Functioning as a security state, Pakistan has long formulated its foreign policy choices based on security needs and the aspiration to establish itself as a hard military power. This approach has allowed the military to play a leading role in shaping both domestic and foreign policy decisions, often overshadowing civilian institutions. However, with changing global dynamics, the current civil-military establishment is actively signaling a shift in Pakistan’s strategic culture and foreign policy interests.
It has been just over a year since Gen. Asim Munir took command of Pakistan's military, succeeding Gen. (retired) Qamar Javed Bajwa in late November 2022. Apart from stepping into the most powerful role in Pakistan, Gen. Munir also inherited the legacy of Gen. Bajwa’s military doctrine, which not only shaped Pakistan's foreign policy but also presented considerable challenges for him to address. Throughout his tenure, Gen. Bajwa orchestrated a paradigm shift in Pakistan's traditional geostrategic focus, transitioning from geopolitics to geoeconomics. This shift involved broadening the scope of Pakistan’s national security, moving beyond a primary emphasis on military defense, and recognizing economic security as a crucial factor for achieving improved traditional security outcomes.
To safeguard economic security, Gen. Bajwa aimed to enhance Pakistan's geostrategic importance by prioritizing regional connectivity and global development partnerships. He sought to position Pakistan as a key hub for trade, transit, and production in West, Central, and South Asia, intending to transition from aid-based dependencies to trade and investment partnerships. Gen. Bajwa fell short of fully realizing his vision during his six years in office, with Pakistan continuing to rely heavily on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to support its declining economy. Gen. Munir now faces the challenging task of turning Gen. Bajwa’s unrealized vision into a reality. This requires cultivating positive interdependence and multi-alignment with a diverse range of partners, while also ensuring domestic stability. An examination of Gen. Munir’s first year in office is crucial to assess his progress thus far and gain insight into the military’s current foreign policy vision.
A crucial aspect of Gen. Munir’s doctrine involves guiding Pakistan away from the strategic dilemma of choosing between the U.S. and China, and avoiding the significant costs it has incurred for Islamabad’s foreign policy. Gen. Munir has made clear a preference for pursuing a hedging strategy, aiming to avoid getting entangled in global binary politics. His strategic approach is centered on maximizing Pakistan's economic gains to avoid subservience to major powers and increase its room for maneuver. He articulated this vision for defending Pakistan's sovereignty by building a robust economy, emphasizing that, “all Pakistanis must throw out the beggar’s bowl.”
At least three interrelated points characterize Gen. Munir's foreign policy vision, each representing significant challenges he must confront. These observations are drawn from his statements and actions up to this point. First, he has expressed a commitment to project and advance a softer image of Pakistan. Second, he has demonstrated a keen interest in elevating Pakistan as a regional middle power. Third, he has placed a significant focus on prioritizing geoeconomics over geopolitics.
Revamping Pakistan’s image
A state's image and reputation are pivotal in achieving foreign policy goals. Pakistan's global reputation is currently plagued by a host of domestic issues, all of which paint a picture of the country as a struggling democracy grappling with internal turmoil. Recent regime changes, the constitutional crisis over the next general elections, growing insecurity and the rise in terrorist attacks, escalating debt, human rights violations, political instability, socioeconomic disparities, growing inflation, and energy crises have all taken a toll on Pakistan's standing in the international community. The country is increasingly perceived as an elitist state that struggles to address the genuine concerns of its citizens, moving closer to a praetorian state. This negative image is partly due to the hybrid governance model adopted prior to Gen. Munir's appointment, disrupting the balance of power between civilian and military authorities.
Under this system, the military has gained legal authority to govern key state institutions, but this has eroded its public image, a problem that has been exacerbated by allegations from popular leader Imran Khan of undermining democracy. At present, there are lingering suspicions that the next general elections, currently scheduled for Feb. 8, 2024, may not take place until Khan is absent from the political landscape. Despite being imprisoned and facing a ban from politics, Khan maintains significant popularity compared to his political rivals. As long as his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party remains a legitimate political entity, it poses a potential risk of securing a majority in parliament, a scenario the military establishment is unwilling to tolerate. For their part, Western nations, including the U.S. and EU, have issued warnings about potential consequences if the elections are delayed further or conducted unfairly. Adding to Pakistan's challenges, a group of U.S. members of Congress recently urged the Biden administration to withhold military aid due to concerns over human rights abuses.
Dismissing such negative perceptions, Gen. Munir has pledged his commitment to upholding democracy in Pakistan. This underscores a major aspect of the Munir doctrine, which aims to restore the military's soft image both at home and abroad while retaining its influence in the country's governance. Affirming Gen. Munir’s position, Interim Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar has asserted that the military's involvement in state governance is solely due to its organizational capabilities and has dismissed concerns that it might seek to manipulate the upcoming elections.
Transforming Pakistan into a stabilizing regional security actor
Historically, Pakistan has leveraged its advanced military capabilities as a crucial asset in its foreign relations, a reason why its defense cooperation takes precedence over economic ties with other countries. This security-centric foreign policy strategy has played a pivotal role in sustaining the functionality and institutional capacity of the military, even during the most testing periods. However, despite entering significant security and defense agreements, Pakistan has been unable to achieve much-needed stability and security. A primary factor contributing to this challenge is the hostile internal and regional security environment in which Pakistan is situated. Gen. Munir's foreign policy vision reflects this strategic thinking, as evidenced by his statements and efforts in defense diplomacy. He has expressed his desire to defend Pakistan against internal and cross-border terrorism while simultaneously transforming the country into a stabilizing regional security actor.
In terms of foreign policy initiatives, Gen. Munir has carved out a distinctive path, particularly in relation to India and Afghanistan. Taking a stern stance toward India, Munir has issued warnings of a swift proportional response in the event of an attack. He has also accused India of waging a proxy war against Pakistan through terrorist organizations. Deviating from the traditional friendly ties between Pakistan's military and the Afghan Taliban, Gen. Munir has chosen to pursue a more adversarial policy toward the Kabul regime. Accusing the Afghan government of sheltering anti-Pakistan terrorists, he has threatened a robust military response if Pakistan’s security demands are not met. The ongoing deportation of 1.7 million Afghans residing in Pakistan is evidence of Gen. Munir’s stringent policy against the Afghan Taliban. In defense of the massive deportations, Gen. Munir has contended that the expulsion of Afghans, whom he alleges to be involved in most terrorist activities in Pakistan, would enhance the country’s internal security.
Striving for strategic neutrality
Gen. Munir has articulated his aspiration to safeguard Pakistan's strategic autonomy and territorial integrity, with the objective of maintaining a neutral middle power status in the global context. This vision may have taken shape as a response to the deliberate strategic maneuvers of middle powers, which have astutely capitalized on the rivalry between the West and Russia, as well as the competition between the United States and China, to bolster their bargaining positions, all while avoiding being ensnared in their confrontations. Achieving genuine neutrality may be a tall order though and would require, first and foremost, full independence from foreign aid.
Unfortunately, at present Pakistan is highly reliant on external aid to meet its needs. Bound by geographic, geopolitical, and geoeconomic constraints, Pakistan often finds itself with limited options, at times playing a subservient role to major global powers. In the face of fervent appeals from substantial segments of Pakistani society, calling on the military to lend support to Hamas against Israel and to diplomatically boycott Western backers of Israel, including the United States, Gen. Munir has opted to abstain from such actions.
In contrast, he seems focused on navigating Pakistan's response to the demands of both the United States and China without stirring tensions with either side. He has sought to enhance Pakistan-U.S. defense ties, rekindling U.S. interest in the country after a previous inclination to disengage. A notable case in point is the renewal of the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), a crucial element of U.S.-Pakistan defense cooperation, through which the U.S. has extended its offer to assist Pakistan in counterterrorism efforts. To further solidify ties, Gen. Munir visited Washington in mid-December for discussions with senior U.S. military and Biden administration officials, seeking to strengthen U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation and foster investment in Pakistan by urging the U.S. government to explore opportunities through the newly established Special Investment Facility Council (SIFC, see below). As for China, despite reports of Beijing’s reluctance to add more projects to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to performance issues on Pakistan's part, Gen. Munir's renewed commitment to ensuring the security of Chinese interests has injected new life into previously stagnant CPEC projects.
Prioritizing geoeconomics for Pakistan's economic revival
One of Gen. Munir’s major foreign policy objectives is to address Pakistan's economic challenges through cooperation with friendly nations. His vision for Pakistan’s economic growth and prosperity emerged when he took on a diplomatic role in securing funding from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to fulfill IMF preconditions for a crucial bailout package. While this prevented Pakistan from facing a debt default, it also brought significant embarrassment due to the harsh conditions attached to the IMF bailout in an already crisis-ridden country.
Indicating a shift away from geopolitics and toward geoeconomics, Gen. Munir has committed to leading Pakistan toward self-reliance by leveraging its resource advantages. His vision includes a policy aimed at ending dependency and promoting self-sufficiency. To expedite these initiatives, a new “single-window” investment facilitation body, the SIFC, was established under his leadership in June of this year. Its primary objective is to attract foreign investments across various sectors, such as mining, agriculture, information technology, and energy, from affluent Gulf countries, China, and the United States.
Gen. Munir has urged foreign investors to explore Pakistan's untapped natural resources, estimated to be worth $6 trillion, including deposits of copper, gold, sulfur, lead, and zinc, among others. He has also encouraged local investors to participate in these endeavors. In discussions with Pakistan's business community, Gen. Munir outlined his plans for economic recovery. Emphasizing his commitment to geoeconomics, he underscored his efforts to convince Gulf monarchs to consider investing up to $100 billion in Pakistan. Gen. Munir's broader approach to economic diplomacy underscores his vision, favoring development partnerships over development assistance. This shift also signifies a change in Pakistan's traditional military approach of providing military bases to now offering economic bases.
Gen. Munir’s geostrategic vision for Pakistan, though it may sound idealistic, has already scored several successes. To revive the domestic economy, he has launched a comprehensive crackdown on corruption, smuggling, energy theft, illegal practices, and unauthorized immigration. Gen. Munir has earned praise for his commitment to revitalizing Pakistan's economy, presenting himself as the guarantor of stability in the country and the primary point of contact for the international community. This underscores his aim of transforming Pakistan into an important market that can bring together various global economic interests.
On the security front, Gen. Munir has escalated military operations against terrorist outfits like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, declining to engage in talks for peace. Furthermore, he has strengthened the military’s defense engagements by forging military cooperation agreements with countries across the Central, West, East, and South Asian regions. Pakistan recently hosted the “Eternal Brotherhood-II” multinational counterterrorism exercise, reflecting Gen. Munir's two-pronged strategy. Firstly, he aims to capitalize on Pakistan's pivotal role in combating terrorism originating from Afghanistan, addressing concerns among both neighboring nations and global powers such as the U.S., China, and Russia. Secondly, he seeks to counterbalance India's influence by strengthening regional military alliances.
At the same time, Gen. Munir's foreign policy aspirations entail significant risk and could have serious consequences for Pakistan. To begin with, it remains uncertain whether his expanded role in governance will effectively enhance the military's softer image and bolster Pakistan's global reputation, especially given that many of its major challenges are still attributed to the actions of the military establishment. Additionally, establishing Pakistan as a stabilizing regional security actor seems to be a daunting task, particularly in the context of heightened tensions with its immediate neighbor, Afghanistan. Achieving a neutral middle power status presents its own set of difficulties, and this objective may prove elusive until Pakistan gains a certain level of economic independence.
To date, Pakistan's efforts to attract significant new investments from the Gulf states have run into difficulties, given the latter’s predominant focus on the ongoing Gaza crisis. There is limited evidence to suggest that Gulf nations will come to Pakistan's aid in the near future. As a result, the SIFC has struggled to finalize long-awaited billion-dollar foreign transactions. With limited foreign support available, Pakistan continues to heavily depend on financial assistance from organizations like the IMF and investments from China.
It seems that the most critical foreign policy challenge confronting Gen. Munir is the integration of soft power with hard power. This requires finding a delicate balance between security and economic considerations, necessitating a departure from traditional military strategies to embrace alternative methods of advancing national interests. Given the unique strategic culture of the military, which may lack an understanding of the nuances of civilian affairs and the intricacies of soft power, expectations for progress from Gen. Munir may be limited.
With two more years ahead, the success of Gen. Munir's foreign policy hinges on addressing several crucial questions. How does he plan to balance fostering economic growth with Pakistan's current economic dependence? Could Gen. Munir's geoeconomic strategy unintentionally lead Pakistan into another debt trap? To prevent Pakistan from becoming overly reliant on the exploitation of natural resources and transforming into a rentier state, what proactive measures does he intend to take?
Additionally, as Pakistan navigates strained relations with neighboring India and Afghanistan, how will Gen. Munir achieve Pakistan’s long-term security goals? Moreover, how does he plan to navigate its position amid the rivalry between the United States and China without taking sides? Importantly, what specific steps will he take to bridge the gap between civilian leadership and the military establishment, ensuring a cohesive and effective foreign policy strategy?
Naad-e-Ali Sulehria has over five years of involvement working with international organizations and think tanks in different capacities as a political researcher, policy advisor, peace strategist, and human rights practitioner. He currently serves as a Research Assistant to Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan Studies at the Middle East Institute.
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