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Pakistan: Will Doctrinal Shifts Lead to Changes toward India?

Pakistan: Will Doctrinal Shifts Lead to Changes toward India?According to new media reports (here and here), the Pakistani army has revised its doctrinal handbook to give priority to the country’s burgeoning internal security challenges.  The change appears, at least on the surface, to represent a fundamental shift away from the “India-centric” orientation that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief, has long used to deflect U.S. pressure for Pakistani action against jihadi groups operating from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

This would seem to be good news for those worried that the Pakistani military establishment’s fixation on the Indian threat has left it blind to the precarious conditions inside the country.  These domestic challenges include spiraling levels of violence in two of its major cities – Karachi and Peshawar, growing Sunni-Shia conflict, and a chronic electrical power crisis that some experts suggest is more of a threat to stability than is terrorism.

Still, a healthy skepticism about Pakistani pronouncements is always in order.  After all, even U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last summer seemed to be taken in by Kayani’s promises that a long-awaited offensive into North Waziristan was just around the corner.  This occurred despite the incredulity of other U.S. officials – the New York Times even quoted one as quipping that “This is the most delayed campaign in the history of modern warfare.”

So here are two litmus tests for assaying the value of the announced doctrinal change, both of which entail fundamental departures in entrenched security calculations vis-à-vis India.

The first test is whether the revision leads to Pakistan ending its strategy of supporting Taliban insurgents as a means of exerting influence in Afghanistan and instead playing a constructive role as NATO forces prepare to exit the country after 2014.  For two decades, Islamabad has backed the Taliban out of fears of Indian strategic encirclement.  Recent reports, however, suggest that the Pakistani military establishment has had an epiphany and now believes that prolonging the Afghan conflict would only blow back over the porous border, giving further energy to the domestic militants now waging war against the Pakistani state and perhaps even inflaming Pashtun separatism.   Evidence for this change of heart includes stepped up efforts to bring about reconciliation between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, including releasing a number of jailed Taliban leaders as a goodwill gesture, as well as a campaign to reach out to non-Pashtun leaders in Afghanistan who are suspicious of Pakistan’s intentions.

Ahmed Rashid, a keen observer of the AfPak scene, attributes this major shift to the army’s realization that Pakistan is in increasingly desperate straits.  He notes that General Kayani “is now banking on the hope that reconciliation among the Afghans will have a knock-on positive effect on the Pakistani Taliban also – depriving them of legitimacy and recruits.” A Reuters report carries the same message, quoting a senior Pakistani military officer as saying:

There was a time when we used to think we were the masters of Afghanistan. Now we just want them to be masters of themselves so we can concentrate on our own problems.

It obviously bears close watching whether Islamabad follows through with these promises to be a better neighbor.  (For a doubtful view, see here.)  The outcome will have significant implications not only for Afghanistan but the larger region as well.

The second test is whether the doctrinal revisions bring about a more relaxed nuclear posture toward India.  Pakistan is rapidly expanded its nuclear stockpile, especially in tactical nuclear weapons.  Indeed, many worry (see here and here) that South Asia is on the verge of a destabilizing nuclear arms competition.  General Kayani justifies the need for battlefield nuclear options by pointing to the threat posed by the Indian army’s “Cold Start” doctrine – which emphasizes the threat of large-scale but calibrated punitive actions in order to deter Pakistani adventurism.

In an earlier post, I criticized the nuclear buildup as strategically unnecessary as well as a wasteful diversion of precious economic resources away from more pressing national priorities.  So far, there are no signs that the military establishment is reversing course, though civilian leaders are at least beginning to ask tougher questions about the direction of the nuclear program.  The coming year may also see a somewhat changed equilibrium in the country’s fraught civil-military dynamics, with the upcoming parliamentary elections establishing a new milestone in civilian governance coupled with Kayani’s scheduled retirement towards the end of 2013.  It’s also worth noting that the army’s new doctrine acknowledges the legitimacy of civilian input into national security decision-making.

And there might be an opportunity here for New Delhi to provide some strategic reassurance than can help nudge Pakistan’s security calculus onto a new path.  It could further encourage the informal but promising dialogue by retired senior military leaders from both countries that has produced good ideas about confidence-building measures.  It also can signal openness to convening an official dialogue about the posture and readiness levels of military units, including nuclear-capable missile forces, deployed along the common border.  Given their lack of strategic utility as well as the perils they pose for crisis stability, one idea might be for the two countries to agree on eliminating their shortest-range ballistic missiles.

2013 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for Pakistan and I’ll have more to say in a future post about things to watch for.  But one of the key items to monitor is whether the army’s doctrinal shift leads to substantive policy changes on Afghanistan and nuclear weapons.

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.