Pakistan’s Strategic Culture: Determinants & Dimensions


Strategic culture is set of shared beliefs, assumptions and modes of behaviour derived from common experiences and accepted narratives that shape collective identity and determine appropriate ends and means to accomplish national security objectives. It is a complex phenomenon shaped by history, geography and cultural heritage of a country. This article attempts to analyse the strategic culture of Pakistan using the lenses of history and the regional apparatus surrounding Pakistan.

Author wishes to thank Peter Lavoy, Hasan Askari and Feroze Hasan Khan for using the material contained in their articles freely available on internet  

What is a Strategic Culture?

There is no consensus on the precise definition of the strategic culture. Jack Snyder described strategic culture as “the sum total of ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of behaviour that members of the national strategic community have acquired through instruction or imitation and share with each other…”

Stephen Rosen’s approach is very similar, observing that strategic culture is made up of the shared “beliefs and assumptions that frame … choices about international military behaviour, particularly those concerning decisions to go to war, preferences for offensive, expansionist or defensive modes of warfare, and levels of wartime casualties that would be acceptable.”

Ian Johnston provide of the more recent and widely embraced approaches to the concept. In contrast to the material context of realism, Johnston portrays strategic culture as “an ideational milieu which limits behaviour choices.” This milieu is shaped by “shared assumptions and decision rules that impose a degree of order on individual and group conceptions of their relationship to their social, organisational and political environment”

A reasonable explanation of strategic culture is that it is a set of shared beliefs, assumptions and modes of behaviour derived from common experiences and accepted narratives, both oral and written, that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, which determine appropriate ends and means to accomplish national security objectives.

Echoing the above, the Pakistani strategic analyst Brigadier (retired) Feroz Hassan Khan writes:

“Strategic culture in new states is affected by two factors: the regional security situation and the local political culture. In such cases, what might appear as “culture” could well be evolving trends within society, reactions to regional or local threats and repercussions of events elsewhere. Strategic culture assumes a connotation of quasi permanence -– a subtle attempt to identify a pattern of response or predict strategic responses or military behaviour”.

Significantly, strategic culture provides national security policy makers a conceptual lens and framework to gain insights into how nation-states have behaved in the past and will possibly do in the future. To that extent, this gives decision-makers a means to undertake reasonable and limited speculation as to the immediate-future state behaviour over perceptions, interpretation and implementation of national security policy.

Determinants of Pakistan’s Strategic Culture

Pakistan’s strategic culture is a cumulative result of certain historical events, its cultural heritage, religious moorings and its geostrategic compulsions that shape policy makers’ outlook towards national security management. These events, trends, traits and compulsions determine its political military elites perceptions about the threats, internal as well as external, and their likely response. Some of these determinants are as follows

  1. An acute insecurity and strong distrust of India developed in the early years of nationhood due to Indian actions such as post-partition communal riots, acrimonious assets division, water dispute and particularly its aggression in Kashmir, reinforced during the defeat in 1971 war and the separation of the country into two
  2. Lack of adequate geographical depth of the country plus lack of natural barriers to stop/slow external aggression
  3. Distrust of Afghanistan due to troubled bilateral relations reinforced by irredentist claims of Afghanistan on Pakistan’s border has created fear of insurgencies by supporting disgruntled elements in Pakistan and giving shelters to anti-Pakistan elements for destabilising the country
  4. Lack of confidence in our ability to defeat India due to enormous gap in traditional war capabilities of the two countries. Aggressive hegemonic designs of India backed by its armament acquisitions and quantum of military deployments on the borders with Pakistan, its refusal to settle Kashmir dispute and threats of diverting water.
  5. Desire of the successive ruling elite of Pakistan to play larger than life role in world politics, particularly in the Muslim countries

Key Elements of Pakistan’s Strategic Culture

Based on the above determinants of the Pakistan’s strategic culture, Hassan Askari Rizvi has highlighted the following six aspects of Pakistan’s strategic culture;

  1. Opposition to Indian Hegemony

Pakistani political and military elites are unified in their opposition to Indian hegemony as a basis for a peaceful and durable regional order. The very notion of an independent Pakistan was premised on the right of South Asia’s Muslim population to enjoy the benefits of national sovereignty free from the domination of the region’s much more populous Hindu population. After gaining independence, the Pakistani elites have treasured their hard-won sovereignty and have resisted every Indian effort to curtail their freedom of action. Pakistan’s political and military competition with India therefore forms the centrepiece of its regional and international diplomacy,

  • Primacy of Defense Requirements

Regardless of whether the Pakistan government was run by civilians or the military (which has ruled for most of Pakistan’s existence), defense has always been the country’s top budgetary priority. Although Pakistan continues to experience intense poverty, poor infrastructure, a weak educational system, and nearly non-existent social services, defense expenditures run very high, ranging from 73 percent in 1949-1950 to around 25 percent in recent years.

  • Nuclear Deterrence

Pakistan has waged a determined campaign to acquire and modernize an operational nuclear deterrent ever since its military loss to Indian forces in the 1971 East Pakistan war and creation of Bangladesh. This resolve crystallised in detonation of nuclear explosive devices in May 1998 and was a demonstration of its willingness to run high risks and pay high costs to deter aggression. Despite Pakistan’s numerous test flights of various missile delivery systems, the expansion, diversification, and security of its deterrent remain key priorities, especially as Indian might continues to grow. Pakistan’s deterrence posture is predicated on a strong conventional force capability

  • Acceptance, But Not Reliance, on Outside Assistance

To compensate for India’s vast advantages in manpower, wealth, and military equipment, Pakistan consistently has sought out foreign supplies of modern weapons and military training. The United States was its main arms provider during the 1950s and 1960s and again in the 1980s, but Islamabad turned to China and other weapons sources in the 1970s and again in the 1990s when Washington imposed conditions on arms transfers that would inhibit Pakistan from pursuing nuclear weapons, which Pakistani defense planners deemed essential for their competition with India.

  • Stability on Pakistan’s Western Border

From the first days of Pakistan’s existence, tense relations with Afghanistan created not only problems for Pakistan’s foreign policy but also its internal security. Early on, Afghanistan refused to recognize the newly independent Pakistan and continues to this day to challenge the legitimacy of the “Durand Line” that demarcates the Pak-Afghan border. A larger concern has been ethnic Pusthun politics in Pakistan’s KP province, which borders Afghanistan. Pusthun separatism became the largest threat to Pakistan’s internal stability and remains a long-term worry of Pakistani defense planners. As a result, Pakistani leaders always have preferred “friendly” clients to the West—whether they were the compliant warlords of the 1980s or the Taliban of the 1990s.

  • Identification with Conservative Islamic Causes

The emphasis on Muslim nationalism that brought Pakistan into being continues to play an important role in shaping its national identity and foreign relations. In the years following independence, Muslim nationalism became more than a nationalist ideology, it became a rallying cry for Islamic solidarity and Muslim causes all over the world. At times, Pakistan has tried to be seen as a leader of the Islamic world, but these efforts have upset some countries, who consider themselves as more fitting international leaders. Thus while Islam remains a major part of Pakistan’s political identity, it generally is not a dominant theme in Pakistan’s foreign and defense policies.

Writing in the Deccan Herald (Understanding Pak’s strategic culture key-June 27 2018) Bidanda Chengappa has made an interesting comparison between the strategic culture of Pakistan and that of Israel

  1. Both are post WW2 nation-states founded on religious nationalism and perceive existential threats from larger neighbours.
  2. The Pakistani military has emulated the Israeli war-fighting doctrine of pre-emptive aerial strikes to launch wars and even prioritises special operations/commando warfare against India, as evident in the 1965 and 1999 conflicts.
  3. Pakistan and Israel are both national security states, where the military is the largest stakeholder. Yet, diplomacy remains a key tool to promote their national security interests. Thus, Islamabad maintains close ties with Beijing, Washington and the Organisation of Islamic Countries. Similarly, Israel enjoys diplomatic relations with Turkey, and with its two Arab neighbours plus friendly relations with three global powers.
  4. Another commonality is that both these countries use religion as a tool to mobilise their financial, ideological and theological resources to promote national security objectives.”

From the ebook “Pakistan Studies: 20 Essays” by Shahid Hussain Raja, published by Amazon

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