The retired colonel’s letter

Raw nerves

A Pakistani newspaper publishes an open letter by a retired Indian army officer—that doesn’t say anything that many Pakistani commentators are not already saying—and you witness some very interesting reactions.

First, several people, including retired Pakistani army officers, write to the editor, defending their army and shooting the Indian messenger. For how dare an Indian, not least a retired army officer, have the temerity to ask the Pakistani army chief not to surrender to the Taliban! Surely, shouldn’t India put its own house in order first?

Then the Daily Times’ Ejaz Haider makes a bizarre point about the “consensus” in the Indian media about national security issues, and how this rules out the publication of a Pakistani officer’s open letter to the Indian army chief. It appears that Mr Haider has not heard about the invitation extended by one of India’s leading magazine publishing house to a certain retired Pakistani army officer, one General Pervez Musharraf, to speak at an exclusive high-profile event.

Update: And after receiving more outpourings of outrage, the editor of the newspaper apologises, alleging that “some of its content was false.”

The News recently published an article by Harish Puri on its op-ed pages. The piece did not merit publication as some of its content was false and malicious and ran counter to the policy of the newspaper. The article did not go through the regular and rigorous process of vetting and was printed without clearance from senior editors of The News. The feedback received from the vast majority of our readers has also been one of indignation at the distorted presentation of facts, and indeed, at the publishing of the article itself.

The article should not have been published by The News and we sincerely regret that it was. –Editor [The News]

The Italian militants in Waziristan

Managing cognitive dissonance, the Rawalpindi way

In Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia’s chronicles her journey from the mouth of the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province to its source in Tibet. It is part-travelogue, part-history book, part-commentary on contemporary society and completely readable. Here she is on the Pakistani side, trying to get close to the Line of Control.

Engaged to be married, (the soldier) is being sent to Siachen once he has returned me to Skardu. The tone in which he utters that name betrays his dread. All the soldiers hate it: the glacier where nothing else lives, the high altitude, the inhuman living conditions. They shave off their heads before they go, then slam on their caps and do not remove them until they get back to Skardu, such is the danger of frostbite. In Baltistan, Siachen is known cynically as the army’s Kuwait: ‘the soldiers are paid double, they get very rich,’ a jealous resident of Skardu tells me. But the shiny-cheeked officer protests at the unfairness of this statement: ‘We spend all our extra pay just on rations to make life bearable.’ he says.

‘What is the point?’ I ask. ‘Why are you doing it?’ He looks shaken, and hesitates before answering: ‘To serve my country.’

(Ever since their first foray into the valley of Kashmir in 1947, the army has been labelling the incursions of its own soldiers ‘militant activity’). In 1999, the army once again called the soldiers ‘Mujahideen’, but in Skardu, I meet a man who was employed during the war to cross the border and collect these dead ‘martyrs’. ‘That’s when we Baltis knew there was a war going on,’ he says: ‘wen we saw the bodies of our relatives.’ Even after India captured some of the ‘Mujahideen’, and proved that they were army soldiers, Pakistan continued to insist that the men were not ‘regular army recruits’. This was semi-true: most of those sent to die in Kargil were soldiers local to the disputed Northern Areas, and thus not part of a standard regiment. Forbidden to wear uniforms, disguised instead in tracksuits as militants, the soldiers were ill-equipped for war.

Then there was the ordeal of fighting their co-religionists. The Northern Areas is predominantly Shia—as is Kargil in India. ‘Wo bhi kafir hain [They too are unbelievers],’ a Sunni officer was rumoured to have shouted at a reluctant Shia soldier.’Shoot’.

The Punjabi officers threat Shias as Kafirs, and lies are peddled to young recruits, to make killing fellow Muslims bearable. During the journey from Skardu to Hamzigon, my shiny-cheeked escort draws a parallel with army operations in Waziristan: ‘Ninety-nine percent of the militants killed there by the Pakistan Army were non-Muslim,’ he says. ‘So?’ I ask, amazed. ‘They were Russian, Spanish, Italian,’ he says; ‘internal army reports have confirmed this.’ [Alice Alibinia/Empires of the Indus pp248-250]

Related Links: The book’s official website; and Jai Arjun Singh interviews Ms Albinia over at Jabberwock

Modelling the armed forces on the railways

Mountbatten, Ismay and their outdated legacy

My article in this month’s issue of Pragati, on reforming India’s national security policy, is titled “Start by burying Lord Ismay“.

But who was Lord Ismay and why does he need to be buried? Well, General Hastings Lionel Ismay was a British general and post retirement from the British Army, served as chief of staff to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India.

In a Rediff.com article, Lieutenant-General (retd) Eric A Vas wrote:

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that ‘although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.’ [Rediff]

The higher defence setup in India, therefore, was not only modelled on the Railway Board—even that model was not fully implemented. Nehru might have had his blind spots and valid considerations, but what is truly astonishing is that India has left the system substantially unchanged for the last 62 years.

No one can reasonably argue that a set-up that didn’t even work very well in the twentieth century will somehow be effective in the twenty-first. A comprehensive strategic review is in order: the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure must be reviewed in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment.

Cloaking the retreat

The Pakistani army manoeuvres for the next round

Having to prepare for an unlikely war with India is an excellent excuse to mask the Pakistani army’s total defeat—at the hands of the Taliban—in Swat, Bajaur and the Waziristans. If not for the tensions with India, General Kayani would have had to answer uncomfortable questions as to why after one whole year of “operations” in Swat, for instance, that picturesque tourist paradise is now entirely under Taliban rule.

The alacrity with which the Pakistani Taliban were presented as patriots in the common war against India, even before the Mumbai siege was brought to an end, suggests a deal whereby the army surrendered people and territories in the Frontier to the Taliban, and in return, secured promises of safe passage and an end to attacks on its interests elsewhere in Pakistan. [See silencing a dead whistleblower]

Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, welcomed the government’s decision to withdraw some troops from the tribal areas. “We will not attack the convoys of army withdrawing from tribal areas as it is a good development,” he said, adding that the Taliban would help defend Pakistan against any aggression. [WP, emphasis added]

An outbreak of military hostilities would have been more convincing—and would perhaps have helped bring pressure on India to yield ground to Pakistan on bilateral disputes. But even without it General Kayani has successfully fooled the Pakistani people with this manoeuvre. And he might have even changed the tenor of the relationship with the United States. Why? Because there are two possibilities: First, the United States will understand that it has no choice but to solicit the Pakistani army’s support if it wishes to fight on in Afghanistan. (The Khyber squeeze makes this point a little less politely.) And that this will bring back the good old al-Faida times where US money will keep Pakistan afloat and the military-jihadi complex well taken care of.

Second, the United States will find that since it is impossible to fight on in Afghanistan under these circumstances, it will head for an exit. Since the world will fear nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and Taliban, Pakistan will continue to receive foreign assistance and kid gloves even after this. It can then make arrangements for a return to the good old 1990s where it controlled Afghanistan and prosecuted the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir (whose inhabitants had lost faith in the Kalashnikov)

At this point, it is unlikely that the incoming Obama administration would take the second option. So the question for US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus is whether they will be satisfied with their success being circumscribed by General Kayani.

Silencing a dead whistleblower

Pakistan’s military lies exposed

The report that Omar Saeed was planning terrorist operations from his death row should not surprise anyone who follows Pakistani news.[See this post from July 2005] That he could do it at all shows how seriously one should take Pakistan’s claims of arresting leaders of terrorist organisations. So was his audacity that he personally threatened to kill General Musharraf and disturbed the latter enough to cause him to book a ticket to London. (Who knew that calling current and former Pakistani presidents was this easy?) Shocking as it may be to the sensibilities of gentle people around the world, even this should not be really surprising: just how does the military establishment keep its former chief under control?

No, Amir Mir’s scoop about the busting of Saeed’s plan to kill General Musharraf was not about the assassination plot at all. It was part of a character assassination plot—because it alleges that Omar Saeed call records show that he was in touch with Major-General Faisal Alavi, a former chief of the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG), who was assassinated on November 19th. After British writer revealed in London’s Sunday Times, that General Alavi was likely to have been silenced by the Pakistani Army—for threatening to reveal its deals with the Taliban in the tribal areas—it became necessary to discredit the dead man. The use of Omar Saeed for this was a nice touch, his being a familiar name in Britain.

Dead men tell no tales. But live men certainly tell tales about the dead.

Update: Ayesha Siddiqa has more on the matter

Pakistan must nationalise the Jamaat-ud-Dawa

No, seriously

The Pakistani government is unable to raise fiscal resources by getting people and businesses to pay their taxes. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa can—it imposes a flat tax of 2.5% of annual savings on each family. It also raises resources through remittances from abroad. And its collection of hides of animals slaughtered for Eid-ul-Adha should bring a smile on the faces of public finance professors.

The Pakistani government is unable to provide basic public services like security, education and healthcare. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa, on the other hand, does so competently.

The Pakistani government has a problem—the Jamaat-ud-Dawa also engages in terrorism, and it will do the whole world a whole lot of good if it would give up this line of business. So why not nationalise the non-state actor? Doing so will not only inject transparency in the links between the Pakistani state and the jihadi establishment but also give the Pakistani government a shot in the arm.

Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

India needs to rethink its defence decisionmaking system

It is usual to conduct navel gazing after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. Even as the Indian Navy demonstrated the utility of its deployment in anti-piracy operations far from Indian shores, it is opportune to examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. As Manu Pubby reports the “Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.”

The navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This need not be inconsistent with the political leadership and top defence ministry officials having oversight over the broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. But the fact that there is contention between the naval headquarters and the defence ministry suggests that such issues have not been satisfactorily ironed out (perhaps because of a paucity of unilateral overseas military deployments).

Sushant Singh and I have previously argued that India must rethink its policy on overseas military deployments, and have advocated sending forces only to theatres—such as Somalia and Afghanistan—where its interests are involved. Such a policy requires development of guidelines that achieve the twin objectives: strategic alignment with geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committee and the defence minister. The national security advisor, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means that the political leadership can task the armed forces with a particular mission. But it should not exclude the armed forces from submitting proposals to the political leadership, through defence ministry channels, seeking mandates to conduct particular operations. It is up to the civilian component—political and bureaucratic—to define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

So empowered, the armed forces will have the mandate to conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy for almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, the military commanders will have the latitude to decide the best course of action to achieve the mission’s objectives.

It also needs changes to the structure of the armed forces. As Sushant Singh & Rohit Pradhan argue in this month’s issue of Pragati it is important to distinguish the roles military advisors and military commanders. So while the chief of defence staff (CDS) should rightly be the government’s chief military advisor, in this capacity he should not have operational control of the troops. Operational control, as K Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine army, navy and air force resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both the political leadership and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control”: but what India needs is both a policy framework that defines roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence setup, as well as a restructuring of the armed forces themselves. Until this happens, India’s approach to emerging military threats will be reactive, ad hoc and sub-optimal.

It’s not NATO’s fight

And there’s no fight in NATO

You hear about leaked diplomatic memos, resigned assessments by British field commanders and complaints by pundits—but it is when you read reports like this one, about German commandos twiddling their thumbs for three years (yes, three years) sitting in their camps, that you know why the Taliban are getting so powerful. (linkthanks Pragmatic)

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, admitted they had not been deployed “a single time” in the last three years, despite a desperate shortage of Special Forces units in the country.

Last year it emerged that Norwegian troops, fighting alongside their German allies, were forced to abandon a battle at tea-time because German pilots refused to fly emergency medical helicopters in the dark. [The Scotsman]

NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan is hobbled by a spaghetti bowl of “caveats” placing various types of restrictions on the where troops from individual countries can be deployed and their rules of engagement. For an organisation whose purpose was to standardise equipment and procedures and ensure interoperability,this state of affairs is as ironic as it is shameful.

Perhaps they should just pack up and leave.

An officer and a Taliban leader

Reversing the Kunduz airlift

Those who know the history of the Pakistani army’s battles won’t find this least surprising: very often, “mujahideen leaders” carry documents that identify them as Pakistani military officers.

British officials covered up evidence that a Taliban commander killed by special forces in Helmand last year was in fact a Pakistani military officer, according to highly placed Afghan officials.

The commander, targeted in a compound in the Sangin valley, was one of six killed in the past year by SAS and SBS forces. When the British soldiers entered the compound they discovered a Pakistani military ID on the body. [Times Online]

It is hard to say which is worse: whether this deputation was on official orders, or whether it was purely voluntary.