Tit-for-tat with Musharraf’s Musharraf

It’s hard enough having to deal with one Pakistani military establishment. But India finds itself having to deal with (at least) two.

Two Musharrafs, at least
Two many Musharrafs

You can’t blame Amit Varma for writing that the tit-for-tat that characterises official relations between India and Pakistan is “petty and immature”. But he is wrong. From roughing up accredited journalists, to expelling ‘diplomats’ to nuclear tests, tits and tats have been exchanged for as long as anyone can remember. While it might offend the sensibilities of civilised people around the world, it is also true that tit-for-tat is not only the best performing strategy for such ‘games’ (iterated prisoner’s dilemmas). It is also simple, “nice”, forgiving, provocable and, most of all, clear. Indeed, it is reasonable to say that it is tit-for-tat that has kept the level of violence between India and Pakistan under control. (Strictly speaking, India is playing a “nicer” version of tit-for-tat that gives Pakistan more chances.)

Over the years formal and informal arrangements have developed between the security establishments of the two countries to conduct explicit or tacit negotiations. While they have generally prevented a descent into widespread chaos, they did not restrain Pakistan from launching a proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir in 1989. And it not prevent the Kargil war ten years on. Why did tit-for-tat fail to prevent these major escalations of conflict? Well, nuclear weapons, for one, had an important role to play. Pakistan’s newfound (but undeclared) nuclear status allowed it to conduct a massive infiltration in Kashmir in the early 1990s, without the fear of inviting an all out war. Strategic deterrence after the 1998 nuclear tests allowed Pakistan room for the Kargil incursion.

But these conflicts took place at a time of political ambiguity, essentially, when India didn’t quite know who it was playing tit-for-tat with. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister in the 1990s, but it was President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the military brass who called the shots on foreign policy. Similarly in 1998-99, Gen Musharraf had his own policy on Kashmir, whether or not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was privy and consenting. (In contrast, the Brasstacks tensions of 1987 didn’t lead to war because Gen Zia-ul-Haq was firmly in power)

The worrying thing is that India finds itself in a similar situation today. There is a schism in the Pakistani military establishment. On one side is Gen Musharraf, supported from the outside by the United States and from the inside by Benazir Bhutto. On the other, as Benazir Bhutto’s recent remarks explicitly confirm, is the hardline Islamist faction—of which retired Gen Hamid Gul is the most visible leader, and Baitullah Mahsud, the main bogeyman. Musharraf was a member of this group until he made his u-turn after 9/11. He might have parted ways reluctantly, but can’t go back now, not after Lal Masjid and the Waziristan operations.

It is this schism that complicates India’s negotiation processes with Pakistan. It is clear that the Musharraf regime does not have full control over all the jihadi groups that operate out of it. There is reason to believe that many of the recent terrorist attacks across India—the second Kargil war—are being carried out by quarters that do not necessarily take orders from Musharraf. So who is India playing tit-for-tat with? Well, with both factions: but it so happens that India cannot hit back at Hamid Gul & Co without damaging Musharraf & Co.

So why care about Musharraf at all? If it is the Islamist hardliners that are calling the shots why not just do business with them? First, it’s not clear whether Gul & Co have negotiable demands. But even if they do, there’s one reason why India will have to do business with Musharraf. Because he has control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

India finds itself having to do business with the men who control Pakistan’s nukes and with the men who control its terrorists. It is possible that they are both colluding in a good cop/bad cop routine. Collusion can trump tit-for-tat in iterative prisoner’s dilemma games. Even so, simultaneously engaging two Pakistani power centres is India’s principal challenge, not least because it has disastrously failed at it task in both previous occasions. While it remains watchful over the developments in Pakistan, it will need to be able to engage Gul & Co in tacit negotiations if it is to prevent the Pakistani crisis from spilling over. Before that it needs to assess just how nasty a player it is likely to encounter and what cards it needs…to engage in tit-for-tat.

As Amit says, the people of India and Pakistan do suffer because of this seemingly juvenile routine. The truth is, the people of India stand to suffer a lot more if we don’t play the game well.

18 Responses to Tit-for-tat with Musharraf’s Musharraf

  1. YOSSARIN 20th October 2007 at 23:40 #

    nuke the terrorists then we will be left with neither to deal with :) more seriously do we know enough to conclude there are only 2 players to this party and not more ?

  2. Nitin 21st October 2007 at 00:09 #

    Yossarin,

    I’ve seen analysts, especially Western ones, place al-Qaeda in a separate category. That’s not incorrect, but I don’t think the al-Qaeda they are concerned about is a player in the Pakistan context. Al-Qaeda, like almost all of those alphabet soup of jihadi outfits, is a creation of the ISI (specifically under Gen Hamid Gul’s leadership and Gen Musharraf’s operational control. Musharraf’s culpability in the creation of al-Qaeda and the launch of Bin Laden’s career is almost never covered in the Western or even Indian media).

    Then there are the Baloch, Pashtuns and Gilgitis who are fighting against the Pakistan Army’s oppression. They too are not independent players in the India-Pakistan context.

    Less seriously, I think we can always say there are thousands of players. When it comes to the crunch, every man for himself!

  3. pragmatic 21st October 2007 at 01:34 #

    Nitin:

    You might like to take a look at the Stephen Cohen interview at BS.

    He sees a troika of Musharraf, Benazir and Lt Gen Kayani emerging in the short to medium term. He is also pinning a lot of hopes on a more mature Benazir and the changing raison d’etre for the Pak army. To quote from Prof Cohen’s interview –

    You know both India and Pakistan well. If you could decide India’s policy on Pakistan, what would it be?

    India’s policy would be to protect Indian interests in its relations with Pakistan, which means exploring ways in which Pakistan can accept status quo. India could deepen economic, cultural, political and strategic ties…

    What kind of strategic ties can India develop with Pakistan?

    A common perception on terrorism, peacekeeping, the stability of Afghanistan, to cite a few. For example, the Pakistan Navy is part of a Gulf task force and the Indian Navy also does valuable work in guarding the sea lanes of the Gulf. They could work together. India and Pakistan were one country once. Kashmir may be a sticking point but there can be cooperation in other areas. Global warming and WTO are two other examples.

  4. Balaji 21st October 2007 at 04:05 #

    Nitin,

    I don’t think you are making lot of sense in this post. Your two regime theory may become a reality several months down the line when Benazir is in saddle. But for now, I don’t think India or US have any doubt which group they are handling with or they should be. If India and US fail to help Musharaff/Benazir/Kiyani/Chaudhry’s combination to atleast come into existence, your two regime theory may not even materialize. As of today there is not a single regime there. Neither the facade nor the underground.

  5. Nitin 21st October 2007 at 05:43 #

    Dear Balaji,

    Two regimes are the objective reality. It is Musharraf-Benazir-Kiyani that is the theory that needs to be proved. The US has a greater leeway to believe in hopeful fantasies than India.

  6. Nitin 21st October 2007 at 05:48 #

    Pragmatic,

    With due respect, I think Dr Cohen is stating the obvious; and as for the co-operation bit, he is stating a cliche. As I wrote in the comment to Balaji, the US has greater leeway in what they want to believe, (and what they think we should believe and do in order to fit reality to their theory).

    The Musharraf-Benazir combo has some very testing times ahead.

  7. Yossarin from Offstumped 21st October 2007 at 09:36 #

    Nitin – Was looking at it differently. Goes to your title

    – is there another Musharraf i.e. someone who wants his shot at power but will still play ball with the Americans

    or an Ahmedenijad who may have popular support with the fundamentalists but will not necessarily play ball with the americans

    or both ?

  8. Balaji 21st October 2007 at 10:32 #

    >> Two regimes are the objective reality.

    I don’t know. I think its just a propaganda that there is a military/intelligence/jihadi network that exists in Pakistan which is working against Musharraf. No Pakistani ruler and definitely not Musharraf has been able to take the whole Pakistani establishment together. There are a zillion players who have their own agenda (mentoring a tribe, group, self-interest) and they all work at cross purposes.

    I think the media simply clubs these people as some sort of regime taking on Musharraf. Its just the inherent inertia in the system. I would call it a regime, if it can work together and accomplish anything against the official Musharraf regime. The genuine failures of the Pakistani military in its fight against the militants are passed on as some conspiracy.

  9. Chandra 21st October 2007 at 11:34 #

    Pragmatic, one can do lot better than listen to Stephen Cohen on South Asia and especially about India-Pak.

    “Musharraf’s culpability in the creation of al-Qaeda and the launch of Bin Laden’s career is almost never covered in the Western or even Indian media”

    I am not sure there is any there. Taliban (Gul & co controlled beast for Afghan) and al-Qaeda are different beasts, separate from other ISI controlled beasts for Bharat. al-Qaeda takes orders from no one. Saudis fund it and Egyptians run it. They could care less about Pak. At least until recently. Now they are looking for strategic space within Land of Pure (is there a better place) and they get nuclear fries with that. What’s not to like?

    In fact Gul & co and Gen Mush would be very happy if they can get rid of al-Qaeda and just have Taliban and these other beasts facing east. They can then chock ‘em when they want and unleash ‘em when they want. Saudi money (and British numb-skull suicide imports) of al-Qaeda are making their life very difficult. Now the situation is all muddled. Everyone is against everyone else.

    Unless Pak cleans house, blow back will be felt on our shores along with the west. But the west can protect themselves. Apparently we don’t want to. So we’ll take the brunt of LoP collapse. Pakistanis may suffer but it’ll be more like Taliban’s Afghan (ie Land of Pure, the original intent comes true!) rather than a nuclear bomb in infidel’s Mumbai or Delhi. What would one do then? Attack al-Qaeda?

  10. Nitin 21st October 2007 at 13:21 #

    Balaji,

    Up until early 2007, I was of the same opinion as you. But developments of the last one year suggest that the internal pressures of the military establishment have resulted in a schism—one has only to look at the Waziristan and Lal Masjid operations in detail to realise how the two factions are conducting a proxy civil war. Just how does a SSG officer blow up his colleagues in the middle of the special forces base at Tarbela? (Read Maverick for more)

    That’s not to say that Musharraf is innocent: he’s a rank opportunist and has been playing double games all along. And he’ll do it again if he can get away with it. So yes, he is a player India must deal with.

    Chandra,

    Musharraf was the brigade commander who revived Osama Bin Laden’s fortunes after the anti-Soviet jihad ended in the late 1980s. Bin Laden’s jihadis were used to bring the Shia’s of Gilgit to heel, under Musharraf’s command. Musharraf’s hand was present in the ‘raising’ of the Harkat-ul-Ansar in the mid-1990s. And after the IC-814 hijacking, the Jaish-e-Mohammed was born when he was controlling Pakistan. Oh yes, Musharraf was thick with al-Qaeda until circumstances forced them apart.

    Whether al-Qaeda leadership is a liability to the Pakistani army, I can’t say. It is The Big Question. We don’t know much about what makes Gul & Co tick? We used to think Musharraf was joined at the hip with the jihadis up until 9/12. If he could (at least pretend to) do a u-turn, why shouldn’t the next Musharraf? On the other hand, what’s to prevent the next Musharraf from putting nuclear material in the hands of terrorists…It’s important to understand where things stand with Gul & Co.

    Shashi,

    The answer has to be yes. Negotiating with a gun to its own head is an old Pakistani act, and there are bound to be individuals and factions ready to milk the Americans and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.

  11. Chandra 22nd October 2007 at 12:11 #

    Nitin, of course, you are right about JeT and HuA and the other alphabet soups. But al-Qaeda formation time line doesn’t match any ISI-influenced revival activities in late 80s, post-Soviet withdrawal. It may be that the mujahideens that Mush used in Gilgit later on joined al-Qaeda (and some others like Mulla Omar became taliban). al-Qaeda formation and revival of it’s mass terror Islamic jihad was masterminded by Zawahiri, the Egyptian, who used Osama, who already had established charisma amoung Saudi and other west Asian mujahideens during Soviet resistance, as it’s leader. It helped that Osama could pay for staffing and new recruits. And that really happened in early 90s. Soon they moved on to Sudan. The Pakistanis did want al-Qaeda to work with it against India, but al-Qaeda was focused on Saudi and Egypt and, later on, US. Of course, that’s all in the past.

    To me al-Qaeda is a liability to Pak Army only because it brings attention on to it from the west- press, govts whatever. Without them, Pak’s Army live would have been very peachy. Still in control of Afghan via Taliban and still waging jihad against India – watching and enjoying cut number 356, maybe.

    Now, Osama brings up Hindus along with Jews and Christians as infidels in his occasional ramblings. As Praveen Swami wrote in The Hindu couple of days ago, we’re all in the same boat and they’re all swimming in the same stinking ocean waiting to torpedo the boat.

  12. Nitin 22nd October 2007 at 13:06 #

    Chandra,

    There’s the little business of the Pakistani army needing the jihadis because the official army is busy running the country, running business and cornering land. And I say this only half jokingly.

  13. Nitin 22nd October 2007 at 16:59 #

    Chandra,

    I think we can agree that al-Qaeda (defined as Arab/Middle Eastern organisations) is giving the Pakistani army headaches and attention it can do without. However, thanks to the Islamisation under Zia, as well as the anti-American feelings within the organisation, it is quite likely that there are differences within the army about whether they should indeed jettison it. Another factor working against breaking the links would be the consequences of doing so: what if the next Bin Laden videotape explains what role the Pakistani army played in 9/11? He can’t be placed under house arrest in a villa outside Islamabad. Or what if al-Qaeda decides to direct its ire against the army itself…it’ll find allies in the religious fundamentalists who have an axe to grind against Musharraf. (Maverick contends that this split is significant). Those running the Pakistani army will be weighing in these considerations.

  14. Rohit 23rd October 2007 at 02:50 #

    Nitin,

    I am more inclined to believe in the good cop-bad cop routine. History can serve as a guide here. Look at the Kargil conflict. It’s hard to believe that Sharif had no idea about Kargil when one month after full-scale hostilities had broken out, Miyan Sharif was busy playing cricket! (As Ayaz Amir has informed us.) Or go back a little. In 1965, Ayub Khan ordered hostilities in the Rann of Kutch, then signed the agreement for an international tribunal while all the time planning for Operation Grandslam. The same man later signed the Tashket agreement, promptly went home and declared that war has not been ruled out to settle the question of Kashmir.

    Bottom line: I don’t trust the Pakistanis.

    What has really changed is that the good cop-bad cop routine is now played by different players!

    But even if you are entirely right, the crucial question is this: If nuclear bombs were to fall in Hamid Gul’s hands, will he necessarily go and use them.I may not trust them but I do trust their instinct for self-preservation. The nuclear blackmail can only succeed if the other party obliges you by playing your game. Perhaps, India and the rest of the world shouldn’t be so nice to the Pakistanis.

  15. Chandra 23rd October 2007 at 11:08 #

    Nitin, Osama has been calling for revolt against Pak establishment for a while. I’d think if he could turn against Pak Army he would have long time ago and made US do his work by revealing any direct 9/11 connection (we already know there are many indirect ones that).

    Apparently we are giving all intelligence of recent blasts to ISI during the joint anti-terro mechanism to make them act. I’m sure they will right away.

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