Pakistan and CENTO: need for reappraisal

By Zubeida Mustafa

TO withdraw or not to  withdraw from CENTO is not a new question for Pakistan. The membership of the pact has been debated ever since this country decided to link its defence with the Western sponsored military alliance, originally called the Baghdad Pact.

However, recently this question has acquired a new meaning in view of the developments which have been taking place in the international politics of Central and South Asia. In this context some rethinking on Pakistan’s membership of CENTO should indeed prove to be quite timely, and it is a worthwhile idea to encourage a free and frank public debate on the issue. Besides being educative, this could promote a broad consensus on foreign policy.

Pakistan has three options which it can exercise in respect of CENTO, First, it can continue to play an active role in the pact as it has been doing since 1972. Secondly, it can formally withdraw from the alliance. Thirdly pending a final decision Pakistan could discreetly downgrade its participation while retaining a nominal membership.

Since Pakistan is already a member, it would be pertinent to analyse first the pros and cons of its continued membership. If the disadvantages appear to outweigh the gains and a case in favour of disengagement is made out, it will still be important. To ponder over the impact of withdrawal on the direction of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the reaction it will evoke from other members of the organisation and its neighbours in the region.

This exercise, although it might largely be hypothetical, is nevertheless necessary, for two teasons; it would enable the Government to mobilise public opinion in support of the decision it takes and such a debate could help by unofficially eliciting the reactions of other Governments.


In evaluating the pros and cons of sustaining our commitment towards the pact, we could begin by taking into account, first, the rationale of Pakistan’s membershipof CENTO, secondly, the diplomaticenvironment in which itoperates and, thirdly, the advantages or disadvantages in diplomaticand military terms which actuallyaccrue from i t. This mightinvolve traversing ground whichhas been covered again and againby political commentators, newspapercolumnists, politicians anddiplomats but some repetition is inevitable, in fact even desirable,if we are to develop a clearthinking on the issue.

CENTO had its origin In the Pactof Mutual Cooperation signed inBaghdad between Iraq and Turkeyin February 1955. Pakistan accededto this in September. WhileBritain and Iran also joined thealliance, the US never became afull member, but has participated in the proceedings of its militarycommittee, ministerial council anddefence exercises.

The US Is alsolinked with each of the three regionalmembers (Iraq having leftthe organisation in 1958) by BilateralAgreements of Cooperationand Mutual Defence AssistanceAgreement.The military pact has lacked cohesionand unity of purpose fromthe very start owing to the differencesin the perception of variousmembers of what their security needs are.

For the US,South Asia never became a primaryarea of interest It enjoyed an important position in Washington’s strategic and global policybut only in the perspective of American relations with Moscowand Peking, and its security arrangements in the oil-rich regionof the Middle East Hence CENTOwas conceived in conventional strategic terms as a physical lineof defence against the SovietUnion, and in keeping with thisapproach the protagonists ofCENTO cite the absence of a Sovietmilitary advance into the”Northern Tier” countries since1955 as a measure of its success.

Turkey and Iran have had a certainexperience of dealings withthe USSR, and it could be claimedthat this experience explains theirmembership of the pact. But Pakistan’s decision to enter theBaghdad Pact, with its openlyanti-Soviet orientation, was highlyquestionable. Pakistan had nocomparable historical compulsions.

Paradoxically, it actuallyimperilled its security after itjoined the pact by provoking the Kremlin.The only rationale of Pakistan’smembership of the pact was itsquest to strengthen its defencesagainst India, although manywould question the wisdom of adopting such a course. Given thegeneral bias of American publicopinion, the Congress and the academicsin favour of India, it wasinconceivable even to the most incurable of optimistss; that the USwould ever allow the machineryof CENTO to be mobilised against India.

Whatever doubts thereexisted on this score should have been removed when the WhiteHouse repeatedly assured Mr.Nehru that Americanmilitary aidwas not directed against NewDelhi.

The only advantage which wederived tromou> membership ofthe pact was the 1.5 billion dollarworth of military equipment ourdefence establishment receivedgratis in 1955-65. But even thisaid was suspended in 1965 whenthe India-Pakistan war broke out. Ever since, whatever arms Pakistanhas acquired from Washingtonhave been paid for and have notbeen given for the asking. Infact, on occasions requests for specificarms have not been met, themost recent instance being thatof SA-7 planes.

The diplomatic environment inwhich the Baghdad Pact was created has changed radically renderingthe alliance quite redundanteven for its sponsors. The cold warwhich led the US to seek a ring ofmilitary allies on the Russian andChinese borders has given way to a competitiveness between Washingtonand Moscow in whichCENTO does not have the samerelevance. In the bipolar patternof international politics of the fifties,military alliances and nonalignmenthad a logical connotation but in the multipolar system of today they are an anomaly.

The latest trends in defencestrategy and the greater sophisticationof conventional and nuclearweapons have considerablyreduced the importance of landbases. In these changed circumstances,Pakistan can no longerhope to command as much importancein American strategic planningas it did two decades ago.It cannot capitalise on its geopoliticalposition to extract majordiplomatic concessions from Washington.In South Asia itself thediplomatic environment has changedand the rigid posture of confrontationIndia and Pakistan hadadopted vis-a-vis one another hasbeen replaced by a proclaimed policyof relaxation of tensions betweenthem.

U.S. policy

Our membership of CENTO hasnot in the past secured any extraordinarypolitical support from theUS on vital issues, let alone activemilitary assistance during a conflict.

Nor will it in the future.American policy is essentially determined by hard realpolitik andWashington’s perception of its politicaland strategic interests at a given point of time rather than moral principles such as loyalty toits partner in a military alliance.In terms of military equipmentand training, whatever limitedadvantage Pakistan is derivingfrom CENTO can be questioned inthe light of the political and diplomaticprice we are paying forit. We no longer acquire Americanarms on a grant basis andeven the supply of equipmentwhich is paid for cannot be takenfor granted. There is no strategicadvantage in the region whichPakistan claims to enjoy by virtueof its membership of the pact.The CENTO treaty had never incorporatedmilitary commitmentscomparable to the mutual securityguarantees of NATO. It operateson an ad-hoc basis, having no permanentmilitary command (thecombined military group at Ankarabeing a poor substitute) and

no forces or bases are assigned for its use. No move has everbeen made to introduce cooperationin the development and productionof weapons or achievestandardisationot weapon componentsand systems. This hasbeen pointed out by even the mostardent supporters of the pact. Theonly limited gain which we derivefrom CENTO is in the shape of theannual exercises which are held.These include combined maritimemanoeuvres in the Persian Gulfand the Arabian Sea, air defenceexercises, war games and airsearch and rescue exercises. Ostensibly this stake inthese exercises has been reducedto a minimum.

These limited military gains areoffset by the diplomatic handicapsthe membership of CENTOhas brought in its wake. In thefifties, Pakistan earned the hostilityof the Arab world on accountot its policy of alignmentwith the West. This was latercounteracted by skilful diplomacywhich was possible in the changedcircumstances of the ‘sixties. But Pakistan’s exclusion from the nonalignedmovement, which has emergedas an important internationalforum in the Third World,on technical grounds, has yet tobe rectified.

Moreover membershipof CENTO distorts Pakistan’simage in the world community,giving it a definitely pro-Westposture. This not only detractsfrom a truly independent foreignpolicy but also unnecessarily invitesthe criticism of those Powerswhich are opposed to the pact. In a situation in which Pakistanis not deriving any tangible diplomatic

or military advantage fromits membership of CENTO, itshould actively reconsider its presentposition. But before it decidesto quit the pact, which wouldbe a major policy move involvingthe reversal of the status quo,a dispassionate effort should bemade to calculate the reactions ofother States. It would not be avery judicious move to land ourselvesin a situation where theadvantages of withdrawal mightbe outweighed by the adversereactionsof other States which ostensiblyhave a stake in CENTO.


Dawn 13 July 1978

How others may react toa quit decision

THE Foreign Office may A perhaps find it necessary to carry out a painstaking exercise involving a profound analysis ofsome hypothetical questionssuch as what reactionsare to be expected.

Our foreign policy makers mightencourage a public debate on theissue in order to evolve a consensus.This is particularly essentialif the decision happens to be infavour of quitting the pact. Apublic consensus will strengthenthe hands of the Foreign Officeand is the only alternative availablein the absence of democraticinstitutions which providefor legislative ratification in order to give a popular sanction todecisions falling within the purviewof diplomacy. Moreover, thiswill guarantee that a decision istaken after due deliberation andnot impulsivelyThe exercise of taking soundings in foreign capitals will yield an obvious advantage. It couldhelp the Foreign Office preemptany adverse reaction byskilful and intensive diplomacyaimed at reassuring all Governmentsabout our foreign policygoals and strategies.

The R CD

Pakistan’s relations with theother two regional members ofCENTO, namely, Turkey andIran have been very close over the years. Although CENTO hasreinforced these ties it wouldbe overestimating its role if ourfriendship with Turkey and Iran is attributed to our military alliancewith them. That our relationshipstands independently ofthe CENTO bond is evident in many ways.

First, despite tnepotentialrole CKNTO was designed to playin the economic sphere, Turkey,iran and Pakistan deemed it necessary to set up RCD as amanifestation of the regionalmembers’ disillusionment with thepact at a time when Turkey and Pakistan Were disappointed overthe lack of American support onCyprus and Kashmir. Secondly,despite the American reluctanceto activate CENTO during the1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars,the regional members came toIslamabad’s assistance. Thirdly,the three members have haddifferent foreign policy orientationsespecially vls-a-vis Chinadespite their common membershipof CENTO, and yet they havemaintained mutually friendlyties.

Turkey has itself been inthe process of downgrading itsties not only with CENTO butalso NATO which it regards asmore important. Its recent Treatyof Friendship with Moscow isone indication. The low level ofits participation in CENTO military exercises is another. Henceit can safely be assumed thatPakistan’s withdrawal would notcreate a strong unfavourable response in Ankara.

Iranian anxietv

Iran might pose some difficultiesin view of the fact that it hasdisfavoured reported attempts byPakistan on previous occasions toconvince Tehran of the futilityof the pact. Since the Britishwithdrawal East of Suez In 1971,Iran has undertaken a gigantic

programme of military preparedness,but this is quite independentof CENTO and in no wayintegrated with the alliance. But it is possible that Pakistan’s withdrawalmight be viewed by Iranas a factor capably causingsome disturbance to the status quo. Here one has to rememberthat Teheran is believed to bedeenly pondering over the significanceof the recent events in Kabul for the security of itsnorthern flank. It will need adroitdiplomacy on our part to reassureTeheran that a possible  withdrawalfrom CENTO will notnecessarily imply a switch to theother camp. Adjoining  to the threemajor Powers, it might not easy to anticipate their reactions.


Moscow will no doubt welcomethe move but it may wellbegin to pin hopes on the possibility of getting Pakistan to enter into some security arrangementsin the region as. 1t didin the recent moot when it mootedthe idea of an Asian Security System. It will have to be madeclear to the Kremlin that leaving CENTO does not mean that we entertain any such ideas. The move to quit CENTO should, however, be linked with Pakistan’s  commitment to friendship withMoscow without spelling it outin documentary form.The initial reaction of the US can be quite unexpectedly severein view of the changes in Kabul and the American interpretationof the events there as an irrevocableextension of Russian influencein Central Asia. WhenPakistan left SEATO there wasno American reaction, and anearlier decision on our part toquit CENTO might not have evoked much of a response becauseeven in the American oil diplomacy in the Middle East,CENTO was not assigneda positive role in the region. Yetat this stage the US might interpreta move by Pakistan to leavethe pact as being designed to weaken the Western defence at atime when Soviet influence is expanding. But it is precisely in this contextthat a decision is called for.

A renewed emphasis on CENTO,which many would be seeking atthis stage, will only result inpromoting a posture ofconfrontationvis-a-vis Afghanistan which Pakistan does not desire. Our relationshipwith Kabul has alwaystended to touch a low ebbwhenever we have chosen to play up our Western leanings. Making friendly overtures toAfghanistan may not be sufficientin itself unless we areprepared to demonstrate our independence in foreign policymore fully.

China ‘s position

Another country whose reactionsnould be carefully calculated is China. The Chinese leadershipis known to favour an independentSoutn Asia free from “Super power hegemony”. A decisionto quit CENTO would be in line with the proclaimed objectivesof Peking in the region.

However, in view of the convergenceof the short-term policygoals of China and the US inAfrica, it should not simply be taken for granted that Pekingwould welcome a change in thestatus quo. No doubt the Chineseleadership should be consulted and it might be explained to Pekingthat a move to leave CENTOis not linked with the idea of allowingany extra leverage to Moscow in the region.

The considerations cited above point to the need to quit CENTO.A simple downgrading of its participationmay not be enough to produce the required impact. However,this would call for somevskilful diplomacy in not onlyhandling the reactions the move might give rise to but also inseizing upon the advantages themove would offer. Thus as aquid pro quo Islamabad should be able to secure full membershipin the non-aligned group. Itshould also be possible for thePakistan Government to seekmultilateral guarantees of nonaggressionfrom all its neighbours and the big Powers, as along term objective.