Pakistan NSA Nasser Janjua's sabre-rattling betrays Islamabad’s serious unease at upgraded India-US relations

It seems that Pakistan's National Security Advisor Lieutenant General (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua had an early inkling of the newly released National Security Strategy of the United States. This important document, which will set the tone for the political, economic and military actions of the (still) foremost power in the world, mentions India not only in the traditional South Asia bracket but also as a major player in Afghanistan and in the India-Pacific region.

None of this is new, but the fact that it has been specifically flagged in an important policy document is significant. That the National Security Strategy also holds out a promise of increased trade and investment will conveniently be ignored by the Pakistanis, not just because it is conditional to Islamabad actually countering terrorism, but because it is Rawalpindi's habit to complain about anything and everything at any platform it gets.

FIle image of Pakistan NSA Nasser Khan Janjua. Source:

FIle image of Pakistan NSA Nasser Khan Janjua. Source:

This was most apparent recently during the remarks of the Pakistani NSA at a seminar of a think tank headed by former ISI chief Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul Islam. It may be recalled that Islam was accused by the then defence minister Khwaja Asif of being behind the unrest created by a certain aged cricket captain.

That 126-day protest nearly unseated the government of Nawaz Sharif and seemed to hold the portends of a possible coup. Now retired, the former ISI chief is seen as still being within the circles of power and military decision making. His remarks at the seminar, probably the first public comments since his retirement in late 2014, referred to the need for a politico-military dialogue on national security, which is a highly desirable end state for Pakistan.

The fact that he hardly fostered this while in power is a different issue. What is important is that his point of view seems to be prevalent – at least in principle. A day later, the army chief was briefing a select committee on national security, an unusual event in itself to cause comment.

That the NSA should address the seminar at his institute – the Centre for Global and Strategic Studies –  is therefore hardly surprising. What seemed somewhat out of character for the NSA was the unusually sharp remarks that were reportedly made where he warned of a possible nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

If true, this sabre rattling is a sign of serious Pakistani unease at India's upgraded ties with the United States and is aimed at getting outside powers (read China) to upgrade its own level of defence relations with it. Other comments of the NSA were even stranger. He is said to have complained that the United States had disrupted the 'balance of power' in South Asia.

Since India has always had the larger conventional forces and the economic ability to buttress its fighting abilities, what this seems to imply is that the "balance" between Pakistan's ability to launch terrorist attacks against India, and India's conventional capability has been eroded under sustained US pressure.

After all, Pakistan's core capability since independence has been the ability to launch non-state actors from its territory, a core strength which it demonstrated most recently in Kargil. He did refer to India 'stockpiling' a range of dangerous weapons and the threats of war.  However, since India’s defence budget remains well within its traditional limits and no important leader has even hinted at conventional war, these remarks remain unconvincing.

Apart from this, the former general made the now standard statements about the world's lack of appreciation of its sacrifices in the war on terrorism, and with the usual straight face, denied the existence of any terrorist sanctuaries in the country. In the next breath, he claimed with perfect truth that the Taliban are getting stronger in Pakistan. They certainly are, but not with ammunition, stores or weapons manufactured in Afghanistan.

That is the central problem that the US and its allies have with Rawalpindi, but it seems that with this speech, the Pakistani NSA only cemented a policy continuance that is more than evident on the ground. In which case, he may as well have spared his breath, and not made the speech at all.

However, the general is a man of intelligence, and if the principle of chain of command is assumed, then his chief – Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who has been backed against the wall by civilians and the military alike – presumably endorses his comments. However, in Pakistan, the chain of command has hardly ever applied in the case of civil-military relations.

Clearly, the NSA's directions came from elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also chose to make his own official briefing on national security to the Senate committee, together with the director of military operations and the DG ISI among others. This was naturally an 'in camera'  session, but its content is unlikely to have differed very much from the public discussion led by the NSA.

The whole marathon exercise, which lasted over four hours, was meant to be part of the national security policy that is apparently being readied by the government for the edification of the public at large. Neither the public or the government is likely to have much say in the forming of this policy. That is already done. And the NSA's speech is a forerunner of that.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2017 13:50 PM

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