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Rethinking Security Challenges: A Pakistani Perspective

The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, revealed the realities of new and non-traditional security challenges in a rapidly globalizing world. All States feel more vulnerable in the wake of these events, while policies to deal with them are, as yet, unclear. This has compelled a review of timely strategies to address such threats.

Yet, this new challenge also offers an opportunity to search for out of the box answers, since the “box”—the set of pre-September 11 assumptions that undergird security thinking—has been so dramatically shown to be inadequate to address the transformations created by the forces of history.

This article is divided into three parts. The first deals with the global strategic environment to identify emerging challenges. The second part reviews the effects of these challenges on South Asia. The final section discusses how best to address these challenges as we rethink global and regional strategies.

Let me preface this by first stating two assumptions. One, the world today is in the post, post-Cold War period. This means in essence that we neither see clarity and stability of the Cold War era in international relations, nor do we see the rather aimless drift at the global level that characterized the decade immediately after the end of the Cold War.

Two, the United States (US) is now unquestionably the preeminent world power, whose actions in the global arena and at the regional level continue to significantly influence the shaping of the world we live in. The Bush Administration has evolved its own policy approach and style, which it calls “distinct internationalism.” But what Administration officials depict as  “à-la-carte multilateralism” is seen by many, elsewhere in the world, as tantamount to unilateralism. Many observers in the US argue that there have been traces of both in the foreign policy conduct of the Bush team. But it appears that no clear path has been decisively set in any one direction.

The obvious conclusion from these assumptions is that we are living in a world in flux. The future stability of the international system will depend on how the new and emerging challenges are addressed and fresh opportunities seized.

Global Challenges

There are three principal areas of uncertainty at the global level today: (i) the future of the war against terrorism; (ii) relations between the great powers; and (iii) a perception in the outside world of US “unilateralism.”

I. War against terrorism. After 9/11, the US defined a new anti-terrorism doctrine and adopted a broad strategy based on international coalition-building. The instruments of this strategy include diplomacy, financial institutions, the media (for public diplomacy), and the military.This campaign has so far made significant progress in Afghanistan and gains elsewhere in the world.  Terrorism has been de-legitimized, terrorists are being arrested, terrorist cells are being closed, financial support to terrorism is being blocked, and terrorist “swamps” are being drained.

But uncertainty revolves around the unanswered question of what next or where next in the war on terrorism. A host of related questions emerge from this. What will be the political and economic consequences of the next steps? How will this affect relations between the Islamic world and the West; relations that can be said to be at a critical crossroads?  Can the spiral of violence and the complete breakdown of the peace process in the Middle East be reversed? How will such developments impact on the Arab and the Muslim street?  Will it advance the objectives of the war on terrorism or unintendedly set them back? What is the best approach?—use of force or a comprehensive strategy that does not rely solely on military power but also on political and economic cooperation to address the root causes of terrorism?

 It is important to consider whether the war against terrorism can be waged effectively and the eradication of terrorism networks in different countries secured, without also addressing the causes and conditions that are at the root of desperate terrorist acts—such as political or economic injustice, among and within nations. I will revert to these questions later.

II. Relations between great powers. Post-9/11 developments have brought a meas­ure of stability to US-Russia and US-China relations. All three powers share fundamental anti-terrorism objectives. Enhancement in their anti-terrorism cooperation has led to an improvement in Washington’s bilateral relations with them.

 Russia: Pragmatism appears to be the guiding principle for President Putin. This has persuaded Russia to adopt a muted, low-key response to the unilateral scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by the US. However, it is still an open question how stable the US-Russia equation will be beyond the anti-terrorism cooperation. It is also unclear if Russian “pragmatism” is strategic or tactical. Similarly, it is difficult to say if Washington’s pursuit of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), divergent approaches to arms control, increasing US influence in Central Asia, and renewed emphasis on human rights, would become a source of friction with Moscow. If it does, could that friction be offset by promises of financial help to Russia and the higher level of participation offered to Russia with the “new” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

While there are trends towards a cooperative US-Russia relationship there remain potential sources of instability and possible competition in the future, including energy politics; competition for influence in Central Asia and other parts of the world. In case a competitive relationship begins to emerge down the line, it would have an immediate effect not only in Europe, but also elsewhere in the world.

China: The US-China relationship got off to a rocky start after the advent of the Bush Administration. It has since stabilized in the context of their anti-terrorism cooperation.  US-China engagement has seen recently elevated convergent objectives—on the Korean Peninsula, in South Asia and elsewhere—pursued cooperatively or in tandem.  But there continue to be underlying perceptions on both sides that they may be, at least putatively, competitive powers. Nevertheless, the most important factor underpinning the relationship is their mutual economic interdependence. This is not merely a trade statistic, but now closely related to US lifestyle, with the American middle class increasingly accustomed to cheap and quality imports from China.

However, Taiwan could prove to be a time-bomb in Sino-US ties, especially if supplies of sophisticated defense capabilities, specially theater missiles, encourage Taipei to press more aggressively for “independence.” If the US also succeeds in developing and deploying a relatively effective BMD system, China may feel impelled to pursue “counter-measures.” Also if hard-line views become ascendant in both countries at the same time, this could possibly set the US and China on a collision course.So does the recent international cooperation against terrorism presage a new “cooperative world order,” or only a temporary, transient detour from the historical trend, i.e. competition for resources, balance of power and security based on mutual deterrence, whether through offensive or defensive capabilities?

III. The world’s perception of US “unilateralism. Despite Washington’s firm rejection of any suggestion of unilateralism in its international behavior, perceptions of such “unilateralism” continue to grow across the world. So even if this is not a reality, there is a need to address the perception.

There is a strong strand of thinking across Europe and Asia, which believes that the US acts unilaterally whenever it sees its interests not being served by acting together with others. The perception of US unilateralism has been strengthened by actions taken by Washington in the realm of arms control and counter-proliferation. Most countries subscribe to the view, upheld by Russia, that global security should continue to be based on mutual deterrence in which the prohibition of anti-ballistic missiles under the ABM Treaty plays a key role. On the other hand, the US now appears to be seeking “full spectrum dominance” as the guarantor of its security. This is likely to be seen by other major powers as undermining their security.

The signals on this from the US are so far mixed. The US unilaterally scrapped the ABM Treaty. But Washington also declared its intention to reduce the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) numbers. This has been accompanied by other indications of retaining strategic weapons in storage and of developing new tactical nuclear weapons.  So the picture remains ambiguous.Rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has raised questions whether the US is keeping open the option of renewed nuclear testing. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell recently ruled this out, the debate triggered by the leak of the Pentagon report called the Nuclear Posture Review, raises afresh the question whether the world is in for a new arms race.* The debate over a more efficient offensive and a more effective defense has not been fully resolved. Similar unanswered questions are raised by the outer space debate. The rest of the world has responded with concern to the Pentagon literature that spells out a space program, which envisages full spectrum control of outer space. The US outer space program combined with Theater Missile Defense (TMD) and BMD, and opposition to considering any treaty regime for outer space, when seen from the perspective of other major powers, sets off alarm bells.

Similarly, US nonproliferation policy, now increasingly being replaced by counter-proliferation strategies, only compounds the uncertainty. The evolving counter-proliferation approach could be perceived by other world powers as selective and coercive.  Selective, because proliferation may be deemed “OK” for some states, but not for others.  Coercive, because instead of a treaty-based system, the evolving approach appears to rest on unilateral policy instruments like sanctions and other punitive actions and ultimately on military not collaborative and diplomatic means. If that indeed turns out to be the new policy, would this encourage clandestine proliferation?

Reports regarding an emerging US policy (contained in the Nuclear Posture Review) of targeting several specific countries are bound to call into question not only the Negative Security Assurances, provided by the US in binding UN Security Council Resolutions but also evoke counter-strategies to neutralize the US posture of threatening strikes against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use or even capabilities. 

Such developments would seem to mark a decisive shift away from a rule-based system. They do not have the moral underpinnings to secure voluntary compliance from others. This raises the fundamental question whether treaty-making is dead in arms control and nonproliferation. If countries were to conclude that this was the case, there could be reactions in Russia and China, and this also could have a cascading effect on South Asia.

The global environment for all the reasons cited above is fraught with many challenges and the world’s response in its full measure is uncertain. I turn now to the regional scene.

Regional Perspective

The three areas of global uncertainty have a profound effect on South Asia.  Pakistan is located at the crossroads of three major regions: South Asia, South West Asia and Central Asia.  Given its geo-strategic location, Pakistan is a key factor on all the issues discussed earlier.

Pakistan has been described by strategic thinkers as one of the nine “pivotal” states.  Pivotal states are defined as those that are decisive to the fate of their regions and the crosscutting issues that affect them all. The nine pivotal states have their futures seen as “poised at critical turning points” and their fates could “significantly affect regional, and even international stability.”

Terrorism: Already, the most important battleground of the war against terrorism today—Afghanistan—is in our neighborhood. Pakistan also shares historical, religious and cultural ties with the Islamic world. This entire region would be significantly affected by the way the war against terrorism is conducted. 

In Afghanistan, Pakistan believes, it is of critical importance that after the military objectives are achieved, enough effort is expended to win and keep the peace as well. A sound beginning has been made in that direction but the world—and the US in particular—would have to stay engaged with patience and perseverance to ensure that Afghanistan does not descend into warlordism, violent chaos, economic morass and again becomes an international source of drugs and terrorism, and a battleground for a new Great Game.

While rethinking the strategy on terrorism, we must aim at prevention of revival of mini terrorist threats. We must also develop a comprehensive, long-term strategy to fight terrorism. We need, as President Musharraf has stressed, not only to deal with the branches but also the roots of the “tree” of terrorism. Conditions that breed acts of desperation— poverty, hopelessness, political and economic deprivation, and unresolved disputes—must be addressed to check global terrorism on a sustainable basis.

The anti-terrorism strategy should also include civilizational dialogue as an impor­tant element. It would be a mistake to see the terrorist problem exclusively in the Islamic context. The phenomenon of terrorism has no creed or religion. We must ensure that Islam and the West are allies in combating terrorism, and do not at any stage turn into antagonists confronting each other. That would be a tragic fulfillment of the “clash of civilizations” thesis.

Great power relations: South, Southwest and Central Asia have been, and remain, an area of interest to the great powers. The last Cold War battle was fought in Afghanistan.  Central Asia with its transition societies and energy resources is a key region. South Asia, with its human mass, economic potential, unresolved conflict in Kashmir and two nuclear-armed neighbors, presents a plethora of issues that affect the world.

The great powers’ own interests in these regions aside, the patterns of their mutual relations have a profound effect on regional states. The ideological battle of the Cold War cut across these regions and left neighbors on opposing sides of the divide. Military and political alliances of those periods are still part of the national narratives in these countries, as they go about shaping new alignments. In the present period, great-power relations continue to affect our region.

In the current India-Pakistan military standoff the stability of US-Russia-China ties has worked in a positive way, as all three have urged restraint, avoidance of war, and resolution of issues through diplomatic and political means. On the other hand, a troubled pattern of their relations—resulting from competitive relationships—would have impacted negatively, as they would have seen in this crisis the potential to advance narrow interests and vie for further influence.

From Pakistan’s perspective, a new strategy to deal with global and regional challenges must emphasize that none of these powers should take steps that exacerbate tensions. Instead, each should do everything that could lead to defusion of tensions and conflict resolution. For example notions of building one country as a strategic counter­weight to China would be destabilizing for the region, as indeed globally.

The United States, Russia and China have close relations with either India or Pakistan or both. This influence could be put to good and positive use. If the three great powers pursue shared objectives in a cooperative way, regional peace and stability can be strengthened and mutually-supported moves can be made towards resolving outstanding issues like Kashmir.

“Unilateralism” and nonproliferation: If a unilateralist approach on these issues becomes the dominant trend in US policy, significant impact on the South Asia region can be expected.

US positions on issues from CTBT to BMD to development of nuclear forces have tremendous impact on our region.

While South Asia has been nuclearized, it presents fundamentally different challenges than the US-Soviet model of nuclear competition during the Cold War. The draft nuclear doctrine announced by India envisages a large nuclear force, consisting of the classic triad of ground, air and sea-based nuclear assets. New Delhi is also signaling that it agrees with missile defense, so that such a bid can be justified by India at some point in future.

Pakistan’s view is that it would be disastrous for India and Pakistan to engage in a nuclear, or conventional, arms race. It is, therefore, important for the US, to work with India and Pakistan to restrain the development and deployment of nuclear weapons and to help both countries evolve a stable nuclear equation by agreeing to a strategic restraint regime.  Pakistan sees such a regime to involve three key elements: (a) nuclear and missile restraint, (b) conventional arms control measures, and (c) conflict-resolution (addressing the outstanding dispute over Kashmir).

Therefore, from Pakistan’s perspective, in rethinking global strategies, the impact of actions on regional situations must be kept in full view. The unintended consequences of actions have to be addressed effectively, as part of the strategy.


I conclude with five suggestions on how best to address the security challenges in the era of globalization.

  1. First, pursue cooperative and collaborative—not unilateralist—solutions. New structures of global strategic stability must be evolved through cooperative endeavors between the major powers as well as key regional states.
  2. Second, address the root causes of terrorism. It is important in fashioning long-term counterterrorism strategies to address extremism, intolerance, injustice, dispos­ses­sion, humanitarian and economic deprivation that produce the anger and despera­tion that in turn provide the breeding ground for terrorist recruits.
  3. The crafting of such a long-term approach also must involve strategies aimed at resolution of conflict and ending repression of people in different parts of the world, from Palestine to Kashmir. Security in a globalized environment needs more than the destruction of terrorist networks and defense or protection of borders. It requires attention and engagement by the great powers in the resolution of crises and disputes, which if allowed to fester, pose a threat to the world beyond them.
  4. Terrorism or the campaign against terrorism should not be used as an excuse or pretext by some countries to deny people their right to freedom or to justify human rights abuses and compromise civil liberties.
  5. Avoid past mistakes. The world walked away from Afghanistan after the then Soviet Union withdrew, leaving in its trail a volatile mix of problems for neighboring states, especially Pakistan. The blowback from the subsequent collapse of any law or order in Afghanistan engulfed not just the region but challenged global security. History’s lessons ought not to be ignored this time around.  Afghanistan must be rebuilt economically and politically from the fragments of two decades of war and internal strife. Patience and continued engagement would remain critical if a relapse into anarchy is to be avoided.

The core lesson from this is that in today’s globalized era, it is no longer possible for the international community to ignore crumbling states and argue that such phenomena do not concern them. The risks of such indifference are all too obvious in the wake of 9/11.

Security in an interdependent world necessitates new structures for international cooperation predicated on acceptance of the fact that national security cannot be disconnected from global development. Ultimately, a more compassionate and equitable international order also means a safer world.

* Editor’s Note: According to the US State Department’s transcript of Secretary Powell’s March 10th interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” the Secretary of State responded to a question about the leaked Pentagon report noting, “…We are always reviewing our military options, conventional weapons, nuclear weapons…[and] our diplomatic and economic and political options. And one of the things that we are required to do by Congress is to make a review of our nuclear weapons posture….The other development that this study took into account is that there are nations out there developing weapons of mass destruction. And prudent planners have to give some consideration as to the range of options the President should have available to him to deal with those kinds of threats….There is also an aspect of the story saying we’re getting ready to develop new nuclear weapons. We are not. What we are looking at, and what we have tasked the Pentagon to do, is to see whether or not within our lowered inventory levels we might want to modify or update or change some of the weapons in our inventory to make them more effective. But we are not developing brand new nuclear weapons, and we are not planning to undergo any testing.”

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Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the United States