Offence Vs. Defence: A Conversation

Offence Vs. Defence: A Conversation
Friend and fellow writer Mosharraf Zaidi has responded to my July 2 article, “Pakistan Needs a Proactive Afghanistan Policy,” by disagreeing with my proposition that given the evolving situation in Afghanistan and threats emerging from there, Pakistan should change its defensive mindset and develop proactive counterterrorism capabilities. In other words, as Zaidi has accurately put it, “[Haider] wants Pakistan to strike at terrorist targets – early, often, and when needed, on [the] Afghan soil.”

Before anything else, I must thank Zaidi for taking a very important conversation forward.

I shall presently get to his three-point disagreement with my argument, but let me first identify where he seems to agree with me. Most importantly, he agrees that “Pakistan’s big picture goals in Afghanistan, while laudable, are silent on the most urgent and most important issue that emerges from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan: how to engage in effective counterterrorism.”

In other words, he appreciates that post-US/NATO withdrawal, the situation in Afghanistan sans an intra-Afghan peace and power-sharing deal poses a major threat to Pakistan. Extrapolating from that, it is clear that Pakistan needs to prepare itself to counter the threat. That is a function of determining which approach Pakistan should take: defensive or offensive — i.e., should Pakistan wait until the threat materialises (defensive) or pick up threats early and preempt them away from its soil (offensive).

Zaidi argues for the defensive approach; I argue for the offensive approach as the best defence. Two other points need to be made before going further. In complex situations involving multiple actors, no one can come up with neat solutions, the human desire to find such a solution notwithstanding. As I have written before in these pages, “understanding the structures of social (as opposed to scientific-technical) systems is not entirely possible and having information on outcomes which are the result of interactive complexity is even more difficult.” So, neither Zaidi nor I or for that matter anyone, governments included, can claim to have the solution.

Secondly, while Zaidi has selected one point from my article that refers to developing offensive counterterrorism capabilities, my article argued for that as part of a broader policy. For instance, I wrote that “at this point, Pakistan needs to distance itself from taking any clear positions with reference to the various actors in that country while retaining and further honing the intelligence capabilities and reach-out to all relevant actors.” I also made the point, clearly, that “preparing for the worst does not mean Pakistan dropping the politico-diplomatic option. As noted earlier, it must remain engaged with the various actors inside Afghanistan. But it should wait and see which way the internal chaos goes. This means a policy which, while sticking to its broad parameters, can be tactically tweaked as the situation unfolds on the ground.” (italics added)

In other words, Pakistan has to deploy multiple strategies, not sequentially but simultaneously. I have argued for years that the use of force in and of itself cannot achieve much. It must translate into utility of force. And utility of force is a function of employing force as part of a broader policy and for creating space for non-kinetic approaches to work.
Pakistan could have a regional consensus on how to deal with such threats. In the end, however, Pakistan itself is responsible for countering the threats to itself

Let’s now get to Zaidi’s three points: he objects to the idea of offensive capability by arguing that (a) Pakistan must not entertain the idea of cross-border raids and the minimisation of the sovereignty of another country; (b) cross-border raids into Afghanistan would serve to galvanise anti-Pakistan sentiment; © any operations across the Durand Line will validate and mobilise ethno-national Pashtun sentiment.

Of these, I consider the first the most important. I had written that “An Afghanistan with a nominal, contested government unable to control its territory cannot mount the argument about sovereignty.” Zaidi has challenged that by reminding me that “national sovereignty is a red line that has informed Pakistani domestic and foreign policy for over seventy years.” He is right. Since he has also referred to R2P, it’s important to remind the reader that Pakistan was the first victim of that concept when it lost East Pakistan. So, yes, the issue of sovereignty does form the backbone of Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy approaches and that is the position Pakistan should maintain under all normal circumstances.

Equally, it’s important to point out that in a practical sense, Pakistan has, on a number of occasions, deviated from it, especially in extraordinary circumstances. When George W Bush’s administration came knocking at Pakistan’s door after 9/11, Islamabad agreed to host (bases) and facilitate (air corridors/GLOC etc) an invading power against a government which it had recognised. In doing that, Pakistan became an active partner in an invasion that violated its (if not the international community’s) understanding of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

Two, Afghanistan challenged (and continues to) Pakistan’s sovereignty repeatedly by laying claim to areas up to the Indus. It launched overt and covert campaigns to foment trouble in Pakistan. Kabul continues to reject the internationally-recognised border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, referring to it as Durand Line (surprisingly, Zaidi also uses that term). This is not just history. As late as September 7, 2020, Afghanistan’s First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, tweeted: “No Afghan politician of national stature can overlook the issue of Durand Line. It will condemn him or her in life & afterlife. It is an issue which needs discussions & resolution. Expecting us to gift it for free is unrealistic. Peshawar used to be the winter capital of Afghanistan.”

Let me also mention for the record that there have been frequent artillery and small arms fire exchanges between Pakistani and Afghan troops. But leaving this aside, it’s important to juxtapose the traditional notion of sovereignty with the fast changing conduct of war. That would necessitate a major rethink on how states would respond to an array of threats.

Take, for instance, info-tech and cyber attacks. The capabilities (as also the contest) are essentially trans-border. When Indian hackers recently mounted major attacks in Pakistan (I refer here to the recent presser by the government), their attacks were undeclared and in the digital domain. When EU Disinfo Lab unearthed an Indian disinformation operation against Pakistan so vast and complex that it boggled even the investigators, the Indian actors were deploying a capability that transcends traditional notions of war-fighting, boundaries and sovereignty. It also informs us that today’s hostile operations do not require declarations of war. States are (Pakistan certainly is) at war even when there’s no overt war going on.

While info-tech and cyber capabilities are non-kinetic, they can lead to disruptions, coercion, violence and even destruction of infrastructure. Are they different from covert, physical attacks, despite their subversive potential? In that, while we must develop trans-border capabilities to counter hostile actions in the digital domain, we must approach sovereignty as a notion carved in stone when it comes to covert actions by state and non-state actors, even when a state — which is where Afghanistan is likely headed — has no real government and legitimacy itself is being contested between or among many actors? These are important questions and given the emerging technologies will come into sharper salience in the coming years.

Zaidi also likened my approach to Rumsfeld’s or Rice’s. I beg to differ. One, as I noted above, Pakistan does need to maintain its overall approach to the issue of sovereignty; two, unlike the US, Pakistan must use offensive CT capabilities very selectively and only when they are direly needed; three, as I had implied in my previous article, employing such capabilities is not necessarily a unilateral endeavour. A chaotic Afghanistan will pose a threat to multiple states in the region. Pakistan could have a regional consensus on how to deal with such threats. In the end, however, Pakistan itself is responsible for countering the threats to itself.

Let’s also note that the debate over offensive CT capabilities has gone much beyond the case of the US. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sahel etc and the number of states that are involved in those conflicts directly and indirectly are forcing a shift in how sovereignty is defined. The law has a lot of catching up to do.

I also talked about the conversation Pakistan could (should) have with the United States and also Turkey. In fact, just before signing off, Zaidi seems to agree with me completely! “[Pakistan needs] a wise, multi-layered, resolute, alliance-driven and proactive counterterrorism strategy for the post US withdrawal Afghan theatre.” (italics added)

I also agree with him with reference to the “feel-good autonomy of ‘absolutely not’”. Strategy is about increasing one’s options, not reducing them. A likely terrorist threat emerging from Afghanistan is a threat no one wants. On that score, the US, Russia and China (as also other regional states) are in agreement. That should make this conversation easier to have.

Finally, a  quick word about Zaidi’s concerns over anti-Pakistan sentiments and ethno-national Pashtun sentiment. Both are in abundance already and exacerbated by the Afghan regimes during the US/NATO presence. I mentioned Saleh above; the Afghan National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib’s statements are already on the record. Similar sentiments are voiced by a fringe on this side too. While it is important to address such sentiments through other strategies, employing necessary CT capabilities is not about garnering votes or winning popularity contests. Plus, this is just the kind of defensive mindset that bogs Pakistan down. States cannot afford to act blindly and reflexively like Laertes, but neither can they handicap themselves like procrastinating Hamlet.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.