Time has elapsed since the massacre in Peshawar and I don't want to say anything about it with the view that even the greatest outcry if it is put in words and formalized adds a mystery of acceptability to the phenomenon. I want to keep it in the background and make a different argument.
The Army and the ISI cannot solve the problem in Pakistan because they are the problem—or to be kind at least a big part of it. A clear picture of the power that the civilian government has was evident in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks where President Asif Ali Zardari in the heat of the moment told Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would send the then ISI chief Shuja Pasha to India. Emboldened by this statement, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi who was in New Delhi at that time told TV journalists that we condemn the brutal assault and are co-operating with India; your PM has asked the DG ISI to come to India and our President has agreed.
An hour or so later Zardari realized that he had exceeded his brief (We don't know if General Kayani gave him a dressing down in person or on phone but something did happen) and the poor fellow had to make a U-turn and embarrassingly lie on national television to an international audience that he said that some junior official might come and never meant that the DG ISI would come. What happened instead was that Qureshi, who was on a four-day visit to the Indian capital, was picked up by a special Pakistan Airlines jet the very next morning and debriefed in Islamabad.
Little has changed since then. On the face of it the judiciary seems to be relatively-stronger and the press vibrant in the sense that you get to read and hear a lot more than what the Army would ideally like. But the judicial system operates under debilitating pressure and to compound it further the lack of witness protection ensures that the LeT terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi gets bail—the subsequent developments are not very heartening either.
The ISI routinely murders journalists who come in its way and there are some brave ones out there as they work with the knowledge that they can be taken out. Saleem Shahzad is one of the standout cases since he reported on the links between the Navy and the al Qaeda and was picked up by the ISI for it and later found dead. Sections of the press are completely-irresponsible as you can see the cartoon Zaid Hamid presented as a security expert and Hafiz Saeed, the man who carries a US $10 million bounty on his head as an international terrorist, using the media to get his message across whenever he wishes to (Let's wait and see how the ban on JuD and Saeed's monitoring unfolds). When they want to up the ante and bring someone more brazen on screen then the articulate version of Zaid Hamid, the brutal former ISI chief Hamid Gul is given talk-time on television.
The ISI runs a network of terrorist organizations across the region. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute sees absolutely no difference between the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the ISI and he knows just as we do that it is this notorious and rogue agency that shapes and controls the critical portfolios of Pakistani foreign policy. The Afghan policy—just like the Afghan Taliban—and all the various proxies who engage in covert war against India are controlled by the ISI. The statements of David Headley are enough to corroborate it though there is no dearth of credible intelligence to prove it even without him.
The United States is the only country that has some leverage over the real players in Pakistan given the billions and billions of economic and military aid that they have given and continue to give to it. They have little control over how the aid is used and their relationship with the country is as complex and fractured as Pakistan itself. There are layers and layers of deception and the rules of engagement are simple: trust no one; deceive everyone.
The CIA has a history of tactical blunders going back to General Zia-ul-Haq, the man who first realized the impotence of Pakistan in winning a conventional war against India and cultivated the clever use of jihad—basically to strike, deny and hide—and pushed the big game changer.
The big game changer is the fact that Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Pakistan has climbed this ladder with amazing alacrity and is now among the top five countries (the fourth-largest) in the world in terms of nuclear weapons. The civilian governments throughout its intermittent years in power had no clue—forget control—over this rapidly-growing nuclear stockpile. A decent part of Western aid has been diverted through the Reagan years to fuel the nuclear programme and to fund terror operations against India. This nuclear industry operates without any international constraints and it's the Army and the state-within-the-state as the ISI is called that controls it.
Now take a look at the field and the players. You have the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, the Haqqani network, al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Arab jihadis, several unaccounted radical nuts or free agents, and the Pakistan Army with its intelligence wing called the ISI. Consider the fact that Pakistan is the leading patron state-sponsor of terrorism in the world and simultaneously a huge victim of it.
I come to Peshawar now and look at what it reveals. If you can kill close to 140 young children in your own country by shooting them in the head from a point blank range then there is absolutely nothing in the world that you cannot do if you want to do it and have a window of opportunity to do it. All this spells Disaster for India and leaves them with very little options on the table unless shouting and scoring a point on a television debate counts. The intelligence that suddenly surfaces after a successful attack is a bit like sending troops after the battle is over.
This nuclear arsenal acts as an insurance policy to carry out covert militant strikes as escalation in such an environment is out-of-the-question especially since Pakistan uses every opportunity to remind the world that it is a nuclear-armed state and gives ample evidence of the fact that it is also full of lunatics.
What can we do? The risk of being out of the game here is far higher than that of being in it. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
It is no secret that Pakistan harbors a deep suspicion that the ultimate aim of the United States and its close allies is to annihilate its status as a nuclear-armed state. The suspicion is well-grounded as the probability of this arsenal falling into the hands of people who can murder small children by shooting them in their head is not zero. Nobody knows what that probability is but nobody can deny that there is some probability.
Senior Pakistani journalist Nazam Sethi in an interesting interview (I say interesting, not true) gives an explanation of why the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks happened. He lays the blame on President Zardari making a statement 'that he shouldn't have' after coming to power just about two months before the November 2008 attacks. In a televised conversation watched by millions and millions in India Zardari had said that I assure you that there would be 'No First Strike' from Pakistan's side (He was talking about a nuclear strike).
Sethi says that this was completely-against the Pakistani security establishment's basic tenet as Pakistan is way inferior to India in terms of conventional warfare and the nuclear arsenal is its main deterrence card. He then adds that Zardari's statement sent shock waves in Rawalpindi where they thought that this idiot is going mad and should be put in his place. Sethi then spells out that the rogue elements that the establishment maintains got a green signal for the Mumbai attacks and subsequently the peace process was stalled for four years. He emphasizes that what could India do in the aftermath of 2008; nothing. Then he goes on and adds that what can India do if another Mumbai happens. His answer is again a resounding nothing; they can't do a thing except going hysterical like they did in 2008 because the nuclear deterrence is alive and kicking.
So the leverage that the state-sponsored non-state actors in Pakistan have can be broken potentially in two ways. The first is that Pakistan neutralizes the entire jihadi machinery deep-rooted within its society and flourishing (most of it) under the patronage of the ISI. The second is that Pakistan (I don't know how and by what miracle) loses the status of being the fourth-largest nuclear power in the world and occupies a place of pride in the list of countries (assuming there is one) that have no nuclear capability.
Who knows what is easier?
There is no difficulty though in choosing what is more effective. You take the nuclear weapons out of the equation and the field becomes clear. Our covert capabilities have declined from what they were in 1971 but it's not something that cannot be rebuilt and used to take out high-value targets. These are the two fanciful ideal scenarios that hold no promise on the ground.
What we can do realistically is to put our house in order and raise the standard of our external intelligence gathering and its diligent processing. We can and must try and raise the cost of any misadventure for Pakistan and hit them where it hurts. The irresponsible and violent extremism coming from Pakistan is based on the assumption that we would act responsibly. If India will not go to war because some 160-odd people have been killed in Mumbai or because the Indian Parliament has been attacked then we can play with the idea that Pakistan will also not go to war if we take the initiative and eliminate what they themselves call as non-state actors.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.