Ilyas Kashmiri, Stanley McChrystal and the Obama wobble

India should ensure that the main location of Pakistan’s proxy war remains far away from home

Those who believe that the India-Pakistan ‘peace process’ that began in 2004 is responsible for the decline in terrorist violence in Jammu & Kashmir are making the oldest policy mistake—confusing correlation for causation. To understand, take a look at the curriculum vitae of Ilyas Kashmiri, an exemplary product of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, and who was reportedly killed in a US drone strike recently.

Ilyas Kashmiri onced belonged to the Pakistan army’s Special Services Group (SSG), just like General Pervez Musharraf. He fought the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and when that war came to an end, devoted his attention to the jihad in Kashmir, changing uniforms, organisation-names and affiliations in the process. He was active on that front until he fell out with the ISI management over a corporate restructuring exercise, but by 2003, moved to Waziristan to join battle against American troops across the border. There he fought until the US drone got him. Ilyas Kashmiri didn’t move from Afghanistan to Kashmir, and from Kashmir back to Waziristan alone. His group moved with him. Nor was Ilyas Kashmiri’s outfit the only one that moved back-and-forth in this manner.

So the reason why the jihadi guns fell silent in Jammu & Kashmir was, in all likelihood, because the Pakistani military-jihadi complex didn’t have the capacity to fight a two-front war. To the extent the ‘irregular’ jihadi army was employed along the Western front it was unavailable for the proxy war against India. Now, if President Barack Obama myopically decides to retreat from Afghanistan it follows that the jihadis will make their way back to the east. Whatever this does to the geopolitical stature of the United States, it is possible that the Obama administration will attempt to appease Pakistan in order to purchase political cover for its exit from Afghanistan. As Marc Ambinder writes on his blog (LT @dubash) over at The Atlantic, Kashmir’s fate will be seen as “crucial” to the “dynamic” of Pakistan’s quest for “for living space to the north.” [Also see Manish Vij’s post on Ultrabrown]

Let us be clear: it is in India’s interests for the United States to stay in Afghanistan and fight Pakistan’s proxies and allies there. India is engaged in a proxy-war with elements, surrogates and offshoots of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. This is a war that is imposed on India, and New Delhi should persevere to keep the battlefields of that proxy-war west of the Hindu-Kush, not east of the Pir Panjal range.

Given the stakes, it is unfortunate—and unforgivable—that India has not been more than a mere spectator with respect to US policy. Indeed, even after the Obama administration began its series of policy reviews, the Indian input to the equation has been invisible. Invisible might not necessarily mean non-existent, but if there was something, then it seems to have been ineffective. Keeping Kashmir out of Richard Holbrooke’s mandate was a minimalistic achievement—ensuring that Pakistani jihadis stay out of India is the real prize.

That General Stanley McChrystal’s report was leaked to the media is understandable, not least after Mr Obama’s national security advisor had made it clear that the White House was prejudiced against strengthening US military forces in Afghanistan. Yet, even as President Obama began the initial movements of U-turn on his own commitment to defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is nothing from the UPA government to try to make him stick to his old promises.

To be sure, India’s first option should be to encourage the United States to repeat the MacArthur programme in Pakistan. If the chain of Af-Pak strategy reviews are throwing up unsatisfactory policy recommendations it is because they are too fearful to accept the reality: that the solution to the problem of international jihadi terrorism lies in dismantling the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan. But if this is asking for too much, the second-best option is to ensure that the US stays on in Afghanistan.

New Delhi needs an entirely different orientation towards Washington’s Af-Pak policies: it must cast aside its quietly, quietly defensive approach to a more assertive, muscular stance.

34 thoughts on “Ilyas Kashmiri, Stanley McChrystal and the Obama wobble”

  1. New delhi cant take a muscular stance.

    For, if a muscle has to create movement, it has to be attached across bones, that it levers to create movement.

    Since india’s pakistan policy is bereft of a spine, it is not anatomically possible for it to create any movement.

    We are hence left with the only non-bony muscle in the body: the tongue, which we wag with reckless abandon.

    Not that pakistan cares.

  2. am not sure as easy as india deciding that we should have more ‘muscular’ presence in india and US and others allowing us to be there.

    even with our limited presence there, only in development projects, there are still rumbling, and not just in pakistan. The mcchrystal report also mentions this disqueiet, saying that increasing india’s presnce will “exarcebate regional tensions and encourage Pakistan countermeasures in Afghanistan or India”

    (go to page 19 for the india reference)

  3. Nitin, I am not sure how we could influence US policy – they are the one spending money and bodies. Surely they won’t continue doing so for India’s sake.

    But anyway, here’s the official MEA response to any policy, forget a “muscular” one:

    “India doesn’t believe that war could be a solution for solving any problem and it applies to Afghanistan also. I think there could be a political settlement. I think we should strive towards a political settlement.

    India is an optimistic nation. We believe a solution can be found. If India can work happily with Great Britain after they having ruled us for so long, it only shows that we can play the game.”

    India’s policy is total surrender. It’s not just Afghan. In Paki too. Mumbai? What Mumbai! Assam? What Assam! J&K? What J&K!

    Reminds me of what Raja Mohan just wrote about what India was doing while China-Paki were building out nuclear weapons in the 60s through 80s!

    More and more, I think Guha has it! Might as go back to Nehru’s lead and declare military dismantled. 🙂

  4. I couldn’t even parse what Marc Ambinder was trying to say. I believe he confuses “Strategic Depth” with Lebensraum. Maybe because, both notions are morally indefensible and ridiculous?

    It is surprising to see the legs on this misguided argument. None of the permutations make much sense to me.

    Has Afghanistan formally accepted that it is to be “used” by Pakistan if and when there is a war between India and Pakistan?

    How much land in Afghanistan does Pakistan need for “strategic depth”? Could someone with military knowledge answer that one. I just assumed that strategic depth is associated with mainly “tank and infantry” warfare. Don’t long range bombers and nuclear missiles make strategic depth irrelevant?

    Do people in the American and Pakistani establishment really believe, that anyone in the Indian establishment would ever fully accept, that if Kashmir is “handed over” that would put an end to all hostilities between the two countries? A couple of decades down the line we might very well see, Pakistan becoming very troubled by the poor and disenfranchised Muslims of Kerala and then the Americans arguing that Pakistan needs the Malabar, you know, as a “strategic spice reserve”.

    The full New Yorker article isn’t available yet, but Ambinder’s tweet states that Holbrooke had “offer[ed] Kashmir deal in exchange for Pak Army agreeing not to support Taliban “. Gee how gracious, I am surprised he didn’t toss in Punjab and Rajasthan for good measure. The New Yorker is known for its obsessive fact-checking. Surely this merits some MEA response, official or otherwise.

    I find it amusing American reporters are caught up in the who leaked McChrystal report, but no one addresses the Biden/Holbrooke alternative seriously, you know…if your ally is conspiring with your enemy, you offer to appease him by taking something from a third-party. Sounds brilliant to me.

    Why doesn’t India just claim it needs Tibet for “strategic depth” in case of war with Pakistan. Or as a buffer zone if there is a war with China.

  5. “How much land in Afghanistan does Pakistan need for “strategic depth”? Could someone with military knowledge answer that one. I just assumed that strategic depth is associated with mainly “tank and infantry” warfare. Don’t long range bombers and nuclear missiles make strategic depth irrelevant?”

    It is not always about land per se. If Afghanistan had a Pak-friendly government, Pakistan could station, say, a squadron of long-range bombers on an Afghan air base. In the event of an Indo-Pak war, it would be a non-trivial decision for India to target such a base, thus providing Pakistan with a certain degree of strategic depth.

    In fact, IIRC, Pakistan did use Afghan air bases for refueling etc. during the 1971 war.

  6. Hey Dubash & Chandra, you people confuse between MEA and other countries Foreign Affairs departments. Indian MEA is more like tour n travel operator handling visa requirements, site seeing, itinerary preparation for Indian politicians & officials. So please don’t blame them for not doing Foreign Affairs job; in fact they do more than what they are asked to do, like making noise if its customers were body checked.

    Dubash, strategic depth is still relevant for Pakistan, as India does not have long range bombers or adequately tested nuclear missiles.

    For more serious talk…

    India can’t influence US policy on Afghan or its anti-terrorism policy, as Chandra rightly told US is the one spending money & bodies. While, we too sacrifice our soldiers, we don’t do it for US; so we can’t expect US to help us in this matter.

    Yes, it is in the interest of India to keep Pak’s proxy warriors busy some where else. But how ? it is not even in the control equation except as a bait.

  7. B.O.K,

    Thanks for the info. I did a bit of googling after I posted my comment. Most of the results were from fairly shallow articles. The one reference from a book (Warfare in Third World) mentions that in 1971 India had the advantage of moving their planes to air bases toward the front as needed while Pakistan did not have the same flexibility because it lacked “strategic depth”. I am curious do you know of any book that traces history of the concept and the relative merits or feasiblitly of the strategy?


    I typed the comment in haste. I don’t even know if one even needs a “long range bomber”. I assume most if not all of Pakistan and portions of Afghanistan are within reach of all Indian fighters/bombers. I claim no real knowledge about these matters.

    Sorry about the longish comment earlier. I think a backgrounder on “strategic depth” by INI and or Pragati would be a great idea : )

  8. dubash,

    If memory serves me right, I read about the 1971 refueling etc. in a JN Dixit book. It is probably covered in his book on Indo-Bangladesh relations. But being a diplomat, he didn’t provide military details or delve into what “strategic depth” is – he simply mentioned the fact and moved on.

    You might try asking Pragmatic.

  9. Very generally, I think the idea of “strategic depth” is flimsy, merely a grand expression for saying that Pakistan is a small country, and its East-to-West expanse is small enough to be vulnerable to a determined Indian push.

    Even if you buy something of the Pakistani argument, it loses salience in a nuclearised context.

    It is now merely an expression used to disguise Pakistan’s desire for a proxy government next door, which will allow the military-jihadi complex to exploit Afghanistan for its commercial, financial, political and geopolitical agenda. 150 years ago, the word for this was “colony”

  10. Here’s a definition from Robert Harkavy (via US Navy ):

    “Strategic depth” is a staple of the military literature; it refers, broadly speaking, to the distances between the front lines or battle sectors and the combatants’ industrial core areas, capital cities, heartlands, and other key centers of population or military production. How vulnerable are these assets to a quick, preemptive attack or to a methodical offensive?

    Conversely, can a country withdraw into its own territory, absorb an initial thrust, and allow the subsequent offensive to culminate short of its goal and far from its source of power?

    The issue is the trade-off between space and time…

  11. dubash and others,

    Whatever the definition of strategic depth is or capabilities of India are, there is something to think about:

    distance between Imphal and Beijing ~ 2000 Km
    distance between New Delhi and Herat ~ 1500 Km

    If we plan for the former, the latter should take care of itself as long as we also plan for two fronts.

  12. Nitin,

    I do not know if you saw this already but since it relates closely to the content of your post, I am posting it here. Contrary to your view, India appears to be arguing for an end to NATO combat operations and a political settlement with the Taliban. This is what S.M.Krishna told the WSJ:

    “India doesn’t believe that war can solve any problem and that applies to Afghanistan also…I think there could be a political settlement. I think we should strive towards that…If there are internal differences within Afghanistan I think the people of Afghanistan, the leaders of Afghanistan, will sort it out by themselves”.

    The full news item is here.

  13. On the UNSC resolution asking India to sign NPT:

    Why can’t our MEA MoS who recently got famous for his twittering adventures personally issue a rebuttal? I don’t know about protocol, but wouldn’t that be apt given his UN background?

  14. It is such a shame that Ilyas Kashmiri was “taken out” by US which is like 1000s of kms away..when we were at this psycho’s receiving end for couple of decades(and apparently it seems he got tired and retired/transfered out of operating in our sector..) What the hell is Chitambaram and Krishna doing their “we want Hafiz Saeed” routine before brushing their teeth every morning. Are they trying to shame ISI/Interior Ministry to hang him or something. I just dont get it..!! Why dont we blow up that son of a bitch at his Iftar party or whatever..If the excuse is ..we dont have “covert action” capability in Pak nonsense..Why can’t we just pay some money to TTP’s Child Suicide Bombs dept or buy some Pak Taliban commanders a couple of brand new SUVs to send a paki youth to blow Sayeed with him. If LTTE can hire LeT/SSP to do a hit on Srilankan Cricket team..shame on us..if we cant pull a simple job..And when is Baluchis are going to get shoulder-fired SAM or ATGM..duh!!..I dont think we have to break much sweat for that either..
    I think the underlying problem is our politicians are a bunch of wusses and self-centred jerk-offs with eyes on the “seat,sons & perks” than the job itself..
    Fuk that sht..I am done ranting..

  15. As one of the many people trying to make sense of this, I have some questions:

    If India wants the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan, even as a “second-best option”, why is it not in India’s interests then to give Washington what it is asking for – ie talks with Pakistan? Because it thinks the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan anyway, regardless of what India does? Or because it believes talks won’t achieve anything?

    Also on that intriguing comment about Holbrooke offering a deal on Kashmir in return for the Pakistan Army turning against the Taliban. Wasn’t that deal (sketched out in 2007) in India’s interest – ie no exchange of territory?

  16. Myra

    If India wants the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan, even as a “second-best option”, why is it not in India’s interests then to give Washington what it is asking for – ie talks with Pakistan? Because it thinks the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan anyway, regardless of what India does? Or because it believes talks won’t achieve anything?

    This would have even been possible if not for Pakistan’s performance after 26/11. More than talks, some Indians have private argued (and we have publicly written) that India must consider careful measures on the ground that will help the US in Af-Pak. I believe some of these measures have actually been implemented.

    But “talks with Pakistan” shouldn’t be code for “give them what they want in Kashmir”. If this is the US position, then it is logical for New Delhi to say “well, okay, stew in your juices”.

    Also on that intriguing comment about Holbrooke offering a deal on Kashmir in return for the Pakistan Army turning against the Taliban. Wasn’t that deal (sketched out in 2007) in India’s interest – ie no exchange of territory?

    Well yes. But Holbrooke can’t possibly offer what’s not his to give. It follows that: first, the Pakistanis won’t think it is credible; and second, if they do (and for him to make it so), they’ll hike the price (ie territorial concession) because they know they have something that the US wants. Because if they want to do a deal on the 2007 terms, what’s stopping them?

  17. As many commentators have pointed out rightly here, this blog is under erroneous impression that by publishing some ‘overtly nationalistic’ posts the goal of ‘making America to work for India’ can be achieved. Okay – Barack Obama is wobbly, Americans are stupid, not-principled and confused lot not knowing where their glory lies – in carrying the water for India! Are you happy now? Does that change your reality in S. Asia? Oh and by the way, borrowed Dollars in increasing debts on American Tax payers and bodies of sons and daughter of gullible Americans; that is nothing, it does not count as long as those are not advancing ‘perceived’ interests of India.

    If writers on this blog posts want to be realistic, they ought to see one of the principle findings of McCrystal report and firm belief of American Establishment (Pentagon, Congress, Administration and Media; all together): it is Indian presence and influence in Afghanistan which is one of the root causes of the problem because that makes Pakistan to get involved further in keeping it destabilized. That is why as some other commentator pointed – if it is in India’s interest that America continues the engagement in Afghanistan, then why would India not do what Americans want – tone down the engagement in Afghanistan? Or a next step improve relations with Pakistan?

    Why not improved relations with Pakistan – that is the only answer Nitin got it right for a change: India cannot and must not normalize relations with Pakistan until responsible parties of 26/11 in Pakistan are brought to books. Is India playing that ‘hard ball’ with America? Forcing America to force Pakistan to bring those bad guys to books? If not then to continue ‘deeper engagement’ in Afghanistan in pure / narrow national interest without any co-ordination with America; at the displeasure of Americans?

    That may be much more rational bargain with Americans rather than hoping for Americans to continue to ‘loose’ in Afghanistan. For Indian engagement in Afghanistan, the credibility requirements of Afghan government are quite low. Whether Karzai wins fair or by mal-practice; he can be still an honorable guest on Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Legitimacy of Afghan government does not matter for India when it comes to pursuing national interests. It matters for Obama because boots of his soldiers are there and Americans are ‘occupier’ no matter what. For any Iraqi style resolution, some credibility and legitimacy of Afghan government is needed. Hence, Obama is between a hard place and rock. When there are doubts about sustainability of Afghan Army beyond a year or two; what is the point in spending blood and money for that? That is the dilemma for White House.

    So for India, better is not getting involved in that quagmire (why and how America engages in Afghanistan) and just focus on getting bad guys of 26/11.

  18. Dude Umesh,

    McChrystal only says that Indian influence is good for Afghanistan and will make Pakistan take counter measures.

    He doesn’t attach value judgements to this. Neither should you.

    As you can see this is about India’s national interests. I sympathise with the problems of the Americans…but those aren’t my problems. I think they can take care of themselves.

  19. Sure read carefully and your will get the difference what is good influence and what is not good.

    Of course, everyone acts in national interests. But writers of this blog have absurd ideas, under the pretext of ‘advocating expert advice’ all that they are telling is for America to work for India! You understand problems of America but still want to continue the diatribe against their elected politicians. What kind foreign policy wonkery it is?

    Seems like your real problem is Americans are not probably adopting your esoteric theories and foreign policy prescriptions which are hardly useful for India and of course costly for America.

  20. Umesh,

    Your outrage is amusing. Not least when a large number of Americans are saying the same things—including as it turns out, some of their own elected politicians.

    You don’t persuade anyone with your outrage. Moreover, you’ll find as many people as you wish who will express their own outrage against US’s blatant disregard for Indian lives and interests. Mercifully, international relations is not about the balance of outrage.

    But it is your benchmark for intellectual honesty that is hilarious.

  21. @Umesh,

    Can’t understand this: why is it some Americans like you love doing what Pakistan wants you to do, pay for it and receive terrorist attacks and massive public hostility in return?

    You guys have been free-ridden while being taken for a ride by your ‘ally’ for 60 years and now you complain that It is outrageous for someone to merely suggest that US actions benefit India.

    So you are okay for ‘America to tell’ India to do this and that, but not the other way around. And you talk about intellectual honesty.

  22. We are not talking here some American actions benefiting some countries. We are talking here ‘you guys advocating America to continue some war’ because it benefits India without understanding at all the context in which America is fighting or will be fighting that war.

    That is callous. What the hell, who is talking easy about Pakistan? You are the guys who are always talking ‘fighting and bomb’ regardless of soldiers of which nation are dying.

    My intellectual honesty – that is much better than yours because unlike you neither do I advocate senseless policies for any country nor open ‘insults’ for elected politicians of Democracies; very much including India. This is also because if you ever bother to read my responses, I have explicitly said that the single most important thing what USA can do to get India on board is to pressurize Pakistan to hand over murders of 26/11 Mumbai attack. I am not forgetting that.

    Please go and read again what your are advocating and try to understand. As like any other country, America is not perfect and all that everyone in the world needs to understand is it is legitimate for American rulers to evaluate where they have reached after 8 years (good or bad) efforts in Afghanistan; reevaluate options and then decide. Your blog posts do not want to consider all that.

    Let us cut the chase and cut all personal insults. You insulting me hardly going to change any situation on ground. We only focus on what you are saying and that is wrong. Period.

  23. Dude Umesh,

    The day one country does things for others and not in its own narrow self-interest, you can say views espoused in this blog are “wrong”.

    Face it: neither US, nor India nor any other country takes actions out of regard for others’ interests. To say this is “wrong”, that too selectively, is actually wrong.

    As for intellectual honesty, dude, you need to actually find out what that term means. Being wrong and being intellectually dishonest are not necessarily the same thing.

    You started the personal insults, btw, and the personal insulting will stop the moment you stop doing it.

  24. India nor any other country takes actions out of regard for others’ interests.
    How does claiming Pak as a “victim of terror like us” (at time of Mumbai 2006 train bombings) and volunteering that “we are messing in Baluchistan too” (at time of 26/11)… exactly.. in our interest? Beats me mate..
    What I am gathering is the latest Indian govt urge to mend fences with Pak comes from the fact that..the establishment cannot take another 26/11 and survive politically..and therefore trying to “bribe” Pak military-political entities with carrots so that they wont attempt another 26/11 and displace these mfukers from their ministerial seats. Anyhow, we should have learned from Nehru’s Himalayan blunder of bring UN to sort out our internal-bilateral problems..but apparently we haven’t..we are still playing the “high moral ground” game..which will take us no where…

  25. I am not sure whether ‘Dude’ is any respectable way of referring your blog post readers.

    Again here is one more link (probably you would be knowing):

    It is Frank Rich in NYT. He is also referring to George Will’s now famous Op-Ed in WaPo; the Op-Ed which pointed out real dangers and pointlessness for America to continue the Afghan war. Keep in mind it is the same George Will who has been carrying the ‘mantle’ of NeoCon Guru and ever strong, uber conservative, advocate of Bush’s Iraq War.

    As a policy wonk, you will have to make a case why arguments presented by these articles are wrong. Further, if evidence is gathering that America may not continue the Afghan war the way it has been so far (let us say for an argument sake that it is one more routine mistake of America) and if you think that is likely to ‘unleash’ Paki Terror Machine back in Kashmir; then you will need to present what are realistic choices for Indian government to respond in such eventualities.

    Do you think it is a sign of ‘strong politician’ when Dr. Sigh meets Obama in Oval Office in Nov 09 and tells him that ‘Mr. President you can not stop your Afghan war because that is going to unleash terrorists, which you nurtured, and who are going to come back harassing us in India’? Just imagine what would a competent Indian Prime Minister would say.

    I am not prejudging anything here. I am asking you how would you respond to the concomitant situation since it becomes imperative then for you to advocate right policies for India to undertake in such scenarios.

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