The Pulse

Imagining South Asia Without Pakistan

What are the geopolitical advantages and disadvantages of there being no Pakistan?

Imagining South Asia Without Pakistan
Credit: CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

In my recent article at the East West Institute’s (EWI) blog, I pointed out that India’s greatest geopolitical issue, on land, was the combined location and strategic stance of Pakistan. This is because Pakistan occupies a territory across India’s entire western frontier. Unlike the border between India and China, much of the Indo-Pakistani border is open plains, and can be easily crossed. More problematic is the fact that Pakistan occupies all the land routes between India and much of the region where India-based civilizations have traditionally projected influence and power: the Middle East and Central Asia. Additionally, Pakistan’s non-cooperative stance toward India make it difficult for South Asia to become integrated through infrastructure and connected to the Middle East and Central Asia, which hurts trade.

In light of this geopolitical problem and continued tensions on the border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, a movement has emerged in some circles in India advocating for the breakup of Pakistan into its component states. Such an idea is a popular theme on Twitter and was also recently advocated by a retired Major Army General, GD Bakshi, during a speech at IIT Madras.

Of course, the idea that India could bring about such a development is preposterous because it would require a military conflict that would surely devolve into nuclear warfare, killing millions. It is therefore unlikely that Pakistan would break up from external pressure. It has a slightly larger chance of breaking up due to internal tensions between its provinces. Helping this along is something that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be toying with, though not seriously. Moreover, the strength of the Pakistani military is such that no internal rebellion is likely to succeed. Pakistan can only break up if its entire institutional apparatus splits along regional lines.

Furthermore, Pakistan is resolutely determined to not experience a repeat of its split in 1971, when East Pakistan, which contained half of Pakistan’s population, broke off to became Bangladesh, aided by India. Of course, Bangladesh was a highly unique situation. It was separated from western Pakistan by a thousand miles of India, while all of Pakistan’s provinces today are adjacent towards each other. Moreover, Bangladesh remained culturally distinct, refusing to endorse the sole use of Urdu as Pakistan’s national language, something that the rest of Pakistan has accepted. Finally, when Pakistan lost Bangladesh in 1971, it did not have nuclear weapons to stave off defeat. Its accusation of such weapons since then is largely an insurance strategy against a repeat of 1971. Shortly after the war, then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, started Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program to ensure that the country would never be broken up again, stating “we will eat grass” to get a bomb.

However, as a geopolitical thought experiment, let us evaluate the pros and cons of the disintegration of Pakistan. From a geopolitical perspective, India has the most to gain. The strategic imperative to have a series of small, military weak states on its frontier bears some resemblance to the strategic goals of France from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The strategic goal of France for several centuries was to prevent the emergence of a strong state on its eastern border. It worked tirelessly to keep the German states disunified, which would allow it to dominate the region, especially on an important frontier.

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Likewise, India’s most important frontier historically has been its northwest frontiers, the direction from where almost all land invasions came. Today, this frontier is controlled entirely by a hostile state that blocks trade and transportation with Central Asia and the Middle East through its territory. The disintegration of this state would be conducive to India’s interests. It would be able to mold South Asia easily to its economic and political vision and project power into Central Asia without any major state to block its way.

However, for any reason other than India’s geopolitical position improving, the breakup of Pakistan would be undesirable to most of its neighbors and world powers, including India. There is no guarantee the breakup of Pakistan into its constituent provinces would be anything as smooth as the breakup of the Soviet Union. Instead of having three or four trade partners to its northwest, India could instead see vicious civil wars, warlordism, and violence that could spill over into India itself. If the new states are hostile to India, moreover, it would be more difficult to negotiate with multiple hostile governments than the singular one that exists now.

Furthermore, unlike the breakup of the Soviet Union and like that of Yugoslavia, there would be no single dominant successor state to Pakistan, and it would be unclear what would happen Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, navy, and other assets. In the worst case of warlordism, these would be dangerously unsecured. In a better case scenario, where state institutions survive, Punjab would probably emerge as the largest successor state to Pakistan but there is no benefit to creating a huge, landlocked, nuclear state in Punjab. Finally, the breakup of Pakistan could lead to a geopolitical vacuum in the region, that if India doesn’t fill for whatever reason, could easily be filled by another power. Whatever the faults of Pakistan, it still protects its perceived national interests, and thus Chinese and other ambitions in the region are channeled through a Pakistani filter. It would be better for India to deal with a moderately strong Pakistan than four Chinese client states on its northwest frontier.

Not that China would want Pakistan to break up. China would lose a valued partner and the cooperation of a single government that rules a territory stretching from Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea. China would have to negotiate economic and infrastructure projects with a variety of new states. China also relies on Pakistan to keep Indian ambitions in check. It is unlikely that China would ever want a situation in Pakistan get so out of hand that the state would collapse.

The breakup of Pakistan would also be unwelcome to numerous other powers. The United States values a stable international order and would be loath to see the weakening of a state that could at least theoretically hold militancy in check. If the restless tribal areas of Pakistan’s northwest broke free of Pakistan, they would more likely be a new Somalia, becoming a haven for terrorists and bandits, than a successful state. And it would be a disaster for the U.S.-backed non-proliferation regime if Pakistan collapsed.

Iran, too, would be loathe to see another weak state on its eastern borders; it has already absorbed refugees from Afghanistan and has to deal with drug trafficking emanating from the collapse of the state there. An independent Balochistan on its eastern border would be against Iranian national interests, as it would encourage irredentism in its own ethnic Baloch areas. Finally, while many in Afghanistan would like to negate the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan the British drew in 1893 to divide ethnic Pashtun areas, a state as dysfunctional as Afghanistan can hardly be expected to administer new territory effectively. Adding more Pashtuns to Afghanistan could also disturb the already fragile ethnic balance between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns in the country.

The disappearance of Pakistan is something that would not be advantageous to most countries. Despite its difficulties, Pakistan has existed as an integrated space for almost 70 years. Karachi, the main port of Sindh, serves the industry of Lahore. Balochistan needs investment from Punjab, and so on. Pakistan would be smart to use its location as a geopolitical enabler rather than as a barrier for trade and transportation, and thus reap in the benefits of increased economic activity. It has the chance to do so today. Another few decades of mismanagement and obstinance could, however, make scenarios for its breakup and failure more likely.