19 October 2011: Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has told his country's national assembly that the US has to think "ten times" before attacking the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Members of the national assembly who heard Kayani say the army chief also warned that Pakistan was not Iraq or Afghanistan to be walked over by the United States.Earlier in the week, Pakistan's defence minister, Ahmad Mukhtar, held out a different kind of threat to the United States. Protesting the increased drone attacks in North Waziristan, he said Pakistan's patience was running out. He added significantly that Pakistan was a responsible nuclear power and could not accept the killing of its people in such attacks.
What do these two statements of Ahmed Mukhtar and General Kayani taken together signify?Obviously, in the hierarchy of the power structure in Pakistan, Kayani stands way above Ahmed Mukhtar. Mukhtar is not from the military, being a technocrat and a businessman. His background would make him pro-West and he was in the running for the prime-ministership which finally went to Yousaf Raza Gilani.
It might be suggested that Mukhtar overreached himself in speaking about Pakistan's deterrent in relation to the drone attacks in North Waziristan. The obvious construction on what he said would be that Pakistan would nuke the drone power, namely the United States. Since that cannot happen in mainland United States, its forces in Afghanistan would be vulnerable to Pakistani nukes. That would be literally what the defence minister meant.
This is crazy talk. Nobody speaks of nuking so casually although Pakistan has a history of nuclear sabre-rattling (in the late nineties) with India. Nobody dare utter such sentiments anyway in relation to the United States, certainly not anybody from the Pakistan establishment. The Al-Qaeda might do it. But the fact remains that the Pakistan defence minister, an experienced government hand, said as much.
And it becomes more significant after Kayani's tough talk in Pakistan's national assembly. The defence minister may still be a marginal player, although he isn't. But Kayani is Pakistan, so to speak. The real power-centre in Pakistan is the army, and Kayani heads it. He has lost his sheen after a US raid killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he is still powerful. Wounded but powerful.
His statement that the US would have to think ten times before launching a military strike in North Waziristan is a direct challenge to America. Never before have Pakistani differences with the US been framed in such bellicose terms. True, the US has come close to calling Pakistan a terror state. But for Pakistan to throw a return challenge is surprising.
How could Pakistan retaliate against the United States?The first option is blocking supplies to the US troops in Afghanistan. Retired Pakistani military officers are stoking public opinion in the North West against these supplies to US troops. Supplies have been blocked in the past. But it does not represent such a powerful lever as to stop US military moves in North Waziristan.The second option is to commission attacks against principal US targets like its embassy in Kabul. This was done last month by the Haqqani network in close collaboration with the ISI. Indeed, the motive of the attack becomes clear now. If the US attacks in North Waziristan, its key military and diplomatic assets in Afghanistan will come under fire.
You could argue that this has been Pakistan army/ ISI/ Haqqani network policy for years now. But it has received a boost in view of the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Kayani's national assembly statement may constitute a faster radicalization of Pakistani options against the US in Afghanistan.
At its worst, it may mean that all bets are off if the US attacks North Waziristan. It may be war. And if you insert the threat of the Pakistan defence minister, it could even mean employment of the nuclear option. Before it is dismissed as poppycock, Kayani and Ahmad Mukhtar should be asked to explain their respective articulations. And if they are serious, the world must prepare for the worst.And this is that Pakistan is a short way from becoming a runaway rogue nuclear terror state.
N.V.Subramanian is Editor, www.NewsInsight.net, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.