of mentors came by the side of Pakistan in form of oil-rich Gulf and Arab states.

In both these cases, Pakistan’s original model of engaging a powerful extra-regional power as a political or financial backer to balance the regional dominance of militarily much larger and financially much stronger Indian state, remained operational throughout 70 years of its existence. In the process of getting financial, political and military support from extra-regional states for the luxury of its Anti-India position, Pakistani state consolidated the position of narrowly defined ruling elite, comprising of army generals, feudal lords and financial-industrial groups which came into existence as a result of receiving largesse from extra-regional states.

What we lost in the process? We lost our strategic autonomy or an independent foreign policy: our rulers lost the autonomy to decide which Summit meeting to attend and choose friends from among the independent countries of the world. Just because we need Saudi Arabia for backing the luxuries of our regional adventures and structural irrationalities in our national budget, we cannot afford to attend the Kaula Lumpur Summit meeting.

We have to be a little imaginative to understand how we lost our position as an independent country and how we lost our strategic autonomy to our Cold War masters in the years from 1950s till 1990s. We lost every chance to become a democratic country just when a narrow ruling elite—comprising of military generals, feudal lords and financial-industrial groups—was consolidating its position in the power structure of the country with the help of their foreign masters.


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Naya Daur