By Kamal Alam
Pakistan’s military is intensifying security cooperation with Russia. It is a remarkable and historic turnaround for two countries that for many decades considered each other rivals. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has been a frontline state for US dominance of the region. It became clear to the US then that they would need Pakistan’s military and its airspace to monitor Soviet activity.
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. It can also be argued that the US always favoured Pakistan over India during its wars; at least while Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State. However, now as Pakistan marks its 70th year, there seems to be a strategic shift towards Russia by Pakistan’s military leadership.
Pakistan strategic position is a product of British design and much of its foreign policy is a legacy of British India. The British ‘frontier’ policy had always been to keep Czarist Russia out of Afghanistan and Persia.
When the British departed in 1947, the Pakistan military inherited this frontier policy of looking over the passes of the Hindu Kush for the first sign of the ‘imminent’ Soviet invasion, which came in 1979. It was then that Pakistan’s enmity towards Russia peaked, and there were regular border skirmishes with the Pakistan Air Force shooting down a Russian intruder, piloted by a future vice-president of Russia, Alexandr Rutskoi.
Ironically, the pilot who shot down the Russian fighter became the vice-chief of the Pakistan Air Force, and Air Marshal Athar Bukhari, now the incumbent Pakistani Ambassador to Syria, has praised Russian air power in the Middle East.
The main protagonists of this strategic turnaround have been the Pakistan Army and Air Force. In 2012, then Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani became the first military chief from Pakistan to visit Moscow.
The Russians have stepped into the gap, providing military attack helicopters – a historic first, given Pakistani reliance on American aircraft for six decades. The Pakistan Air Force which has always been equipped with US fighters is now in consultation with an eye to buying the latest Russian aircraft. It has already signed deals on engineering procurement and Russian engines for its joint fighter produced with China, the JF-17.
It is no secret that the US has made it harder for Pakistan to buy its F-16s and military aid has been drastically cut in the past two years. Pakistan has therefore had to look to Turkey and Jordan for procuring used F-16s which are not quite the standard required to counter-balance the Indian Air Force. Pakistan’s frustrations with the F-16 difficulties do not just end at the procurement level. For Pakistan is also training Turkish Air Force pilots, to make up for the shortfall created by the arrest of many Turkish pilots following last year’s failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, the US blocked this effort, much to the dismay of both the Turkish and Pakistani Air Forces. Besides, the almost monthly amendments and legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington against military sales to Pakistan has prompted Islamabad to look elsewhere. And the embrace is widening. Last year saw the first military drills between the Pakistani and Russian militaries. This was followed last week by the country’s special forces exercising in the Caucasus with Russia. The drills covered mountain warfare, countering urban terrorism and engaging in broader land warfare.
China and India have reacted with dismay to these overt strategic ties between Russia and Pakistan. However, President Vladimir Putin dismissed such fears, saying that India still remained Moscow’s strategic and historic partner in Asia.
However, it is no secret that the Kremlin is uneasy about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s deep embrace of the US, and closer military ties with Washington. And, as the Indians now buy US and French fighters, Russia too is looking elsewhere, including Moscow’s participation in the alliance with China and Pakistan over rising tensions in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Russia’s strategic turnaround in Afghanistan has also been most remarkable: gone are the old zero-sum game theories applied to the Taliban and the fighters of the Northern Alliance, to be replaced by the courting of both Russia and Pakistan of the Taliban. There is also budding cooperation with China in an effort to conclude the war in Afghanistan, and do so away from NATO’s grasp. Similarly, the Russians have tempered down former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s views on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
Karzai is still a notable political player in Kabul, and considering another presidential run; he has been in and out of Moscow regularly, and has criticised America’s new Afghan policy, pressuring for Pakistan to do more.
There is also budding cooperation with China in an effort to conclude the war in Afghanistan, and do so away from NATO’s grasp It is quite an accomplishment for Russia to have turned round Karzai’s historical animosity towards Pakistan, and Pakistan is a key beneficiary. It is still early days in the Pakistan-Russian ‘bromance’. After all, almost 70 years of hostility are not easily set aside. Still, the two militaries are cosying up and strategic objectives are aligning in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The Pakistan Army Chief of Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa will visit in Moscow this month as Russia bids to capitalise on a deteriorating relationship with the US. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives in Islamabad right on the heels of Bajwa’s Moscow visit, and the Americans could have their work cut out. Rapprochement with Russia could be a sign of things to come, if the US keeps threatening the Pakistani military with sanctions and if Washington continues to stall military sales.
(The author Kamal Alam is Visiting Fellow, Pakistan, attached with one of the major British think tank RUSI. Kamal’s research focuses on Pakistan defence issues, Pakistan military’s relationship with the Arab States, Syrian Army and the non-Arab countries. Previously, he worked at the Syrian Institute for Strategic Studies in Damascus. He has also worked on the Syria Programme at the Aspen Institute in Berlin and has been a visiting lecturer at several military academies and staff colleges in the Middle East, Britain and Pakistan.
Kamal holds a BA from the University of Durham in the Politics & History of the Middle East with Arabic, his undergraduate dissertation which was a comparative work on the idea of war in Judaic and Islamic theology was supervised by Rabbi Robert Ash. Kamal also studied in Damascus focussing on Syrian History and currently advises several Damascus and Deir ez-Zor based family offices. His PhD examines the Geopolitics of Afghanistan & the Arab World, focusing primarily on trade corridors set up by the Arabs and Turks in medieval times and what relevance they hold for the modern geopolitics of the Middle East and Central Asia.)