The latest successful launch of Shaheen-III medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) was meant to revalidate missile’s design features. The missile is a key component of Pakistan’s strategic deterrence primarily due to its range and speed. The news of missile launch met with immense praise and best wishes however, it has been trolled on the social media with immense discontent and abhorrence after Imran Khan was ousted as a result of no-confidence vote.
This raises a critical question: Can, and to what extent, do domestic politics affect strategic deterrence in Pakistan?
Scholars have studied the influence of domestic-political dimension on the state’s nuclear policy and choices establishing the significance of public opinion and political processes for nuclear/strategic decision-making. This influence can be translated from resource allocation and societal perception of the state’s strategic force posture through open and candid debate. The debate in Pakistan with regards to public opinion influencing strategic deterrence has remained nix predominantly due to popular support for nuclear weapons.
The recent National Security Policy is, undoubtedly, a step that demonstrates engagement with diverse opinions and inputs during its formulation however how wide or deep that engagement was remains a conundrum. Additionally, the National Security Policy is not an explicit document about strategic deterrence. Therefore, it is necessary to build on public opinion-strategic deterrence scholarship to bring in fine-grained understanding of how could domestic landscape constrain or let lose strategic decision-making in the country.
The debate in Pakistan with regards to public opinion influencing strategic deterrence has remained nix predominantly due to popular support for nuclear weapons.
In this context, on one hand, the response mainly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters to the Shaheen-III launch could be taken as a welcoming step to initiate a public debate on country’s deterrent posture; on the other hand, the contempt evident in the social media could defeat this initiative.
The comments such as “bogus”, “don’t make us fool”, “sell them on Amazon”, “surrender them”, “keep shut and stay at borders”, “no more happiness for this missile test”, “waste of money”, “try it out on our tribal areas”, are a few examples. These words and phrases show discontent, anger and disbelief at Pakistan’s strategic deterrent. There could be several possible explanations to this wrath of comments that flooded the missile launch news.
One, the PTI supporters at large, and may be others as well, are channelling their anger at the Pakistan military and holding it responsible for the constitutional ouster of their leader Imran Khan towards missile launch. One should respect the PTI vote bank because they are Pakistanis and have right to choose, vote for and support their leader. But the point here is that these comments, which are expressed at the spur of moment, demonstrates lack of direction and thought on their part to correctly channelize their sentiments.
Two, followers and supporters of Imran Khan truly believe in and are eager to build on Khan’s narrative of American interference, rather blatant interference as they claim, in the context of national security, suggesting the military’s and other state institutions’ obligation to stand with their leader. Consequently, based on this belief, an absence of support from Gate No 4 in favour of Khan has offended them and made them believe that the establishment has not performed its duty. Even this explanation cannot justify their trolling rather derogatory remarks about the country’s strategic arsenal’s test launch that is a testimony of unrelenting effort of the country’s engineers and scientists.
Three, Khan’s supporters are offended the way their leader is ousted. He was meant to be ousted through constitutional means — but April 3, and subsequently April 9 was Khan’s own doing. He had to face such a fate. This is beyond PTI supporters’ cognizance. The negativity on social media towards armed forces in general, and towards missile launch in particular, could be temporary but in sharp contrast to how PTI supporters used to praise the establishment in recent past.
Moreover, timing of the test launch coinciding with the no-confidence vote could be the reason for PTI supporters streaming their chagrin towards Shaheen-III and army. If that’s the case, then this negative reaction is transient and may fade with time. Whether or not this reaction is episodic is yet to see but a couple of things should be reminded to the people of Pakistan at large.
Social media trends and leanings cannot be ignored because, no matter how momentary, they mirror public emotions and sentiments, and are reflective of conversations and exchange of ideas happening on ground in real terms.
One, Pakistan, as a nation, has left no stone unturned in establishing strategic deterrence. Thus, the strategic programme is not the military’s fiefdom rather it belongs to the Pakistani state and its people. There can be intense and widespread debate on the role of army in politics but making strategic deterrence (Shahaeen-III missile launch) controversial, targeting its success to appease one’s contempt for fauj and suggesting it being fauji production or deceptive tactic is uncalled for Two, the reaction towards MRBM test appears impulsive, which is counter-productive to genuine debate, if there is any, about the consolidation of strategic deterrence and to construct public accountability of nuclear proliferation. There can be, rather should be, debate in public domain about how much effort in terms of resources can be and should be put in maintaining this strategic deterrence. For bringing strategic deterrence under public accountability, impactful slogans and comments can play an important role. For instance, slogans such as “Ban the Bomb”, “Better red than dead”, “Bairns not Bombs” proved effective in carrying forward the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the Cold War. However, the submission here is that the social media reactions being episodic and impulsive should not be taken as part of constructive debate on the role and position of strategic deterrence in Pakistan’s national security.
There is a dire need for people of Pakistan to understand that organization of nuclear operations and maintenance of strategic deterrence require broader scope of management that is available under the National Command Authority (NCA). Limiting it to armed forces, notably to army, not only undermines the significance of the NCA but also places nuclear weapons in line with conventional weapons. On that account, it is also important to detach criticism on army based on its involvement in political processes from concerns about Pakistan’s deterrent posture. This detachment does not imply censorship on debating deterrent posture in public domain rather it implies facilitating extensive debate on the topic.
Arguably, a country’s deterrent posture reflects perceived external threat and/or drive to achieve technological progression to ensure either national defence or enhance international stature or both. In case of Pakistan, nuclear weapons ensuring national defence and elevation in stature should be discussed and held accountable at levels of policy, academia and civil society instead of the social media.
Having said that, the social media trends and leanings cannot be ignored because, no matter how momentary, they mirror public emotions and sentiments, and are reflective of conversations and exchange of ideas happening on ground in real terms. The emotional reactions based on anger and contempt to Shaheen-III test launch may have been shaped by fundamentally different understandings. Hence, such emotions, if sustained, could play a key role in structuring their perceptions and thought process.