The US and its NATO allies which were engaged in a bitter the Cold War with the then Soviet Union decided to use Pakistan as a frontline state against their enemy.
Prof Munawar Sabir in his scholarly lecture delivered at the Superior University, Lahore, exclusively for the CSS students preparing for interview on ‘Geo-strategic importance of Pakistan’. He highlighted the geo-strategic importance of Pakistan by discussing Pakistan’s relations with its neighbouring countries and the major powers.
When Pakistan emerged on the map of the world as a sovereign and independent state in August 1947, it was like a baby in ICU with hardly any prospect of survival, on account of its extremely vulnerable defence and fragile economy. However, despite numerous setbacks, crises and turmoils of gigantic magnitude, it has so far been able to survive and make some progress due to several factors, perhaps the most important of which is its strategic geographical location and its particular ideology.
Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance can be best understood in the regional and global perspective. In geographical terms, it is surrounded by four countries: Afghanistan, Iran, India and China, each of which is a major player in international politics. In one way or the other, Pakistan is vital for these countries and this raises its international stature. Afghanistan which is now the focus of world’s attention is generally regarded as the breeding ground of all the international terrorism, militancy and opium production and the whole world, including the US realises the fact that no peace is possible in Afghanistan without the active support and cooperation of Pakistan.
Troubles began in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion in 1979, which led to a huge influx of refugees to Pakistan. The US and its NATO allies which were engaged in a bitter the Cold War with the then Soviet Union decided to use Pakistan as a frontline state against their enemy.
Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance can be best understood in the regional and global perspective. In geographical terms, it is surrounded by four countries: Afghanistan, Iran, India and China, each of which is a major player in international politics.
Now, the US and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan are well aware that they are heavily dependent on Pakistan for winning the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has other neighbours also such as Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, but Pakistan provides the easiest route for the provision of NATO supplies to the forces in Afghanistan. Moreover, being a land locked country, Afghanistan has to rely heavily on Pakistan for its cross border trade and economy.
The pro-western Arab governments are also afraid that the further strength of Iran may encourage their Shiite population to revolt against the dictatorial governments in these countries. In these circumstances, Iran needs Pakistan’s support to foil the Western conspiracies against it.
Pakistan’s eastern neighbour India with its huge market and its nuclear capability, is also ambitious of becoming a global power with a permanent seat in the Security Council. Apparently it insists that a strong, stable and democratic Pakistan is in its (India’s) interests, because any extremist or fundamentalist government in Pakistan may lead to more violence and terrorism in India.
But the fact is that India itself has always been bent upon destroying Pakistan. In 1971, when it succeeded in the dismemberment of Pakistan, its army chief at that time told his government that if he was given a few more days, he could easily take the rest of Pakistan. But the then US President Nixon warned Indira Gandhi not to go too far in her ambitions against Pakistan. Nixon is quoted to have said, ‘Old witch, enough is enough.
Thus, it were the Americans who saved the rest of Pakistan from going into Indian hands at that time. But they did so because they were fully conscious of Pakistan’s geo-strategic significance and hoped to use it at some later stage for their own interests. As stated earlier, during the days of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, Americans successfully used Pakistan as a frontline state against their enemy in the Cold War. Similarly, since the 9/11 attacks, they have again been exploiting it for their own political, economic and strategic interests.
The 9/11 attacks and the toppling of the Taliban regime in the wake of the US led invasion dramatically changed the situation, which once again forced the West to realise the strategic importance of its old forgotten ally Pakistan.
Furthermore, for its rapidly flourishing international trade, China looks towards Pakistan for giving it an easy access to the Muslim countries of Central Asia and the Middle East. It is worth remembering that sea transport is 10 times cheaper than the land transport. Realising this fact, China has invested heavily in the Gwadar Port Project. In spite of the fact that some of its engineers and technicians working in Pakistan have been kidnapped and even killed, it is determined to remain associated with the Gwadar Project because it is fully aware of its potential economic and commercial benefits. It is generally believed that Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. But it is not known to many people that some mountainous snow clad unpopulated area of Kashmir near Siachin Glacier is under Chinese control. Thus, China is also a party to the Kashmir dispute and there can be no just, permanent and comprehensive settlement of the dispute without active participation of China.
Pakistan’s strategic position in the world has been considerably increased ever since it has achieved nuclear capability, which has made it the only Muslim country armed with atomic weapons. When India carried out nuclear explosions in 1974 and began threatening Pakistan, Bhutto declared despite the US opposition that Pakistan would also make atomic bomb even if its people had to eat grass for this purpose. The outraged Americans threatened to make him an example for others and succeeded in removing him from power in 1977.
It is interesting to note that while they were annoyed with Bhutto for starting nuclear programme, they had to allow Zia-ul-Haq to continue this programme only because at that time, they needed his help in the Afghan conflict against the Soviet Union. In the mid-1980s, Pakistan’s atomic bomb was ready and thus the balance of power in the region was restored.
It is said that when Zia-ul-Haq went to India during his cricket diplomacy, he asked Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi how many atomic bombs were required to destroy Pakistan. Rajiv replied that only two or three could eliminate Pakistan. Zia-ul-Haq then asked him how many such bombs were needed to destroy India. Rajiv said that he thought six or seven were sufficient. Hearing this, Zia stood up and remarked, ‘Rajiv, shake hands, I have more than seven. He further said, ‘If India is destroyed, Hinduism will be eliminated, but if Pakistan is eliminated, Islam will not be eliminated.’
In these circumstances, India was compelled to hold negotiations with Pakistan about the no-war or non-aggression pact. Later, in 1998, when India again carried out nuclear explosions, Pakistan came under enormous international pressure not to conduct its own nuclear tests. While Western powers were pressurising the government Iran offered huge financial help and Saudi Arabia promised to supply large quantities of cheap oil in case of international economic sanctions. Pakistan’s nuclear explosions proved very helpful in highlighting the need for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, because the whole world realized that in case of another war on Kashmir, nuclear weapons could be used, causing unimaginable destruction.
Pakistan is a poor country confronting countless problems and facing grave energy shortages but even then, its nuclear power has significantly elevated its importance in the international community. A historian has perhaps rightly said that in almost 80 years since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, if any worth mentioning incident took place in the whole Muslim world, it was in May 1998, when Pakistan carried out its nuclear explosions.
Situated in South Asia, Pakistan is a gateway to Central Asia and its Arabian Sea provides an easy access to the countries of the Middle East. It lies in the neighbourhood of China and India which due to their huge markets are supposed to be the economic giants of future. Among the innumerable gifts bestowed upon Pakistan by nature, perhaps one of the most important ones is its ideal and highly strategic geographical location. If it is prudently used, it can make our country the hub of international trade and commerce, opening up new doors of progress and prosperity for its people.