Let the Buzkashi begin!

The implications of Barack Obama’s policy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barack Obama has executed a very smart policy change—he has effectively dehyphenated Af-Pak by extricating the United States from the long-running Afghan civil war and focusing Washington’s attention on Pakistan. The United States will put in a genuine effort to mitigate the risk of a Taliban take-over in Afghanistan but will essentially leave Afghans to fight out their own affairs. It will, instead, maintain a security presence in the region tasked with keeping military pressure on jihadi militants that pose a threat to its own security.

What does this imply?

First, as far as the United States is concerned, not only Hamid Karzai but the post-2002 Afghan state is dispensable. If the Afghan state cannot secure itself against Taliban revolutionaries or other factions that seek to destroy it, Washington will not be concerned beyond a point. This message, as we will see, has (predictable) consequences.

Second, although the United States will withdraw its troops in 2014, it is not in a form that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex expected. Pakistani generals had long assumed that US withdrawal from Afghanistan automatically implied that they could take over the place the next day through a combination of Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. They had also assumed that they held the cards because international forces depended on their goodwill to make a face-saving exit. President Obama has delivered the Pakistani generals a nasty surprise—the residual US presence on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and drone strikes on Pakistani soil will calibrate how much Pakistan can influence the security and stability of Afghanistan. We have not reached the point yet, but it may well be that international forces need not rely on Pakistani routes on their way out.

Third, as a consequence of Washington extricating itself from Afghanistan, we are bound to see political factions emerge around tribal and ethnic lines, fighting and allying among themselves and seeking external support. This process will strengthen if the Taliban were either to take or share power. Let’s not forget that the mujahideen separated into factions after the Soviets left in 1989 and fought each other. Let’s also not forget that there was no ‘Northern Alliance’ before the Taliban became a dominant political force. So just because there isn’t visible opposition to the Taliban today, it doesn’t follow that there won’t be one if they come to power. Just because Messrs Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani are Pakistan’s proxies today, it doesn’t follow that they won’t reach for each others’ throats tomorrow. Of course this means “civil war”, if only because the Afghan civil war has been ongoing for a couple of decades now.

Fourth, if and when the “civil war” does take place, the United States will become the swing power between the China-Pakistan-Saudi and the India-Russia-Iran alignments. It has so far been engaged in the self-weakening business of preventing India, Russia and Iran from cooperating over Afghanistan. Washington will have to decide which side it intends to back. The smart thing for it to do would be to back neither permanently, rather to back them selectively, while retaining for itself the power and influence that comes from its role as the balancer. For this, though, it will need to have better relations with each of these alignments than they have with each other. Therefore, its ability to swing will depend on whether it can get over its Iran dogma and work out a modus vivendi, at least in Afghanistan.

Fifth, if Pakistan need not keep appearances of being an ally in the war on terror, the military establishment might well prefer to install in power a regime that it is to its liking. To the extent that Pakistani army’s needs for an ‘acceptable civilian face’ to extract money from the United States is diminished, Imran Khan’s—and Hafiz Saeed’s—political fortunes are set to improve.

Finally, India will need to remain open to support political factions in Afghanistan that seek it, even while robustly backing the legitimate leadership of the Afghan state. The most important risk to India’s national security comes from the spillover of veteran Afghan militants. In the early 1990s, Pakistan solved two problems at one go by diverting the surplus militant manpower to Jammu & Kashmir. Given that it has been unable to even begin address the problem of deradicalising its militant manpower base, its leaders—both military and civilian—will be tempted to do the same now. The longer these militants have reason to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the better it is for India. This should be one of New Delhi’s policy goals.

It’s time to dust off histories of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis

And the battle for supremacy within the military-jihadi complex

Yesterday, it was Peshawar again. Not a day passes without a major terrorist attack in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these attacks are attributed to the “Taliban” as if it were a monolithic entity, clouding our understanding as to who might have carried out the attacks and why.

As The Acorn has previously argued, the radical Islamist faction within the Pakistani military establishment gained critical mass around April 2007. It has only strengthened since then. (See these posts)

It is inevitable that this should happen, given that both the officer corps and the rank-and-file of the post-Ziaul Haq Pakistan army have been raised on a diet of Islamic fundamentalism. Pressed by the United States after 9/11, Generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani could well remove some, sideline others from the radical faction, but given their numbers and the popularity of their cause, but couldn’t completely purge them from the army. Yet given the international environment, the radical faction—that we like to call Gul & Co—cannot take over.

Now, Kayani & Co who wield power at the GHQ are hardly the sort who will pull the shutters on the use of cross-border terrorism to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and India. But given the choice, they are unlikely to want to impose a Taliban-like regime over Pakistan. They depend on the US largesse, which is available to them only when they play along with Washington’s demands. They also must continue to demonstrate that they—and not any other political actor—are the United States’ ‘indispensable allies’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So, on the one hand, General Kayani has every reason to use his proxies in Afghanistan—the taliban of the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura—to destabilise that country until the United States hands Kabul over to them. It is this faction that is fighting the US-led international forces in Afghanistan. (Similarly, Kayani & Co use the Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry out attacks against India).

On the other hand Gul & Co—General Kayani’s doppelgänger—won’t stop attacks on the Pakistan army until the latter stops doing Washington’s bidding. This faction uses the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Punjabi jihadi groups to carry out attacks within Pakistan, and on the Pakistan army. Kayani & Co are retaliating against these attacks through Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan by selectively targeting the taliban belonging to the Hakeemullah Mehsud group. Like all operations against jihadis, the Pakistan army will find it impossible to sustain such operations for too long—eventually soldiers will begin to ask why they are fighting their ‘innocent’ co-religionists and compatriots.

Despite their principals in the military establishment being at loggerheads, the proxies themselves have so far not attacked each other. Shared ideology, old boy networks and management by the ISI on the one hand and by the al-Qaeda leadership on the other have prevented a large scale fratricidal war among the jihadis. While a hot conflict between the jihadi proxies of the GHQ and Gul & Co factions is unlikely, it is not impossible. If the management mechanisms come under stress, the jihadis could train their guns against each other.

The longer Pakistan army proceeds on its current course—appeasing Washington without eliminating the jihadi element—the greater the chance that this will happen. Pakistan is no stranger to wars between sectarian-political militias. If the security situation continues to worsen—as it will unless the military establishment decides to co-operate with the civilian internal security machinery—Kayani & Co might well decide use their jihadi proxies to target their adversaries. Indeed, the popular agitation that ejected General Musharraf from power is still fresh in people’s minds, making the imposition of martial law (less a military coup) less likely. Thus, for Kayani & Co, the jihadi proxy becomes relatively more attractive as an option.

If the United States bails out of Afghanistan, it is possible that Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and other Gul & Co proxies will all make a play for power in Kabul. The power struggle there will have repercussions in Pakistan. Even in this case, Kayani & Co might have to employ their own proxies, in Pakistan, to fight for their interests.

In recent weeks, a sustained terrorist campaign has thrown Pakistan into turmoil and enveloped its citizens in an atmosphere of fear. The situation could get much worse if jihadi groups start targeting each other. Given its weakness, it is unlikely that civil society—as Pakistani optimists argue—will be able to forestall a fratricidal jihadi civil war.

Unless Kayani & Co eliminate both Gul & Co and their own jihadi proxies this is the way things will go. General Musharraf blew his chance in 2002 when he could have acted against Gul & Co and the jihadi groups when they were relatively weak in number. He chose not to. It’s much harder now. Just how does General Kayani demobilise several tens of thousands of functionally illiterate, combat-hardened, thoroughly radicalised men? That’s not all, these fighters are backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters and millions of sympathisers. This is one of the most important policy challenges for international security in the first half of this century.

Tailpiece: It is time to stop referring to the “Taliban” with a capital “t”. That term correctly refers to Mullah Omar’s regime, remnants of which are currently hosted by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex at Quetta. The groups that refer to themselves by that names are largely inspired clones and copycats. It is more informative to refer to them as jihadis or “taliban” (with a lower-case “t”) in general and cite the specific group they belong to. For instance: the Haqqani taliban, the Hakeemullah Mehsud taliban etc.

Colombo is in no mood for lectures

India’s (and the world’s) priority should be to avert a humanitarian disaster

If the fate of the hapless Tamil civilians is the world’s principal consideration with regard to the war in Sri Lanka, then it stands to reason that that war itself must come to an end as soon as possible. It is unrealistic to expect Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to heed calls for pausing the military offensive—at a time when the Sri Lankan army believes it is close to a complete victory against the LTTE, and after the LTTE leadership rejected a call to surrender and decided to fight to the finish. Colombo, as James Traub writes in the New York Times, is in no mood for lectures.

Also, regardless of whether ethnic relations between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Sinhala minority improve or worsen after the current phase of the war, the elimination of the uncompromising LTTE leadership cannot be a bad thing.

There are conflicting reports on how bad a situation the civilians find themselves in: absent independent reports, one has to choose between claims made by the two combatants. Even so, it is clear that Sri Lanka faces a massive humanitarian crisis in the coming days and months. Given the state of ethnic relations, it is reasonable to expect that the displaced Tamils will have misgivings about how they will be treated by the victorious Sri Lankan government in general, and by the Sri Lankan security forces in particular. These misgivings will be shared, perhaps amplified, among the Tamil population in India as indeed among the Tamil diaspora around the world.

The LTTE bears a moral responsibility for bringing the Sri Lankan Tamils into this humanitarian crisis. But only till the point that they come under the custody and protection of the Sri Lankan government. From that point on, the moral responsibility for their security, well-being and human rights rests with the Sri Lankan government. And it is incumbent on the Indian government to hold the Rajapakse government to account on this. One the one hand, India should demand greater transparency and access to the displaced civilian population and a fixed timetable for their return to their original homes. At the same time, India should offer financial, technical, logistical and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the humanitarian crisis does not turn into a humanitarian disaster. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy is to ensure that the Rajapakse government delivers on this.

Related Link: Colonel Hariharan’s answers to inconvenient questions.

Prabhakaran’s dilemma

Fly or die?

The anonymous Western diplomat got it right:

One Western diplomat said if Prabhakaran were to flee, it would be viewed as cowardice by his followers, ending Tamil militancy for a generation.

But the diplomat, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized by his government to speak on record, said the rebel leader’s death in battle or by suicide would make him a martyr to inspire future generations.


Cornered Tigers and after

Non-interference and its unhappy consequences

It’s not over until it’s over—and there is some fight left in the LTTE yet—but judging from available news reports, it is clear that the Tamil Tigers are cornered in Kilinochchi and a few other towns. The ripples of the situation have crossed the Palk Strait and have already rocked politics in Tamil Nadu state. There is a risk that they will rock the UPA government in New Delhi.

It has come to this pass because the UPA government’s policy paralysis on Sri Lanka. As the The Acorn had warned at that time, the critical moment was in December 2005. Failure to rein in the combatants at that time led to the inevitable war and bloodshed. Failure to coerce the Tamil Tiger leadership to give up its maximalist aims caused it to break the ceasefire. Failure to intervene pushed the Sri Lankan government into the arms of Pakistan, China and Iran for military support. India was too timid to support or oppose any one side. As a result it not only finds itself as little more than a bystander, grasping for ways it could avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilising Tamil Nadu, and indeed, New Delhi.

Let’s be clear about one thing: that the Tamil Tigers (not to mention the Sri Lankan Tamils) find themselves in this situation is due to the fault of their leadership. Velupillai Prabhakaran did not take advantage of the international mediation to transform the rather successful insurgency into a political process towards autonomy within a federal setup, at least as a first step. The LTTE’s sympathisers might argue that it was the Sri Lankan government that upped the ante: even so, Mr Prabhakaran’s failure to reject violence and keep the international peace brokers on his side allowed President Rajapakse to prosecute the war. In the event, rather successfully. And for all the drama in Chennai, the cornered LTTE leadership is yet to directly call for a ceasefire.

Now, as T S Gopi Rethinaraj has argued in the April 2008 issue of Pragati, as also in a recent op-ed in Hindustan Times, the prospect of a military victory for the Sri Lankan government can have negative consequences for India’s geopolitical interests. It is conceivable that a jubilant Sri Lankan government will swing over to its Chinese and Pakistani patrons. It will also not have any reason to deliver on its promises of equal treatment of its Tamil minorities. By this token, the survival of the Tamil Tigers is India’s insurance policy against this eventuality.

In fact, had the Indian government understood the realist logic underpinning Dr Gopi Rethinaraj’s arguments, it would have played a stronger role to freeze the balance of power in Sri Lanka in 2004-2005 and transform it into a political settlement. It didn’t. So it finds itself in an exceedingly satisfactory position now. It can’t close its eyes to the new reality on the ground—one of the Sri Lankan government achieving a victory on its own terms. But it also cannot ignore the reality that the war-ravaged Tamil minority will have to live under the victor’s rules. Despite their promises, it is by no means clear that the Rajapakse government will pursue an enlightened policy towards the Tamils and move towards healing the decades old ethnic conflict that underlies the civil war.

Whether the LTTE is practically wiped out in the coming weeks or manages to turn the tide of the war in its favour, India must set aside its policy of non-intervention into one of engagement. On the one hand, it must try to cobble up a Sri Lankan Tamil political formation that can play the part that the LTTE didn’t. And on the other, it must deepen its engagement with the Sri Lankan government in all spheres, to ensure that it can guarantee that Colombo keeps its word. It’s not going to be easy: there are few Sri Lankan Tamil leaders of the required stature, and elements within the Rajapakse government might well say “no, thank you”. But what alternatives does India have?

Pakistani arms for Sri Lanka

Should India really bother?

Let’s consider one narrative: India is opposed to the LTTE, but can’t support the Sri Lanka army because of a number of reasons—mostly having to do with domestic politics, but also perhaps for strategic reasons. So when Pakistan becomes a big supplier of small arms to Colombo, should India really worry?

Rather than go into a tizzy and attempt to counter the Pakistani move, a far more effective position would be to circumscribe the arms trade and Pakistan’s role. India has enough levers over Colombo to set limits on the type and quantity of arms that the latter can import, and ensure that arms suppliers don’t engage in other activities inimical to India’s interests. Indeed such a strategy might provide greater influence over Colombo’s approach to the civil war.

Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.