Asia
Commentary

The Fallacy of the Last Move in Pakistan

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This would be a good time for Pakistan and India to negotiate new nuclear risk reduction measures, as both countries may well be in the lull between crises sparked by extremists with links to Pakistan.  But one of the many paradoxes related to nuclear weapons is that when reductions in nuclear dangers are most needed, they can be hardest to implement.  New Delhi is still smarting from the last mass casualty attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 that killed almost 170 innocent bystanders.  The attackers were trained and equipped in Pakistan.  They were affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group that was ostensibly banned by General Pervez Musharraf, but which still enjoys considerable autonomy.

Islamabad sensibly calls for a resumption of official dialogue with India. New Delhi sensibly argues that Pakistan must do more to fulfill oft-repeated pledges that its soil not be used as the springboard for cross-border terrorism.  Some of those who helped the Mumbai attackers are now on trial in Pakistan.  The outcome of this trial will help determine when official bilateral talks might resume. But it is already crystal clear that the most important nuclear risk reduction measure on the subcontinent would be more concerted efforts by the security apparatus in Pakistan to clamp down on extremist groups that use that country as a base.

Pakistan is now caught on the horns of a dilemma: the “assets” it supported to place pressure on India have now become liabilities.  Pakistanis blames others for this dilemma, most notably the United States, which also supported Islamic militancy when it served the purpose of removing the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.  The United States unwisely walked away from both Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet exit, while Pakistan’s security apparatus unwisely decided to redirect jihadi tactics against India. 

Had Washington remained in Afghanistan after 1989, Pakistan would in all probability still have employed surrogates to control that ill-fated land, as has been evident by its support for the Afghan Taliban after the U.S. returned to oust Mullah Omar and al Qaida.  But in cutting off ties to the Pakistan military with the imposition of the Pressler Amendment – triggered not by the Soviet departure, but by Pakistani uranium enrichment activities during the 1990 crisis with India – Washington lost for a decade whatever influence it might have had on Pakistan-Indian relations.  During this time, jihadi groups dined at the ISI’s table, and caused considerable grief in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

It did not take a great gift of prophesy to predict that Pakistan’s tactics would eventually backfire.  Using violence to draw international attention to the “nuclear flashpoint” of Kashmir initially served Pakistan’s interests.  But the more its security apparatus played with fire, the more Pakistan’s domestic and economic fortunes declined.  One decisive turning point came with the 1999 Kargil War, which stripped away the last vestiges of plausible deniability regarding Pakistan’s use of surrogates to leverage the Kashmir dispute.  No single development did more to solidify international support for the status quo along the Kashmir divide than the Kargil misadventure.  Another decisive pivot came after 9/11, when General Musharraf had little choice but to sever ties with an Afghan government hosting al Qaida and to join the Bush administration’s open-ended “war on terror.” Back then, Musharraf tried to draw the line between “freedom fighters” operating against India, and misguided jihadists that Pakistan once hoped would provide strategic depth in Afghanistan.  This distinction was tenuous then, and has become more so over time.    

Some of Pakistan’s previous jihadi assets have now turned against the state, which has already suffered over 5,000 casualties since 2007. Other “assets” remain quiescent, but allegiances can change quickly, and Pakistan’s security apparatus may have difficulty taking on all comers.  Pakistan’s Army has begun the hard tasks of tackling internal security threats, but neither the Army nor civilian agencies are adept at winning hearts and minds.

Particularly difficult choices now lie between the horns of Pakistan’s security dilemma.  Without more concerted counter-terrorism efforts, additional explosions are likely to occur in both Pakistan and India.  But a more comprehensive crackdown by Pakistan’s security forces would surely result in even more of an upsurge in mass casualty attacks. 

Put another way, a forward leaning counter-terrorism strategy will produce heavy blowback, but ultimately it leads to a revived Pakistan.  Alternatively, Pakistan’s leaders might hope for a breathing spell by not further prosecuting internal security threats.  But this choice would hasten their country’s long-term decline.

 

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