What’s a little terrorism between dialogue partners?

The sharam at Sharm-el-Sheikh

Dr Manmohan Singh met Yusuf Raza Gilani at the sidelines of the NAM summit in Egypt and among others, agreed that “dialogue is the only way forward. Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” They’ll continue playing dossiers-and-lawsuits.

If this was what India intended to do, it is baffling that the prime minister had to travel all the way to Egypt, meet Mr Gilani there, and declare that “dialogue is the only way forward.” At least, the Indian people could have been spared the shameful spectacle of the prime minister radiating forgiveness and sympathy in the full glare of the international media.

Let’s see how Dr Singh’s policy might be justified. It can be reasonably argued that the Zardari-Gilani disposition is really powerless and engaging them seriously will achieve several things simultaneously. The civilians putatively in power in Islamabad will be ‘strengthened’, India will be able to engage Pakistan where it makes sense and international (read US) pressure can be defused by pointing to a dialogue process.

It might even lead to diplomatic and perceptional benefits arising from Pakistan admitting that it is the source of international jihadi terrorism. So even if this approach doesn’t yield any advantages on containing anti-India terrorism, it will help lower political risk perceptions of international investors, and therefore, there’s no harm in taking this course. Perhaps it will even dissuade jihadis from attacking India, once they learn that their actions won’t amplify into an India-Pakistan standoff.

Maybe. But the problem with Dr Singh’s approach is that it is too reasonable. Every political actor in Pakistan will rest assured that it can inflict damage on India in order to gain an advantage in the domestic power play. The military-jihadi complex, for instance, will be vindicated in its belief that it is strategically inexpensive to stage an attack against India to fend-off US pressure to act against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Zardari-Gilani duo will be less inclined to face down the military-jihadi complex because India has let them off the hook. Sure, the Obama administration will applaud India’s restraint because it’ll clear the decks for the United States to go through with the Af-Pak strategy—but there is no guarantee that it will be sensitive to India’s interests in the region.

This is not to say that resuming the dialogue is a mistake. But Dr Singh gave away too much without getting anything substantial in return. There is a hint that there is some kind of a backroom deal with the Pakistani military establishment but let’s face it, such deals are easily repudiated, unenforceable and won’t last the next major terrorist attack. Arresting, trying and jailing leaders of jihadi groups will not stop Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorism against India. But India yielded before Pakistan delivered that minimum of minimums. The Indian prime minister has pulled Pakistan out of the international doghouse yet again without anything to show for it. Dr Singh, of all people, should know that this approach doesn’t work—the ‘joint anti-terrorism framework’ announced at the NAM summit at Havana came to a nought. (See After the Havana appeasement)

What a shame!

Kayani wins this round

But it’s likely to go downhill for him from here

One of the primary tasks Ashfaq Pervez Kayani set for himself when he took over from Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s army chief was to restore the image of the Pakistani army at home and abroad. It was in November 2007 when the popularity of the Pakistani army had hit rock bottom. Now, in May 2009, it is clear that General Kayani has succeeded in that objective. After the ‘successful’ military offensive against the Mullah Fazlullah’s Taliban militia at Swat the army has regained a lot of the respect that it had lost in the final months of General Musharraf. The United States can’t be too unhappy either.

This has come due to, and at the cost of, the complete wrecking of the process of rapprochement with India—the attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai and its aftermath. But then, General Kayani never did say that good relations with India were part of his plans. Continue reading “Kayani wins this round”

Let out of the purdah

Don’t take the charade too seriously

Now unless you think that dossiers-and-lawsuits is somehow an effective way for India to secure itself against attacks by Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, you should neither be surprised nor overly concerned over the Lahore High Court’s decision to release the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief from house arrest. Of course his release reveals Pakistan’s lack of seriousness in acting against the jihadi groups. As does the fact that there were no charges pressed against him—he was only under ‘preventive custody’. This going in and out of the purdah—to use Sumit Ganguly’s term—is an old routine. In fact, it shows a lack of seriousness on India’s part to expect the Pakistani legal system to somehow solve the problem pf cross-border terrorism. Dossiers-and-lawsuits simply cannot be the centre-piece of India’s strategic response. [See: Beyond the cosmetic crackdown and after the mea culpa]

Coming to Mr Saeed’s release, what might have been the motivations and the terms of the deal? The Pakistani army is engaged in a battle against the ‘Taliban’ in Malakand and Waziristan, it is likely to want to placate the jihadis in its heartland. Also, Mr Saeed’s case fits a pattern of judgements coming from the ‘restored’ judiciary which also freed A Q Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in recent months. Like the others, Mr Saeed’s freedom is likely to have come under the understanding that for the time being, he is permitted to indulge in rhetoric, but not the kind of mischief that would get the Pakistani government in more trouble. That’s not bad news.

There is a chance that Mr Saeed’s release is linked to the onset of the summer infiltration season in Jammu & Kashmir. But surely, the resourceful LeT chief is unlikely to have serious impediments in directing the operations while being under house arrest. That would even provide alibis, fig leafs and mitigation pleas to all those who might need them.

The Indian hand

Misled by theory

Obviously, the enemy has to be India, the United States and Israel. So it is hardly surprising for the Pakistani people and the media to deal with its cognitive dissonance over the Taliban by blaming it on the Indian and American hand.

How bad is the dissonance? Well, take a look at the editorial section of today’s Daily Times, this blogger’s favourite Pakistani newspaper. Its unsigned editorial laments the myth-making tendency of the media and government spokesmen and warns that immediately attributing terrorist attacks to the Indian or American hand “is a self-damaging policy as it will finally derail our national direction and let the terrorists go scot-free.” But the same page has an op-ed by Ejaz Haider (a follow-up piece on the borders-and-troops discussion) that says:

One Indian reader, a former army officer, wrote saying that “Z”, the internal threat, is more pressing and unfolding. True. I never said it was not and have written repeatedly about it. But addressing Z [the Taliban —ed] does not mean taking one’s eyes off X [India —ed]. Also, if indirect war is the game in town, X may find it opportune to worsen Z for Pakistan even as Z is not X’s creation.

There is increasing evidence of that now.

That completes the circle. Pakistan faces Z threat; Pakistan also faces X threat. There are linkages between X and Z. So by fighting against the Z threat, Pakistan is also addressing the indirect threat from X.

Nothing to grudge X for. If the model is conflictual and if X thinks that it now has the opportunity to pay Pakistan back, so be it. Only, that makes a hash of arguments against lowering the guard and using cooperative strategies. [Daily Times emphasis added]

Now, realist calculations would suggest that the enemy’s enemy being a friend, the Taliban and India should be bedfellows. But it is entirely a different matter to assert that they are bedfellows. The latter requires evidence. If there is ‘increasing evidence’, then it ought to be produced, not least because it would delight many people in India who’d like to believe that Pakistan is being paid back in its own coin.

Yet the reality is that while New Delhi might have been supportive of the idea of a Pashtunistan born out of a sense of Pashtun nationalism, the idea of a Talibanised nuclear neighbour doesn’t really warm the cockles of many in India. And even those who argue that Pakistan’s capture by the Taliban won’t make much of a difference would hardly advocate throwing resources and taking unnecessary risks when Pakistan is demonstrating that it can implode without their help.

Indeed, the realist logic can be applied differently: the Pakistani government could make peace with its rear enemy (India) to conserve its energies for the battle against the forward enemy (Taliban). This would, however, require Pakistani strategists to adopt new thinking. There’s hardly any evidence of that.

To not have the bluff called

The attachment of impossible conditions is revealing

Across the border, Ejaz Haider opines that “if Pakistan is asked by the US and other western capitals to pull out troops from the eastern border and deploy them to the west, then perhaps India should also be asked to thin its much-heavier Pakistan-specific deployment.” He goes on to demand Pakistan be financially compensated for committing more troops to fight the Taliban. (Hey, but we thought they were Pakistan’s enemy too.)

As we’ve argued, India must call this bluff by pulling back troops from the international border. In response to our op-ed, a prominent strategic analyst privately noted that such a move is politically impossible unless Pakistan first delivers something tangible on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. A job, it seems, for Richard Holbrooke.

Mr Haider, though, asks for too much. It is unnecessary to address all of Pakistan’s threat perceptions vis-a-vis India in order to get it to commit more troops to its western front. It is plainly obvious that Pakistan’s structural insecurity with respect to India cannot be addressed merely using policy, money or military movements. The power differential between India and Pakistan is large and growing and the only way for Pakistan to avoid feeling more insecure is to drop its points of conflict with India. This is cold realism (and yes, it applies to India too, via-a-vis China). This is a larger problem but it need not get in the way of solving the issue at hand, which concerns releasing more troops for the war against the Taliban.

We have argued that Pakistan can move as many as 150 infantry battalions (150,000 soldiers) from the border with India, without changing the military balance along the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir, and on the battlefront in the Siachen region. Mr Haider asks for the impossible when he asks for India to lower its troop levels in Kashmir: not least when Pakistan has escalated its infiltration attempts, the demands of counter-insurgency remain and when part of the Indian military deployment in the state addresses China, not Pakistan.

Often, asking for the impossible is a way to kill the whole idea. We are sure that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex would like the idea killed. But we’d like to believe Mr Haider doesn’t.

On guard in north Kashmir

Pakistan’s military-complex might strike when Indian attention is focussed on election results

Even as the Indian political establishment—and constitutional machinery—goes into a state of flux for the next few days, ahead of the formation of a new government, it is vulnerable moment that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex is highly likely to exploit.

Last week, media reports revealed that as many as 200 infiltrators had already crossed over by May 12th, and in all likelihood there are many more. The heights and the valleys of north Kashmir—non-traditional and more difficult infiltration routes—are being used.

The defence and home ministries would do well to accord the maximum attention to this.

Current red lines

Reading the tense

US officials, we are told, “are continuing to press Pakistan to accept more American trainers, an issue likely to come up in the meetings next week.”

Pakistan has balked, American officials said, because it does not want a large American presence in its country.

“There’s a red line about our advisers and any foreign boots on the ground in Pakistan right now,” a senior administration official said. He said that the United States was “doing everything we can within the constraints that are currently placed on our engagement to be as helpful as we can.” [NYT, emphasis added]

That’s Richard Holbrooke, in all likelihood. In any case, the use of the time dimension with respect to those red lines is interesting.

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

The absurdity of giving Predator drones to Pakistan

It’s the inclination, stupid!

It is one thing for President Asif Ali Zardari to say it. It is entirely another thing to take him seriously. We are talking about Mr Zardari’s Archimedes-like statement: “Give us the drones and we will take out the militants ourselves.” Some visiting US officials and journalists have found this demand promising.

It is also extremely absurd.

The United States is using unmanned aerial vehicles to attack specific al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders because it cannot use inexpensive, conventional methods like getting a bunch of troops to go there and arrest or kill the targeted individuals. The United States cannot do it because they are in Pakistani territory, and sending troops without an agreement with the Pakistani government amounts to an invasion. An invasion is not only illegal under international law, but also causes the Pakistani government and the people to get very worked up. The use of Predator & Reaper drones, is somehow considered to be less of a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. (A aero-geopolitical version of the vexed legal question: when is rape a rape?)

The Pakistani government, by definition, does not violate Pakistani sovereignty when it storms a building in its own territory. It also does not, generally, violate international law. It might get some Pakistani people worked up, but no more than if it were to use drones for the purpose. So if Mr Zardari really wants to take out the militants, then there’s nothing—save the Pakistani military establishment—really stopping him. But if the military establishment is stopping him from getting troops to storm Taliban leaders, it is also going to stop him from using drones for the purpose. The problem then, is not the non-availability of drones, but the unwillingness of the Pakistani military establishment. Mr Zardari & his civilian friends can’t fly those drones, can they?

Now unless the idea is to paint the American drones in Pakistani colours while flying them out of Pakistani air bases, but controlling them remotely from bases in the US, Mr Zardari’s idea doesn’t make much sense.

The Pakistan that can say No

Actually, the military establishment that can say No

“Pakistan,” Hamid Mir writes, “suffered a loss of more than US$34 billion and received only US$11 billion as aid in the last seven years for participating in the war against terror.” Ahmed Quraishi, another commentator, contends that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud is really a proxy of the CIA (thereby contradicting Graham Usher who gives credence to the allegation that Mr Mehsud is backed by India). And Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen are out to ‘malign the ISI and the Pakistan army’, which, presumably, were hitherto unmaligned. Pakistan, you see, is just an innocent victim of American foreign policy.

During the Holbrooke-Mullen visit, the issue of unpopular drone strikes was made the centrepiece of the “gap” that exists between the US and Pakistani governments [see Chidanand Rajghatta’s report].This allowed the Zardari-Gilani-Kayani government to score some points in the media and among the people. It won’t be long before some commentators will compare it, favourably, to General Musharraf’s famous post-9/11 U-turn when he quickly acceded to US demands.

But the real “gap” is the rather obvious fact that the US government has dropped the pretence of suggesting that the top leaders of the Pakistani army are well-meaning folks doing their best to stamp out the ‘renegade’ and ‘rogue elements’ of the military establishment. The US State Department, Mr Mir reveals, even played an intercepted audio conversation between General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani to journalist Mary Anne Weaver.

Soon after President Barack Obama’s announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this blog argued that the main issue “boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?” There is money, of course, but there is a limit to which the United States can avoid or delay disbursing the financial aid, as the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the collapse of the Pakistani state is imminent. In any case, to the extent that the civilian channeling, extra oversight and ‘benchmarks’ keep the military establishment’s hands out of the cookie jar, it is unlikely to be motivated by the moolah. Pakistan cannot afford to say No. But the military establishment can.

In coming days, expect the military-jihadi complex to ratchet up the tensions with India, in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere. Even the pretence of supporting a freedom struggle in Kashmir will be discarded in favour of justifying the escalation as indicated by ‘legitimate security concerns’ in the face of rising Indian influence in Afghanistan and mischief in Balochistan. The ground for this has already been prepared by the prominence (via Jengnameh, a noteworthy new blog) given to the opinions of Ahmed Rashid, Barnett Rubin and Shuja Nawaz by the Obama administration circles. It will only grow by mindless repetition. Indians should expect a tense summer.

So, regardless of how desperate President Zardari (or any civilian leader) is for foreign aid flows, General Kayani will say No. The good news is that we don’t have to suffer the pretence. The bad news is that because Mr Holbrooke drew those red lines so quickly, he’s trapped in a red circle of his own making. Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen would do well to to back to Washington and address the main issue. The solution does not involve giving Pakistan the drones with which to conduct the strikes. It involves doing something about the red lines.