Pakistan's Choice

Blog Post

Pakistan's Choice

Since testing nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan has lost while India has gained regional and international standing. Pakistan has also become less confident of its national security as the United States has gravitated toward India and as Pakistan’s own ties with states in the region have frayed. This wasn’t supposed to happen: Pakistan tested nuclear devices and has expanded its nuclear stockpile to improve its security and profile. Understanding why these objectives are receding is crucial to Pakistan’s well-being and to figuring out why Islamabad’s talking points have fallen on deaf ears in foreign capitals. Blaming misfortune on the lure of India’s market is too convenient an excuse. India most certainly gains sway because of its market, but the profit motive does not explain why Pakistan has lost the benefit of the doubt abroad.

Let’s begin the search for an explanation with a minor, but indicative example. A standard Pakistani talking point is that it tested nuclear devices for national security, while India tested for prestige. This unassailable truth within Pakistan is widely dismissed by those who follow the nuclear competition in southern Asia. In actuality, Pakistan was ahead of India in 1998 in terms of operationalizing its nuclear capabilities, thanks to help from China. New Delhi felt compelled to test to deal with its nuclear-armed neighbors, and because doors were closing with the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In other words, New Delhi tested nuclear devices for reasons of national security – just like Pakistan, which quickly tested after India did. And yes, pride and prestige factored into New Delhi’s decision, as authors like George Perkovich (India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, 1999) have written. But pride and prestige factored into Pakistan’s calculus of decision as well.

This is a minor matter, but it speaks to the first principle of trying to influence outsiders: know your audience. People who work on these issues figuratively roll their eyes when they hear this Pakistani talking point. And then discount the other messages they hear – even when the speaker has legitimate, important points to make.

Now extrapolate this dynamic to more important issues, like the activities of groups with links to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services that have engaged in acts of violence against India and Afghanistan. Foreign capitals view Pakistan through the prism of these groups and the actions they have taken. Pakistan’s talking points about being the victim of violent extremism and paying penalties for going to war against the Pakistani Taliban are completely true. But they are eroded with every additional attack against an Indian military outpost and with every firefight launched by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. These actions belie Pakistan’s talking point that it does not differentiate between good and bad groups that engage in militancy.

Now let’s back up a bit: Pakistan has very good reasons for possessing a nuclear deterrent. It lost its eastern wing after a war with India in 1971, and it has no way to compete with India’s economic dynamism. So why do foreign capitals raise concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent while saying so little about India’s? Primarily because Pakistan combines nuclear deterrence with providing safe havens for groups that engage in cross-border violence.

When Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold, Rawalpindi had the choice of shutting down militant, anti-India groups because they were no longer needed to keep India at bay – or using its deterrent as a backdrop to step up a campaign to change the status quo in Kashmir. Rawalpindi chose poorly. Until Pakistan reverses this choice, it will continue to lose traction.

Much of the external criticism of Pakistan’s nuclear posture now focuses on its embrace of very short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and perhaps other types of nuclear weapons that must be located very close to the forward edge of battle to have any deterrent or military effect. These types of nuclear weapons are inherently the hardest to keep safe and secure. If Pakistan’s political and military leaders were to act in tandem against anti-India militant groups, war-fighting scenarios would become superfluous, and international attention would shift from critiquing to helping Pakistan. This happened when Rawalpindi turned against the Pakistani Taliban, and it can happen again.

As long as this choice is postponed, Pakistan will not receive sympathy for its security dilemmas. Every crisis on the subcontinent since the 1998 tests, starting with the Kargil War, has been triggered by events that can be traced back to Pakistan, or to the Pakistani side of the Kashmir divide. After the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attack, Islamabad promised to shut down militant anti-India groups. These promises were not kept. There was plentiful evidence in both cases that the perpetrators maintained ties with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. Judicial prosecution didn’t happen after the Parliament attack and was half-hearted and unsuccessful after the 2008 Mumbai attack. Pakistan blamed this failure on India’s not handing over more evidence – evidence that wasn’t admissible in Pakistani courts. Pakistan’s talking point that it needs more help collecting evidence from India might usefully be retired.

Because of this recent history, foreign capitals reached the conclusion that Pakistan’s decision-makers were unwilling or unable to bring the militant wings of anti-India groups to heel. This impression was reinforced when the perpetrators remained free to give speeches, gain recruits, and collect money.

Nuclear-tinged crises on the subcontinent override Pakistan’s talking points about the unfairness of Partition and the need to address the Kashmir dispute. Major powers understand that India has made a mess for itself in the Kashmir Valley. But the UN Security Council has shown little or no interest in entering this fray. It has not passed a resolution on Kashmir to Pakistan’s liking since 1957.

There are much bigger messes in this war-torn world, and the international community has not tried to clean them up, either. The UN and key foreign capitals care more about the prospect of a clash between India and Pakistan than about Kashmir. The UN Security Council will react with alacrity to the prospect of another war between India and Pakistan, but it will not react to India’s poor record of governance in Kashmir – just as it will not react to Pakistan’s poor record of governance in Baluchistan. Both are now deemed to be internal matters, which is one reason why Pakistani calls for a plebiscite in Kashmir have fallen on deaf ears. Every time major powers have gotten involved to prevent a clash between India and Pakistan over the past quarter-century, they have sought to reaffirm the status quo in Kashmir, not change it more to Pakistan’s liking.

Whenever there is an attack on an Indian military post, Islamabad argues that there is insufficient proof that the usual suspects are guilty. This talking point has no traction. In the court of international public opinion, the burden of proof shifted from New Delhi to Islamabad after the Kargil War, the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crisis, and the 2008 Mumbai crisis. Until Pakistan takes long-promised steps to shut down the militant wings of anti-India groups, Islamabad will not regain the benefit of the doubt abroad.

The usual suspects were presumed guilty abroad after the Uri attack because alternative explanations for who was to blame were not persuasive beyond Pakistan’s borders. The explanation that disaffected Kashmiris carried out these attacks without help from Pakistan had few takers. Disaffected Kashmiris need help to carry out sophisticated attacks against Indian military installations. Homegrown Kashmiri disaffection is now very much a reality, but is taking other forms. Perhaps the modus operandi of Kashmiris will change in the future, but as of now, they are not the primary suspects.

Another talking point, widely shared in Pakistan, is that Indian forces killed their own comrades to change the subject away from human-rights abuses in Kashmir and pin the blame on Pakistan. When Pakistanis advance this argument, foreign capitals react in utter disbelief.

The most plausible explanation abroad for attacks on Indian military outposts is the most obvious one: that these attacks are carried out by groups based in the Punjab that hate India and are incensed by what is happening in the Kashmir Valley. These groups have cadres on the Pakistani side of the Kashmir divide. When these cadres cross the Line of Control to carry out attacks, they do so with the knowledge, if not the active support, of Pakistani military and intelligence personnel. Indeed, if local commanders do not know about the presence of these cadres and their preparations to cross the Kashmir divide, they are unfit to hold these positions.

Rawalpindi has received high marks for the counterinsurgency campaign waged against the Pakistani Taliban, overriding foot-dragging by political leaders. Because of this campaign, deadly explosions on Pakistani soil have been greatly reduced. Groups active in attacks across the Kashmir divide and in Afghanistan have been outside the ambit of this campaign. Turning against these groups will mean more explosions, but not turning against these groups will also increase internal-security concerns, while compounding Pakistan’s international woes.

This choice is obviously a lose-lose proposition, but postponing this choice even longer won’t make it any easier. Pakistan will lose more by pursuing the same policies and by relying on the same old talking points than by changing course. The hard, unavoidable truth is that Pakistan can only achieve internal security and international credibility by taking overt steps against the usual suspects.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 16, 2016.