Published: October 29, 2011

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore

A recent All Parties Conference (APC) has formally handed over foreign-cum-Taliban policy to the army. What the political parties are after is one another’s scalp: their default position is plotting the downfall of elected governments. The Pakistan Army is now in a precarious position of either taking the country out of the terrorist mess or repeating past blunders. If it doesn’t want to fight the terrorists, then there can be two reasons why: it likes what the terrorists are doing; or it is certain it will lose fighting against them.

The APC wants Pakistan to talk to the terrorists from a position of weakness. The army is deceived by an apparent retreat in the stance of the Americans to think it can persuade the terrorists to become non-terrorists. This is not going to work. Other options are equally vague. Will it play the Chinese card? One analyst says: “China has crucial interests in the South China Sea; and building a navy to counter the US fleet is a full-time job. China will not want a confrontation with the US in a place where it has no natural advantage over the latter”. News is that China actually wants military bases inside Pakistan to counter terrorism seeping into its Xinjiang province.

What will the neighbours think of doing? “Iran will actually prefer a US presence that is predictable to the armed hordes controlled and paid for by its Sunni adversaries in the Middle East. India’s capacity to influence events in Afghanistan is very limited”. No one will accept a repeat of what Pakistan did in Afghanistan in tandem with the Mullah Omar government in the 1990s. Pakistan is the wrong state to consult if you want a peaceful Afghanistan unless, of course, the Pakistan Army has changed its thinking. There is no evidence of that change.

If it doesn’t want a ‘two-front’ situation it must find other non-military ways of defusing it. In all kinds of scenarios, the Pakistan Army is in need of international assistance against a highly penetrative terrorist ideology. The last thing it should do is fall for the populist trap of heroic isolation.

The Pakistan Army should let foreign policy go. One says it because all armies attach foreign policy to geopolitics and, therefore, disqualify themselves as arbiters. They tie a most changeable category to the most unchanging physical aspect of the country where they imagine they see permanent advantage. Geopolitically, India is a permanent enemy. Geopolitically, Pakistan’s median ‘transit territory’ status gives it permanent advantage. Nothing could be more wrong.

The military view of Pakistan’s geopolitical importance has been proved wrong by the failure of the theory of ‘strategic depth’ as a kind of corollary to our self-image as a geopolitical obstacle. As some textbooks recognise, the geopolitical view of international affairs is favoured by all armies because it is linked to geography and, therefore, is of fixed value. And it obviates the periodical rewriting of textbooks army officers read during training. The only geography that works, however, is the one based on the civilian view: Finland could exploit its ‘median’ location between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War while Pakistan uses it today to block India.

The civilian geopolitical advantage is a part of the war equation in South Asia. The military imagination is fixed on it as ‘one-time advantage’: it is wrong in thinking that once a trade route is given to India, Pakistan will lose its upper hand. The fact is that the advantage will start materialising only after the trade route becomes functional and billions of international dollars become committed to it.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2011.