Is ambiguity in Pakistan’s nuclear policy a deliberate drama being played out by a strutting military to legitimate its vision of the Pakistani nation?
Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
This article was first published in the author’s column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict website.
A prevalent position in the Pakistan military establishment, particularly amongst their intelligence community is that: since terrorism is sanctioned by the Quran  then (by some perverse logic) it is also a legitimate instrument of state power; forgetting that the words of the Quran had a historical context long overtaken by the concept of nationhood and creation of complex state structures.
The evolution of nations and the interplay between them has been characterised by the urge to common identity and nationalism. Leading particularities that impinge on this correlation include shared history, linguistic bonds, common religion, cultural unities or even a collective subconscious driven by perceptions of pre-existence. The aggregate of these discernments led to social mobilisation precipitating loyalties that have become the foundation of statehood, the creation of distinct political entities and an elaborate system of international relations. Unfortunately, these political entities do not fit into any scheme of harmony. Lamentably, the idea of nationality and self determination are advanced by interstate friction ranging from competitive co-existence to full scale war.
While internationalism and the emergence of a globally congenial community lies somewhere in a very distant future, we are stuck today with the reality of complex interstate relations that find expression in a byzantine system of the larger un-codified international relations. This continual friction at two levels makes the need for stability of relations among states an imperative. Even here, there is no consensus of where to start. Clearly, if common ground exists it must lie in the challenges that threaten not just the health of interstate relations but in the very existence of the State. Economics, politics and the dynamics of change provide very convincing provinces within which to fix our study of challenges, yet it is the hazard of mass destruction that, without debate, presents itself as the “emperor-of-challenges” to interstate existence. The potential for mass destruction in the sub-continental context shows itself in the ambiguity in nuclear relations.
Tools that promote a stable nuclear relationship between nations are characterised by a congruence of views on proliferation of weapon and vector technologies, fissile material control and strategic transparency; the last makes clear the strategic underpinnings that motivates weapon programmes. The discernment that a nuclear exchange will invariably lead to the obliteration of political purpose lies at the heart of a stable deterrent relationship. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is in attempting to use it to attain political goals.
Pakistan has no declared doctrine and has adopted ambiguity as central to their nuclear policy. Tactical nuclear weapons in their arsenal suggests that conventional principles of war apply (which places a premium on elements such as Surprise, Offensive action and Deception). This sets into motion a military dynamic that provides the incentive for use of nuclear weapons and a reactionary development of a first strike capability on the one hand, while the adversary strives to generate a counter force potential. Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Covert technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent and the mounting influence of radical Islamists on policy has increased the hazards of use and in turn a precarious instability.
Is ambiguity in Pakistan’s nuclear policy a deliberate drama being played out to cause regional anxieties or is it essentially a strutting nationalism by a military to legitimate its vision of the Pakistani nation and its role both domestically and within the existing strategic milieu? Stephen Cohen’s incisive observation that “Pakistan is likely to remain a state in possession of a uniformed bureaucracy even when civilian governments are perched on the seat of power. Regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits of what is possible in Pakistan”.
When states involve themselves for decades on end in irregular, decentralised warfare such as the Afghan-Pakistan situation which has been in a condition of violent chaos since 1979, the idea of central control is anaemic. The breakdown of the region into several ‘Tolkienesque’ warring worlds has opened geography to historical fractures that the politics of the last half a century have failed to reconcile. Today, a simmering Baluchistan finds little mutuality in a Punjab-dominated Pakistan; Pakthunwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) ferociously cling to religio-ethnic links with eastern Afghanistan that reject the modern idea of statehood within Pakistan; inside the rest of Pakistan is a smouldering Jihadist sentiment against India and the West; and finally, failure of the US Af-Pak strategy has left an insurgency engorged with modern weapons and enabling technologies. The region has become the hatchery for the next generation of terrorists.
The key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of nuclear behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the Islamic State (IS) into the sub-continent, underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. At a time when the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile and the fanatical outburst of xenophobia advanced by the IS has stretched south and eastward from Syria and Iraq, a nuclear armed Islamic State, is an alarming prospect which China cannot be blind to nor can it be in China’s interest to persist with the promotion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.
The challenge before us is clear. To put the nuclear genie back into the bottle is not realistic. A movement in Pakistan towards democracy and weakening of the Army’s hold on the establishment, as history has shown, remains an unlikely event. Rapprochement with India would, on the other hand, diminish its own internal pre-eminence and therefore anathema to the Army. At the same time to roll back the links that Jihadist elements have established with the Pakistan Army and to convince them that it is the Islamists that pose the existential threat to that nation rather than India is a proposition that merits consideration. But the fact that it runs counter to the Army’s foundational narrative, despite providing a basis to for global pressure to be applied, gives it a low probability of success. All of which would suggest that nuclear stability will remain a hostage to the Army’s revisionist and ambiguous nuclear policies.
Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; transparency and an abhorrence of ambiguity are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities, rising influence of Islamic radicals and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malfeasance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing assured retaliation to nuclear violence, but at the same time for Indian leadership to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize with foundational rules of nuclear conduct.
 S. P. Cohen, in The Idea of Pakistan (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2006;http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/press/books/2006/ideaofpakistanrevised/ideaofpakistan_chapter.pdf), pp. 97, 118–119.