Borrowed Power

Why does a media tycoon, his empire under criticism for playing second fiddle to a political stunt generated by the sitting government, need a tweet from the US Consulate in Karachi to prove his innocence?

This, while the newspaper correspondent, accused of slandering the army at the behest of a mysterious “strategic media cell”, has almost been exonerated by a toothless joint investigation team? Is it a solitary incident, or does it have to do something with a deeper malady inflicting the “Islamic Republic”? These are the questions which keep agitating the people of Pakistan, not privy to the palace intrigues and perpetual struggle for power, that goes on in the corridors of power.

Consider this: While he is embroiled in a fierce struggle to defend himself and his family against corruption charges, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has accepted an invitation of the Saudi King, ostensibly, to attend the so-called US-Arab and Islamic Summit in Riyadh. Reportedly, US President Donald Trump will also join the meeting in his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. According to the general perception, NS had got himself invited to Saudi Arabia to show the army, one of the centers of gravity, that he enjoys the support of POTUS, and, of course, that of the keeper of the two holiest shrines of Islam.

Why do Pakistan’s Glitterati – the politicians, praetorians, business tycoons, and media movers and shakers – feel unsafe and uncomfortable unless they are endorsed by a foreign power?

It has a lot to do with the nation’s psyche that has been fine tuned to the present state over a period of almost seven decades. And it has something to do with the concept of borrowed power.

Borrowed Power can be explained within the context and broad concept of power. If we define power as the ability to influence the behavior of others in accordance with one’s own end, we come across two types of people – strong and weak. And these two attributes do not, necessarily, appear in the form of physical strength, wealth, and clout. Strength and weakness sit in a person’s mind. A person may be poor or physically weak, but possess the mental robustness and self-confidence to take on a physically powerful and rich person. The opposite is also true.

The borrowed power will come from a third person or country, if they are willing to lend it to the weaker person. This implies that the power lender also needs to trade off his power with the weaker person/country to achieve his, or his country’s objectives. Borrowed Power will be available to the borrowing person/country, partly in tangible form and partly as an underwriting by the lender. However, there is a limit to the effectiveness of the borrowed power.

Manipulation of borrowed power by a weak person, for the resolution of his dispute(s) with his hostile environment, can be likened to the “gravity assist maneuvers” which, in orbital mechanics and aerospace engineering, is the use of relative movement and gravity of a planet, or any other heavenly object, to accelerate a spacecraft for saving propellant, time, and expense.

However, no person or country will lend its power to a client for pulling the latter’s chestnuts out of the fire. During the Korean War, America and China directly intervened in favor of their proxies – South Korea and North Korea respectively. China did not send its forces to fight in the Korean Peninsula because of any bonhomie for the North Korean despot Kim Il Sung. It did so for its own sake. At that time, the communists were still consolidating their hold on mainland China and, with Nationalist China still a permanent member of the Security Council and strongly backed by the United States, feared a comeback by Chiang Kai Shek. Hence, by sending their forces in the Korean Peninsula the Chinese communists were essentially fighting for their own survival. As for the United States, starting from WW1 when did it miss a chance to militarily interfere in foreign lands and reshape the world in its own image? The American intervention in the Korean Peninsula was purely to pursue America’s global interests.

The phenomenon of borrowed power made itself felt in Pakistan during the Cold War period. Pakistan had to borrow power from the United States, and later from China to achieve a parity of sorts in dealing with India. That the United States did provide military and economic aid to Pakistan during the Cold War period should have been enough for Pakistan to build up its national power by addressing all its four determinants – internal stability, economic power, military power, and level of science and technology. However, instead of utilizing borrowed power as a stop- gap measure, Pakistani leadership corrupted the very dynamics of national power Pakistan, right from day one was torn by multiple problems. The biggest problem it had to grapple with was how to rehabilitate millions of refugees pouring in from India when the state exchequer was empty. But Jinnah, the founder of this poor and shattered country, was a proud and self-reliant person. An excerpt from the book written by his personal physician sheds light on Jinnah’s psyche:

“Talking of cigarettes, he liked to smoke Craven A’s, but they were then unobtainable at Quetta. I preferred State Express 555, but happened to have some tins of his favorite brand which I smoked when I could not get those of my choice, and these I offered to send him. To prevent excessive smoking, I decided on second thought, however, to send him only one tin to begin with, and when I met him again the same evening asked if it was fresh. He thought it was all right, but the next morning he complained of its staleness and enquired if I could get him some fresh ones from Lahore. I undertook to procure them, but felt surprised how the cigarettes had suddenly lost their freshness. Soon, however, it occurred to me that the meticulously proper Quaid-e-Azam wished to avoid being under an obligation to me. This was characteristic of him: he never accepted anything from anybody without paying for it. I remember when I returned from Lahore on the 6th of August, Begum Muhammad Akbar Khan sent some grapes for him from Quetta with me. He liked them very much, and asked where I had bought them. I told him they had been sent by Begum Muhammad Akbar Khan who could send some daily if he cared for them, but, while appreciating the Begum’s kindness, he politely declined to accept any more. I can recall another incident of the same kind. One day I went to a private garden with General Muhammad Akbar Khan. There I was shown some green roses not known to me. The General plucked some and asked me to present them to the Quaid-e- Azam and tell him if he liked these and other flowers he could arrange to have them sent daily. He accepted the roses thankfully, but said that he did not wish to give the General the trouble of sending him anymore.” (Bakhsh, 1949)

It was another matter to seek foreign assistance as a tactical measure to address Pakistan’s problems.

However, successive leaders, both civilian and military, showed a great inclination towards the concept of borrowed power as a strategic instrument. Today’s Pakistan, despite slogging through the minefield of history for more than six decades, is in a much better shape than it was at the dawn of its independence. However, the propensity of its leaders to lean on outsiders does not show any sign of slackening. Why did they do it? It appears that Pakistani decision makers contrived an intricate cobweb of clichés, self-serving theories, and dicey relationships in order to remain in power.

The inclination of the Pakistani rulers towards the inclusion of foreign powers for addressing Pakistan’s domestic issues and regional conflicts can be attributed to their lack of confidence and, more importantly, as a ploy to drag their feet in the resolution of these very issues. This is because, they want to keep the pot boiling as it facilitates self-perpetuation. Towards this end, they allow external forces to play an exaggerated role in Pakistan’s domestic politics. Even a superpower cannot meddle in the internal affairs of a small state unless it is invited to do so. Egypt under Nasser was a Soviet client state, but despite the Soviet pressure Nasser refused to remove restrictions on the Egyptian communist party. This was different in the case of Pakistan where the American diplomats were gradually allowed to play the role of kingmakers.

According to Hussain (1993), in an assessment prepared by the United States embassy in Karachi in March 1955, four years before Pakistan formally granted bases to the US, “the US felt that after more than two years of crises, political power in Pakistan has been openly assumed by a small group of British –trained administrators and military leaders centering around Governor General Ghulam Muhammad and his two principal associates, General Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan…. …. The regime favors a strong central government, economic development through austerity measures and foreign aid, and close alignment with the U.S…… We believe that the present leadership would be favorably inclined towards US peacetime development of airbases for U.S use.” (Paras. 9–14, 21)

Once they were allowed to meddle in Pakistan’s internal affairs, the Americans grew arrogant and assumed an imperial, rather insulting, tone towards their Pakistani tenants.

In an August 1955 dispatch to the State Department, Ambassador Hildreth states:

“Ambassador has told Iskander Mirza, and it will be made clear to Suharwardy and others, that the United States has no objection to inclusion of Suharwardy in a high cabinet post………While fully understanding the necessity to avoid US involvement in internal politics through any public stand, the fact is that US relationship is so important to Pakistan that complete non-involvement is impossible. If embassy officers ignore Suharwardy, for example, for the next two weeks this may well be interpreted here as official policy indicative of disapproval of his inclusion in cabinet. If he is cultivated by the embassy even on a purely social basis, an interpretation of US approval may be placed on such actions.

Conclusions, (1) we should encourage Suharwardy through third parties to take a cabinet post under the new Prime Minister, protecting our public position at all times. (2) embassy officers should make some effort to maintain pleasant personal social contacts with Suharwardy” (Hussain,1993).

The biggest indicator of poor and weak leadership is when a leader starts talking against his subordinates in front of others. It becomes even more reprehensible when he does so in front of strangers. According to a September 1956 dispatch by Hildreth, Iskander Mirza showed Hildreth and his British counterpart a copy of a four-page letter regarding foreign policy that he had drafted but had not yet sent to Suharwardy. In other words, the president of Pakistan showed a confidential official communication addressed to his Prime Minister to the foreign Ambassadors even before it was seen by the Prime Minister (Hussain, 1993).

Perhaps even more unbecoming than this breach of security was Iskander Mirza’s assessment of his other Prime Minister (Ch. Muhammad Ali) which he conveyed to Ambassador Hildreth and which the Ambassador sent to Washington in a telegram in February 1956. Calling Ch. Muhammad Ali timid, weak, and perhaps cowardly, he even went to the extent of telling Hildreth to advise US Secretary of State Dulles to:

“talk very bluntly with the Prime Minister and scold him for allowing an official of the foreign office for publicly saying that the reception given to Chinese vice president Madame Sun Yat Sen was greater than that given to vice president Nixon.” (Hussain, 1993).

This was the same Hildreth who once called Pakistani diplomats “prostitutes”.

The subsequent Pakistani rulers have proven themselves even better boot- lickers to the Americans than their predecessors. The people of Pakistan deserved better than what was delivered to them by their leaders, political as well as praetorian.

While fretting over the rot that has become Pakistan’s fate, one is reminded of the movie Terminator II where Sarah Connor, one of the leading characters, leaves a message etched on the table with a knife. It reads “No fate, except what we make”.

This country is what the collective consciousness of its leadership has turned it into, for the masses are powerless and directionless.


  1. Baksh, I. (2011). With the Quaid-i- Azam During His Last Days. Oxford University Press.
  2. Hussain. M., Hussain A. (1993). Pakistan: Problems of Governance. Chapter 4. Centre for Policy Research. Konark Publishers. New Delhi.

This article has been excerpted from the book “Borrowed Power”, authored by Lt. Col. Saleem Akhtar Malik (Retired).