Why the chaos in Pakistan should worry India

The reverberations of the events of May 9, 2023 are likely to be felt across Pakistan for a long time. Suspected activists of the youth wing of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other unidentified miscreants, protesting against the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, had attacked the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi, a field office of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Faisalabad and burnt down the residence of the Corps Commander in Lahore.

Hundreds of activists, second and third-rung leaders of the PTI have been detained and pressured to sever their links with the party. It seems likely that at least some of the instigators and perpetrators of the acts of vandalism against military installations may face trial and punishment by military courts.

What implications, if any, do these developments have for the national security of India which, in any case, has little or no ability to influence the ground situation in Pakistan? Should the prospect of an economic and political meltdown that spawns widespread chaos and social unrest in Pakistan be quietly welcomed in India, notwithstanding former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s categorical assertion in writing at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore 24 years ago that a strong, stable and peaceful Pakistan is in India’s interest?

Among the valid questions raised is that of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Could the complacency and misplaced sympathy for rioters on display at the Corps Commander’s residence be replicated at any of the installations housing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and material?

Other than angry mobs of civilians, could the numerous terrorist organisations active in Pakistan, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has been re-energised by the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan, turn such situations of chaos and instability to their advantage and lay their hands on nuclear weapon components or fissile material? It is well known that transnational jihadi organisations and their leaders have publicly signalled their interest in obtaining weapons of mass destructionconsidering it their religious obligation to do so.

For years, Pakistan has dismissed such fears as exaggerated, maintaining that it has a robust and dedicated nuclear command and control system comprising institutions such as the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and the Strategic Force Commands (SFCs) of the three services that makes it impossible for the country’s nuclear weapons to fall into unauthorised hands. The SPD is the keystone of Pakistan’s nuclear security architecture. Headed by an officer equivalent in rank to that of a Corps Commander, it is tasked with the daily management of Pakistan’s strategic assets. Its principal constituents are the directorates responsible for: (a) operations & planning; (b) command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, information and surveillance (C4I2SR); (c) strategic weapons development; and (d) arms control and disarmament. It also has a large security division responsible for keeping all strategic facilities safe.

The Pakistani army has always prided itself on being a disciplined institution that rallies behind its chief in all situations. The prolonged discord between Imran Khan and two successive chiefs has, however, brought to the fore in a hitherto unimaginable manner the real possibility of fissures developing at the leadership level of the army. To begin with, there was a perception that support for the former Prime Minister existed mainly in the middle and lower ranks of the army and among the extended families of retired service personnel. The incident involving the former Lahore Corps Commander, who fled his residence while it was being vandalised and is, reportedly, facing disciplinary proceedings after having been divested of his charge, suggests that sympathy for the PTI and its leader may exist at higher levels in the chain of command.

Against this background, it may not be entirely far-fetched to visualise a scenario in which the SPD leadership or a faction thereof develops sympathy for political actors opposed to the army or the government of the day for any reason. As the Economist wrote recently in the context of the possibility of the US defaulting on its debt, an eventuality that was unimaginable in the past has become all too imaginable.

The crackdown against the PTI, likely to intensify amidst efforts by the army to politically marginalise Imran Khan, and the plummeting popularity of mainstream parties such as Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz are likely to create a vacuum that may well be filled by the numerous radical organisations dotting Pakistan’s political landscape. It is noticeable that in the immediate aftermath of the events of May 9, several rallies to show solidarity with the army have been announced or held by religious extremist organisations such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which had been patronised by the ISI to mount pressure on the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a proscribed sectarian organisation suspected to enjoy the covert support of the military-intelligence establishment.
The weaponisation of religion for achieving political and strategic goals, the incessant meddling by the army in civilian affairs, the obsession with Kashmir and the posture of perpetual enmity towards India have now come to haunt Pakistan. An ascendance of obscurantist forces may only make Pakistan more irrational, more truculent and more unpredictable. For India, therefore, heightened caution, rather than any form of triumphalism, may be a more advisable policy to adopt in the circumstances.

The writer was Special Secretary in the Research & Analysis Wing. Views are personal


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