An American Diplomat Predicted Pakistan’s Geopolitical Dilemma 25 Years Ago

An American Diplomat Predicted Pakistan’s Geopolitical Dilemma 25 Years Ago

In the spring of 1997, I was doing a fellowship with a Washington based think tank, the Henry L. Stimson Center, on the subject of geopolitical conflict resolution in South Asia. I was a fellow from Pakistan and my counterpart from India was Kamal Mitra Chenoy— a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a left leaning Indian intellectual and author. We used to spend hours in discussions on Pakistan-India relations with each other and with the President of the Stimson Center, Michael Krepon. I wrote a short paper on the Siachen Conflict and its possible political solution which was published by the Center.

One day we were informed by people at the Center that next morning we would meet the famous Robert Oakley, the former US Ambassador to Islamabad, who was posted in Pakistan at the time of the restoration of democracy after Zia’s plane crash and who was famously known as the Viceroy of Pakistan. He was serving at a senior post in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington D.C, an educational institution of the American military. Mr. Chenoy and I reached the gates of the University early in the morning eager to meet the famous American diplomat who was accused of calling the shots during Benazir Bhutto’s government between 1988-1990.

Mr. Oakley talked at length about Pakistan-India relations and military and nuclear affairs between the two military rivals. One thing that particularly struck me and is still vivid in my memory even after 25 years was Mr. Oakley’s narration of the time that he gave Pakistan’s military establishment one piece of advice while he was still serving in Islamabad. Oakley told us that he had been giving advice to Pakistani political and military establishments to put the face of the country on its western border, “I used to tell them, look, the threats and opportunities on your Eastern borders are constant, they are not going to change........but the situation on the western border is continuously evolving.... there are new threats emerging and new opportunities arise everyday” he told us. This was the year 1997 - the time period when the Taliban had just captured Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, and the Pakistani government was weighing the possibility of recognizing the Taliban government. I asked Mr. Oakley what the Pakistani response to his advice was. He was not very forthcoming while responding to my question, but he did say that in the wake of Zia’s plane crash, Pakistani officialdom was in a state of policy inertia. As if they were reacting to the events and not taking initiatives themselves.

In the period following Ambassador Oakley’s tenure in Islamabad, events happened in quick succession and he was prescient in his analysis of regional geopolitics on two counts. Pakistan remained trapped in a seemingly permanent state of policy inertia and were forced by events to put the face of their country on their western border, not as part of a positive policy initiative, rather as a reaction to international military crisis that followed in the wake of the September 11 attacks on American cities. Americans pressure on Pakistan to provide logistics, military and intelligence assistance to the invading Americans forces was quite natural - their country had been directly hit for the first time after Pearl Harbor, but the pressure itself resulted in a number policy distortions for the Pakistani state. Only ten years ago, we had been part of a joint intelligence program with the American CIA to fund, train and equip Afghan Mujahideen for the fight against Soviet forces. This program was accompanied by a parallel program to build and construct a network of Jihadi organizations inside Pakistani society. Zia’s military regime built these organizations in Punjab, erstwhile NWFP and tribal areas. After September 11, the Americans forced our security apparatus to turn against this Jihadi network. When we followed American instructions, the situation inside Pakistan looked very much like a civil war. The worst phase of this war took place between 2007 and 2014.

Mr. Oakley talked about the threats that did materialize for Pakistan. Whether we liked it or not, the events in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 forced our hand in putting the face of the country on our western borders. Our military and strategic planners have been busy in planning the security and defense of our western border from 2001 till today. For some brief periods, their attention turned towards the eastern border when there were cross border terror attacks inside India and the Indians mobilized their military might to inflict some sort of punishment on Pakistan in response.

Every time there was military mobilization on the Indian side there was a corresponding diplomatic initiative by Washington and its key western allies to wean India away from attacking Pakistan. There is credible evidence that by 2006 Washington had decided to embrace New Delhi as a strategic partner as a counterweight to China. So, on the question of what shape the security architecture of the region would take, the Americans were more in league with New Delhi than with the military government of General Musharraf. We were made to do the dirty work - chasing fugitive terror leaders and identifying military targets inside Afghanistan. Our military, political and diplomatic efforts were all undertaken with the emerging strategic reality that the face of our country was on our western borders, but for all the wrong reasons. What we were doing in Afghanistan turned our own territory into a battle ground between our forces and the militant groups that we had built and nurtured because the Americans had asked us to.

But Mr. Oakley didn’t simply talk about threats on that fine sunny morning in April 1997. He also referred to opportunities that arose on our western borders. I think his analysis, as far as opportunities arising on our western borders are concerned, remained prescient throughout his period. The energy rich Central Asian states and their economic elites were eager throughout this period to supply sources of energy to the energy starved economies of Pakistan and India. It was not without reason that two successive Prime Ministers of India talked about the notion of “having breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and dinner in New Delhi.” Understandably, any such project would have required transformation of security architecture of the region. Fundamental changes in the power structure of Pakistani and Indian society would have to be undertaken if anybody wanted to implement such a plan in the region. And of course, the situation inside Afghanistan would have to be stabilized.

The fact that both the political realities and power structures in our region are hard to transform doesn’t belie the fact that opportunities do exist and they have always existed on our immediate western borders and beyond. Without any doubt there is a growing realization within the powerful Pakistani military establishment that they need to avail the opportunities arising on our western borders. It is not without reason that since 2018 Pakistani military leaders have been talking about realizing Pakistan’s economic potential by making it a hub of regional connectivity. General Bajwa was the first one to publicly make this point in his speeches. Despite over decades having passed, Mr. Oakley’s assertion still reflects the political, military and economic realities of Pakistan’s geo-political situation. The forces and situation on our western borders pose the gravest threat to our survival in recent times. If we make the right decisions and succeed in stabilizing our western border and region beyond it, we will open up vistas of opportunities that can transform economic and political reality for our country.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.