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Stark Encounters in a Nightmare
Ajai Sahni*

From the moment of Partition, through four wars and over twenty five years of proxy warfare and terrorism supported by Islamabad, the Indian establishment has struggled fruitlessly to secure a lasting peace with its disruptive and volatile neighbour. Even as Delhi remained committed to unsubstantiated dogmas, that a 'strong and stable Pakistan is in India's interests', and that 'one cannot choose one's neighbours', Pakistan has progressively imploded, and the neighbours certainly did change when Pakistan's eastern wing revolted to create Bangladesh in 1971.

The inertial burden of unexamined doctrine, nevertheless, continues to prevent the evolution of effective Indian strategies or coherent policies in the face of continuous provocation by Pakistan, even as Delhi remains nothing more than a passive and horrified observer to the unfolding disaster within Pakistan. The result is that Delhi continues to ignore a wide range of policy options that could help transform the regional situation and provide more effective instrumentalities than the current expedient of vesting all hopes in whatever regime secures power, by whatever means, in Islamabad.

Pious exhortation and good intentions appear to exhaust the current Indian policy spectrum, even as the country finds itself responding continuously and insufficiently to repeated acts of Pakistan-backed terrorism and subversion. Worse, as Pakistan's implosion gathers pace, neither Delhi nor the wider international community appears to be exploring the imperatives of responding to what is obviously a rapidly failing nuclear-armed state. Ignoring the entirety of the destructive dynamic that has been unleashed by enduring pathologies within the Pakistani state and society, India's leadership and the international community continue to clutch at the straws of 'negotiated settlements' to 'outstanding disputes', including Kashmir, and of developmental aid that is expected to choke off the "assembly lines of jihad" and the progressive formal and informal (non-state) militarization of Pakistan. But billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan in the post-9/11 era, as well as increasing 'people to people contacts', preferential trade and unending negotiations and 'joint working groups' with India, have done nothing to stabilize this catastrophic country, and have only seen a continuous increase in the spaces for radicalization and religious extremism on its soil. Pakistan has, today, established itself as the very heart of global terrorism and the necessity of re-examining past Indian and international policies with regard to this failing state is now inescapable.

'Blessed are the Peacemakers1?

Peace is, quite rightly and naturally, a 'self-evident' virtue. To oppose - indeed, even, in any sense, argue against - peace in any circumstances whatsoever seems nasty, brutish and uncivil, if not downright evil. This intuitive morality, asserting the superiority of peaceful resolution, negotiated change, civilisational evolution and the acceptance of an ethic of non-violence, has infused peace advocacy with a certain quality of self-righteousness, indeed arrogance, which has widely distorted policy, artificially limited the range of available options, and, on numerous occasions, provoked impulsive and often disastrous - though unexceptionally well-intentioned - interventions in prevailing conflicts.

But the idea of 'peace' - as with all aspects of human conduct - needs to be approached with a quality of tentativeness, of realism, and of great maturity. 'Peace' is a complex notion, and we can imagine many kinds of 'peace' - the 'peace of a graveyard', to take an unpleasant instance, is not one that most of us yearn for. A 'false peace' may, indeed, be no more than a prelude to limitless violence. It is useful, in this context, to recall the 'settlements' at Versailles after the First World War, which led to the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany; the craven Munich Agreement in 1938, which sought to appease Hitler by transferring substantial territories in Czechoslovakia to Germany, and that only fuelled the dictator's belligerence, provoking the Second World War; or, closer home, the hasty recourse to a futile intervention by the United Nations in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in 1948, which infinitely complicated the situation in India's northern State, yielding six decades of intermittent war, and nearly 20 years of intensive Pakistan-backed terrorism over this 'dispute'.

These are not issues that can simply be decided by rhetorical postures. Against Cicero's aphorism, 'an unjust peace is better than a just war', it is thus possible to juxtapose Tacitus' admonition, 'a bad peace is even worse than war'. Unfortunately, in all this, there has been a trend towards the substitution of politically correct platitudes in place of a reasoned and informed discourse on conflicts and their resolution, and a frequent suspension of critical faculties in a swelling enthusiasm for 'instant peace'. In many theatres of intractable conflict, there has been a facile tendency on the part of mediators and policy makers to seek to negotiate the future of millions of victims of extreme and barbaric violence with its worst perpetrators. In the face of a relentless adversary, however,

…an unrealistic pursuit of peace can only defer violence, and often magnifies it. The notion of 'peace at all costs' is self-destructive, and negotiations based on false premises and projections, and on unrealistic or divergent assessments of realities on the ground, inevitably result in greater escalation - though they may produce a temporary and deceptive lull. 2

The 'peace discourse' in India has been distorted even more by the influence of a half-digested (but almost never practiced) Gandhism - now further disfigured in a ludicrous and perverse cinematic reinterpretation as 'Gandhigiri' - and an inchoate understanding of philosophical traditions of ahimsa and unconditional non-violence. Practitioners of conflict containment and resolution, however, mush address practical questions: What do we do till non-violence becomes a universal value? How can an unscrupulous and utterly merciless enemy - one who employs the murder of innocents as a tactical weapon to secure his political objectives - be confronted if he seeks to take advantage of our pacifism and unwillingness to defend ourselves and our rights? Can conflict be ended by a simple refusal to offer resistance? And if violence is not confronted and defeated, will it not, inevitably, prevail?

It is the 'unrealistic pursuit of peace' in South Asia that has yielded unending violence. India's strategic posture with relation to Pakistan, for instance, has sought 'defensive parity' with a country one-eighth its size, and, in the absence of decisive superiority, has encouraged decades of military adventurism by an Islamabad dominated by predatory ideologies and an aggressively exclusionary militant Islamism. Confronted with decades of Pakistan's incorrigible criminality, India has remained frozen in a posture of permanently delayed reaction,

As Pakistan unravels, it will be necessary to relocate Indian strategy and policy within a more rational framework of assessment and analysis. Even with the best of intentions, India lacks the capacity and the instrumentalities to secure the 'ideal' solution it has long imagined: peaceful and productive coexistence with a 'strong, stable and friendly' Pakistan. As Pakistani authority weakens rapidly across wide regions - with the threat of a Taliban takeover now articulated by both President Asif Ali Zardari and by senior security officials well beyond the jihadi strongholds in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, even as far to the south as Karachi - it must be evident that Indian policy must undergo urgent and progressive review, no longer to secure an unattainable 'peace', but rather to deal with the potential fallout of a nuclear-armed Pakistan's accelerating 'descent into chaos'.

Irreversible Trajectory

When Pakistan gets nervous, everybody gets nervous. You know why? 'Cause we're all gonna die.3
The West Wing

The theatricality of a fictional dialogue on a TV serial captures the sentiment of much of the global response to Pakistan over the past decade and more, and, indeed, provides an index of the tremendous strategic overreach that has allowed this backward mid-sized country to secure an influence - altogether negative - in world affairs so completely out of proportion to its natural resources, national endowments and capacities. Pakistan possesses none of the attributes - military, economic, political or diplomatic - necessary to secure and retain the influence it has long sought to exercise in the South Asian region and, indeed, over a wider Asian region. Historically, Pakistan has been confronted with the dilemma of a realism that demanded an acceptance of its limitations and the abandonment of emotionally cherished goals of expanding dominance, or resort to the instrumentalisation of Islam and its projection through extremist mobilisation and terrorism. It is the latter course that Pakistan's dominant elite adopted, and this critical decision has shaped the entire course of the country's history. Islamist extremism and terrorism have remained integral to the ruling establishment's approach to domestic political management and regional strategic projection, as well as of international resource mobilisation. In the latter context, Pakistan presents itself as part of the solution to the problems it creates, combining manipulation, intimidation, and blackmail - including nuclear blackmail - and is then handsomely rewarded for its 'cooperation'. Against this backdrop,

…it is useful to conceive of Pakistan as a state acting as a suicide bomber, arguing that, if it does not receive the extraordinary dispensations and indulgences that it seeks, it will, in effect 'implode', and in the process do extraordinary harm to others. Part of the threat of this 'implosion' is also the spectre of the transfer of its nuclear arsenal and capabilities to more intransigent and irrational elements of the Islamist far right in Pakistan, who would not be amenable to the logic that its present rulers - whose interests in terrorism are strategic, and consequently, subject to considerations of strategic advantage - are willing to heed. 4

The world's imagination has thus been conquered by a skilfully constructed nightmare fantasy, and this has long paralysed responses to a Pakistan that has operated incessantly as a rogue state, rejecting internationally accepted norms of responsible conduct, and is now approaching the threshold of state failure5. This is a realization that is progressively dawning on analysts and policy makers across the world. Ashley Tellis, notably, observes,

Pakistan's principal defence against external pressure is not its nuclear arsenal, but its own political fragility… its government's less than full cooperation is preferable to the country's collapse and descent into chaos.6

This threat has yielded enormous rewards in foreign assistance as well as great latitude in conduct that would otherwise be construed as unquestionably criminal and as appropriate grounds for international sanctions. It is under a benign international dispensation - rooted in fears of possible state collapse - that Pakistan has consistently remained a 'minimal satisfier', doing as little as is possible to secure itself against punitive action, but preserving its instrumentalities and networks of terrorism, sustaining its campaigns of terrorism at currently available levels of deniability and the international 'tolerance of terrorism'.

Contemporary mythology traces the roots of Pakistan's radical decline to General Zia-ul-Haq's disastrous eleven years in power, the US-Pakistan jihad against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and the parallel systemic radicalisation of Pakistani politics and the Army. This is, however, mistaken. The source of Pakistan's pathologies is far more deep-seated and enduring, and lies at the very foundation of the state and the ideology of radical political Islamism that led to its creation: the thesis that people of different religious communities cannot coexist7. The seeds of the terrorist threats confronting us today were sown decades ago, in the radical Islamist ideologies of the early 20th Century. The history of these movements and ideologies is much too long to consider here. But it is useful to recall that, in the mid-1920s, Maulana Sayyid Abu A'la Maududi, the founder and head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, began to articulate an ideology of political Islam that gave primacy to jihad over and above all the other 'duties' imposed by the Faith8. Islam was, in this conception, in irreducible conflict with all nationalisms, as well as with every form of governance other than Sharia9.

This ideological core has been overlaid by cynical processes of the instrumentalisation of Islam by all political forces in Pakistan, including the military and the supposedly secular formations. This tradition was firmly established by the professedly secular and reputedly atheistic 'founder' of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who repeatedly and without scruple exploited the Muslim identity for violent political mobilisation10 and specifically for jihad when these suited his transient political objectives11. The instrumentalisation of Islam and jihad have remained an integral element of the political and strategic ambitions and outlook of the military-feudal-fundamentalist bloc that has ruled Pakistan since its creation. Despite the colossal 'blowback' of the jihadi-terrorist enterprise that the country is now experiencing, it remains the case that a powerful constituency in the political-military establishment remains sympathetic to and complicit with the Islamist extremist and terrorist formations that continue to operate with varying degrees of freedom across Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid thus notes,

A nuclear-armed military and an intelligence service that have sponsored Islamic extremism as an intrinsic part of their foreign policy for nearly four decades have found it extremely difficult to give up their self-destructive double-dealing policies after 9/11, even under the watchful eye of the CIA12.

Indeed, a non-Islamist politics has been made impossible within Pakistan's evolving history and enveloping culture, since any advocacy of secular values is immediately interpreted by political opponents as 'anti-Muslim' or 'anti-Islamist'. This does not, of course, imply that there is no secular sentiment in Pakistan - indeed, electoral results have repeatedly demonstrated that radical Islam has a relatively small constituency in the country. This small constituency is, however, capable of the most appalling violence, and has left no viable avenues for the articulation of the secular sentiment. Relatively soft Islamism has, thus, progressively constructed wide spaces for radical and violent Islamism, and has retained no effective instruments to confront or counter the latter. Complex relationships of cooperation, contestation and conflict between the various power-centres in the country, on the one hand, and the radical Islamists, on the other, have evolved into an entrenched destructive dynamic that the Pakistani establishment has neither the will nor the capacity to escape.

The tentative tinkering that external powers have attempted in order to secure a solution for this canker in Pakistan, variously through support for a 'strong military dictator', a dubious 'restoration of democracy', or through liberal 'developmental funding' are destined to necessary failure unless the unshakable dynamic of Islamist extremism can be uprooted from Pakistan's politics, culture and society - an eventuality that is altogether unlikely in the foreseeable future. Structural elements have conspired, over the past more than seven years since 9/11, to undermine every attempt at reform in Pakistan, strengthening the very constituencies that such well-intentioned efforts were intended to dismantle, and simultaneously diminishing the capacities of surviving state institutions - including the Army - to deal with the challenge.

Disordered Futures

Pakistan's accelerating hurtle into the abyss now appears irresistible. Unfortunately, India's delusional foreign policy agenda fails, as it has for decades now, to deal with the realities of Pakistan and its enduring pathologies, and with what one commentator has described as "the slow transformation of the Pakistani state itself into an instrument of the jihadist agenda."13

Delhi's policy discourse on Pakistan remains trapped in categories that have no relevance in the circumstances now prevailing, and in recent months has been dominated by a great deal of theatrical shadow-boxing over fixing responsibility for the Mumbai terrorist carnage of November 26, 2008, predicating a restoration of 'normal relations' on demonstrable action against those responsible for this atrocity, as well as a dismantling of the wider networks of terrorism that continue to exist on Pakistani soil. Several Indian 'diplomatic victories' have resulted from a focused international campaign - and these include the reluctant cumulative admission on Pakistan's part that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack came from that country - and there is a degree of self-satisfaction at South Block on a job well done. But these petty triumphs, secured overwhelmingly by petitioning Western powers, do little to alter the trajectory of Islamist terrorism in South Asia, or to diminish the centrifugal impetus in Pakistan.

This is the reality that India - and, indeed, the major world powers - must increasingly and squarely confront in their foreign policy and strategic projections. Despite a growing realization among wide segments of its national elite that terrorism is doing irreparable damage to Pakistan, and despite the best-intentioned abundance of aid and advice from other countries, Pakistan's paper-thin institutions and deeply compromised leaderships simply lack the capacities, the vision and the will to check the augmenting momentum. Traditional 'solutions' - democratisation, development, negotiated settlements, peace processes and 'people to people contacts' - have little scope for success in this context. The Army is the only significant and relatively stable power in the country, and it has historically held the nation together principally through the application of brute force - a device that is now producing diminishing returns.

More significantly, this Army remains deeply ambivalent about the ongoing jihadi terrorism, treating it still as a principal instrumentality of regional power projection and domestic political management, even as it is locked in uncertain war with its own creations, stretched to the limits of its diminishing capacities across multiple theatres of internal conflict. This is an Army, moreover, that has long been mobilised on precisely the same ideology and principles of an aggressive, conquering Islamism that motivate the Taliban, al Qaeda and the numberless lashkars that project carnage across South Asia and into the wider world through their 'global jihad'. It is an Army that cannot commit itself unambiguously to the objectives of counter-terrorism - even if the tasks of counter-terrorism could still be assessed to be within its capacities.

The spectre of imminent state failure in Pakistan is, consequently, real, and both India and the world need urgently to prepare for this, no-doubt horrifying outcome. Three probable scenarios present themselves in Pakistan's menacing endgame. The first of these would see a progression along the present trajectory, towards augmenting disorders and eventual anarchy, as central power is eroded and increasingly randomised in the hands of non-state, principally Islamist, entities, contested locally by proxies of the surviving central authority. The second could result in the abrupt collapse of the central authority, with an Islamist takeover of degraded state institutions and the imposition of a Talibanised order reminiscent of much of Afghanistan in the end 1990s, with its authority contested along wide regions in unrelenting attritional warfare. The third possible outcome could see an Iran-like shift, with the overwhelming proportion of the Pakistan Army simply transferring allegiance to the mullahs, eliminating the small remaining secular segment within the military leadership, to forge a new radical partnership, once again, to create a Talibanised order, backed by the surviving power of the Armed Forces and armed Islamist militant groupings. In each of these cases, externally directed Islamist terrorism would gain tremendous momentum, even as the danger of the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction augments exponentially.

The strategic and foreign policy challenges for India and the global community, within these emerging scenarios, principally involve the neutralisation of Pakistan's nuclear assets and the containment of the fallout of the country's collapse into anarchy or takeover by a Talibanised terrorist order. Evidently, these are colossal challenges, and the temptation to lapse into the make-believe of 'peace processes' and 'negotiated settlements of outstanding disputes' will be great. It is obvious, moreover, that India simply does not have the capabilities to secure these objectives on its own, and will need an unprecedented diplomatic effort to convince more powerful nations and allies to recognize and prepare for the impending catastrophe. Before this can be done, however, India will have to draw itself out of the cocoon of its own delusions and face realities that it has long sought to deny.

  • Ajai Sahni is Founding Member and Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution.

  1. The Bible, Matthew 5:9

  2. K.P.S. Gill and Ajai Sahni, ""The J&K 'Peace Process': Chasing the Chimera", Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 8, April, 2001, Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books.

  3. Character in the TV Serial, The West Wing, Episode: The Lame Duck Congress, for full text, see,

  4. Ajai Sahni, "The State as Suicide Bomber", South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol. 1, No. 49, June 23, 2003,

  5. Pakistan has, for instance, progressed up the Foreign Policy Failed State Index over the past years, with its ranking rising from 34th among states at risk in 2005 to 9th in 2008. Failed State Index 2005 and 2008, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace,;

  6. Brian Jenkins, Testimony to US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, January 28, 2009, cited in M. Ziauddin, "Terrorism will continue to threaten India: Expert", The Dawn, February 2, 2009.

  7. This theme has been treated in some detail in Ajai Sahni, "South Asia: The Core of Islamist Terror", Submission to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Commons, UK, October 29, 2006,

  8. Maulana Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam, (Ed. Khurram Murad), New Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami Publishers, 2002, p. 285.

  9. Ibid. pp. 296-302

  10. As in the calls for 'Direct Action' on August 16, 1946, which resulted in the slaughters that came to be known as the 'Great Calcutta Killings', as well as further riots and killings across Bengal and Bihar. See, for instance, Rafiq Zakaria, The Man Who Divided India, p. 109, 119-125.

  11. The banner of 'Jihad' was raised by Jinnah himself in the North West Frontier Province. Jinnah has often been projected as being extraordinarily secular in his perspectives, and his last speech in the Pakistani Parliament is cited as testimony to his vision of a Pakistan where religion, caste, creed and other differences would not matter. Wali Khan, however, describes Jinnah's conspiracy with Iskandar Mirza, to foment a jihad in the NWFP, when the province, under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, sought to distance itself from the demand for Partition. Quoted in L.C. Jain, The City of Hope - The Faridabad Story, New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1998, pp. 2-4, citing Wali Khan, Facts are Facts, Vikas Publishers, New Delhi.

  12. Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, London: Allen Lane, 2008, p. xxxix.

  13. Praveen Swami, "Understanding Pakistan's response to Mumbai", The Hindu, January 26, 2009

(Published in 2009)





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