Aberrated Strategies: of “Snakes in the Backyard”


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

In the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 terrorist assault on Mumbai a grisly prayer was being intoned in many of the two lakh mosques of Pakistan. The Qunut-e-Nazla, prayer in times of war was accompanied by a fervent imprecation that Al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Army fight India jointly. The verity of this statement is borne out by Azaz Syed in his recently published ‘tell-all’ book Secrets of Pakistan’s War on Al-Qaeda (Al-Abbas International: 2014, p.69); the aim of the linkage was the creation of an Al-Qaeda State in Pakistan in the wake of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

The link between sub-conventional warfare and nuclear war fighting is at best a tenuous one. Conceptually no nuclear policy, by the very nature of the weapon involved, can conceivably be inclusive of terror groups. And yet the strategic predicament posed by Pakistan is perverse, for their stratagem on select terror groups is that they are instruments of state policy. 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 massive retaliation launches a full blown counter force or counter value strike. This extreme chain of events would suggest the reality of a self fulfilling logic of nuclear apocalypse.

A Pakistan, controlled by a military-ISI-jihadi combine, is plagued by an obsession for parity with India and an inspiration that wallows in the idea of India as a threat in perpetuity (in great part to provide a reason for the army’s pretentious existence). One is spoilt for choice when discerning instances of Pakistan’s military-intelligence links with terrorist groups: it began at partition when tribal lashkars along with regulars invaded Kashmir; the clumsy and doomed Operation Gibraltar in 1965; State-sponsored insurgencies in the Kashmir valley during the 1980s and 90s; war following invasion of Kargil in 1999; failed attack on the Indian Parliament; the Kaluchak massacre of 2002; Mumbai assault of November 2008; and the continuing low level insurgency across the LOC, the latest manifestation of which was the failed assault on the Pathankot airbase on 02 January 2016, coordinated with the failed attack on the Indian consulate at Maza-e-Sharif in Afghanistan on 03 January 2016.

For India to suffer the violent effects of covert action in silence makes for poor internal as well as external policy. It is here that Pakistan will have to pay for Indian restraint (now frayed to the extreme), which in turn places before the Indian planner a host of considerations and a set of possible responses which includes covert action against targets across the LOC or border known to have liaison with jihadi forces. Planners will do well to heed that it is Pakistan’s policy that has to be targeted; more specifically it is control of that nation by the ‘Deep State,’  by which is implied the sway of the military-intelligence-jihadi combine, which must be subordinated.

Recently, the author engaged US Secretary of State Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board (on Strategic Stability chaired by Dr. Raymond Jeanloz) in dialogue on sub-continental strategic stability. During the deliberations which began with a thirty minute presentation by the author followed by an hour and a half discussion with the group, two issues became apparent. First, the State Department group was split down the centre as to what defined strategic stability. The proposition on one side was the cold war paradigm that perceived stability through the ‘nuclear equilibrium’ prism; of survival through a nuclear first strike and then retaliating massively. A mirrored rationality of survivability and credibility of retaliation was of essence. The equilibrium between nuclear weapon states, from this perspective, was given surety by developing a nuclear war fighting capability and retaining a ‘limited nuclear option’ at hair-trigger notice to control the escalatory ladder. This “Strangelovesque” advocacy appeared to disregard the fact that limits on use of nuclear weapons (by the nature of the weapon) defied escalatory control. Second, the group also perceived the potential of terrorists being armed with nuclear devices justifying collaboration with Pakistan at any cost; this presented a strategic irony since it was the Pakistan Deep State that made terror groups an instrument of state policy in the first place

On the other side of the divide was the group that saw, in the contracting role of the US in Afghanistan, diminishing utility of Pakistan. The sense that emerged was the need for strategic recalibration of their Pakistan policy. A common discernment in this group was that time had come to contend with the deep state in Pakistan for its’ duplicity throughout America’s war on terror beginning with the evacuation of jihadis at Kunduz, providing a haven for the al Qaeda, giving vital intelligence to the various terror organisations, screening the AQ Khan network or indeed, providing sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. This group also found definition in a holistic analysis of the various determinants that contributed to strategic stability (in line with the authors presentation). The determinants ranged from historical wholeness to geographic recognition; politico-social-religio conformity to economic friction; purpose and adequacy of military power to the quest for a stasis and lastly the correlation between leadership. The question then reduced to what manner, intensity and degree did the interplay of determinants influence interstate relationship? While it was generally accepted that transactions between determinants could either spell a proclivity towards a symbiotic approach in relations or it could persistently precipitate friction and conflict; in both cases the basis of outcomes were largely predicated on discernability and rationality of both polity and leadership.

Unfortunately, the South Asian context is blurred by three contumacious factors. First, Pakistan’s cultivated reluctance to accept the anthropological reality of their identity as sub-continental Muslims, the preferred fiction is in favour of Arab or central Asian descent rather than the truth of the vast majority being descendants of converts; this poses a unique dilemma when leveraging civilizational empathy as the basis of amity. Second, military power without political accountability is views itself as the sacred keeper and absolute champion of national interests; this presents an awkward predicament as to who is in charge when dealing with that State. But the most impious obstacle promoted by the deep state is its one track agenda of hostility towards India as the basis of its ascendancy. After all, if the question is put to the Pakistan establishment whether they accept a regime of strategic stability, the answer will most certainly be in the affirmative with the caveat that control of the nation remain in the hands of the military-intelligence-jihadist nexus.

The strategic nuclear ‘self fulfilling logic’ mentioned earlier cannot be the basis of doing business with Pakistan. For far too long the world, particularly the US, has taken an ambiguous and at times set double standards for terror groups and their sponsors. What needs to be recognised is that terrorism emanating from Pakistan is, unequivocally a global scourge; no other interests can justify their continuation; for as former US secretary of state Hilary Clinton famously put it Islamabad could not keep “snakes” in its backyard to strike its neighbours. “It’s like that old story – you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.” The establishment that promotes it as an instrument of State policy must be targeted internationally through exacting sanctions while the perpetrators of terror along with their handlers and infra structure must be struck by covert military action.



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