Signals and Perceptions

Screenshot HATF testPakistan has a perception problem. Actually, we have two. One is the way we are perceived in the world, and the other is the way we ourselves perceive the world around us. Ejaz Haider’s latest piece for Express Tribune is a case in point.

At issue is the claim that a Pakistani general told Tony Blair’s former communications director Alastair Campbell that Pakistan could launch a nuclear strike against India in 8 seconds. From Ejaz Haider’s point of view, this claim makes Mr Campbell either ‘a liar or a sucker’.

Ejaz Haider explains his reaction by first attacking Mr Campbell’s credibility, then attacking the minute details implied by his claim.

In eight seconds, one can’t do it even if the warhead is mated with the delivery vehicle and is on hair-trigger alert in a silo. To think that Pakistan, which doesn’t have deployed weapons, could do something in eight seconds is to stretch credulity. But if one reads closely the statement, “It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over”, it would seem the unnamed general is talking about the flight time. Campbell, or for that matter anyone, would have to be a sucker to fall for that.

Or, the general could have been exaggerating to make a point. After all, this discussion took place at a dinner hosted by Gen. Musharraf, not a classified seminar at NDU on Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Ejaz Haider suspects, ‘signalling’.

It would make sense for Pakistan to signal, informally but credibly, that while Pakistan had chosen to side with the coalition in Afghanistan, the coalition had to ensure that its eastern front remained secure.

Thus, according to Ejaz Haider, “the unnamed Pakistani general played him and Campbell got played!” Score one for Pakistan!

But wait.

Whether or not Alaistar Campbell knows the difference between a three-star general and a Field Marshal; whether or not the general said 8 seconds or 8 minutes; whether the general was referring to launch time or flight time – all of this completely misses the point. Whatever the general’s intentions, the only thing he signaled “informally but credibly” is that Pakistan was insane.

Imagine sitting over a dinner just after 9/11 attacks – before the US invasion of Afghanistan, before the invasion of Iraq, before everything fell to pieces – imagine that you’re asking for help against terrorists that just murdered thousands of innocent people by turning an airplane into a missile – and the Pakistani general seated next to you starts talking about nuking India. Does that communicate that “the coalition had to ensure that Pakistan’s eastern front remained secure”? Or does it communicate that Pakistan is unhinged?

Ejaz Haider is right – facts matter. But so do perceptions. And however important generals perceive the threat of India to our national security, when they casually tell foreign diplomats about how easy it would be to nuke them, it sends the wrong ‘signal’.

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