The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

Calculating Pakistan’s Al Faida income

The military establishment seeks more rent

Pakistan, the United States and NATO are currently engaged in negotiations over a transit fee for the route from Karachi to the Afghan border. Pakistan has demanded $5000 per container (in either direction) although other reports suggest that it would seek a ‘nominal fee’ of around $1800. It is important to note that these are over and above what Pakistan has already been making from the container traffic.

Here’s a conservative estimate of how much the Pakistan makes from permitting US and NATO troops transit routes from Karachi to the Afghanistan border. Between 2005 and June 2010, Pakistani military and civilian government entities made $290 million (Update: At least $360 million, including toll revenues—see details below], or a little over $1000 per container, from allowing US and NATO transit to Afghanistan. The military establishment’s share of this is just over half, all of it in terms of pure rent or, as we like to call it “Al Faida”. The civilian government’s share came from taxes and through port charges.

Click to enlarge

An earlier post, from February 2009, has another estimate of the takings. Those figures are higher than these because they involve a different period and perhaps a different count of the number of containers. In the present analysis, the number of containers is taken from a report on the ISAF container scam by the Pakistani government’s Federal Tax Ombudsman, from January 2011. That report provides some interesting details about the political economy of the transit business—how a lot of people make lot of shady money. Also, it notes that 3544 US/ISAF containers are ‘missing’.

Update: According to Gen William Fraser, US Transcom commander, more than 35,000 containers were delivered through Pakistan in 2011. This would give the Pakistani military establishment $18.375 million in rent and an income of $17.5 million for the civilian government entities for the year.

If the US/ISAF traffic is in the range of 600 trucks per day, then Pakistan will earn around $129 million in 2012, of which the military establishment will pocket $66 million. Note that this excludes the transit fee/tax that is under negotiation.

Update (May 23, 2012): A senior Pakistani government official has testified to the Public Accounts Committee that the Pakistani army’s construction wing, the Frontier Works Organisation, has occupied all toll plazas along the route, and pocketed all the Rs 6.5 billion in toll revenues. That’s around $71 million at the current exchange rate, but higher given that the Pakistani rupee has been depreciating over the last few years.

Related Links: Pragmatic Euphony on the truth about the NATO supply routes.

The Red Herring Dealers of Lahore

There’s more to the Mumbai terror alert than meets the eye

Yesterday, reports in the media indicated that a terror alert had been sounded in Mumbai and across many Indian airports: five terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba had entered the country and planned to target petrochemical installations in Mumbai using the sea routes. These reports were similar to those a couple of days earlier, concerning Gujarat, where coastal police tightened watch over offshore islands and the petrochemical complex at Jamnagar.

Reports in today’s Pakistani newspapers reveal that three of the five alleged LeT terrorists are shopkeepers and a security guard from Lahore, who have sought police protection in the light of the Indian terror alert.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a goof-up by Indian intelligence authorities, citing Occam’s & Hanlon’s razors. To do so would be to ignore the little known fact that the Lashkar-e-Taiba has, in the past, used red herrings to befuddle and embarrass India’s intelligence agencies, including during one of the biggest terrorist attacks in recent times. It would also be to ignore the alacrity with which the three gentlemen from Lahore discovered their photographs, sought police protection and, according to one popular website that peddles a ‘nationalist’ line, were to address a press conference. All this within hours of the photographs appearing in the Indian media. Things do happen pretty fast in the internet age, but a mere three six hours to mobilise all this should raise eyebrows. (Gujarat police had put up the photographs across the state as early as May 6th). [See update below]

So what, other than incompetence, are the possibilities?

The first is that real terrorists used fake identities to enter India. If they have entered India, it means they are still around and might use the lowering of guard caused by this episode to strike. Also, the alerts indicated five terrorists. It is important, therefore, for the authorities and the media to treat the threat as ongoing and serious, and not drift into complacency.

Second, this was an information operation designed to embarrass India and the United States, and use it to show that India always makes false accusations against Pakistan. By implication, Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were victims of a ‘false flag’ operation by India (and the United States) to implicate Pakistan. The best time for this would have been when Hillary Clinton was on Indian soil. However, by accident, inefficiency or design, the terror alert was sounded after she left the country. In the event the grand expose in Lahore turned out to be a damp squib.

Be that as it may, the myth-making machines of Pakistan will turn this episode into a narrative of how Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar-e-Taiba are unfairly blamed by India and the United States. Even if its for domestic consumption, it’s still an effort that didn’t go waste.

We must, of course, consider the Occam & Hanlon razors. Did India’s intelligence agencies goof up? They could have erred in terms of the existence of the threat, the presence of terrorists and their identities. Each of these is a separate issue. That said, at this stage, we are better off if they raise an alert at the risk of looking red-faced rather than let the fear of embarrassment cause them to less on the ball.

Tailpiece: There’s also a chance that the Indian media put up the wrong pictures. How and why they’d end up publishing photographs of the three gentlemen from Lahore is a mystery.

Update: May 11th, 2012 Praveen Swami & Mohammad Ali report “late on Wednesday, shopkeeper Mahtab Butt said he had on a whim used Google to search for the word ‘India.’ The search led him to an India Today group site. There, he discovered a photo of himself, fellow storeowner Atif Butt and night guard Muhammad Babar, illustrating a story on the alleged Mumbai terror plot. Mr. Butt said he immediately called Pakistani television show host Mubashir Lucman — a controversial figure known for his dogged support of the religious right — with the news…Later that evening though, both Mr. Butt and Mr. Atif Butt provided The Hindu with a quite different version of events. The two men said they had learned of the report from a common friend, whom they identified as Khubaab.”

This increases the likelihood that India’s intelligence agencies were fed misinformation to either divert or embarrass them. We can only speculate the reasons for this. Embarrassing India during Mrs Clinton’s visit is enough of a motive. While it is unlikely that the ISI would wish to escalate tensions with India at a time when Pakistan’s relations with the US are close to breaking down, it would be inappropriate to dismiss the risk of a terrorist attack.

Cheering Pakistan’s missile test

May they have ever longer ranges!

It is in India’s interests that Pakistan should acquire missiles with very long ranges. The greater the range, the better it is for India. No, this is neither sarcasm nor flippancy, this is logic.

Pakistan does not need more nuclear warheads or missiles to deter India. It achieved that deterrence in the mid-80s even before testing nuclear weapons on its soil. There is no Indian leader who will risk as much as a radioactive wind blowing towards an Indian population centre, leave alone suffer a nuclear attack. The moment Pakistan had one nuclear warhead that it could deliver on one airplane, it had already substantially achieved the deterrence it sought. Pakistan now supposedly has over a hundred warheads, is feverishly cranking up fissile material (for others) and has scores of missiles of varying ranges and payload capacities. It is even claiming to develop “second strike” capability, which is absurd given the India-Pakistan nuclear relationship (It’s MUD, not MAD). Again, this absurd claim is being used to obfuscate the inventory it is building for Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan doesn’t need any more warheads or new missiles to deter India. Why then did the Pakistani establishment feel the need to react with a ‘test’ of its fully-developed and working Hatf4/Shaheen 1A (?) in response to a development test of India’s Agni-V? Well, as my colleague Rohan Joshi remarked on Twitter today “Pakistan’s desire to match India trumps its desire to deter India.”

In doing so the men in khaki have been trading security for a psychological kick. Every new warhead, every new missile, every bit of additional range actually diminishes Pakistan’s security. Why? Because a strategic arsenal is not target-specific. Even if every single bomb, missile and aircraft is aimed at India, every single country within range will feel a non-zero increase in threat perception from Pakistan. The threat perception is subjective, depending on the country’s relations with Pakistan, so Israel might be more worried than Saudi Arabia today. But the point is that even Saudi Arabia will be a little more worried than it already is. Now imagine if Pakistan’s missiles were capable of reaching Japan, Russia, Western Europe and, err, the continental United States.

India’s leaders have been scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for three decades now. They are already beyond the point where they can be further scared. But the more Pakistan’s behaviour scares the leaders of other countries, not in indirect ways like a subcontinental war or through the export of terrorism, but in direct ways, the more they will see a need to tackle the military-jihadi complex that lies at its source. Few countries of the world, whether they admit it or not, are oblivious to military-jihadi complex’s use of nuclear weapons to shield its jihadi terrorists. If a direct nuclear threat is a high threshold risk, a nuclear blackmail has a relatively lower threshold of probability. (See That’s Washington’s problem)

The effect of all the stockpiling and all the launching by Pakistan will be to spread the risk among a wider group of nations. The quantum of risk India faces doesn’t change…but it will have others sharing similar risks albeit at a lower level. If the men in khaki in Rawalpindi think scaring the important powers of the world is in their interests then, to use a phrase I heard from Arun Shourie (but attributed to Napoleon) we must not interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake.

So let’s join them in cheering the Pakistani military-jihadi complex on the successful launch of Hatf-4/Shaheen1A missile—incidentally a gift from the Clinton Administration—and encourage them to acquire missiles with ever greater ranges. (There’s a small question of whether China will sell them this stuff, but let’s not be curmudgeonly and discredit the scientific talent in Pakistan.)

Put Pakistan on a genocide watchlist

All of Pakistan’s minorities are under systematic attack

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business-Standard.

Earlier this month, provoked by a grenade attack, hundreds of militants affiliated to radical Sunni groups stopped buses in Gilgit-Baltistan (a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir under Pakistani control), rounded up Shia passengers and executed them. Similar incidents in the region over the past few months have claimed scores of lives. We do not know how many exactly, because Pakistan has imposed a media blackout. It is already clear though, that the killings of Shias were systematic and carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani state authorities.

That’s not all. All of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities are under attack.

While the lot of religious minorities in Pakistan was never pretty, it has gotten far worse in the last few years. The brazen, unpunished and celebrated assassinations of personalities like Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti divert attention from the violence against minorities on a day-to-day basis. There are reports of several dozen Pakistani Hindu families seeking asylum in India. Compiling figures from Sindhi language newspapers, Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani writer and activist, has estimated that 3,000 Hindu girls have been abducted and converted to Islam in the province. Christian families have been forced to flee after charges of blasphemy were levelled against their members.

It’s a similar situation for ethnic minorities. In Balochistan, the Pakistan army’s counter-insurgency strategy includes terrorising the population through enforced disappearances, torture and killing of citizens followed by the dumping of their bodies as a warning to the rest. The Shia Hazaras are not only a religious minority, but also an ethnic one. Over the last two years there has been an escalation in violence against them in Balochistan, in FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The perpetrators and immediate motives in each of these cases are different. They range from Sunni jihadi groups targeting people they consider apostates, to rival communities seeking domination, to the Pakistani armed forces fighting insurgents. They are called sectarian violence, gang warfare, ethnic cleansing, kill-and-dump or counter-insurgency. It is perhaps because there are individual names for these crimes that we are missing the possibility that they might amount to a bigger one — genocide.

This is not a word to be used loosely. Genocide specifically means “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It includes killing people on account of belonging to a group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions to destroy the group in whole or in part; preventing births and transferring children by force. The situation in Pakistan today satisfies many of these criteria, and to varying degrees.

How many people have died? The blackout, censorship and violent intimidation of journalists makes it hard to estimate even the order of magnitude. Baloch nationalist groups, for instance, have criticised the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for reporting 35 disappearances and 173 dumped bodies in 2011. They claim over over 14,000 disappearances since 2005 and 400 dumped bodies since July 2010. It would be wrong, though, to wait for the body counts to rise to some arbitrary level for the world to take action.

A genocide takes place in stages. These can be rapid or drawn out in time. Gregory Stanton, an American human rights scholar and president of Genocide Watch, has identified eight stages, starting from classification of people into “us and them” and ending in extermination followed by denial. Pakistan is already through many of the early stages. Instead of waiting until it is too late for too many, the proper thing to do now is to squarely place Pakistan in a genocide watchlist and bring the intense focus of international public opinion to bear. It is understandable that the governments of the United States and India are unwilling to take up the violence against minorities for reasons of realpolitik. It is understandable that China and Saudi Arabia don’t care. It is therefore understandable that the UN Security Council doesn’t care. What is not understandable is that international media and human rights groups appear oblivious to this ongoing tragedy.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) — two prominent international NGOs that champion the Responsibility to Protect populations against mass atrocities as an international norm — do not even list Pakistan in the crises they are tracking. Organisations like Human Rights Watch are bravely reporting events on the ground, but their wide mandate precludes them from focusing on this one issue.

The UN Human Rights Council is more interested in outlawing giving offence to religion than killing in its name. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), always ready to talk about the world’s oppressed Muslims, can be trusted to maintain a resolute silence in this case.

Closer home, the Indian media stands indicted too. So completely are our television channels beholden to the narrative of the peace process that they are, literally, overlooking mass murder.

The white stripe on Pakistan’s flag is being eaten up. The geopolitical implications come later. At this time it is already a human tragedy that is unconscionable for Indians to ignore. In Bob Dylan’s sublime words, “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?”

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved

The utility of staying on at Siachen

Staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves extreme hardship and cost for a mere barren block of ice.

An avalanche buried 124 people, mostly soldiers but also some civilians at a Pakistani army camp at Gyari near Siachen. Even if the missing and the dead are soldiers who are lingering manifestations of an original invasion, repeated aggression and an long-drawn but still ongoing war against India, our humanity makes many of us lament the human toll.

The tragedy has triggered two understandable but misguided reactions among the public and in the media. The first blames the tragedy (and by extension, the costs, the injuries and loss of lives) on the rivalry between Pakistan and India, contending that both sides could avoid wasting blood and treasure if they were to avoid such futile confrontations, if not solve their all differences. The logical implication is that India is partly responsible for the loss at Gyari. Reasonable as it may appear to be, it is untenable. The Pakistani soldiers were deployed at Gyari on the orders of their military and government leaders. If the Pakistani leadership prized the lives of these soldiers than whatever they have at stake at Siachen then they could have ended the deployment. They can do so even today.

There is nothing to stop either side from unilaterally pulling their troops out of the ‘world’s highest battleground’. Ergo, the moral responsibility for whatever happens to their troops lies solely with the leadership that sent them there. This applies as much to India as it does to Pakistan.

The second reaction laments an expensive confrontation over a remote, barren and uninhabitable region and sees it as useless and futile. But staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves avoidable expense and extreme hardship for a huge block of ice. It essentially tells the other side “if we can go to such lengths to keep a big, useless block of ice, imagine what lengths we’d go to keep something more valuable.” Again, this applies to both sides. Both India and Pakistan signal their commitment by staying in the region. (For more details, see this post from April 2006.) The difference is that Pakistan is signalling its strategic commitment to an invasion it started in 1947 and India is signalling its strategic commitment to defending against the same.

This difference makes all the difference. It is morally perverse to preach the “futility of war” to the side that has been invaded. In fact, if potential aggressors do not believe your commitment to defend your territory as credible, they are less likely to accept the futility of war. They might calculate that the benefits of aggression will outweigh the costs—and like General Musharraf in 1999—decide to try their luck. After the Kargil war, Indian troops are stationed in the Dras area, in conditions similar or worse than those at Siachen. The expense of defending the Line of Control in winter and the hardship Indian soldiers go through deters another Kargil-like war.

So, showing commitment to defend is one of the best ways of persuading potential aggressors of the “futility of war”. Yes, this causes others to suspect aggressive intent and act in ways that would further appear threatening to us, causing us to strengthen our commitment and so on. This “security dilemma” sets off arms races that raise the proportion of national income allocated to defence. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished away. It must be managed.

None of this is to say that demilitarisation of the Siachen area is a bad idea. Rather, it is to debunk the notion that India is engaged in a unnecessary, wasteful or futile exercise over the glacier. If the conditions on the ground change such that it is no longer necessary to show this commitment, then the Indian army can descend to warmer climes. The real question everyone ought to ask is what might those conditions be.

Living with a nuclear Iran

Dealing with a nuclear Iran is better than suffering an international war to stop it.

Led by the United States, much of the international community has tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. India and China are among the few countries that have stayed out of this initiative and have been criticised for it. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal that comprehensively captures the argument against New Delhi’s current policy of not participating in the sanctions regime, Sadanand Dhume argues:

An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India’s rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability. [WSJ]

Mr Dhume makes an important point when he says that “India’s quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable US-led international order.” Yet there is room—and indeed, a need—for discrimination within agreement over this worldview. In the case of Iran Washington’s policy position is dogmatic to the point of rejecting without any consideration the benefits—to the United States and to the US-led order—of a grand rapprochement with Iran. In a recent article on FP, Neil Padukone, a new fellow for geopolitics at Takshashila, details the scale and the scope of this geopolitical opportunity. I have argued that New Delhi well-placed to lubricate this process.

We have to criticise New Delhi, but for a different reason. It did not even attempt to avoid being crunched by Washington on one side and its own interests with Iran on the other. The situation in Afghanistan can change dramatically if Iran and the United States could cooperate. Where we needed imaginative and deft diplomacy, we saw resignation and default. Opportunities to improve ties with Washington on issues unrelated to Iran—from the fighter plane purchase, to UN Security Council positions over Libya and Syria—were gratuitously squandered.

On the nuclear issue, if the question were asked at a time when Iran was far away from building a bomb, the answer to whether an Iranian bomb is in India’s interests would have been a “No.” But now, at a time when the only way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a war, the answer is different. In fact, the question for governments around the world now is whether an Iranian bomb is worse than an international war to prevent it.

A military conflict against Iran is not in India’s interests. Not only will it further destabilise a region that is already in deep crisis, it will do so in a form where India will be directly affected. Fuel supplies from Iran and supply routes from the Persian Gulf will come under threat and could precipitate a domestic economic crisis with unpredictable consequences. Also, doesn’t a war with Iran once again provide the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, with the encouragement of the Saudis, to once again become a frontline ally in an American war? Washington’s predisposition to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in the context of its own geopolitical projects was and will be expensive to India.

Those who have long enough memories will recall that General Zia-ul-Haq was in Washington’s doghouse until the United States had to intervene in Afghanistan. Those who have shorter memories will recall General Musharraf being in a similar place and his dictatorship getting a ticket to respectability when the United States had to do it again. The Pakistani military establishment used these periods to first develop and expand its strategic assets—nuclear weapons and jihadi groups. Another reprieve will be no different.

It takes a lot to believe sanctions can prevent a determined, modern state like Iran from building a bomb it wants to. The costs of these ineffective sanctions are subjective—and unless there’s a short-term way to ensure the long-term security of 11 percent of India’s energy imports—for New Delhi they are not worth incurring.

Where does this leave us? Well, with the reality of having to deal with a nuclear Iran, and consequently perhaps with an overtly nuclear Saudi Arabia too. This need not necessarily make the region more unstable, even considering a triangular dynamic that includes Israel. Let’s not forget Western nuclear deterrence theory has always lagged deterrence in practice—be it during the Cold War or in the case of the subcontinent.

This does not mean that the Iranian regime is all Persian fragrance towards India. It’s not. But you can’t survive as a regime or as a state—even a revolutionary one—without realism. There’s a reason why Mullah Omar had to flee on a motorcycle while the leaders of Viet Nam are now Washington’s strategic allies. Regimes devoid of realism write their own obituaries. The survival of the Iranian theocratic-democracy is evidence of there being an underpinning of realism. Iran’s realists, however, are eclipsed by fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who feed on hostility with the United States. To the extent that the hostility can be ratcheted down, the realists in the regime will be strengthened. Even otherwise, the Iranian regime, despite its foundations on the Shia narrative, is unlikely to desire civilisational suicide. [Update: How states act after they acquire nuclear weapons – on The Monkey Cage, linkthanks @chennaikaran]

New Delhi’s position might differ from that of Washington and Tel Aviv. But just as their positions are based on their perceptions of self-interest, so is ours. While there is no need to be apologetic about its positions over Iran, New Delhi must not lose other opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States and Israel.

Pakistan’s new big jihadi show

Where militant defend the military from foreign sponsors and domestic puppets

When the jihadi face of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex brazenly showed itself in the form of a Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) rally in Lahore last month, it appeared that the military face had used ‘non-state actors’ to send a signal both to Washington and its own people. The street power and anti-Americanism of jihadi militants would impress upon Washington the need to continue to do business with the relatively more reasonable military establishment. At the same time, the rally and the rhetoric would channelise public anger at the US/NATO attack on a border position in the Mohmand Agency in a way the military establishment liked.

It also revealed the utter contempt the military establishment has for the game of dossiers-and-lawsuits over the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai the powerless civilian government of Pakistan has engaged New Delhi in. For here was Hafiz Saeed, the chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, not only out in the open, but addressing a massive, high profile public rally. It is unlikely though, that the show was staged for India’s benefit.

A month later, and after another such rally in Multan, it appears that the Difa-e-Pakistan project has at least two other objectives.

First, the presence of Deobandi leaders and groups at these rallies suggests that the military establishment is attempting to close the gap that arose between the two after the Lal Masjid massacre of 2007. If the military establishment can forge a ‘common minimum programme’ with the key Deobandi groups, the likelihood of the Pakistan Taliban and related groups ratcheting down their war against the Pakistan army increases considerably. There is a price Pakistan will have to pay for such a compromise, but because it benefits the military establishment, that price will be paid.

Second, the Difa-e-Pakistan movement provides the military establishment with a way to split Imran Khan’s base. Why would they do that, because wasn’t Mr Khan their man? Well, whether or not he is their man, it would not suit the military establishment’s purpose for him to more powerful than it would like.

It may well be that Mr Khan, convinced of his own power, is dancing less to the piper’s tune. In his interview on Indian television in November 2011, Mr Khan declared that he would bring the armed forces under civilian control, wind down all militant groups and deweaponise Pakistan. That’s not quite what the men in khaki would like. That’s certainly not what the jihadi groups would like. So even if Mr Khan is trying to be everything to everyone—he didn’t turn up at the Difa-e-Pakistan rally, but sent a letter that was read out—the prospect of a popular Prime Minister Imran Khan attempting to boss over the military-jihadi complex would be unwelcome to both the generals and the jihadis. Difa-e-Pakistan claims to be, err, ‘non-political’. It nevertheless can exert pressure on Mr Khan. More importantly, it can split his vote in the upcoming elections.

All this is fine as far as Pakistan’s domestic power struggles go. The immediate question for India and the rest of the world is the risk of spillover. Would emboldened jihadi groups be satisfied with mere rhetorical attacks against India and the United States?

Pointing guns and stroking backs

The implications of Pakistan’s power triangle

Those who follow Pakistan are familiar with the metaphor that describes that country as “negotiating with a gun to its own head.” Here’s an update: it’s now run by three power centres—the military establishment, the higher judiciary and the civilian government—, where one holds a gun to the another’s head, while not so subtly stroking the back of the third. That makes the drama complex and absorbing, but the upshots for the rest of us are simple.

First, you can’t deal with Pakistan any more. You need to deal with bits, pieces, factions and quarters of Pakistan. Since none of them has the power to see through whatever they might agree, any commitment or deal they make involves, shall we say, immense counter-party risks. In other words, it means they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Whether it’s the IMF dealing with the Pakistani treasury apparatus, or the Indian commerce ministry discussing trade with its Pakistani counterpart or the United States government working on a deal over Afghanistan, there’s no guarantee that the Pakistani side is in a position to see through its end of the bargain. The only reason to persist is perhaps because, well, “the show has to go on.”

Second, the civilian government has neither any control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies nor has any real means to bring terrorists to justice. The military establishment controls the former and the higher judiciary controls the latter. There is a degree of tacit but not-so-subtle complicity between the two. In other words the military-jihadi complex not only remain in charge but now has a lot more latitude because there are fewer pretenses to keep and fig leaves to hold up. The complex has also regained narrative dominance. To the extent that the presence of US and international forces in Afghanistan keeps the Pakistani army strategically focused on that front, General Kayani and his colleagues are unlikely to want to escalate tensions with India through renewed terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Third, while the general view is that the US-Pakistani alliance is over, it is difficult to shake-off the perception that Washington has decided to work with the Pakistani military establishment rather than strengthen the hands of the civilian government. Therefore, at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, Washington has again let go of an opportunity to put the military monster back in the pen. There are good excuses for this, but as much as they are good, they are still excuses.

This does not mean that President Asif Zardari will lose and General Kayani will win decisively. On the contrary, Mr Zardari might be considered to have won if he and his government just survive in office for their term. General Kayani, on the other hand, needs to meet the standards set by his successful coup-making predecessors. That is not a victory for democracy. It is at best an establishment of a new, tenuous distribution of power which, as described above, involves gun-pointing and back-stroking.

Karzai’s tightrope

Pakistan’s opposition to an autonomous Afghanistan is the problem

My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia‘s symposium (Nov 15th, 2011):

As the Obama administration pushes for an earlier drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul must quickly take responsibility for maintaining internal stability and charting an independent foreign policy. We asked four analysts—Michael O’Hanlon, Marin Strmecki, Amin Saikal and Nitin Pai—how Kabul should address the challenge.

The heart of Afghanistan’s problem is that its natural desire for autonomy provokes strong resistance from Pakistan. Islamabad perceives anything less than a satellite regime as inimical to its interests, in turn driving Kabul to seek autonomy by reaching out to India, Iran, Russia and China.

This vicious cycle of insecurity can be broken in two ways: reconfigure the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or change geopolitical attitudes in Pakistan. The latter is decidedly more painless, but requires getting Pakistan’s generals to change their minds. It is not going to be easy.

Afghanistan then has to look for other solutions. To some extent, the Afghan state can look to New Delhi because India faces significant risks in the short term from a U.S. withdrawal.

Triumphant militants and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment, fresh from defeating a superpower, might decide to turn their attention to Kashmir. This is what happened in the early 1990s when Pakistani and other foreign veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan edged out local militants in the Kashmir valley and began one of the most violent phases of Pakistan’s proxy war.

Hence India doesn’t want a repeat of the 1990s. There is however a sense in New Delhi that 2011 is not 1991. Only the most credulous today accept Pakistani denials that it does not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The good news then is that international pressure on Pakistan is likely to persist even after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

Even so, New Delhi is hedging in four ways. First, as the recent agreements signed by President Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh show, India intends to further bolster the capacity of the Afghan state to provide for its own security. Training Afghan troops allows India the flexibility to raise or lower its security investments, depending on circumstances.

Second, India is strengthening its relationships with Afghan political formations opposed to the Taliban. Third, it is attempting to improve bilateral relations with Pakistan, to the extent possible. Fourth, New Delhi is cooperating with other nations to keep the conflict contained within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Kabul has its own internal problems that bedevil its foreign policy. The strategic logic in Mr. Karzai’s attempts at striking a balance in Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors has been often overshadowed by the perception that his actions are mercurial and clumsy. That means his new friends in New Delhi, Beijing or in Moscow—with whom he is trying to get closer—may look at him with some wariness.

What’s more, Mr. Karzai is keeping the Pakistani channel open at the same time. In this he faces determined domestic opposition from quarters that disapprove of his dalliances with Pakistan and its proxies. All of this makes for a heart-stopping tightrope act.

Mr. Pai is founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank.

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