In the winter of 1991, as war began to descend over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the goddess of history placed the son of a small village near Azamgarh — locally famous for having once beaten up a small-time Congress politician with his hockey stick — at the helm of the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. General Mirza Aslam Beg believed the war would create a Zionist-led order in West Asia, and lead on, unchecked, to the disintegration of the nation he had left his homeland in 1949 to help build.
The big new idea was called “strategic defiance”. Once the United States became bogged down in the inevitable, murderous ground war, Pakistan would lead a fightback by mid-sized powers like Iraq and Iran, helped by China. Few knew just how strategic defiance might actually work for a country addicted to United States’ patronage. The scholar Hassan Abbas has wryly noted, “though, of course, there was a great deal of support whenever this brilliant, hitherto unknown concept was mentioned among senior Army officers”. Like so many other Pakistani military ideologies of the time — General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation or General Hamid Gul’s pursuit of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan — strategic defiance was apparently consigned to Rawalpindi’s dead-files drawers by 9/11.
Now, though, President Donald Trump’s new South Asia doctrine, threatening Pakistan with severe consequences should it fail to turn on its jihadist proxies, has made strategic defiance relevant again. The pillars of the new South Asia strategy — open-ended commitment to the Afghan war, with the use of all the instruments of American power, a greater role for New Delhi there, strategic partnership with India and destroying terror safe-havens in Pakistan — are meant to annihilate jihadism, and with it, growing Iranian, Chinese and Russian influence.
For the generals, ideologically committed to the idea that their army is the vanguard of Islam in a hostile world, the new policy holds out real dangers. But Rawalpindi is gambling that the new strategy is just a fresh iteration of empty threats they’ve heard before. General Pervez Musharraf was told Pakistan would be bombed “back into the stone age” if the country did not abandon its al Qaeda and Taliban proxies. He, and his successors, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Raheel Sharif and Qamar Javed Bajwa, all kept up support to jihadists in Afghanistan — milking the United States at the same time. A long line of high officials from the United States, including Hillary Clinton, Michael Mullen and James Mattis — issued frustrated warnings, but to little avail.
Each time the United States has cut aid to Pakistan, geopolitical happenstance forced it to reverse course. From next to nothing in 1954, Cold War alliance-building led economic and military assistance to surge steadily to $3 billion in 1963 — calculated according to 2011 dollar rates — data collated by the Centre for Global Development shows. Aid fell to near-zero levels after the United States detected Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme in 1980. But the anti-Soviet Union jihad in Afghanistan saw the United States change course yet again, overlook the nuclear programme, and funnel aid of over $ 1 billion per year through most of the 1980s. The 1990s saw a sharp reduction in aid yet again, after the anti-Soviet jihad ended and President George Bush refused to certify Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons. Then, it surged after 9/11, rising to historic levels of $4.5 billion in 2010.
In the grand scheme of things, even cutting off aid altogether won’t inflict unbearable pain on the generals. In 2016, the authoritative Congressional Research Service estimates, the United States committed $1.098 billion in aid — $550 million in reimbursements which have not been disbursed — of which $332 million was military in nature. To give a sense of what this figure means, expatriate workers sent home $19.8 billion in 2016.
Leaving aside symbolic measures like sanctioning military personnel linked to terrorism, Trump could also directly target the Pakistani military, denying it spare parts for equipment like its F16 combat jets, its P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft and AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters. In theory, this could blunt a large part of Pakistan’s frontline arsenal, leaving it vulnerable to India. However, the generals have long prepared for this possibility: The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that over 68 per cent of Pakistan’s arms imports in 2012-2016 came from China. The generals think the Chinese-made equipment — along with their nuclear weapons — are adequate for their security.
Trump, of course, has blunter instruments, too. The United States has the capacity to target jihadist infrastructure and individuals deep inside Pakistan. It could also unleash its Afghan allies’ covert assets to execute retaliatory terrorism in Pakistan. However, no-one can be certain where coercive action would lead. Iraq holds out a grim warning that defeating militaries doesn’t lead to victory — Pakistan, moreover, has nuclear weapons.
Trump’s advisors will have discussed these scenarios threadbare, but know they are short on time and public support. Inside the United States, the administration is already facing criticism for enabling an open-ended war with no clear statement metrics for the victor. In fairness, this criticism is misplaced: The ends the United States seeks are political, not military. The end state of the Afghan war involves degrading the jihadist movement, not just a defined group of terrorists, thus denying space for great-power competitors to assert influence in a strategically-important region. Longer wars, moreover, have been fought where nations have believed that vital interests were involved: Iran has battled Kurdish separatists since 1918 and Turkey since 1921; India’s counter-insurgency in Kashmir has raged since 1989; the Afghan-Sikh wars ran from 1751 to 1837. Public opinion in the United States, though, is not on the side of a war in which there can be no clear declaration of victory — and whose benefits are not immediate and direct.
General Beg, his contemporaries recall, showed considerably more interest in hockey than his liberal arts degree while studying at the Shibli College in Azamgarh. Strategic defiance shows he understood the defensive game well. Like his predecessors, Trump must beware the fact that a foul or two can go a long way in leveling the odds against superior opposition.