Occasionally, very occasionally, a relatively brief and unexpected comment throws unexpected light on what drives a policy. It can also highlight its severe limitations, and lay bare what is generally left unsaid or is deliberately obfuscated.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s response to a question about America’s Pakistan policy did exactly this just two days ago.

Bolton addressed the Federalist Society in Washington DC on September 10 on the topic of the International Criminal Court’s request for permission to investigate some US defense and intelligence personnel for “alleged war crimes”.

During the question and answer session that followed his speech a Pakistani journalist asked a question unrelated to the ICC. Instead, he asked about Imran Khan’s election and the suspension of military assistance to Pakistan.

Bolton referred to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s August 6 visit to Islamabad and said, “He wanted to convey the message that we hoped and expected that Pakistan would cooperate fully in the war against terrorism which they had committed to do. It was before my time but the Trump administration did not take the decision to cancel a substantial part of the military aid package to Pakistan lightly. It was done knowing full well that Pakistan is a nuclear weapons state and the risk that the government could fall into the hands of terrorists who would get control of those nuclear weapons was particularly serious. But it is a serious problem on the sub-continent and I hope it’s one that the new government of Pakistan addresses because this terrorist threat is a threat, I think, to the majority of the people in Pakistan not to the terrorists and not to the some of their supporters in the military and elsewhere. It’s a matter of extra-ordinary importance to the United States and one that we hope that the new government addresses”.

The fear of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into terrorists’ hands has existed since the 1990s. In an article in the New York Times in April 2017 Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghan intelligence, claimed that internal Pakistani classified documents had expressed concerns regarding terrorists’ threats to the country’s nuclear assets. However the underlying assumption has always been that the terrorists may be able to get hold of nuclear weapons and materials through subverting the system.

Never has an assertion been voiced as Bolton has done: that the government itself may be taken over by terrorists. This is dramatic because Bolton said that the “risk” of such an eventuality was “particularly serious”. Prima-facie, Bolton’s comment indicates a fear that the entire state apparatus, both civil and military, is at “risk” of falling into terrorist hands.

This implication is warranted for the Strategic Plans Division (SPD). Headed by a three-star general, the SPD acts as a secretariat of the National Command Authority which is chaired by the Prime Minister.

The Authority is, as the policy document setting up Pakistan’s Nuclear Command and Control system states, “responsible for policy formulation, and will exercise employment and development control over all strategic nuclear forces and strategic organizations”.

The SPD is entirely controlled by the Pakistan military even if, as Pakistan’s foremost expert on the country’s nuclear policies and structures, Naeem Salik says, “not the conventional military”. The security division of the SPD is headed by a two-star general and is “responsible for physical security, personnel security and counter-intelligence”. Naturally, Pakistan has always asserted that its weapons are entirely safe.

The underlying but obvious thought behind Bolton’s assertion is that since Pakistan’s nuclear assets are in danger of falling into terrorists’ hands, nothing should be done to impair its military as it is the institution which guards, if not, as it is widely believed, controls these assets. Only then would a decision to suspend a part of the military aid package be such a big deal and not be “taken lightly”. This also explains why the US has been willing to live with Pakistan’s duplicity on Afghanistan.

President Trump has himself vented his frustration on Pakistan’s behavior. He tweeted on New Year’s Day, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan over 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”. Despite these strong words, action has been limited to putting economic pressure on Pakistan through suspending military assistance and the Financial Action Task Force. Pakistan has absorbed all this pressure.

Significantly, the army has not been touched at all. No sanctions have been imposed on any of its personnel. This is notwithstanding its direct role in aiding the Taliban, which through its actions has killed about 2500 US service personnel in Afghanistan and has been responsible for America’s longest war, one still with no end in sight. US restraint against the Pakistan army has naturally resulted in it feeling immune from any real action against it. It has, therefore, no incentive to change what it is doing in Afghanistan.

Bolton reiterated what the US has been asking Pakistan to do for years: contribute to controlling terrorism. But if terrorism is responsible for US restraint, why would the Pakistan army seek to control it? Logic dictates that it is then in Pakistan’s interest to let terrorism proceed, for it represents a shield that prevents the US from taking decisive action, confining itself to steps that Pakistan can absorb.

Bolton’s fear that terrorists have supporters in “the military and elsewhere” is also noteworthy but needs a nuanced understanding. There is no doubt that religiosity has risen very substantially in the army since the Islamization policy undertaken by President General Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s. There may be supporters of the terrorists’ objectives among high-ranking military figures, and the army leadership uses terrorists to promote Pakistan’s external interests.

Certainly, it is not in the generals’ interest to allow an increase of terrorists’ influence or support in the army. Equally certainly, it is in the US and the international community’s interest not to permit Pakistan, especially its army, impunity over its use of terrorists. Comments such as those of John Bolton and the thinking on which they are based, currently assure them of that impunity.