Revisiting the Non-Aligned Movement: A Blueprint for a Multi-Polar World?

Only a few weeks short of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the United States under President Biden withdrew all US troops from Afghanistan. Weeks after the US announced the impending withdrawal, the Taliban swiftly began capturing large swathes of Afghan territory. Now, the Taliban are back in control in Afghanistan, as undeterred as they were prior to the US invasion of the country. For Pakistan, the present moment calls upon us to reflect on our previous policy of alignment with US foreign policy goals and the price we have paid for aiding and abetting America’s War on Terror in our backyard. At this critical juncture, it may be helpful to revisit the ideals that gave rise to the NAM, Non-Aligned Movement. Given the failure of American intervention in the Middle East, in Ira , Syria, Libya, Yemen, and in Afghanistan, is a strategy of Non-Alignment then the best way forward for states in the Global South? 

The premise of a Non-Aligned Movement was first proposed during the Bandung conference of April 1955, six years before the Non-Aligned Movement was formally initiated in Belgrade in 1961. The premise for the Non-Aligned Movement was based on the conviction of many of the leaders present at Bandung that it would be in their common interest to form an independent third bloc that would remain impartial to the Cold War – the economic and ideological war being waged between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Attended by leaders of 29 newly decolonized countries across Asia and Africa, most notably Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Ahmed Sukarno of Indonesia, and Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt, Bandung is remembered as “…the seminal moment in the political formation of postcoloniality.” (Young, 2006) Together, the leaders present at Bandung represented some 1.5 billion people, which was at the time equal to 54% of the world’s population.

Pakistan was also present at the Bandung conference, however in the years that followed, became militarily and economically aligned with the US (Pakistan eventually joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979). In fact, since independence in 1947, Pakistan has generally followed a strategy of alignment with US foreign policy goals, most notably as a signatory of SEATO in 1954, as a bulwark against communism during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then as a partner in the United States’ War on Terror after 9/11. But, twenty years after September 2001, the US as a global hegemon no longer commands the same influence it used to command on the world stage. The time is ripe for taking stock of our previous policy of alignment with the United States.

In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States as the sole global superpower has, on repeated occasions, overreached itself by trying to remake the world in its image, or by forcing other countries to behave in a manner that suits the interests of the American empire. It invaded, with brutal consequences that have continued to reverberate across the region in the decades to come, Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to exact revenge for the War on Terror. Interventions in Libya and Syria followed, to ‘liberate’ the local populations from the tyranny of their autocratic rulers. Needless to say, the United States’ meddling in the Middle East has not left the region more secure, prosperous or democratic, but left these countries ruined and desolate: ruled by militias, ravaged by famine, suffering high rates of unemployment and hyperinflation, and a crumbling medical and educational infrastructure, all of which are factors that have also led to a refugee crisis. Some empires bring prosperity to their subject peoples; the United States, in all of its military interventions, from Vietnam to Iraq to Libya to Yemen to Afghanistan, has not.

More recently, the hasty American exit from Afghanistan and the swiftness of the subsequent Taliban takeover have put to rest any lingering ambivalence as to whether the US really is a dwindling empire. After two decades of a brutal occupation, which has entailed an expense of over two trillion dollars and over two thousand American casualties, the American-trained Afghan army failed to deter the advancing Taliban, who were able to take back control of the country in a matter of mere weeks. For many onlookers, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is the moment that will come to mark the end of the age of western liberal interventionism.

America’s imperial misadventures in the Middle East and beyond should teach us the lesson that becoming militarily involved in another country’s wars is a choice that results in grave repercussions. Instead, our alliances and partnerships should see us commit to a goal of working towards peace, bilateral cooperation and détente between all nations. These goals are precisely what the Non-Aligned Movement stood for.

On the whole, the costs of a policy of alignment with the US have outweighed any benefits that may have accrued to Pakistan. The Pakistan army which once allied itself with the Afghan mujahideen, who served as America’s proxies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, has since had to move against their erstwhile brothers-in-arms in targeted military operations to purge them from Swat and Waziristan. The Taliban were a menace to the people of Swat, who were terrorized by their barbaric rule and their hardline interpretation of Islamic law which also led them to ban girls from going to school. Malala Yousafzai, also a native of Swat, was shot in the head in 2012 after refusing to heed repeated warnings from the Taliban to discontinue her education.

The Americans may have left, but Pakistan continues to share a long and porous border with neighbouring Afghanistan. The impending fallout from the Taliban takeover is certain to affect us, whether in the form of refugees fleeing their homes, the arms trade that has long contributed to the Kalashnikovization of Pakistan’s tribal belt, or the drug trade with which the Taliban finance their operations.

As of late, Pakistan has successfully solicited economic and political support from key allies in the Muslim World and beyond. At the top of the list, perhaps, is the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Saudi Arabia pledged $20 billion in investment in various petrochemical, power generation and mining projects in Pakistan. In May 2021, a further $500 million were pledged by the Saudi Development Fund to finance projects in the energy, infrastructure, hydropower, transport, water resource development and communication sectors.

Our focus must be on strengthening regional partnerships and fostering stronger economic ties with countries in Asia and Africa. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that in recent years, promising steps have been taken, such as Pakistan’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017. On the 20th anniversary of the SCO summit, Iran finally became a full member. Iranian president Raisi, welcoming the spirit of the SCO, spoke of the common challenges facing SCO members, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorism, the environment, cyber security and organized crime, which the member states can address more effectively together.

In addition to that, Pakistan and Tajikistan announced that they would be bilaterally upgrading their relationship to a strategic partnership. The two also pledged to work constructively with the Taliban to ensure an inclusive government.

To strengthen maritime stability and security, Pakistan held joint exercises with the German and American navies in the Arabian Sea in September this year. Such activities set a positive precedent and signal that we would welcome bilateral partnerships in the areas of security, defence and economic cooperation.

Additionally, there needs to be work done in cooperation with the education and culture ministries of these countries to create programs and opportunities for students to pursue educational opportunities, because educational and cultural exchange are imperative in order to bring about peaceful relations and closer ties between nations.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Non-Aligned Movement’s goals were set in terms of opposing colonialism, imperialism and support for freedom movements in Palestine, Algeria under French control and apartheid South Africa. In the 21st century, it must be our duty to pledge ourselves to the goals of opposing war and the unlawful military occupation of sovereign nations. Let us take the first steps to redress the mistakes of the past in order to give our people a secure, peaceful, democratic and prosperous future.

Mahnoor Khan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Development and Policy from Habib University, Karachi.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Discussion, Iraq, Politics, The Middle East, United States

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