Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Question (Or Two) For General Kayani


Two days ago, you made a series of statements about the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan's security needs, and how the two interact. In particular, you spoke about "strategic depth" in Afghanistan, and concerns about Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Now, I think we can agree that India has hardly been a benevolent neighbor for sixty years, and that it has threatened Pakistan's security interests repeatedly in the past.


Can we please get an explicit account of why or how India threatens Pakistan's security now that we have nuclear weapons? Are they going to walk across the plains of Punjab next Tuesday, blockade Karachi on Wednesday, and tear the country into a million pieces by the weekend?

I can see why "strategic depth" mattered in a pre-nuclear age, with India's overwhelming dominance in conventional forces. But, dear General, I need some help in understanding why we must have a pliant and subservient government in Afghanistan, and expend valuable resources in trying to secure such an outcome, when our security is essentially guaranteed from without.

And if our policies and strategic thinking have not changed significantly since 1998, can you please explain to me why we bothered becoming a nuclear power -- at considerable diplomatic, political, and economic cost -- in the first place?


Rabia said...

great post

I think that strategic depth has always been at least partially an imperialistic doctrine, couched in defensive terms. Does that make sense? If it were purely a defensive doctrine, then as you say, pursuing it after the acquisition of nukes is silly. But it's never been purely about defense.

by the way, I think the line "“We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it,” is absolutely brilliant in its shamelessness.

Sarah said...

Nuclear weapons are just a deterrent against nuclear attacks. You need other tools to stop an invasion.

If you agree that India is not a benevolent neighbor and that it is a threat to Pakistan (a notion I find ridiculous, but for the sake of argument...), then Pakistan absolutely needs as much strategic depth as possible since it is overmatched in every way. If India defeated your conventional army and marched, say, 5 miles into Pakistan and stopped... what would be your response? Nuke Mumbai over 5 miles of territory and lose Karachi 20 minutes later?

Realistically, the leaders who have control of the nuclear weapons aren't going to use them unless they face personal danger. If India takes over one little piece at a time, they'll never push the button. It would be suicide.

Ahsan said...


I wouldn't go so far as calling it "imperialist" but as you say, it's clearly more than defensive. I think the strategic thinkers in Pakistan, such as they are, view Pakistan as more powerful and important than it actually is, which is a problem.


"Nuclear weapons are just a deterrent against nuclear attacks." Wrong. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent against any threat to a state's territorial integrity, including but not limited to invasion.

It is one of the main reasons -- perhaps THE main reason -- that India did not launch strikes into Pakistan post 26/11, or after the Delhi parliament attacks. More generally, states always worry about rivals getting nukes for this exact reason -- they are afraid that when their rival goes nuclear, they will not be able to coerce it because their threats to do so will be empty. See US/Israel-Iran.

The point about a deterrent is that it should never be used. If it has to be used, its purpose as a deterrent has failed. So in your scenario, if the Indian army invades 5 miles of Pakistani territory, then Pakistan's nukes are basically useless INSOFAR as their purpose was to deter such an attack in the first place.

Farooq said...

You ripped off my "Open letter.." shtick!

Umair Javed said...

Vipin Narang came out with a paper titled Pakistan's Nuclear Posture: Implications for South Asian Stability'

He's at the Belfer Center at KSG Harvard,

He says Pakistan has an aggressive first-use asymmetric escalation nuclear posture, whereby low levels of internal control have continued to ensure that Indians do not rely on conventional warfare as a mode of retaliating any attacks by Pakistani state or non-state actors.

Basically he says that we in Pakistan might just use the bomb without thinking it through because passionate junior level officers could get access to them.

Anyway he believes that deterrence is due to this credible threat that pakistan poses...more so the techniques of obtaining strategic depth in Afghanistan have been preposterous and have probably turned most of the Afghan population against the Pakistani state. Its not like we can drive our tanks and park them in Jalalabad as the Indians run around Punjab. Kamran Shafi recently wrote an article in Dawn citing the same absurdity of strategic depth (in this contextual surrounding).

I cant comment on the usefulness of the doctrine objectively, but any half-wit can tell that its clearly not a policy option for the Pakistani state now...not with Indian influence in Afghanistan and our own checkered past of neo-colonial delusions for the country.

Ali said...

Gotta love huffington post's over the top headlines:

Anonymous said...

thinking about invasion of Pakistan!!!! ???? are you joking . who ( which country want to have that headache ) want to do that?? even if you give it free to India, they wont take it unless you have something valuable ( example 'oil' ).

Brett said...

Wrong. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent against any threat to a state's territorial integrity, including but not limited to invasion.

Oh, definitely. Hell, until the 1980s nukes were basically the US's answer to a potential invasion of Western and Central Europe by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (who had vastly larger military forces for the entire era, and even fairly close parity in military technology until the Revolution in Military Affairs and rise of things like precision and "smart" weaponry).

Pakistan would probably be better off at this point focusing on building a conventional army that could deter assaults short of a complete invasion by India.

That said, I probably should add a reminder that ABM technology is both getting better and more wide-spread. That wouldn't affect the use of nukes against invading armies, but if Pakistan wanted to strike into Indian cities in response to an invasion, it might be more problematic.

Brett said...

EDIT: "deter assaults short of a complete invasion by India to complement their nuclear deterrent."

Jaydev said...

The main problem is not "strategic depth" doctrine..the main flaw with Pak Army is it has no end game in mind, when pursuing "adventures".Its propensity to take risk on par with Russian roulette is mind-blowing. Now Pakistan Taliban command structure has completely merged with Al-Qaeda and still Pak is trying to cut deals with them..i.e. a wishing-it-will-go-away doctrine vs Taliban/Al-Qaeda and a "visionary-rigid" doctrine vs India. "Strategic Depth" is just a fig-leaf to control Afghanistan via proxies(or if proxies were keep it eternal turmoil) since Afghanistan will never accept Durand Line..even under Taliban. Kargil misadventure, brazen Kabul Embassy attack,Mumbai 26/11 Attack shows that Pak Army strategic decision making is highy flawed,reckless and out right suicidal.

Acro said...

well you know we are insecure about the whole issue, we want a pro Pakistani government in Afghanistan and having nukes doesn’t guarantee that India will stop its influence in Afghanistan. So yea it’s a power tussle between two of us in Afghanistan, which is sad.

Anonymous said...

isn't the answer obvious???

the ONLY weapon pakistan possesses that anyone in the world (actually everyone) fears is its control/influence over proxy armies like TTP, LT, etc.

when could the pakistani army ever dream of holding india hostage for 3 days in their largest city? or bomb london or new york and getting away with it? or bog down NATO forces for a decade leading to hundreds of US/Brit/European casualties?

the only thing almost every country from india to the usa and everyone in between (especially the middle east) fear is that pakistan will allow these groups free reign in nwfp and afghanistan. defeating or antagonizing them is antithetical to pakistan's long-term security because they're not going anywhere. in fact they are growing within pakistan, be it punjab or sindh.

kayani KNOWs that these elements are pakistan's greatest strategic asset. he KNOWs that when NATO leaves and a power vacuum ensues, pakistan better be on the right side. pakistan is at the limit of its compliance with the drone attacks and even then pushes the americans hard to ensure that the targets are mainly arab/uzbek/foreign/mehsud clan.

will pakistan ever touch the elements orchestrating war in afghanistan from north waziristan? or balochistan? or afghanistan itself? or... hang on... kashmir? never.

nuclear has nothing to do with this. we got nuclear weapons because india did. no real strategy or other purpose behind it. india is far more afraid of these proxy armies and their potential future coordination with muslim militant groups within india (which are also growing).

strategic depth means choosing your enemies carefully. and the taliban may be crap friends, but they are far more destructive as enemies.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed and very sorry to see that our Pakistan establishment has not reviewed this strategic depth argument in Afghanistan - it's plainly self destructive. The only viable strategy to pursue is to solve the Kashmir issue by recognising the status quo and pursuing peace with our neighbours. Punjab and Bengal were divided in the spirit of compromise so why not Kashmir. It's perhaps too big an ask for a paranoid mindset but that is what will benefit Pakistanis the most. India is increasing the paranoia by countering in Afghanistan, it's Afghan policy needs to be reviewed too. Both countries should agree to stay out. Can we dream that some public pressure will build to reverse the mindsets of these countries establishments?

Sarah said...


"Wrong. Nuclear weapons are a deterrent against any threat to a state's territorial integrity, including but not limited to invasion."

Take a moment to think about the use (or lack thereof) of nuclear weapons since WWII. The USSR broke up, definitely constituting a threat to territorial integrity, yet it used no nuclear weapons. Israel was attacked by Iraq and used no nuclear weapons. Israel is attacked by Hezbollah and Hamas and doesn't use nukes. In all the proxy wars between the US and USSR, no nuclear weapons. The US is violating Pakistan's territorial integrity with drone strikes at will, but Pakistan wouldn't dare launch a nuke in retaliation. It just wouldn't make sense to face complete destruction for a fairly minor violation.

Nuclear weapons are simply too radical to use in most defense situations. Allow a little speculation here... say France and Germany both had nuclear weapons during WWII, enough to engage in MAD. Looking back on it, should France have pressed the button and annihilated Germany and thus themselves, or should they have just let themselves be taken over, suffer for a few years, then return to freedom? Psychologically, it's clear that unless Country A is likely to completely exterminate Country B, then MAD is a cure that is worse than the disease.

Keep in mind that nuclear deterrence is largely untested since it's never played out and there are always a host of other factors in any defense situation.

Also, just in case you are/were being pedantic in the use of the word deterrent, yes they are a deterrent in the sense that they do increase the activation energy in initiating hostility against a nuclear armed opponent. I'm just saying they are not a supremely effective deterrent and in many situations a very ineffective deterrent (though still a deterrent). Certainly not effective enough that it would be wise to forgo other defensive measures if available.

"It is one of the main reasons -- perhaps THE main reason -- that India did not launch strikes into Pakistan post 26/11"

I don't see why. Pakistan has a host of conventional defensive measures to prevent that so I don't see how you're attributing it primarily to nuclear deterrence. Personally I suspect if India had done the equivalent of US drone strikes to target a few people who were responsible for the attack, world sentiment would have sided with them so strongly that Pakistan wouldn't have retaliated at all. The real reason India didn't respond is unknown. It was certainly a disappointment to many people.

"So in your scenario, if the Indian army invades 5 miles of Pakistani territory, then Pakistan's nukes are basically useless INSOFAR as their purpose was to deter such an attack in the first place."

Right, that's what I'm arguing. Nukes act as a deterrent against other nukes and any other attack that would result in complete destruction of Pakistan. They're a way of saying "You cannot get away with destroying us without greatly suffering yourselves." They are NOT a way of saying "We are willing to destroy ourselves at the drop of a hat so don't mess with us at all." Nukes are not at all useful in low-level conflicts. India's nukes certainly don't deter Pakistan from interfering in Kashmir, right? But they do stop Pakistan from launching nukes at India.

Smci said...

I think Sarah's on to something here.

I'd just clarify that "strategic depth" is just an other term for "war by proxy."

India and Pakistan are suffering from symptoms of their own Cold War. Only their 'playing field' is limited just to the sub-continent.

The United States and Soviet Union didn't engage in direct hostility, partly because of doctrines like M.A.D. But the possibility of nuclear exchange is what drove the Great Powers in extending their influence through regional proxy conflicts and the propping-up of 'favorable' governments.

From that POV, the Pakistani Establishment is acting perfectly logically within the paradigm of a 'nuclear stalemate.'

They view Afghanistan as a zero-sum proposition in which either India has the regime in its pocket, or Pakistan has the regime as a hedge to protect from being surrounded by seperatist sentiments on one flank, and a vastly out-numbering conventional force on the other.

I mean can anyone imagine nuking India or Afghanistan if in ten years the two governments announce a massive arms sale from India, or a joint military training exercise? Or worse yet, a defensive alliance? No.

At this juncture I think 'strategic depth' in Kayani's conception isn't simply a term for "more real-estate for the Peshawar Corp to retreat to in regrouping in a conventional conflict." I think he means it's an economical and logistical hedge at this point, compared to being blackmailed by an Afghan government in the future who'll always dangle the nightmare of cooperation with India, in order to extract concessions or money from future Pakistani regimes.

Ahsan said...


A lot of points there, so let me distill what I perceive to be your salient ones, and then respond:

Your first point, I take it, is to take issue with the nukes=deterrent against violations of territorial integrity thing. But all the instances you point out prove my point more than yours. The USSR collapsed from within, not through an external attack. When Israel was attacked by Iraq, the express purpose was to draw Israel into a war with Iraq to wean America's Arab allies away from it; it did not work only because the U.S. told Israel not to retaliate. As for the Hezbollah example, I'm talking about state-state interaction, so it's irrelevant. Finally, the proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were precisely that: proxy wars. They never faced off in a direct war because of nuclear weapons. No serious IR/security scholar disputes this.

Your second point seems to be that nuclear retaliation is disproportionate to a low-level conventional attack. So, in other words, nuclear retaliation is not credible. There may be something to what you say; it does seem implausible that Pakistan would risk MAD for 5 miles of territory, as you say. But the key point is that there is no way for the Indians to be SURE of this point, and as such, the risks outweigh the purported benefits. If the risk of spiral conflicts is entailed in any crisis, then it acts as a massive pull-back force on that crisis escalating. As a thought experiment, how do you think Kargil 1999 would have developed in a pre-nuclear age?

Your third point is that nuclear deterrence is not perfect, because we see instances of low level aggression from nuclear states against other nuclear states (the Sino-Soviet conflict in the late 60s is an example of this too, as is Kargil). But my point would be there is something containing these conflicts from escalating to full-blown war. That is the point of deterrence: because decision-makers can't be sure of how quickly things will escalate, it behooves them to back down rather than risk it.


Interesting thoughts. I think it's important to go back to what Rabia and I discussed in the beginning of the comments, namely, is the idea of strategic depth offensive or defensive? In the pre-nuclear age, you could make a credible case for it being defensive. But in the post-nuclear age, you can not make that argument credibly. So what if Afghanistan and India make an alliance? What is going to happen?

The US-SU example is instructive. These were two aggressive and offensive powers. Thus, as you say, they extended their rivalry to other playgrounds (Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola etc etc). But there is no reason to do this if all you want is security, as opposed to aggrandizement. If all you're worried about is other people taking advantage of you in a serious way, then nuclear weapons should suffice. If you're worried about regional (India/Pak) or global (US/SU) domination, then you need to prop up friendly govts all over. Kayani wants us to believe it's defensive, which I can't reconcile with our being a nuclear state.

smci said...

"So what if Afghanistan and India make an alliance? What is going to happen? "

I don't know. But prognosticating based on how popular paranoia IS in Pakistan, not HOW IT OUGHT NOT be... things won't be pretty.

Just viewing it from a critical eye on the Pak Military - if the current scenario leads to bloated defense budgets and a war-centric economy, imagine the impact that a two front posture would have upon civil-military relations and the treasury.

Maybe bribing a few Maulana Saabs is just more economical in the short-term.

Anonymous said...

Ahsan, Can you give me some reasoning behind: "Now, I think we can agree that India has hardly been a benevolent neighbor for sixty years, and that it has threatened Pakistan's security interests repeatedly in the past."

As I see it, aside from 71, which was a unique case, India has never initiated a war against Pakistan. On the contrary it has shown restraint when faced with events such as Kargil, Mumbai, Parliament shooting etc.

I know the standard conspiracy theories in mainstream media in Pakistan but am interested in your thoughts ?

anoop said...


Even in '71 India,technically, did not intiate the war. We were getting prepared and Pakistan responded to our preparation by attacking 1st. This gave us the reason to fight the war. Smartly done, I'd say.

Technically India is not the aggressor, Pakistan is..

Cold start will definitely mean Pakistan increasing its defence budget. The threat of expanding influence of India in Afghanistan will contribute to this threat perception. Bad news for Future state of Pakistan economy.

Ahsan said...


Too many instances to go into detail, but everything from denying Pakistan's share of economic, financial, military and bureaucratic resources right after independence (trying to cripple the state before it's even born); the 71 war (which you might claim was a "unique" case but was a pretty important one, wouldn't you say?), water flows (singularly important to an agricultural country), doing its best to isolate Pakistan on the international stage etc etc.

I know many Indians (at least those who visit this blog) can't deal with the fact that their country is like any other in international politics, in that it uses all instruments of state power to further its national objectives, but it's really time you guys woke up. Indo-Pak relations are bad because of both India AND Pakistan, and I feel stupid for even having to write this.

An avid reader said...

I know many Indians (at least those who visit this blog) can't deal with the fact that their country is like any other in international politics, in that it uses all instruments of state power to further its national objectives, but it's really time you guys woke up.


Everything you note is of geo-political nature and it is undeniable that strains between countries over such issues will always exist[Eg India China over Brahmaputra]. Maybe, these issues may make relations between india and pak bad, but what makes it really bad is that Pak chooses to respond in proxy terms via other issues, demagoguery and (some elements) via terrorism...And i too feel stupid for even having to write this.