Deen Aaya*

(*Religion Cometh; the Anthem of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan)


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The impact of organised religion on nations has historically been a sense of contrived significance, but in essence has neither refined society nor elevated power status. In the case of civilizational encounters, the vanquished looked backwards for spiritual succour while succumbing to the influences of the aggressor; in the process dogmas and rituals replaced inventiveness, as the spirit that propelled development calcified (Toynbee, 1957). This state is symptomatic of a society in the throes of derangement. A failed response to the challenges of plurality and vigour of competing belief systems is thus marked by religious masquerade and a despairing choice inspired by fundamental ideologies. In the past the Egyptiac world, Judaism and Christianity have succumbed to this fanatic impulse. Early Islam was spiritually tolerant of civilizations that it considered allied to as ‘People of the Book.’ It is no coincidence that this very period saw Islamic civilization flourish. Contemporary political Islamic movements are, however, marked by failed responses; the more radical, the more unforgiving towards the idea of plurality and renewal.

In the recently concluded elections to the Pakistan National Assembly the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) polled nearly two and a quarter million votes (Election Commission of Pakistan) making it the fifth largest political party in that country. While this may not have readily translated to seats in the National Assembly, what it stands for is “street power” of the radical Islam variety. Regaling the event their chief, Allama Khadim Husain Rizvi narrated a grisly electoral episode from Nawabshah, a district in Sindh. “We were singing our anthem Deen Aaya, when the Peoples Party (PPP) camp started playing their electioneering jingles; We asked them to stop because our hymn was in veneration of Allah, but their leader spurned our entreaty. Imagine Allah’s wrath, for that very night the PPP leader breathed his last. The next morning it was God’s will that all of the PPP followers switched their loyalty to the TLP!”

TLP shot to prominence when it opposed the 2016 hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, convicted in 2011 of assassinating the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Born in 1966 in Attock  Punjab,  Rizvi a self-acclaimed Barelvi cleric, was in government in the department of religious affairs, the auqaf . He was soon removed for radical activism. A paraplegic, he became deeply involved in organising public support for harsher and more invasive blasphemy laws. In November 2017 his siege of Islamabad for this cause paralysed the Capital for over three weeks. The Government and its law enforcement agencies made an abortive attempt to curb the mayhem but only succeeded in spreading protests to all the major cities. It was the Army Chief’s personal intervention that defused the situation with the offer of unconditional capitulation of the State to more severe blasphemy laws, sacking of Federal minister for law Zahid Hamid and the release of all prisoners taken. The siege of Islamabad was lifted. Allama Khadim Husain Rizvi had arrived; it is reported with a “little” help from the army.

Karachi was a distant frontier for the TLP whose home grounds were the radical madrassas of South Punjab (Bhawalpur, Multan, Mianwali, Dera Ghazi Khan etc.) Their electoral gains in Karachi owed largely to pulpit intimidation, violence and menacing politics. The city, latterly dominated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) represents Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking mohajir, immigrant community. The odious “mohajir” moniker was dropped from its name and replaced by the less unpalatable Muttahida (United). The MQM is known for its muscular methods in Karachi, it had in the past controlled the vote in the inner city and its immediate urban enclaves through a grid that organized the city’s underworld. Aided by the Army, the TLP broke up these networks. The mosque became the platform from where the message of redemption was hammered home, in a manner and scale, not seen since the call for jihad to fight the American invasion of Afghanistan. The argument now was that since people of Karachi had committed crime and violence for mortal reasons, atonement in the eyes of God was only possible if these same people took up Allah’s cause by volunteering their time and labour for the TLP. An irreverent ‘Anschluss’ between the deep state, piety and politics now paved the way for electoral success of the Army’s willing protégé, Imran and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf .

Central to the strategy was infusing politics with ritual, a messianic propagation of the Barelvi belief system and of the TLP’s near-prophet-like-paraplegic-leader and his ‘mystical’ powers over followers.  The irony is that of the two Sunni sects, the Barelvi was seen as the more reticent and less prone to militancy than the orthodox Salafist-driven Deobandis. Meanwhile, the legend of how deen has managed to purify and chasten non-believers flourishes despite being in mortal conflict with what makes for a democratic state. The question at the core is what makes Pakistan more susceptible to ideological blackmail from such extreme shades of the religious right?

Ideological blackmail is prevalent when a myth of Islam-in-danger becomes the testament. To fully appreciate this phenomenon one goes back in recent history to Partition. The disproportionate security apparatus that Pakistan inherited and the communal basis of award (33% of the military as opposed to 18% demography, 23% landmass and 18% of financial assets) fuelled the idea that communal hatred and perpetual hostility towards India was innate to the separation of the Muslim nation. Also, an army under the banner of Islam was an imperative to forge unity and guard both ideological and geographic frontiers of the fledgling State. That the concept not only gained salience but is also an abiding characteristic of the strategic culture that the Army has carefully nurtured is today the idea of Pakistan.

.           And in August 2018, when the Dutch politician, Geert Wilders comes along and announces that he would hold a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest that was a thinly veiled attempt to attack and provoke one of Wilders’ favourite whipping-boys, Islam; the TLP seized the opportunity to once again show its strength. On cue, lakhs of TLP supporters made their way to Islamabad to demand Pakistan sever diplomatic ties with the Netherlands or face a repeat of the siege of the capital. Why did Wilders call off the contest? It could not have been for economic reasons since GDP of the Netherlands at $830 billion is almost threefold of Pakistan’s; while bi-lateral trade is less than $1.2b, nor could it be any influence that Islamabad wields for they have little of that (there was of course the threat of Jihadi violence). The probable cause for cancellation was perhaps the fragile situation in Afghanistan which James Mattis explained as “co-existence of violence and progress” against a backdrop of stability. President Ashraf Ghani was less cryptic when he offered an unconditional peace proposal to the Taliban; a ceasefire, recognition of the Taliban, elections afresh and a constitutional review. Any disruption of this process, in US perspective, may have provided space for exceptionable Chinese and Russian interference. So it could be that it was the US that reined-in Wilders. At any rate the cancellation served to enhance Khadim Rizvi’s notional power across continents and the reality that his ideas found resonance with leaders and elites in mainstream political parties. That this has happened raises the question how close to being an extremist state is Pakistan?

            And as we ponder the question of how-close-indeed; comes Deen and the news that the Pakistan Supreme Court has sacked Atif Mian, a Princeton economist from the PM’s Economic Advisory Council for being an Ahmadi and in quick succession lifted the international ban on the terror proscribed Hafeez Sayeed’s outfit the Jamaat ud Dawa.


The Dilemma of a Threshold

In nuclear policy parlance, ‘threshold’ indicates when and under what conditions leadership may resort to the use of nuclear weapons


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website and available at

The nuclear planner is acutely involved in analysis of when and under what political conditions opposing leadership (military or otherwise) may resort to the employment of nuclear weapons. For nations with a policy of No-First-Use (NFU), the answer is “in response to the first-use (FU) of a nuclear weapon under conditions as stipulated in the doctrine.” However between nuclear armed nations, the one with a FU policy is faced with a more complex set of issues which will invariably raise the question “are political ends served with first-use of nuclear weapons knowing that an escalatory response may well be massive and place value targets in its cross hair.” Does first-strike come paired with the ability to offset a nuclear response? Indeed there is the theoretical possibility that the first strike may altogether neutralise the opposition’s capability of nuclear response; but this, as the evolution of nuclear thought and development of nuclear arsenals have shown, is a fantasy. Even the smallest retaliation in a nuclear exchange targeting a city will imply horrific destruction that the first striker must contend with. To put matters in perspective consider the following: the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon say a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon airburst targeting a city such as Karachi (in 2017 Karachi’s metropolitan area population was estimated at 23 million) with a population density of 24,000 per square kilometre will result in at least 8,00,000 primary casualties and another 12,00,000 secondary (statistics approximate based on casualty curves, Abraham Henry, Nuclear Weapons and War, 1984).  Or, one only has to recall the geographic extent and casualties of the 1986 “Chernobyl” power plant disaster to appreciate that the hazards of a nuclear encounter are not abstract notions. The radiation fallout spread from Scandinavia to the Black sea, over 116,000 people were affected while Belarus has since shown a 2400% annual increase in the incidents of thyroid cancer.

The capability to respond unfailingly and credibly lies at the heart of a deterrent strategy driven by a NFU policy. Faced with the certainty of appalling destruction in response to a nuclear adventure, why an aggressor should contemplate a first-use of nuclear weapons remains bizarre since it is at odds with the very idea of survival. Whatever may be the conditions of the conflict; the approach of such a threshold when one or the other protagonist may reach for the nuclear trigger must not only be transparent but be declared so that a return to normalcy becomes viable.

The strategic irony of dealing with Pakistan is that not only is it armed with nuclear weapons, but also forewarns ‘first-use’ shorn of a declared doctrine. The weapon, as recent statements from their establishment suggest, is “India specific” and the development of their nuclear arsenal is to deter India’s conventional forces from offensive operations through the use of tactical nuclear weapons (!) and should that elicit a massive response then that would be countered by an assured “limited” (?) second strike capability (a conversation with Khalid Kidwai, 2015). The latter, in their view, serves to “stabilise” the former; never you mind what or who caused the primary provocation. The doctrine remains under a cloak of ambiguity emboldened by the belief in a, yet to be developed, sea-based second strike launched from conventional submarines.

The first deduction that may be made from such a policy is that Pakistan has adopted a nuclear war-fighting doctrine notwithstanding a dangerous absence of technology necessary to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control on land, at sea and in the air. The second deduction is, between their first and second strike Pakistan is convinced of surviving massive retaliation with its second strike intact. Is this a reasonable assumption or is it more bravado than sense? The third understanding is, when such a nuclear doctrine remains cloaked in ambiguity the separation between the Nuclear and principles that govern conventional warfare are blurred. This attains a catastrophic bent significantly when conventional principles such as surprise and deception are integrated into a first or a second strike plan, for the unsaid implication is that Pakistan, in some woolly manner, holds sway over the escalatory dynamic.

In all this what alarms is the lowering of the nuclear threshold while exposing the weapon to unintended use in its movement into the tactical battle area and the truancy of centralised command and control. Also, the deterrent value of the weapon from the standpoint of both time and space is narrowed if not foreclosed. Two more issues need to be recognised relating to the vexed geography of the Indo-Pak situation; the Line of Control (LoC) demarcates extent of geographic control over disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir, to advocate creating a nuclear wasteland in territorial hankerings does not quite make strategic sense. It is equally clear that, among nations that share common borders, a nuclear exchange will spread devastation irrespective of man-made boundaries.

In the early stages of Pakistan weaponizing its nuclear capability it had, indeed, gestured to where its nuclear threshold lay. As could be deciphered, first-use of nuclear weapons was predicated on four thresholds:  large territorial setbacks, comprehensive military attrition, economic collapse and political precariousness. The deterrent logic these thresholds described was really quite unmistakeable for they also provided to Pakistan a context for maintaining conventional power. However, this rationality flew in the face of the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The perception widely held among commentators in India is that the four threshold doctrine has since been trashed. “Full-spectrum deterrence” is what Pakistan today makes its arsenal out to be. Central to this doctrine is the integration of TNWs with conventional forces and a callow belief that the nuclear escalatory ladder is in control of the first striker. This abstruse doctrinal tangle suggests that Pakistan not only fails to take account of India’s nuclear response but is also convinced of their ability to initiate a nuclear war and survive unscathed from the encounter.

To establish where Pakistan’s nuclear threshold lies conceptually is a baffling task. However, for Pakistan to escalate to the nuclear dimension in response to an Indian conventional riposte to a major terror assault traced to GHQ Rawalpindi cannot be consistent with their “full spectrum” doctrine since the riposte does not come as a result of the latters failed conventional action which is the “first tier” of the spectrum. Rather, in this frame of reference, the nuclear first-use threshold must be assessed in the context of political realities, state policy that finds unity with jihadists and military capability. An ambiguous nuclear doctrine in these circumstances cannot alone determine the nuclear threshold; what it can do is calibrate the uncertainty that it imposes and in the process limit both extent and intensity of the riposte.

Nuclear thresholds are neither fixed by geography nor by time but determined more by severity and purpose of military action, which by some national gauge or a combination of triggers, will lead to the decision that a threshold has been breached. As may be deduced from Pakistan’s peace-time nuclear posture, lack of high-technology-persistent-ISR, absence of a cyber and outer-space capability, and the fragility of the second strike, their nuclear threshold may not lie at the low end of the scale. Reason being the first tier of the spectrum may not have quite ruptured in the early stage of a crisis while the second strike remains unfledged. And yet it is equally clear that threat of nuclear use has been brought out of the backdrop to a position from where nuclear deterrence becomes a looming immediacy.

The Regression of Nuclear Policy


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website and available at

Contemporary trends positing the reversibility of a nuclear exchange presupposes that the antagonists are able to understand mutual aims, objectives and have unimpeachable knowledge of boundaries within which the conflict is to be played out. In turn, these settings demand unambiguous appreciation of and total knowledge of decisions that will be taken by leadership on all sides. The act of trust that such a relationship rests upon is predicated upon crisis-proofed rapport. At any rate in such a velvet-lined relationship the question that begs to be asked is: why on earth did one of the parties take recourse to nuclear weapons in the first instance? Awkwardly this aberrant trend is gaining currency amongst states in possession of nuclear weapons.

A nation inducting tactical nuclear weapons into its arsenal will in fact have aligned its nuclear doctrine for first use, incentivised proliferation and blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons; in turn, lowering the threshold of a nuclear response whose yield, magnitude and targets remain a choice made by the adversary. Delegation of authority to tactical commanders (which must follow) for release of low-yield nuclear weapons by nature of the tactical environment, runs the peril of being governed for deployment by principles more appropriate for conventional warfare. The posture indulges in the preposterous illusion that the adversary will discern between tactical and strategic yields and suitably moderate his response in the midst of a nuclear exchange, while desisting from escalating and retaliating in a manner of choosing. Irrationality of it all is that some States in possession of nuclear weapons have displayed a ready acceptance of nuclear war-fighting, rather than reconsider their nuclear doctrines, postures, and capabilities towards strategic deterrence. The latter ought to be the hallmark of an evolved nuclear system with seven decades of maturity in approach to its superintendence and of styling policy.

Today, the US counter to a Russian “escalate-to-deescalate” policy remains “to conduct nuclear strike operations below the strategic level.” All that such doctrines have ever done is to push adversaries into a perilous corner of uncertainty where alternatives to the nuclear trigger rapidly fade away. The French nuclear force de frappe and the British deterrent, both ‘declaredly’ independent, have neither abnegated First Use nor have they made any bones of targeting enemy value or population centres without ever disturbing themselves of the conditions of use, suggesting a certain heedlessness of policy.

As early as 1946, Bernard Brodie argued that “nuclear weapons were too powerful to use. Vastly more lethal than all previous arms, the grotesque scale of nuclear destruction overwhelmed any conceivable policy goal.” While the other school of thought, made up largely of the military and policy makers argued that nuclear weapons could be used like any weapon that was a product of technology. The latter school either deliberately, or for motivated reasons, chose not to reveal the scale and absoluteness of destruction that potentially could eclipse populations (both friend and foe) through blast, radiation, firestorms, fallout and the slower, yet assured death, of a nuclear winter. So, if nuclear weapons fail as instruments that win political objectives, then why is it that the logic that remains elusive to the mind of nuclear decision makers is that a nuclear exchange cannot be the accepted normal.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 drew the two superpowers to the nuclear brink and the hapless rest-of-the-world closer to mass calamity. Inexorably, through a train of uncontrolled political and military actions beginning with induction into Cuba of over 40,000 Soviet troops armed with pre-delegated tactical nuclear weapons in addition to surface-to-air-missiles and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles; the US naval blockade; downing of an American U2 reconnaissance aircraft; action against Soviet submarines poised to release nuclear weapons to the ready amphibious force threatening invasion of Cuba, each event bringing closer nuclear conflict. Today, analysts and records of participants suggest that the chance of a nuclear conflagration was extremely high as blunders followed miscalculations. That a nuclear exchange did not occur is what remains remarkable. The improbable factor that drove strategic decision making was: nature of leadership image being projected to alliance partners and loss of face rather than hard political considerations and their baneful consequences. The perceived timidity of Kennedy versus Khrushchev’s boldness in the backdrop of the Berlin stand-off and the incentive the latter saw in Cuba to not just redress the strategic balance of power, but also to tighten Soviet hold on that nation. Significantly, throughout the crisis the inability to either control or recognise the impact and hazards of escalation was pivotal to precipitating the crisis. As the then Secretary for Defence, McNamara put it rather obscurely 30 years later “No one should believe that a US force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.”

Pakistan and North Korea are two states that have a adopted a policy that challenges common sense; both possess strategic nuclear weapons with a doctrine that blurs the lines between the nuclear and the conventional and advocates nuclear war fighting, neither have abjured First Use nor have they made any moves to proscribe tactical nuclear weapons. From a policy point of view such a protocol strikes a discordant note at a time when efforts to avert a nuclear exchange or at least make improbable an exchange, ought to be the norm.

We have, in the eighth decade of the evolution of strategic nuclear systems, come to the perspective that a first step to preventing a nuclear exchange is necessarily a universal declaration of “No Use” (a No First Use doctrine such as China and India’s, unfortunately, remains a halfway house). None of the states in possession of nuclear weapon have enunciated a strategic doctrine that is both mutually credible and acceptable, making such policy catastrophic if implemented. Experience today confirms that the danger of mass nuclear destruction does not rest even partly on proliferation to non-state and rogue actors, but squarely on the shoulders of leadership whose doctrines of use represent an enduring danger to humanity.