ISI’s change of course and other stories

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex will need more then the prospect of diplomatic isolation to change its policies.

Cyril Almeida’s report reads too good to be true.

Facing international isolation—read lack of support from the United States and even China—Pakistan’s civilian leaders confronted the ISI chiefand got him to permit action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and their respective leaders. Not only did they say this to the general’s face, but even more surprisingly, the general tacitly consented to law enforcement action against the groups. That’s not all, he agreed to visit every province, meet the local political, military and ISI leaders there, and persuade them to change course.

The appropriate reaction to this report is: yes, and teenage hippos rollerblade.

Yet, the fact that such a report made it to the press is interesting. Taken at face value, it does suggest that the strategy of persuading Pakistan’s supporters might be working. [I have argued for this before, on Yahoo! and WSJ]

However, it would be credulous to believe that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to change course merely on account of the prospect of international diplomatic isolation. Rawalpindi & Islamabad are masters are exploiting fissures in the world order to survive and promote their interests, and at a time when there are so many growing fissures in the international system, they shouldn’t find it hard to do so. The isolation explanation, by itself, is not convincing enough.

What is more likely is that the military establishment is playing for time ahead of a leadership transition as Gen Raheel Sharif retires next month. All his potential successors need all potential allies within the political system, and at this time, it is unlikely that any of them would want to antagonise their nominal political leaders. Gen Raheel himself might calculate that he needs friends to ensure that he enjoys his retired life.

Ergo, Mr Almeida’s report should not rouse great hopes in India. In any case, what matters are results on the ground; not official statements or unofficials leaks to the media. Worse, if the Pakistani army wishes to retalitate to an Indian surgical strike (that it says did not happen) with a similar strike of its own, for the sake of pyschological parity, then a report like this is just the kind of thing to leak.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

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).

Why the Modi government must ignore Pakistan

High level engagement of Pakistan is a waste of diplomatic capacity and political capital

Pakistan’s decision to ‘suspend’ the peace process with India along with the ‘co-operation’ on investigating the terrorist attack on Pathankot air station came suddenly. It should, however, come as a surprise only to those who believe that Pakistan is a normal nation-state where the elected government is in charge of state policy. In reality, Pakistan’s government and the military-jihadi complex are two separate entities vying for control, with the latter usually having the upper hand and the last say, especially on foreign policy. [See Understanding the military-jihadi complex]

Here’s a deconstruction of the events since before Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan to attend Nawaz Sharif’s family function.

The Pakistani military establishment was clearly not in favour of the Nawaz Sharif’s overtures to India, and authorised attacks on the Pathankot air station in view of Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan in December 2015. Why would the military establishment do this? Because any reductions of tensions with India would not only reduce damage the military-jihadi complex’s interests but also strengthen Nawaz Sharif’s vis-a-vis the military establishment. A spanner had to be thrown into the works. This is not dissimilar to 26/11, which had the effect of halting President Asif Zardari’s conciliatory engagement of India.

However, what complicated matters for the army was Nawaz Sharif’s decision to ‘co-operate’ with India on the investigation of the Pathankot attack, and further getting Pakistani investigators to visit India to collect evidence. By this time, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and it’s leader Masood Azhar had already been identified as prime suspects in the case. If events were to take their course, in due course, Azhar or his close associates would find themselves under arrest, with the Pakistani authorities compelled to curb their movements (much like in the case of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi after 26/11). Such a move would tilt the domestic balance of power in favour of Nawaz, and Gen Raheel Sharif would have none of that.

So we had the drama of the ‘capture’ of an Indian spy in Balochistan and China’s blocking of international action against Masood Azhar at the United Nations. The claim that Kulbhushan Jadhav’s capture is cause to ‘suspend’ the peace process and halt the investigations into Pathankot is laughable: the Pakistani establishment has long been claiming that India is stirring the pot in Balochistan and has even presented ‘evidence’ to foreign officials of this. Whatever the facts of the Jadhav case, they do not present any compelling new information to cause Pakistan to walk out of the peace process. The drama only makes sense when seen as providing an excuse for the military establishment to move to protect its jihadi assets from scrutiny, investigation and punishment.

Much of this drama is Pakistan’s domestic politics. The military-jihadi complex put the civilian government in place and restored its own supremacy. New Delhi’s fault was to walk into these murky waters and end up with a terrorist attack and a red face after being played out by the Pakistani establishment. Mr Modi did well to try engaging Pakistan positively from the beginning of this term — where he erred was in believing that he could force the pace of relations. Unless New Delhi realises that there are two Pakistans, the civilian government and the military-jihadi complex, and has a policy sophisticated enough to engage both simultaneously, it will come a cropper.

But why bother? Pakistan is irrelevant to India’s development agenda. It is a distraction (See this article in OPEN). Instead of wasting limited diplomatic capacity and political capacity on the Pakistan project, it would be much more prudent for Mr Modi to ignore Pakistan, and let it sort itself out. New Delhi ought to invest in protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks, creating political conditions that will minimise its impact and cranking up the economic engines to achieve rapid growth. Mr Modi should practice the necessary art of ignoring Pakistan.

Related Link: Takshashila’s discussion document on the dynamics of engaging Pakistan.

Terrorists, veto and the peace process

Terrorists should not be allowed to force us into talks either

After a terrorist attack on India in response to an Indian overture to resume dialogue with Pakistan, we often hear the argument that “terrorists should not be allowed a veto over the India-Pakistan peace process”. The assumption here is that the jihadi terrorists prefer a state of hostility and tension between the two countries, and that their objectives are different from those of the Pakistani government, which seeks peace. Ergo, New Delhi should announce that it will pursue “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue in order to frustrate the designs of the jihadis.

Now, there is some merit in signalling that terrorist attacks will not prevent the dialogue process, but for a different reason. A valid ground for continuing dialogue is if such a move will disincentivise the terrorists from attacking. Terrorists are likely to be so disincentivised if the assumption that their goal is to disrupt dialogue is valid. There is, however, little evidence for this.

Here’s an alternative assumption: that the jihadi groups are instruments of Pakistani policy, in a coordinated routine of good cop/bad cop. The military establishment uses the terrorists as “bad cops” so that New Delhi is pushed to engage and make concessions to the good cop, the Pakistani government. Under this assumption, a terrorist attack works to make New Delhi set aside previous Pakistani transgressions in the interests of the future, in order to “not allow the terrorists to succeed”.

This week’s Takshashila discussion document by Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane debunks the assumption that “terrorist groups are only loosely associated to some handlers in the Pakistan Army while a large section of the army wants peace with India”. Jihadi groups and the Pakistani military establishment are joined at the hip, and are against the existence of India. In the presence of clear links between the Pakistani army and the anti-India jihadi groups, the argument that the army favours dialogue while the jihadis don’t just doesn’t stand to reason. In the current case, Praveen Swami reports that the ISI revived the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the last few years.

So it is important not to pursue dialogue just because we assume that the jihadis are against it.

Related Link: What the Narendra Modi government ought to do about Pakistan in the light of the terrorist attack on Pathankot IAF base (in OPEN magazine).

Here we go again

Dialogue with Pakistan should be part of an overall strategy.

“What was being done as composite dialogue, and was later called the resumed dialogue, will now be called the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.” Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister [IE]

Given the history of the last fifteen years, it is hard to not be cynical about the re-initiation of the dialogue process with Pakistan. Governments engage, the Pakistani military and/or their jihadi proxies escalate violence in India and New Delhi is compelled to disengage. Time passes. Labels change. And the cycle repeats. The odds are that this round too will go the way of the previous ones. [See a previous post on the problem of talking to Pakistan]

What’s different this time? Well, this is perhaps the first time that the Indian government is indirectly engaging the Pakistani military leadership through, and alongside the Pakistani civilian government. Vajpayee engaged a Nawaz Sharif who was at loggerheads with the army, and a Musharraf who was a military dictator. Manmohan Singh engaged the same dictator and then Asif Zardari, a civilian president, who was out of the loop with the military establishment. When Narendra Modi first engaged Nawaz Sharif, the latter had already lost his hold on the military establishment. Now, with a recently retired general, Naseer Khan Janjua representing the army chief within the official setup as National Security Advisor, the Modi government will be talking to both the civilian and the military power centres at the same time.

If New Delhi could engage the Pakistani army directly, it would have been able to engage both power centres separately. Like the United States and China have shown, this has some tactical and transactional advantages. However, since New Delhi will not engage the Pakistan army, the current setup, with the army more involved in the process is better than it being not involved at all. What outcomes this will bring depends to a large extent on what the Pakistani military establishment chooses: it could replay the old records–which is what we should expect–and take us back to a new phase of the engagement-disengagement cycle.

The Modi government, like its predecessors, has decided to take the chance that “maybe, this time it will be different.” The only risk of this process is that Pakistan gets a little more rehabilitated in the international system, and take the pressure off its rulers on the issue of containing domestic and international terrorism. Also, the malevolent quarters of the Pakistani establishment might get emboldened to seize the opportunity and trigger violence in India. That is a risk that New Delhi must manage.

Of course, it is possible that the Pakistani military establishment might try a new routine and decide to lower tensions, both along the Line of Control and in terms of their jihadi proxies. This is unlikely because doing so would not only reduce its political salience, but put it along a path where its raison d’etre will be in question.

From New Delhi’s perspective, resuming dialogue — even the all-new comprehensive bilateral one — should be part of a overall strategy of its own desired outcome for Pakistan. [See an old post on talks and action bias]. This blog has argued that the containment and the eventual destruction of the military-jihadi complex is an essential part of that desired outcome. If dialogue can help achieve that, it is useful (as in February 2010). If not, well, we’ve seen this movie before.

What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:

Sir,

I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

Zabiullah talk, Taliban walk

The Taliban’s actions signal a different message from their words

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, has been dressed up to sound like a realist. “It’s possible for the Taliban and India to reconcile with each other” he told his interviewer, “(our) complaint is that India backed the (Northern Alliance) and is now supporting the Karzai government.” He’d like you to believe that it’s all a misunderstanding because “unlike the Lashkar which is focused on Jammu and Kashmir, the Afghan Taliban concentrate on Afghanistan. (Taliban) have never taken part in any attack in India, nor do we attack anyone at Pakistan’s behest.”

Given that everyone thinks it is that stage of the game where they should be seen talking to their adversaries, Mr Mujahid can be forgiven for self-serving lapses of memory. But Mullah Omar’s Taliban are joined at the hip with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). The HuM and its derivative organisations have been engaged in fighting Pakistan’s proxy war against India since the early 1990s. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to Fazlur Rehman Khalil?) When President Clinton ordered missile strikes on training camps in Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, among those killed were members of not only the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen but also the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen. [See B Raman’s 1998 assessment] So Mr Mujahid is not technically not lying. He’s just taking enormous liberties with the truth.

And we are not even talking about the Taliban’s role in the IC-814 episode. As if giving free passage to terrorist hijackers somehow absolves the Mullah Omar of complicity in the affair.

India must reach out to various groups and factions in Afghanistan. But a lot of options will have to be exhausted, and then some, before trying to sup with Mullah Omar’s outfit. If the Taliban were so keen to engage India, attacking Indian officials in Kabul would be exactly the opposite of what they would do. There’s not only a big gulf between history and Mr Mujahid’s telling of it. There is a huge one between his words and the Taliban’s deeds. Believing in the Taliban’s bonafides is not the stuff of imaginative diplomacy. It is a recipe for delusional diplomacy.

Why study 26/11 when it’s easier to bury it?

Democracy cannot operate without sunlight

Y P Rajesh in the Indian Express on Mumbai’s unanswered questions:

26/11 deserved an inquiry commission on the lines of the US commission that probed 9/11 and went on to blame the FBI and the CIA for intelligence failures. Particularly since the failures in India involved central and state, civilian and military agencies. But all that Mumbai got was a state-level exploratory trip by two retired officials who had to rely on police officers volunteering information, and even those findings were buried. [IE]

Now, inquiry commissions, in the India context are more often used to put an issue with explosive political implications first into suspended animation and then into deep freeze. They are also used as political trump cards whenever the ruling party badly needs one.

But not constituting one, or creating one flippantly, ensures that even the small chance that policy lessons will be learnt disappears. It is bad governance—there is no systematic study of what went wrong and what went right, citizens do not know what to demand of their politicians (even if the citizens of South Bombay cared about such things) and culprits at all levels of government do not even get called out. Shame.

This is not to say that 26/11 didn’t compel the Indian government to get a lot more serious about internal security than on 25th November 2008. Appointing P Chidambaram as home minister was the first such move. He has injected a degree of purposefulness in the government’s security apparatus. The home ministry might have drawn some lessons from 26/11. But we are none the wiser.

The least the UPA government can do on the first anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks on India is to offer an honest appraisal of the entire episode.