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  • The Militant Challenge in Pakistan
  • C. Christine Fair (bio)

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Terrorism, Militancy, Islam

[End Page 105]

Executive Summary

This article examines Pakistan's use of asymmetric warfare as an instrument of foreign policy toward India since 1947 and in Afghanistan since the 1960s.

Main Argument

Pakistan's use of asymmetric warfare, although dating back to 1947, did not aggressively expand beyond Kashmir until Islamabad acquired first a covert "existential" nuclear capability in the 1980s and later an overt nuclear capability in 1998. After describing the complex contemporary landscape of Islamist militancy in Pakistan and the relationship between these groups and the state, as well as between religious and political organizations, this article contends that jihad is sustained by important segments of Pakistani society that endorse "militant jihad" in general and specific militant groups and operations in particular. Given Pakistan's enduring security concerns about India's ascent, Islamabad is unlikely to abandon militancy as a tool of policy, even while the government battles former proxies who have turned their guns—and suicide vests—on the Pakistani state and their former patrons.

Policy Implications

  • • Pakistan's skill in recasting the historical record in its favor enables the country to extract benefits from the U.S., which seeks to prove that it is a reliable ally.

  • • Given the varying levels of support for militancy within both the Pakistani public and the military and intelligence agencies, Islamabad likely will be unwilling to abandon militancy as a tool of foreign policy and contend with the emergent militant threat ravaging Pakistan and the region.

  • • Washington and its partners have been unable to either fundamentally change the way Pakistan assesses its cost-benefit calculus toward India or find some means of ameliorating Pakistan's neuralgic fears of India. Years of U.S. policies toward Pakistan based on financial allurements and conventional weaponry have done little to induce change.

  • • Given Pakistan's regional equities and the changing regional dynamics, the international community should abandon optimism that Pakistan can or will change course and should prepare for increasing Islamist violence in the region and beyond. [End Page 106]

This article seeks to put in historical perspective Pakistan's long-standing use of asymmetric warfare as an instrument to prosecute its foreign and even domestic policy objectives. Although contemporary narratives suggest that Pakistan began using militants and Islamists as a tool of foreign policy after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, its first dalliance with irregular warfare actually took place in 1947, soon after the country became independent. In prosecuting such conflicts, Islamabad has relied on irregular fighters and razakars (volunteers), as well as on regular fighters drawn from the military, paramilitary, and intelligence agencies. These regular fighters usually were dressed in mufti (civilian clothes) or disguised as irregular fighters.

The first such asymmetric venture in 1947 initially involved support for mid-level officers in the army corps, but later, as the conflict expanded into a full-fledged war, the entirety of the army became engaged. The employment of mujahideen (Muslim guerilla fighters), or regular troops disguised as such, has been the basis of Pakistan's efforts to convince domestic and international audiences that these asymmetric operations were conducted by nonstate actors, thereby conferring plausible deniability to shield the state from retribution. The problem is that this strategy has resulted in three wars (in 1947–48, 1965, and 1999) as well as in several "crisis slides" that have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of conflict.

This article contends that while Pakistan's use of asymmetric warfare began in 1947, the country was limited in its ability to expand the jihad beyond Kashmir with impunity until acquiring first a covert "existential" nuclear capability by 1990 and later an overt nuclear capability in 1998. This argument both advances and complements the work of S. Paul Kapur,1 who focuses on the Indo-Pakistani conventional crises that Pakistan's creeping nuclear umbrella has enabled. The article does so in part by focusing on the antecedent conditions of the country's ability to expand the number, operational scope, and geographic area of militant groups as well as the contemporary landscape of Islamist militancy in Pakistan and the relationship...


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pp. 105-137
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