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Autonomous Weapon Systems: Understanding and Operationalizing Human control



Much has been already written on the autonomous weapon systems (AWS), and repeating the same conceptual description would be unnecessary. Here, we shall briefly discuss the difficulties in objectifying AWS[1]and understand the current developments on the concept of Human control on AWS. The essay shall analyze Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and International Committee on Red Cross (ICRC) combined report (Boulanin, Neil, Netta, & Peldan, 2020) released in June 2020, and Ajay Lele’s article titled ‘Autonomous Weapon systems. To have a construct for the discussion ahead, let’s define what exactly the AWS in this article is.AWS is understood as the military-grade machine that can make their own decisions without human intervention(Lele, 2019). If that is broadly the understanding of AWS, defining Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) turns out to have similar problems as in defining Terrorist. It is because of the subjectivity involved in the term ‘Lethal.’ For example, cyber warfare can be equally or more lethal than an airstrike. Are cyber-attacks assisted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) considered as LAWS? No consensus arrived for the latter.

If that is the dichotomy involved with the objectification of definition, the term ‘autonomy’ of the machine system itself is contextual. This makes it difficult to arrive at a universal legal consensus. During the World Wars, remote-controlled tanks, guided missiles were considered as autonomous as they could make decisions regarding their physical movements without soldiers manning them directly. take another example – It is impossible for a pilot while flying at the speed of Mach, to observe the targets with a naked eye. Decisions must be made within a fraction of second, to which the human body is not made of. There, the decision is made by computers along with high precision cameras. Isn’t that autonomous when the vision is considered? Consider US Tomahawk missiles. A sub-sonic cruise missile capable of maneuvering its way towards the target without constant human supervision. Even this is autonomous!

But the concern involving the development and deployment was not like that of today’s AI-based AWS. No matter how advanced the autonomy was, the decision making power, control regarding the actions on the filed was the pure prerogative of humans. The introduction of AI changes that. We have arrived at a junction in history where no human can comprehend the societal structure(Winner, 1978, p. 290). Even within the military, the complex inter-dependence of technology and humans have gone to an un-comprehensible level. AI involved weapon systems have aggregated the ‘black-box’ concern, pushing all the states to re-visit the humanitarian, ethical standards of the AWS.

As of current AWS deployment, airborne autonomous systems are saddle at Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAE), land-based robots at the preliminary stage (US SWORDS TALON), and Sea-based are missile systems assisted with auto-detection systems. However, the threat of machines taking the cognitive decisions without any human input is possible only with Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Artificial Super intelligence (ASI)[2]. The ASI is not yet invented and scientists are not sure if it is possible but it is strongly opined by some that it is not impossible and likely to be realized by the 1st third of the next century (Bostrom, 1998). Such super intelligence would be considered to have the capacity to become an uncontrolled offensive system but largely the current developments fall under controlled – defensive systems (Lele, 2019).

On these AWS, the 8 years long persisting concern of expert groups on emerging technologies figures two main aspects – human control, and accountability of AWS. The 2019 report of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) has drawn four principles on which further AWS policy research would be undertaken. They cover the aspects of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Human control and accountability, the applicability of international law on the usage of AWS, and the accountability of development, deployment and usage must adhere to Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and necessary international laws.

AWS -Ethics and Human Control

The aspect of human control of AWS is the major ongoing debate in international fora. Previously, it never happened that a military operation is completely carried autonomously by munitions and thus, no laws are governing such aspects. These ex-ante debates on the probable loss of human control are anchored to the machine’s uncertain capabilities on predictability, ability to analyze the environment, and differentiating civilians and combatants. While humanitarian law is unquestionable agreed on while deploying the AWS, the ethical standards to be made are much more complex because of their subjectivity. The ethics of a soldier is different from the ethics of civilian. The debates of ethical standards on AWS are of two types, Result driven (consequential approach), action-driven (Deontological approach).  The latter depends on the moral judgments of the user. It considers the rights of both combatants and civilians alike while engaging in conflict. The former includes the probable consequences of the military operation. The international norms would take both the approaches into considerations in arriving at the final draft as the research is ex- ante.

For a proper subjective understanding, brood over the question – ‘Save her fellow soldier or save civilian? Which is ethical?’

To have ethics-based human control over the AWS, there are three ways – strict control of the weapons, control of the environment, and to have a hybrid human-machine interaction. Out of these, the last option is the most sophisticated and challenging. It involves humans in the loop and the entire decision making would be left to the human. She would be responsible for the identification of the target and analyzing the environment supported by the AI-based analysis. In the current stage of AI development, this becomes necessary as the intelligence of algorithms does not match that of a human.

Operational Challenges

Technology is always used to enhance their capabilities and to ensure their dominance of force. AWS would be an exceptional addition to its arsenal and probably be a leap forward for the military. While it is so, human control becomes more necessary so that AWS is used for the tactical and strategic advantage of the commanders but not as the commander itself.

The challenge which all the militaries across the world face are the knowledge required to operate such sophisticated AI-based weapons. To take control of the AWS as when required, the supervisor of the systems should have enough knowledge about the working of the system including the working of the algorithm. In addition to that, deployed AWS will not always be operated by the controller. It would be left auto most of the time which makes the operator dormant. SIPRI report provides a concept of ‘safe human-machine ratio’ to overcome the challenges of human-machine interaction. This formula is provided to have optimum operational personnel. If more humans are involved in the loop, co-ordination becomes difficult and less makes it strenuous to handle the decision making.

Nh = Nv + Np + 1


Nh– number of humans needed

Nv – number of vehicles

Np– number of payloads on those vehicles

+ 1 – additional safety officer.67

However, these three approaches are mutually dependent. On the whole, the report advises establishing a structural, cognitive, educational framework to embed humans into AWS working.[3]

Proceeding further, who, what, when, how are the univocal questions arising with the human control of the AWS. The questions who supervises and what provides a technically similar scenario to the already deployed systems like THAAD. The commander in control of the strategy, deployment, and decisions will have the obligation to ensure that the usage is in line with the IHL. Answering the question when, the involvement of humans is considered not to be just at the stage of usage, but even in the pre-development and development stage according to the GGE report. The last question of ‘how?’ involves the extent and type of human control. It requires proper Compliance with applicable international law along with the ability to retain and exercise human agency and moral responsibility for the use of force and its consequences and ensuring military effectiveness while mitigating risks to friendly forces.

Even if the supervision becomes mandatory, the AWS systems suffer from three different challenges viz. Human inclination towards machine bias, out of the loop controls, under-trust. The probable solution appears again to have a sophisticated human-machine interaction with a new structure to educate, train the operators.

Characteristics to be considered in drafting norms

The key characteristics to be considered –

Weapon SystemEnvironmentUser
Type of target Type of effect Mobility Types and capabilities of sensors System complexity Duration of autonomous operation.Predictability ObservabilityControllabilityThe physical and  cognitive abilities of humansThe user’s ability to understand the system; andThe distribution of human control.

1st column indicates the developmental and operational limits of the AWS. Of course in the view of ethical and humanitarian concerns, if there is a scientific solution for the latter, there may arrive a situation where the military establishment would consider realizing Elllul’s technological society.

2nd column emphasizes the restrictions on the operations to avoid civilian harm. One can think of not approving the usage of AWS in civilian spaces. Well, there is always a counter-argument that machines might be more efficient in differentiating combatants to innocent civilians, given their sematic censors, facial recognition algorithms. Surprisingly, the report has not touched on this aspect. 

3rd column, human-machine interaction is a vivid encouragement of human supervision and retaining the ability to intervene in the AWS at any point.

Finally, the overarching concern regarding human control and ethical usage looms on the efficient international norms. The problem of accountability and ethical debates shows that states are not concerned with the technology itself but the absence of laws. So the debate should revolve around the establishment of legal structures, both nationally and internationally to develop and use AI systems in the military. The above-categorized attributes become central in drafting the human control structures to deploy AWS into the armed forces. The complex interconnectedness of AI development and its integration into the latest weapon systems requires states to have their norms on AWS while adhering to common consensual international laws. This makes states retain their authority to determine the extent of human control and at the same time encourage the international scientific community to actively engage in the development of scientific solutions to uncertain autonomy.

On a concluding note, reiteration on the objectivity and contextual definitions of AWS, fear of un-ethical calls being taken by the autonomous systems and the loss of human agency takes us to the texts of French Philosopher, Jacques Ellul. His account -‘The technological society’ provides that the agency of humans would be completely taken over by techniques and technology with the current development and advancing dependence of humans on technology. Such a society with ubiquitous technology would restrict the knowledge systems of human civilization. With this hindsight, if one reads George Orwell’s 1984, it is sure that they would strongly advocate a ban on AWS development. However, Winner’s ‘autonomous technology’ provides an excellent scrutiny on Ellul’s work, reiterating the importance of understanding the change that the technology brings into the society, and how the social structures change accordingly so that they could accommodate such development. Based on Winner’s account, the SIPRI report and Lele’s article which has been critically looked at here would provide the best possible way towards incorporating AWS into the military with necessary considerations to account for while drafting the international norms.  However, it is in the ethos of military to adopt the advance technology and improve their efficiency.


Bostrom, N. (1998). How Long Before Superintelligence? International Journal of Future Studies, 2.

Boulanin, V., Neil, D., Netta, G., & Peldan, C. (2020). Limits of Autonomy in Weapon Systems: Identifying Practical Elements of Human Control. Stockholm: SIPRI.

Lele, A. (2019, January- March). Debating Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. Journal of Defence Studies, 13(1), 33-49.

Winner, L. (1978). Autonomous Technology. USA: MIT Press.

[1] This is for states to arrive at common consensual norms in the development and deployment of AWS. 

[2] Whose intelligence is far ahead of human intelligence. Having the capacity to cognitively comprehend wide variables in the surroundings and calculating numerous aspects simultaneously.

[3]I deliberately chose this articulation‘embed humans into AWS’ because the training of operators, providing a sufficient number of them to an AWS system, involving them in the process, etc. arrives from the pre-conception that soldiers should be able to learn and use AWS. It is seldom thought that AWS should be designed in such a way that it should meet the requirements of a particular commander.

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India’s Test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle and Implications for South Asia



In September this year, India claimed to have successfully tested scramjet engine technology. This has been indigenously developed for its hypersonic technology demonstrator vehicle (HSTDV). As per the Indian estimates, this particular and sophisticated technology would be a key component for the development of the next generation of hypersonic cruise missiles. After attaining supersonic technology and developing supersonic cruise missiles with the help of Russia, India now also aspires to have hypersonic weapons in its inventory. India’s pursuit of hypersonic cruise missiles would bring new security challenges for Pakistan. This would have devastating implications for the strategic equation of the region since it would further enable India to a resort of the first strike against Pakistan. Likewise, this would ultimately destabilize the already volatile South Asian region.

It would be pertinent to mention here that hypersonic weapons are of two types: hypersonic glide vehicles (glide towards the target before dropping) and hypersonic cruise missiles (use scramjet engines). Furthermore, the hypersonic missiles are not just deadly because of their incredible speed (sustained speed of more than Mach 5); even ballistic missiles could reach up to Mach 25 in their re-entry phase. The major difference is the maneuverability and terrain hugging capability of the hypersonic missiles, which allows them to have more unpredictable flight paths. Consequently, they can easily penetrate the advanced air defence systems that are currently available in the world and might even in the near future as well. Furthermore, hypersonic missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. What makes them more lethal is their enhanced speed, with which even a conventional warhead hypersonic weapon can destroy unhardened or underground facilities. Moreover, because of their speed, range, precision, and lethality, they are also considered as ideal weapons against time-sensitive targets and missile defences.  Therefore, it can be said that hypersonic weapons are effective counter-force weapons because of their precision and capability to target and destroy high-value targets with incredible speed and accuracy.

After the successful test of the scramjet engine meant for powering the HSTDV, India has been aiming to become part of the elite group of states that possess this technology. Previously the US, Russia, and China have been part of the arms race to develop hypersonic weapons. Last year in June, India failed to successfully test scram-jet technology. However, the recently claimed success of the September 7th test of HSTDV has been celebrated by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Prime Minister Modi, and the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as a ‘landmark achievement’. According to the Press Release by the Indian Ministry of Defence, HSTDV was launched on top of a solid-fueled rocket; it carried to an altitude of 30 kilometers at the speed of Mach 5 for about 20 seconds.  Though Indian media considers this test as India’s entrance into the “elite league” of nations possessing hypersonic weapons, in reality, the test has been conducted at the speed of Mach 5 which is believed to be the lowest possible speed for hypersonic weapons. This reflects two things: firstly, India has improved its technology from the previous failure, and secondly, there is a long way ahead of India to develop and deploy hypersonic weapons. Moreover, this capability also reflects India’s inclinations towards the development of counter-force and pre-emptive nuclear capabilities, which are contradicting its long doubted policy of ‘no first use’. This situation has become more alarming since India has been acquiring advanced missile defense systems and also developing counter-force technologies like the hypersonic weapons simultaneously. This could result in a false sense of security and superiority within the Indian strategic elite. Inspired by this India could attempt to launch a first strike most probably against Pakistan.

Hence, the development and deployment of hypersonic weapons by India would likely eliminate the existing parity in South Asia primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Today, deterrence stability exists between both countries because both possess the capability to inflict the damage and it becomes unappealing for them to initiate a nuclear attack. However, if the Indian pursuit of hypersonic weapons goes on with its belligerent policies, the deterrence stability might not hold for long. Therefore to maintain parity and deterrence stability in South Asia, Pakistan might need to think of the probability of developing its supersonic and hypersonic weapons or at least come up with an alternative and a plausible way-out. Moreover, Pakistan needs to further ensure the adaptability of the mutually assured destruction in South Asia and eliminate the chances of the first strike by India. Since hypersonic weapons would reduce the response-time and blur the line between conventional and strategic weapons; Pakistanneeds tofurther develop a mechanism to address this emergent threat to maintain the nuclear deterrence equilibrium in the region.

Summarizing it all, the emergence of hypersonic weapons in South Asia has posed a serious threat to regional security. It seems that India is quite eager to develop and ultimately deploy the hypersonic weapons. There is no doubt that at the moment South Asia is engulfed in an action-reaction spiral between India and Pakistan mainly triggered by Indian offensive strategies and threatening policies vis-à-vis Pakistan. Once becoming operational, India’s hypersonic weapons would likely add up to this chain of action and reaction. This might ultimately compel Pakistan to revisit its existing nuclear posture vis-à-vis India.    

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Evolution of Indian Nuclear Doctrine: From NFU to Preemption



India’s obscure nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) had evolved over the years since it was first declared in 1999 by NSAB’s (Nuclear Security Advisory Board) in the ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’(DND) that forms the very basis of the official Indian nuclear doctrine. Subsequently, in 2003after a review by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) the DND had emerged as India’s official nuclear doctrine. However, the later developments are quite evident that India has shifted its nuclear posture from NFU to preemption. In August 2019, a statement made by Mr. Rajnath Singh (Indian Defence Minister) made headlines amid rising tensions between India and Pakistan, the two arch-rivals in South Asia. This was an assertion of India’s likely shift from its long doubted NFU policy. This has further exposed the pretense of India‘s NFU policy, to which Pakistan has never given any credence. This shift in Indian nuclear doctrine seems to be purely Pakistan centric.  Such an Indian shift is further evidence of India’s focus towards nuclear war-fighting rather than maintaining deterrence. In the wake of the evolved tensions in the region, India’s offensive nuclear posture of preemption would have dire implications for the strategic stability of South Asia.

Over the period, various statements by the Indian government officials and prominent academicians have raised serious concerns over India’s adherence to the NFU policy. In 2010 Shivshankar Menon, the then National Security Advisor of India stated that according to Indian nuclear doctrine NFU policy is meant only for non-nuclear-weapon states. Hence, it implies that using a nuclear weapon could be a resort against nuclear-weapon states, particularly against Pakistan. Later on, in 2016 Manohar Prakar the then Indian Defence Minister questioned “Why do lots of people say that India is for no first use? Why should I blind myself?”  Moreover, in 2017 a prominent Indian scholar, Vipin Narang while speaking at the conference at Carnegie stated that India would not let Pakistan go first.  These assertions are quite evident that in a crisis, India might take a nuclear first strike against Pakistan. Such drifts in Indian policy have further enhanced Pakistan’s threat perception vis-à-vis India. Similarly, Pakistan would be further compelled to maintain a credible nuclear deterrence posture to overcome India’s offensive nuclear posturing.

India’s pursuit of offensive nuclear capabilities further reveals its aspirations of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pakistan. This, for instance, is further evident from the fact that India has been involved in developing ground-based and space-based surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence capabilities, and new precision weaponry for the last few years.  These would further embolden India to take any move toward pre-emption or first use. In the same vein, India’s adoption of Pakistan specific policy of first use would likely result in the lowering of the Indian nuclear threshold. This might bring serious implications for Pakistan’s existing nuclear deterrent posture which covers a broad spectrum of threats coming from India including its conventional advantage. It would further generate an unnecessary arms race in the region and might force Pakistan to further revisit its doctrinal and force posture vis-à-vis India’s notions of preemptions. The likelihood of India’s shift towards preemption would also mean that India’s nuclear weapons would be kept in the state of readiness. This would also increase the risk of unauthorized or accidental use of Indian nuclear weapons. Such a scenario would likely create a complex security dilemma for Pakistan, thus undermining the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia, primarily ensured by Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.

In recent years, India’s massive naval buildup is also aimed at maintaining an offensive sea-based nuclear posture. In this regard, India’s acquisition of SSBNs (nuclear-powered submarines) is quite significant since along with the assurance of second-strike capability, they are also meant to be used to launch a multitude of nuclear weapons. Other than that, India has been maintaining an operational BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) system; also, it would have the most advanced anti-missile systems like the Russian S-400 in its inventory very soon. Hence, having been assured that it would be protected against any counter-strike by Pakistan by its BMD systems; India might potentially launch a land, sea, or air-based pre-emptive strike against Pakistan. This would create a false sense of security among the Indian decision-makers and they might act aggressively in the time of crisis. Pakistan needs to keep a close eye on India’s shifting nuclear policy to counter the probability of a nuclear first strike initiated by India. Pakistan has already developed MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle) capable short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Apart from that Pakistan has also developed a sea-based delivery system such as Babur-3, a Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) which is aimed at ensuring a credible second-strike capability. These would serve as a reliable and credible deterrent against Indian notions of preemption.

Hence, at the present, the assertions of Indian officials to abandon the long doubted NFU policy and a move towards pre-emption is mere irresponsible and belligerent behavior. India in its pursuit to become a regional hegemon would destabilize the already conflict-prone South Asian region by further provoking an arms race. Pakistan needs to further increase international pressure by highlighting India’s aggressive and irresponsible nuclear posturing. The world needs to know that India’s shift from NFU is merely reckless and dangerous. On the other hand, Pakistan also needs to ensure its safety by further enhancing its assured second-strike capability and acquiring advanced BMDs while staying within its existing posture of minimum credible deterrence.

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Afghan Peace Talks And Prospects For Pakistan



On 3 September 2020, the three brave sons of Pakistan, soldier Usman, Naek Imran and Lieutenant Nasir Khalid embraced shahadat during a patrolling in North Waziristan in a terrorist attack. Since US officials and representatives of the Taliban signed a peace agreement on 29 Feb 2020 in Doha to end the conflict, the various affiliated groups of TTP began launching attacks against the security forces of Pakistan. According to the report of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies in August 2020, 12 terrorist attacks were launched in Pakistan. In these terrorist attacks, 14 people lost their lives and 68 people were injured. The terrorist carried out 75 % terrorist attacks against the security forces. These terrorist attacks on the security forces of Pakistan are evident that TTP and its affiliated groups are confident after the peace deal of the Taliban and the USA. It illustrates the scenario of post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Following the deal, the US will withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. Even though the Taliban are negotiating with the USA and Afghan government but fighting is continued in Afghanistan from both sides.

The US withdrawal will create a power vacuum not only in Afghanistan but also in the South Asian region that is likely to be filled by a stronger state or a group. The US withdrawal is creating the same challenges that are similar to the USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1990. After the withdrawal of the USSR, civil war broke out in Afghanistan for the assumption of power. Taliban emerged as victorious after a deadly civil war. Afghanistan is the home of various terrorist groups and their presence is a threat to the South Asian Region once the USA leaves Afghanistan. The US withdrawal will also affect Pakistan.If the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan then TTP will be strengthened in Pakistan. As soon as the USA making arrangements to leave Afghanistan, various militants groups of Pakistan are uniting. The two militant groups Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar have merged into one terrorist group on 17 August 2020. Both of the groups pledged its affiliation to Mufti Noor Wali as its chief. The leader of Punjabi Taliban Asmatullah Muawiya has joined the Taliban. Once the militant groups are on the same page, the impact will be disastrous for Pakistan as it did not chalk out a comprehensive policy following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Over a decade Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) wants to establish Sharia in Pakistan and for that, it is in confrontation with Islamabad. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban is considered as the spiritual leader of TTP. Since its inception in 2007, TTP has proved to be the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan. TTP was an ally of Al-Qaeda to operate from FATA. The group has its presence in Swat and Karachi. The TTP launched massive attacks in Pakistan like the terrorist attack on the General Headquarters of Army (2009) attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi (2011) and an attack on the Army Public School (20140in Peshawar. TTP also using different channels to radicalize youth like Sunnat-e-Khaula to radicalize and recruit females in Pakistan. The TTP and Afghan Taliban worked in partnership in the past and they are interconnected. In the past couple of months, TTP has increased its terrorist attacks against Pakistan.  The JuA took the responsibility of an improvised explosive device (IED) thatwas planted on a bike to hit a vehicle that has killed 7 members of the anti-narcotics force in Chamman, Baluchistan in August. 

The report of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) is evident that since 2019, TTP remained a major source of instability in Pakistan. It carried out 82 terrorist attacks in which 69 attacks were taken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 13 from the province of Baluchistan. It seems that TTP is becoming stronger after living in the shadows for years. According to the UN report approximately 65000 militants of TTP are stationed in Afghanistan. With a merger, it will become a force that cannot be neglected. The merger of various factions of TTP is a threat to CPEC. China has begun the number of development projects like infrastructure and hydroelectric in remote areas of KP.

Currently, Chinese companies are working on Karakoram Highway Phase II,SukiKinari Hydropower Station and the Havelian Dry Port. TTP have kidnapped and killed Chinese from Baluchistan and KP. In 2013, Pakistan banned 3 militant groups that were affiliated to Al-Qaeda namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union and East Turkestan Islamic Movement on the request of China. TTP targets China as a retaliation of mistreating the Uyghur Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang. In 2014,the leading Al-Qaeda ideologue Mufti Abu Zar al Burmi in a video message that was titled as let’s disturb China stated that the withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan is a victory for the Taliban. In the video message, he also urged the militant groups to carry out attacks on Chinese companies and embassies and kidnap Chinese nationals. Foreign CPEC is hope for Pakistan to bring investment and embark on the road of peace and prosperity. The reunification of militants can’t be ignored as once they are strengthened they will carry out massive attacks against Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan needs to chalk out a comprehensive policy to root out terrorism. It’s up to the policymakers to shake hands with militants like the US or take coercive military operations.

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