Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

Concerns about secret US raids into Pakistan

US covert operations in Pakistan pose risks to India

There is something disturbing about US raids of the sort that killed Osama bin Laden. If the level of secrecy was so high that the Pakistani military establishment was not operationally aware of who was conducting the raid, if not for what purpose, there is a risk that the Pakistanis will reflexively react as if it were an Indian attack.

The White House counter-terrorism chief’s comments add to these concerns:

Q: And I understand that there was a moment of real tension, one with the helicopter, but then also when the Navy SEALs were leaving and the Pakistani government started scrambling their jets, and there was a concern that they were coming to where the U.S. troops were, where the Navy SEALs were. Was there an actual concern that the Pakistanis — since they were not apparently informed about this military operation, was there an actual concern that they might actually take military action against the Navy SEALs?

MR. BRENNAN We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace. At the time, the Pakistanis were reacting to an incident that they knew was taking place in Abbottabad. Therefore, they were scrambling some of their assets.

Clearly, we were concerned that if the Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else, they didn’t know who were on those jets. They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else. So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces. This operation was designed to minimize the prospects, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged and there was no other individuals who were killed aside from those on the compound. [White House, emphasis added]

The military establishment is paranoid about their “strategic assets” and the notion of US, India and Israel snatching Pakistan’s nuclear weapons has been deeply socialised within the population. Presuming that John Brennan is telling the truth, what this means is that raids like the one the US conducted in Abbottabad might be seen as attempts to defuse the nuclear arsenal, especially but not necessarily if they happen to be conducted in the vicinity of nuclear weapons storage sites. This sets up a game of Crown Jewel Panic, which poses asymmetric risks for India. [See 1 2 3 4]

It is in India’s interests that the United States share information with India or Pakistan well before it conducts such operations. Now there is a chance that if India is seen to be raising its guard after receiving such information, the Pakistani army will be more inclined to believe that something is afoot, thereby raising the risks to India. So informing the Pakistanis would be the best way to lower the risks of unintended consequences. But then, informing the Pakistanis might well defeat the whole purpose of the covert raid. Therefore, given that the risks disproportionately accrue to India, keeping New Delhi in the loop is a far better option than keeping it in the dark.

Obviously, the question is “Why would the Americans tell us?” It is easy to the usual route of cribbing that they never will. That route also leads to a cul-de-sac. The other route is to ask “How can New Delhi persuade Washington that it is better that they tell us first?” The latter route is likely to be more productive.

Hello Baradar

Why a lamb was sacrificed

The New York Times, which broke the story of the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, supposedly second only to Mullah Mohammed Omar in the Taliban firmament, says that it was the result of a joint US-Pakistani operation in Karachi last week. The news was kept secret in order to entrap other members of the Taliban leadership but was finally released to the public after “White House officials acknowledged that the capture of Mullah Baradar was becoming widely known in the region”—that is, after someone in Pakistan leaked it. [See analyses by M Ilyas Khan (‘BBC’), Amanda Hodge (The Australian) and Huma Yusuf (Christian Science Monitor)]

Now why was the poor Mullah ‘captured’? At an INI discussion this afternoon, we arrived at four potential answers.

First, given the fact that he was arrested in Karachi—and not Quetta, Peshawar or the tribal areas—it could well have been a CIA operation that led to his capture. Since it would be impolitic to present it as such, a convenient cover story of a joint operation becomes necessary. The fact that US operatives are interrogating Mr Baradar while he is in Pakistani custody supports this argument. If indeed it was a US operation that netted him, it would mean that the Obama administration has escalated covert operations in Pakistani territory to another level. Both Pragmatic Euphony and I lean towards this explanation.

Second, as Arif Rafiq of the Pakistan Policy blog has argued, Mr Baradar could have been sacrificed by General Kayani as a signal to Mullah Omar—that the Quetta Shura Taliban had better not stray too far from the line laid down by Rawalpindi. This might, for instance, require the Taliban to become more amenable to talks with the Americans and a deal with the Karzai government. Or it might actually be the opposite, as Mr Baradar was engaged in secret talks with the Karzai government and US forces. In any event, this explanation suggests that the Pakistani military establishment is using very strong tactics to coerce the Taliban.

Third, as my INI co-blogger Dhruva Jaishankar noted, it might well be that the Mr Baradar’s fate is similar to that of the several ‘right-hand men’ and ‘No 3’s’ that General Musharraf used to hand over to release some pressure that the United States exerted on him. While entirely plausible, it is unclear why the ‘capture’ should take place in Karachi—prompting uncomfortable questions as to who else is holed out in that city.

Fourth, just for the sake of analytical completeness, is the possibility that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to jettison the Quetta Shura Taliban. No, before you entertain wishful thoughts, this is not because of any ‘change of heart’ but because General Kayani might have calculated that this particular group is dispensable. It is the Haqqani militia that is Pakistan’s chief proxy in Afghanistan.

Manmohan Singh’s costly lollipop giveway

Reinforcing the Denial in Pakistani society is setback for India

Mirror-imaging is not uncommon in popular conceptions that Indians and Pakistanis have of each other. You hear it from Indian lofty-softies when they declare that Pakistanis are “people like us”. But while Indian mirror-imaging generally stops with an innocent notion of the nature of Pakistani society, Pakistani mirror-imaging extends to the nature of the state and its organs.

Nowhere is this most manifested than in the belief that India’s intelligence agencies play the same role their Pakistani counterparts. Accusing India’s RAW of involvement in any number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan—however illogical it might be—need not concern the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s propaganda/psychological operations units anymore: for it is part of the Pakistani nation’s denial mechanism. It is far easier to believe that those devious Hindu-Bania-Indians did it rather than to go through the emotionally draining process of uncovering just why are jihadis killing their compatriots and co-religionists.

Even so reading the editorial in today’s Dawn should bring the coffee onto your clothes. On the matter of the dossier on RAW’s covert operations in Pakistan that Yusuf Raza Gilani supposedly handed over to Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh, it notes that “if they are rogue elements within RAW who are acting independently, they must be taken to task forthwith.” The good people on the editorial board of Dawn are generously—possibly sincerely—providing the Indian prime minister with the same escape route that US officials often provide the Pakistani government.

During a week when it was Pakistan which submitted a dossier of Indian misdeeds, and the Indian foreign ministry used the word “baseless”, Dawn’s editorial just completes the picture. As Coomi Kapoor puts it, India went to the “NAM summit as the (victim) of terror and came back with a document which seems to suggest that both countries are on a level playing field when it comes to sponsoring terror in the other’s backyard.”

Allowing Pakistan to insert the words that it “has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in a joint statement has reinforced popular Pakistani perceptions that Indian intelligence agencies are responsible for high-profile acts of terrorism like that attack on the police academy and the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. To the extent that these attacks had galvanised people against the Taliban, the “badly drafted” joint statement damaged the developing resolve against jihadi culture in Pakistani civil society.

The real implication of agreeing to the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is its impact on Pakistani politics and society, and in turn, the effect this will have on India’s security. (And not so much the handle it gives Islamabad in bilateral negotiations, or indeed, casting itself as a victim of Indian covert operations. More on this in another post, here).

One man—and only one man—is responsible for this setback: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blaming the foreign secretary and other underlings for the “bad drafting” is pointless. No one but the prime minister himself could have agreed to that reference. He should be held personally accountable for this decision.

Handing Mr Gilani (not even Asif Ali Zardari, and there’s a difference) this lollipop has already had perverse effects: in addition to damaging the prospects of Pakistani society turning against its Talibanisation, it has increased Mr Gilani’s stature vis-à-vis President Zardari. If at all a lollipop had to be given, it should have been to Mr Zardari who had been sounding conciliatory, and not to Mr Gilani who is trying to mask his insignificance as a popular leader by taking hardline positions against India. The decision to reward Mr Gilani and punish Mr Zardari is astonishing: it is either an act of strategic wisdom that ordinary mortals cannot fathom or a clearly discernible act of folly.

The acid test is the next Pakistan-originated terrorist attack: if there is one, Dr Singh must resign. If there isn’t one, or a major attack is averted with the assistance of the Pakistani government, then he deserves our praise.

Update: In his op-ed on July 31st, Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoes these arguments (in greater detail and style)

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.

Friday Squib: Unconventional war footing

The things that they believe in America!

Fred Gedrich, a former US government official, in the Washington Times:

Pakistan could do two things to diminish the Islamic extremist threat: develop an unconventional warfare capability and cut off the stream of jihadis coming out of madrassas.

Pakistan hasn’t been able to succeed in pacifying the lawless tribal region and elsewhere because it’s using conventional troops, weapons and tactics against enemies who don’t wear uniforms, carry weapons openly or abide by international war rules.

It needs to transition to an unconventional war footing (special military forces working with local populations and performing clandestine operations) but presently doesn’t have this capability. The United States offered to provide training, advice and support, but Pakistan’s government hasn’t fully accepted the offer yet… [WT, emphasis added]

Mr Gedrich, despite having worked for the State and Defense departments (or perhaps because of it) seems hopelessly ignorant of Pakistan’s history. The problem is not that the Pakistani army does not have unconventional warfare capacity or that it can’t do clandestine operations. The problem is that it has and did too much of it.