Pakistan's Shocking Strategic Shift

Mounting internal threats have caused Pakistan to step back from its focus on perceived threats from India.

The exceptions to this trend—the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crises and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—are often cited as evidence of increasing Pakistani bellicosity. While these events were dangerous, tragic, and justifiably condemned, they need to be understood in broader historical context. Focusing on these high-profile events apart from decades of Pakistani-sponsored militancy in Punjab and Kashmir, overlooks the fact that they occurred during a general decline in violence. Pakistan’s support for violent separatists on Indian territory stretches back to the 1950s Naga insurgency. Violence perpetrated by Pakistani-backed Khalistani and Kashmiri militants in the 1980s and 1990s—potentially retribution for East Pakistan—was also far more intense than militancy over the past 15 years.

Some Indian analysts even grudgingly acknowledge the difficulty of Pakistan’s internal militant challenges and that the absence of major attacks since Mumbai suggests militant groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba have been temporarily leashed. Though hardly a solution, curtailing these militant groups’ activity may be the best near-term option, as disarming and excising all militant groups will be a long, difficult, dangerous process, since many have embedded deep within the fabric civil society.

Pakistan is gradually pivoting away from competing conventionally with India to turn inward and seriously tackle domestic threats.

A strategic reorientation is evident in Pakistani defense resourcing, procurement, deployment, and operational choices since 2001. Based on open-source data, defense allocations declined substantially over three decades. While India always held advantages in personnel and resources, Pakistan historically sought to compete with inordinately high defense budgets. In the 1980s—when subsidized by U.S. military assistance—Pakistan spent an average of 6.5 percent of gross domestic product on defense. When U.S. assistance dropped sharply in the 1990s, military spending reduced to 5.5 percent of GDP, but when U.S. assistance spiked again in the 2000s, defense spending still fell to average 3.3 percent of GDP. Even if partially supplemented by U.S. military assistance, this decline is meaningful because the military’s operational demands on its Western borders grew considerably over the past 15 years.

Though Pakistan continues to invest in conventional defense, the rate of major weapons procurement and replacement has slowed considerably. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Pakistan’s offensive arsenal (tanks and combat aircraft) grew roughly 50 percent per decade, but in the 2000s, this growth slowed to roughly 7 percent. With the lion’s share of the defense budget being consumed by salary, rations, and increasing operational costs, only 22 percent is left for procurement. In contrast, Indian procurement spending constitutes 41 percent of a defense budget that is as much as five times larger. Pakistan leveraged its partnership with the United States to also acquire sophisticated weaponry, like F-16s, combat helicopters, and armored personnel carriers. But while these platforms proved essential for Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations in rugged tribal area terrain, they did not confer conventional parity with India.

Pakistan’s internal threat from domestic militants—due in part to blowback for past Afghan policy choices—has caused Pakistan’s military to add or redeploy roughly 155,000 troops to its western border since 2001, intensify its counterinsurgency operational tempo, and consequently diminish its appetite for conventional competition with India. Though Western policymakers often castigate Pakistan for not doing more to fight terrorism, since 2008 Pakistan has gradually but steadily expanded military operations against more militant groups despite mounting costs.