Asymmetric Actors

Why Pakistan will never break with its Islamist allies.

Larry P. Goodson

Pakistan’s long conflict with India shapes its national security worldview. Far smaller and weaker than its neighbor, Pakistan compensates with far higher military spending and a larger Army than it can afford, creating a national security state. India is never far from the minds of Pakistan’s national leaders, but the differential in size is such that Pakistan has had to develop a strategic triad of national security tools in order to counter it.

First, Pakistan has a large and tactically proficient conventional Army, but of the four wars it has fought with India, it happens to have lost all of them. Second, it has an arsenal of perhaps 100 nuclear weapons, but these too are hardly useful because India is an immediate neighbor and many of its key military installations and formations are so close to the border that it would not be able to hit the Indian army without hitting itself. The shortcomings of these first two aforementioned tools have led Pakistan to rely heavily on a third one, of which the United States generally disapproves: an arsenal of asymmetric actors, variously known as irregulars, guerrillas, and/or terrorists. In the last decade, the United States has persuaded Pakistan to turn on some of these groups, but Pakistan’s perceived security needs have ensured that it still tolerates or actively cultivates the existence of others. And while the successful U.S. operation against bin Laden might provide Pakistan with the cover it needs to break decisively with al Qaeda, it will also likely lead the country to rely on its other militant groups even more.

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