By Vijay Shankar*
Two seemingly disparate incidents in recent days hold the portents for unsettling times. The first was the ‘absconder General’ and erstwhile Pakistan President Musharraf’s declaration on 5 December 2017, of not only his cosy ties with Hafiz Sayeed, the proscribed head of the terror organisation Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT); but more worrisome, the open invitation to the latter’s political party, the Milli Muslim League, to join Musharraf’s Pakistan Awami Ittehad (PAI). The second was President Trump’s assertion, while launching his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), “Pakistan must demonstrate it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets…while taking decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory.” The NSS, it will be remembered, provides strategic guidance to US security agencies for developing policies and implementing them.
Rationally, no nuclear policy, by nature of the weapon involved, can conceivably be inclusive of terror groups. And yet the strategic predicament posed by Pakistan is perverse, for their policy on select terror groups such as the LeT has always been that they are instruments of state policy. The absurd reason proffered is their zeal to fight the external enemies of Pakistan while undermining fissiparous religious elements within.
The question now remains: when militants fundamentally inimical to the Indian state (Israel and the US, too) shed the need for subterfuge and quite openly enter Pakistan national politics, is “responsible nuclear stewardship” a prospect at all? Rather, does not this new dimension of political cosiness make for a nuclear nightmare, where an opaque nuclear arsenal under military control is guided by a strategy that not only finds unity with state-licensed terror groups but has now unveiled a future for terrorists in politics? Indeed, the nuclear nightmare has moved that much closer.
Now, consider this: Pakistan promotes a terrorist strike in India and in order to counter conventional retaliation, uses tactical nuclear weapons, and then in order to degrade nuclear retaliation, launches a full blown counter-force or counter-value strike. This is an awkward but realistic recognition of the logic that drives Pakistan’s nuclear policy.
Cyril Almeida, a columnist with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, commenting on the reason why the army will not clamp down on terror groups that hurt India, suggested that the problem was “the boys” (meaning the army) “wouldn’t agree. You could see why: you can’t squeeze your asset at the behest of the enemy the asset was recruited to fight against.”
What if the political mainstreaming of jihadists enlarges and gains nation-wide acceptance and, while doing so, creates a state and movement largely motivated by fundamental politico-religious ideology? The Taliban and its five-year rule in Afghanistan attempted precisely this and failed because a creed that sought a particular kind of Islamic revival through suppression of all else was but a return to medievalism. A regime of this nature quite wontedly spewed elements that saw salvation only in the destruction of contemporary order. The image of Mullah Omar appearing on the roof of a building in Kandhar, 1996, shrouded in the relic of “the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed,” while other mullahs proclaimed him Amir-ul Momineen – the Commander of the Faithful – will remain a watershed moment for the ideology. It placed in perspective the unquestionable authority of the Amir as the people’s voice was made increasingly irreconcilable with Sharia, as was regard for human rights and the rule of law. In this ‘divinely ordained’ disposition, the savage destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as a symbol of an end to idolatry came as no surprise. As events unfolded it also brought to the fore how modernity and the political mainstreaming of jihadists is a doomed enterprise.
And, what of “responsible stewardship” of nuclear assets? The hazards of a political future for terrorists in Pakistan have thus far been argued. In this reality, given access to a nuclear arsenal, is its utilisation to prosecute jihadi objectives not perceived? The Pakistan military hardly minces its words on the use of jihadists and the latter’s correlation with their nuclear policy (Pakistan Army Green Book 2004-2015). What is the Pakistan-sponsored terror objective other than to weaken the secular fabric of the Indian state, subvert society, and bring about enabling conditions for secession of Kashmir? It is not a coincidence that these very same objectives find recurring mention in the strategic aims of the military in Pakistan.
In the nine years after 26/11, terror attacks in India originating from across its western borders persist, however with a difference: that principal control from Pakistan has devolved to decentralised and often scattered control. Targets are relatively less sensational, albeit these attacks are executed with no less brutality or with diminished politically motivation. Musharraf’s invitation to militant groups such as the LeT to join the political mainstream in Pakistan will have changed all that for the worse.
Pakistan, decidedly, has legitimate security interests, but when these interests are revisionist in nature – be it an aggressive quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan or attempting to destabilise India through the use of state-sponsored terrorists or even to suggest that there is a nuclear dimension to these dynamics – is to plead a stimulus much deeper than a politico-ideological pledge. For to challenge India, or in Afghanistan, the US, is to withdraw from what makes for contemporary order. What is emerging and must be recognised is that with Pakistan there is a virulence that ought not to be allowed to thrive under the duplicitous belief that it can be both legatee of international largesse and continue to cavort with jihadists.
* Vijay Shankar
Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India