Pakistan’s Military Multilateralism: NATO, the UN and Afghanistan

Military multilateralism is the alliance of the militaries of three or more countries to pursue common goals. Perhaps the most well-known example is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which seeks to support democratic values through political and military means. Perceived benefits of this approach to international relations include that it provides the opportunity for smaller powers to become influential in decision-making, and it prevents countries from acting unilaterally, which has the potential to escalate tensions and exacerbate conflict.

Pakistan’s military multilateralism has been borne out by numerous different approaches, whether as a member or ally of multilateral initiatives in times of conflict and through exercises simulating conflict. These forms of multilateralism are designed to secure goals that Pakistan shares with other powers, such as stability, counterterrorism and to tackle human rights abuses.

Recent History of Pakistan’s Multilateralism

In a military sense, Pakistan is by no means a small power. The 2021 Military Strength Ranking by Global Firepower, which provides a PowerIndex score based on “over 50 individual factors,” ranked Pakistan 10th out of 140 countries. Pakistan’s military might thus be considered a large power in relation to several multilateral alliances, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and NATO, in pursuing policies like counterterrorism and humanitarian aid.

The SCO is composed of major military powers like Russia, China and India, as well as the smaller military powers of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. One of SCO’s guiding principles is “making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region,” which is partially achieved through military exercises. During this year’s meeting of the SCO’s Council of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, it was announced that the member states would hold a joint anti-terror exercise in order to further improve cooperation.

Pakistan’s designation as an MNNA must also be set in the context of Pakistan’s larger cooperation with NATO and the United Nations (UN), which predates 2004.

Though not a member state of NATO, Pakistan has been considered a major non-NATO ally (MNNA) by the United States (US) since 2004 when the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, sought to strengthen ties with Pakistan due to their commitment to the “War on Terror.” Pakistan has since maintained its commitment to counterterrorism, such as through its multilateral Aman naval exercises, which have facilitated collaboration in matters of maritime security and have complemented the wider NATO multilateral counterterrorism operations, like Operation Active Endeavour.

Pakistan’s designation as an MNNA must also be set in the context of Pakistan’s larger cooperation with NATO and the United Nations (UN), which predates 2004. Pakistan assisted with NATO’s operations in the Bosnian War from 1994 through the UN Protection Force, where the Bosnian Serb forces started a policy of ethnic cleansing through which they wanted to remove Bosnian Muslims from the area to create a “Greater Serbia.” Pakistan had also sent thousands of troops in peacekeeping missions to Somalia and Cambodia. Consequently, the UN has celebrated Pakistan’s continuing support to its multilateral peacekeeping missions since it joined in 1947, as thousands of Pakistanis continue to serve in different locales and capacities.

Pakistan’s Military Multilateralism and Afghanistan

Pakistan’s provision of support to military multilateral initiatives extends to the highly topical missions in Afghanistan. In terms of the importance of other countries in relation to Afghanistan, Pakistan is perhaps the most significant. Along with the US, the role of the Pakistani military in relation to Afghanistan has existed since the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89), from which the militant groups, which plague these countries, originated. But, unlike the US, Pakistan shares not only deep cultural and religious ties with Afghanistan but also a large porous border which facilitates further security risks. Though extremism has impacted the US strongly and violently, it is Pakistan that has had at least 80,000 casualties directly or indirectly as a result of the “War on Terror” between 2005 and 2013. With all of this in mind, Pakistan’s role has and always will be paramount when it comes to Afghanistan.

Pakistan had been working in partnership with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the primary goal of which was to “enable the Afghan government to provide effective security across the country and develop new Afghan security forces to ensure Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.” In January 2007, ISAF and Pakistan established the Joint Intelligence Operations Centre (JIOC) with NATO to enable intelligence-sharing, operational planning, information operations and exchange of counter-improvised explosive devices information.

As a centre of cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the ISAF, the JIOC was pitched as an “historic, strategic and operational significant breakthrough” for being the “first Afghanistan-Pakistan collaborative shared working environment of its kind.” As NATO has acknowledged, Pakistan and NATO have a “common interest in promoting stability in the region and in defeating extremism.” ISAF’s mission was completed in 2014 once the lead for security in Afghanistan was passed to the Afghan forces due to the work of NATO and support such as that from Pakistan.

In recent days, Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested that the joint statements of the “Extended Troika,” with regards to the Afghan Peace Process, “mark the first time four of Afghanistan’s neighbours and partners have spoken with one voice” and that this could lead to a “requirement to share intelligence and work with the Afghan government to counter emergent terrorist threats.” Thus, Pakistan’s multilateral intelligence sharing, for the benefit of all regional powers, may be set to last.

The importance of the regional factor in Afghanistan has most recently been highlighted in a research paper published by the NATO Defence College, “Regional Powers and Post-NATO Afghanistan,” which makes diplomatic recommendations to regional powers for the continuing peace negotiations in a post-NATO Afghanistan. The important role that Pakistan has played in the peace negotiations is recognised in the paper, as Pakistan has remained flexible in its diplomacy with the Taliban, which has been facilitated through military as well as political means.

Authors of the paper also suggest that peace and stability in Afghanistan have the potential to unleash economic growth through regional connectivity and cooperation, from the Central Asian States down to India. As SCO’s goals include “neighbourliness” and cooperation in trade and transport, it could extend membership to Afghanistan once peace is achieved with realistic development programmes and ideas for transport links. Like Afghanistan is now, Pakistan and India were observer states prior to becoming full members of the SCO, and greater cooperation between Afghanistan and the SCO could help to secure and maintain stability in the region.


Pakistan’s military multilateralism has facilitated the pursuance and achievement of common goals with a diverse and sometimes conflicting range of large and small powers. As an MNNA, Pakistan’s military worked closely with NATO in the “War on Terror” and in the withdrawal from and peace process of Afghanistan. Pakistan has also not only helped to facilitate talks between the US and the Taliban, but it has also brought together opposed states under the auspices of its counterterrorism initiatives, like the Aman naval exercises. Therefore, Pakistan, due to its military multilateralism, is in a solid position to potentially help to bring peace, stability and growth in the region, which would benefit not only regional powers but the West too.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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