Keeping up with the Indians
By Paul Staniland Saturday’s New York Times reports that Pakistan has expanded its maritime land-attack missile program, possibly based on modifications to U.S.-provided anti-ship Harpoons. News like this fuels concerns that the Pakistani establishment is not taking the internal security threat seriously enough, instead favoring its standard obsession with India. In this view, the expansion ...
By Paul Staniland
Saturday’s New York Times reports that Pakistan has expanded its maritime land-attack missile program, possibly based on modifications to U.S.-provided anti-ship Harpoons. News like this fuels concerns that the Pakistani establishment is not taking the internal security threat seriously enough, instead favoring its standard obsession with India. In this view, the expansion of both conventional and nuclear weapons programs shows that Pakistan is not serious about its wars within, instead myopically focusing on a status quo India that poses no real threat to Pakistan.
There is certainly merit to the argument that Pakistan simply “doesn’t get it” when it comes to fighting the Taliban. The Pakistan Army has a deeply-ingrained organizational distrust of India and strong incentives to continue building and buying expensive new systems, rather than getting into the dirty, cruel, complex business of counterinsurgency on its northwestern frontier.
The Army has made various destabilizing and counterproductive mistakes, whether supporting radical militant groups, undermining electoral democracy, or contributing to nuclear proliferation. The U.S. has good reasons to make sure that its agreements with Pakistan are not being violated. U.S. military aid can be terminated if the US deems that the use of these weapons, like the possible Harpoon modification, are against American interests or being adapted for purposes other than their intended use.
But it is important to keep in mind that continued Pakistani military modernization is not irrational given Pakistan’s dangerous security environment. India is hugely powerful relative to its neighbors, with a massive population, a large and capable military, nuclear weapons, and a growing economy that is slowly but surely fueling its own military modernization and doctrinal evolution.
Pakistani forces are outgunned and outmanned by India, and the country would ultimately lose in a large-scale land war across the plains of Punjab and Sindh/Rajasthan. This is a crucial reason that Pakistan has tried to improve its conventional capabilities, adopted a first-use nuclear posture, sponsored bloody terrorism and insurgency in India, and looked to the U.S. and China for military, financial, and diplomatic support. As India further grows, its power will be even more threatening to Pakistan, whether or not India intends it to be.
This fear is not simply the result of Pakistani domestic politics, ideology, or military worldview, though those also crucially matter. Because of its power, India is viewed with a measure of suspicion throughout the South Asian periphery — Sri Lanka has made sure to hedge its bets by cozying up to China and Pakistan (and in the late 1980s even provided weapons to the Tamil Tigers against an Indian peacekeeping force), while Bangladesh and Burma in the past have both at least tacitly provided sanctuary to insurgents trying to secede from India.
Neither Americans nor Indians always understand how threatening their military strength can look to weaker countries. This dynamic is clearly at play in the case of Pakistan — Indians feel that they are self-evidently not a threat, while Americans are often baffled that Pakistani security elites care so much about India, which to the U.S. looks like a positive force for stability and democracy. At the end of the day, however, the world does not look the same from Rawalpindi and Islamabad as it does from Washington, and the U.S. needs to remember these differing goals, incentives, and fears as it pursues its vital interests in the region.
The Pakistan Army absolutely cannot be given a free hand to direct American money against India or to violate agreements about the use of U.S. weapons and aid. But the U.S. should not assume that Pakistani military modernization is an unambiguous sign of its lack of commitment to internal security. Indeed, India itself has expanded its conventional and nuclear forces with an eye on China even as it battles various separatist and Maoist insurgencies at home. It should come as no surprise that Pakistan is similarly trying to keep up with its own larger and increasingly powerful neighbor.
Paul Staniland is a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Political Science and Security Studies Program.
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