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Pakistan’s Army Reverses the Great Game: The Oxus Meets the Indus

Kamal Alam
Newsbrief, 7 September 2018

In 1947, Pakistan’s army inherited the default position and strategy of British India in opposing Russian influence and inroads into Afghanistan and Central Asia. Now, for the first time in 200 years, they have reversed the old British policy of confronting the Russians for control over Central Asia. Pakistan’s army now sees the Russians as their strategic partners.

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In his book Russia in Central Asia in 1889 and the Anglo-Russian Question, George Curzon, former Viceroy of India, predicted that the Russians were unlikely to invade India for another hundred years. While analysing the two top Russian military officers, General Grodekoff and General Skobeleff, both of whom had been fighting the British in Crimea and then in charge of the Russian advance in Central Asia, Curzon noted in his book that the Russian decision-makers observed Central Asia as the strategic battleground for control where the affairs changed ‘minute by minute’. It was a remarkable prophecy from a man who, without dispute, is considered the architect of the Anglo-Russian policy at the peak of the British Empire’s ‘Great Game’ with the expanding Russian Empire. Indeed, his foresight came true as the Russians did invade Afghanistan in 1979, exactly one hundred years after the meeting between the Russian and British Indian army officers to delineate their two empires. For the defence of British India and later Pakistan, a Russian invasion of Afghanistan was the biggest threat to the stability and dominance of British interests over the Russians in Central Asia. For Curzon and the other administrators of British India, the threat had always been of a Russian invasion from the North-West Frontier Province of India. Pakistan inherited this problem as the British exited the scene in 1947 and ever since, Pakistan’s army has relied on the old British Indian Army policy of garrisoning the ‘Frontier’. This had meant the British created a buffer zone between their Empire and Afghanistan by giving the warlike Pashtun tribes autonomous status to rule themselves away from the influence of the Russian-influenced Afghan capital, Kabul. General after general of Pakistan’s army has been at pains to explain the continuation of the old British colonial strategy of policing the frontier and guarding against the Russian threat. However, the current Pakistani military leadership under Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa is set to reverse the Great Game and thereby end almost 200 years of ‘looking over their shoulder’ and fearing the Russian threat. Pakistan’s army is frantically mending its historically weak ties with the Russian army and making progress through defence diplomacy at a dizzying pace by making a pivot to Russiainstead of its traditionally close military ties with the US. There are multiple military deals, intelligence cooperation and joint training exercises that are redefining the region. As a US led by President Donald Trump further isolates Pakistan, the army under Bajwa is shoring up its Western flank with the help of its erstwhile enemy, the Russian military. So how did this happen?

An Enemy from the Cold War: Bad Beginnings in 1947

After the British exit from India in 1947, the Pakistani military carried on its North-West Frontier policy of maintaining the buffer zone in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2007, while he was an opposition leader, Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan, wrote in the Guardian about ‘learning from the experience of the British’. What Khan meant was that the newly established state of Pakistan, in 1947, quite simply did not send its army into the FATA but instead let the tribes police themselves whilst allowing the newly established Pakistan state to control the mountain passes, just like the British before it. The idea of keeping Pakistani troops outside the FATA was implemented by the British to combat Russian influence in Afghanistan and ward off the constant threats of invasion. But now in 2018, after seven decades of what Pakistan leaders such as Imran Khan termed ‘the old British policy’, Pakistan’s army has decided to no longer fear the Russian ‘bear’ and instead embrace it. This means that the policy of having a buffer zone with Afghanistan is no longer required as the Russians are no longer a threat to Afghanistan, and by default Pakistan.

In 1947 the Pakistani military became a willing participant on the US-led side in the Cold War. For all the criticisms of the Pakistani army in the West, beginning in the 1960s every military ruler and general was given great fanfare and welcome by US presidents, and indeed in 1966 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in the case of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US former President Ronald Reagan both forged close relationships with General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq as Pakistan’s army led the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

That Pakistan’s army sees Russia as an ally in Afghanistan and Central Asia is a complete turnaround from 200 years of fearing and indeed fighting the ‘bear’ from across the River Oxus

It was this closeness to the Americans that stationed Pakistan’s army on the front line of war against the Russians. Pakistan was central to the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident, as Peshawar hosted the US Air Force planes in their forward-operating bases against the Soviets. Throughout the 1980s, the CIA used Pakistan’s military to train insurgents to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and launch raids into Soviet Central Asia. Similarly, on the other side, the Soviets assisted India in its wars against Pakistan. However, the Trump doctrine is now maturing into a permanent aggressive foreign policy against Pakistan in the shape of blocking military aid and putting pressure on the IMFnot to grant the country more bailouts. In the first week of August, the Americans cancelled military training for the Pakistani military, and the International Military Education and Training programme (IMET) will now suspend Pakistan’s participation. It was no coincidence that as the Americans announced this, the Russians, for the first time in history, announced the start of military training for Pakistani military officers.

A Strategic Change: Russia and Pakistan

In July 2018, a remarkable meeting took place in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, as spy chiefs from Russia, Iran and China met to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. And so, the Great Game that the British and Russians began has come full circle. That Pakistan’s army sees Russia as an ally in Afghanistan and Central Asia is a complete turnaround from 200 years of fearing and indeed fighting the ‘bear’ from across the River Oxus. Just 20 or even 10 years ago it was unthinkable that both Russia and Iran would support the Afghan Taliban. This was previously the preserve of just the Pakistani army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Taliban had always been anti-Russian because of Russia’s support for the Taliban’s erstwhile enemies, the Northern Alliance, and they had also killed nine Iranian diplomats. Now, however, it is a widely accepted fact in most American military circlesthat both the Russians and the Iranians are following the Pakistani policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban.

This unique turnaround in Russia-Pakistan relations began in Afghanistan. Both countries now feel that the US-led war in Afghanistan is a threat to their security. Indeed, Prime Minister Khan has long rallied against the war. More so, he has said that Pakistan should never have been part of a war that has caused billions of dollars of damage to the Pakistani economy and tens of thousands of lives lost since 2001. Indeed, in 2012 Khan said that the Taliban’s war against the Americans was justified by Islamic law.

The Russians began their charm offensive on Pakistan’s army in 2002 when there was a tense stand-off between the Pakistani and Indian militaries in Kashmir. Russian President Vladimir Putin made public comments in Almaty, Kazakhstan that Russia was willing to negotiate a draw-down of the heightened tensions and escalation of troop numbers on the Pakistan-Indian border, and host the leaders of the nuclear-armed states to begin a meaningful dialogue, and in 2003 Pakistan’s then president General Pervez Musharraf made the most high-profile visit to date of any Pakistani leader to Moscow. This began the intelligence relationship in earnest. Musharraf then signed a strategic pact in Uzbekistan in 2005, under the encouragement of the Russians, for the Pakistani military and ISI to begin cooperation with all the former Soviet satellite states of Central Asia. This has reversed almost 30 years of antagonism between Russia and Pakistan in Central Asia. Thirteen years later, the Afghan Taliban made a public visit to Uzbekistan in August to talk about security in the region. Such a visit would have been unthinkable without Pakistani-Russian rapprochement on the issue of Afghanistan. This continues the general trend of Pakistan upgrading its Russian ties at an unprecedented pace.

Russia-Pakistan Military Ties Grow from Strength to Strength

In April 2018, Bajwa visited Moscow on an official visit to cement strategic military ties. This followed two large-scale military exercises that have taken place between the two armies in the last few years and the sale of Russianmilitary attack helicopters to Pakistan. Then, during the same week that the Americans suspended military training for Pakistan, the Russians signed a training agreement with Pakistan’s army.

As the frenzy of American criticism on the Pakistani military rises, senior Russian defence officials have been publicly praising the Pakistani military’s efforts against terrorism on the Afghan borders

Although Bajwa has carried out the policy of rapprochement to the Russians, there has been a slow drift away from the US by his predecessors, with the full support of the Corps Commanders, the executive army of the military leadership which decides strategic decisions as a group. As the frenzy of American criticism on the Pakistani military rises, senior Russian defence officials have been publicly praising the Pakistani military’s efforts against terrorism on the Afghan borders.

Whilst all the talk during the Cold War was of a Russian threat to Pakistan and of it reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Russians are now on board with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Moscow’s approach to participating in the development of Gwadar Port in Pakistan, seen as Pakistan’s economic future, is considered a game-changer in Pakistan. The Chinese have welcomed this participation and see it as a balancer against India’s insecurities about the project.

In what can be described as the final act of the Great Game, Pakistan’s army, emboldened by Operations Zarb-e-Azb and Raddul Fasaad which pushed the militants out of FATA and cleared the areas of those groups fighting the Pakistani state, have announced an end to the British-era policy of the Frontier Crimes Regulation, by which residents of the FATA are denied basic legal rights. This would mean the fabled ‘buffer zone’ of Curzon and British India would be no more, once the incoming parliament passes it in law in the coming year. This means that for the first time there is no need to have a tribal area. FATA will be abolished, and the areas on the Afghan border will be brought in line with the laws of the Pakistani state. In effect, the Russian threat is over. Pakistan’s army and Russia are sealing an ever-closer defencerelationship which will have a strategic impact on the world stage for years to come. Pakistan’s army has also won over Moscow and Tehran to their side of the Afghan issue after decades of mistrust, and as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, land in Islamabad on 5 September to talk about regional peace, they will find it an uphill battle to shift Central Asia’s new dynamic.

Kamal Alam 

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in the defence diplomacy of the Pakistani army, with a focus on its relationship with the Arab states, Turkey and Iran.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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