Pakistan's Shocking Strategic Shift

Mounting internal threats have caused Pakistan to step back from its focus on perceived threats from India.

Pakistan is often characterized as a belligerent, unyielding, and destabilizing force in international affairs. But despite longstanding and widespread negative perceptions, Pakistani behavior and strategic culture is changing for the better in important respects, as recently exemplified by anti-Taliban operations in the country’s North Waziristan region and thawing relations with the United States and Afghanistan.

The reorientation of Pakistan’s national security policies remains little noticed because media coverage of Pakistan is crisis-driven and narrowly focused, often overlooking longer-term trends. Pakistan is still routinely chastised for inadequately demobilizing militant groups, overspending on its military (both conventional and nuclear forces) relative to its social needs, and trading accusations with India without initiatives to improve relations.

Though there is merit to these negative critiques, at the same time Pakistan’s security policies have experienced striking but underappreciated shifts since 2001 along three dimensions—aggressive behavior, strategic orientation, and self-examination. These shifts warrant a reexamination by international security analysts of their of assumptions about Pakistan and their theories of strategic stability and instability in South Asia.

Aggressive or “belligerent” Pakistani behavior toward India has been significantly reduced.

Overall violence on the Indo-Pakistan border has declined due to substantial reductions in militant activity and cross-border firings, based on open-source data, including that of the government of India. While some Indians primarily credit stability in the disputed Kashmir region to India’s counterinsurgency campaign, much of it is due to Pakistan’s strategic shifts over the past decade. Pakistan still supports Kashmiri separatists, but infiltration attempts, violent incidents, and fatalities have all steadily decreased by over 90 percent since 2001.

Observers also rightly credit the Indian-constructed fence along the Line of Control (LoC)—as the de facto border is known—for the precipitous drop in infiltration and violence in Kashmir. But many analysts acknowledge Pakistan tacitly abetted fence construction with restraint for years after signing a 2003 ceasefire agreement. Moreover, as much as 30 percent of the fence deteriorates every winter, and rebuilding requires further Pakistani tacit cooperation. To put the importance of the ceasefire into perspective, cross-border firing dropped from a peak of 5,767 incidents in 2002 to zero in 2004 and remained below 100 annual incidents through 2011. Although cross-border violence has been on the uptick over the past three years, it remains at less than one-tenth of 2002 levels.