Robert Kaplan continues to miss the plot

It’s not about “lines of communication”

Q: What do you get when you take Realist doctrine and apply it without regard to ground realities? A: This article by Robert Kaplan (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony). He writes:

No matter how much leverage you hold over a country, it is rare that you can get it to act against its core self-interest…

The U.S. demands that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its spy agency, sever relations with the Taliban. Based on Pakistan’s own geography, this makes no sense from a Pakistani point of view. First of all, maintaining lines of communications and back channels with the enemy is what intelligence agencies do. What kind of a spy service would ISI be if it had no contacts with one of the key players that will help determine its neighbor’s future?

Of course, we can and should demand that Pakistan cease helping the Taliban to plan and carry out operations. But cutting links to the Taliban altogether is something the Pakistanis simply cannot do, and trying to insist upon it only worsens tensions between our two countries.[The Atlantic]

Mr Kaplan arrives at these conclusions because he fundamentally misunderstands both the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban, and the threat they pose to the interests of the Pakistani state.

There is a huge difference between “lines of communications and back channels” that all intelligence agencies have, and the cat-and-paw relationship between the Pakistani military establishment and the global jihadi groups. To use Mr Kaplan’s analogy, while the US used the “back channels” of the PLO to help evacuate American families from Beirut, the CIA—to our knowledge—does not use Palestinian terrorist groups to carry out terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. What needs severing is not the ISI’s lines of communications, but its use of the Taliban as a strategic proxy.

But Mr Kaplan’s greater mistake is the acceptance of the notion—that even some Pakistanis reject—that the ISI’s cat-paw relationship with the Taliban is in Pakistan’s interests. It is not. The Taliban pose the most serious threat to the survival and security of the Pakistani state. This fact is dawning on more and more Pakistanis. Yet, it escapes Mr Kaplan. The interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex are not quite the same as that of the Pakistani state. Mr Kaplan, however, conflates the two, and, unfortunately, ends up with a conclusion that could not be more wrong.

Actually, the relationship between the military establishment and jihadi groups has gone even beyond that of patron and client. It is now appropriate to consider them a military-jihadi complex. It is this complex that the United States must seek to dismantle. To equate the problem to mere lines of “lines of communications” is laughable.

Related Post: Robert Kaplan misses the plot: his earlier piece arguing that the ISI’s insecurities must be assuaged.

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.

But where’s the meat?

The United States’ Af-Pak strategy is silent on the most important challenge

The main issue in President Barack Obama’s just-announced strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?

As this blog has pointed out before, to win in Afghanistan the United States will need to get the Pakistani military to turn its guns on its own proxies, “strategic assets”, countrymen and co-religionists. This the Pakistani military leadership is reluctant, unwilling or unable to do, depending on how charitable a view you have of them. It was in anticipation of the Obama administration’s strategic review that the Pakistani leadership raked up tensions with India—hoping that a war-like situation on its eastern borders will provide it with a plausible alibi. India foiled that attempt by refusing to even mildly ratchet up military escalation.

That only left the Pakistanis to demand a vague reduction in tensions, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute and unconvincingly insinuate Indian involvement in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This did not go completely waste—for there are people in the Obama administration who are sympathetic to this line—but it is unlikely to provide the Pakistani military establishment with the way out of having to do what the United States wants it to do.

So, what does the United States do now? As many analysts point out—and Richard Holbrooke himself admitted—no one knows. Mr Holbrooke reiterated that US troops will not cross over into Pakistan *, while Bruce Riedel, the man behind the review only said that he hoped that “aggressive military operations on the Afghan side, and working energetically with the Pakistani government” will shut down these safe havens. Setting benchmarks and making financial assistance conditional on performance sounds like just what the management consultant would advise, but Washington is remarkably susceptible to the Pakistan-will-turn-into-a-nuclear-failed-state-unless… line. The Pakistanis know that and won’t shy from exploiting it.

Expect a train of high-level envoys to visit New Delhi in the coming weeks. Chief among their aims, we are informed, “will be to try to get Pakistani and Indian officials, in particular, to turn down the volume in their never-ending conflict, in the hopes that the Pakistani military can turn its attention to the fight against insurgents in border regions, and away from fighting India.” As patronising as that sounds, it will remain for the Indian government officials to explain to them that they can even have the “never-ending conflict” arises from the same problem that the US is trying to solve. Get the Pakistani government to dismantle the military-jihadi complex and the volume will not only be turned down, it can be turned off.

Mr Obama’s first strategic review skirts around the heart of the matter, perhaps due to its acceptance of red lines. We might have to wait for the next one before he gets it right.

Update: More analysis on this here on INI: on Pragmatic Euphony and Polaris.

Related Links: Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast has a good critique of those benchmarks. Filter Coffee remarks that the US has ignored Punjabi jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. And Spencer Ackerman has the money quote.

And who said terrorists don’t attack cricketers?

Pakistan is the jihadi prize

It is too early to arrive at a conclusive assessment on the motives behind the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. [Update: See Prem Panicker’s take.] But it is compelling to see this attack as the latest in the series that include the ones on Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and the Islamabad Marriott in September 2008. The possibility cannot be ruled out completely, but there is a small chance that the hit was ordered by LTTE (and carried out by sundry terrorists recruited in Pakistan). [Update: See B Raman’s post] However this is contra-indicated by the fact that so far, the Tamil Tigers have not claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attacks on Benazir Bhutto, to the ones on the Islamabad Marriott and many others across Pakistan suggest an attempt to destabilise the existing political order prevailing in the country. What next is an open question. Do the jihadis want to use the ensuing state of turmoil to turn Pakistan first into a war zone and then into a Taliban state? Or is the purpose to reinstate the Pakistani military establishment into the corridors of power? Or worse, are these not separate questions, but two different formulations of the same question? Would the next Pakistani military dictator care whether he is the president of the Pakistani republic or the Amir-ul-momineen of an Islamic emirate?

The answers are uncertain. In the face of the uncertainty, and in the light of past evidence, the prudent course is to treat the Pakistani army as connected to the jihadi groups in a military-jihadi complex. It is unclear if the Pakistani army wants to sever these connections, and unclear if it can sever them even if it wants to. Transforming the Pakistani military establishment therefore is the first step in stabilising Pakistan.

And unless Pakistan is stabilised it is only a matter of time before attacks like the one on Sri Lankan cricketers, and earlier like the one in Mumbai will be common across the cities of the world.

Surrendering Swat

Pakistan’s strategic retreat will be irreversible…unless the military establishment is transformed

First the facts: the Pakistani government has struck a deal with Maulana Sufi Mohammed, who heads an organisation called the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) to impose Nizam-e-Adl regulations, which are based on Sharia law, in the Malakand Division of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). This region consists of Swat and a few other districts where the Pakistani army has been unable and unwilling to take on the Islamist militants who have effective control. But it is not Mr Sufi Mohammed’s TNSM that holds sway—rather, it is his Maulana Fazlullah’s militia, including the Shaheen Commando Force, affiliated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has imposed a reign of terror in Swat. And to spice up this Frontier version of Santa Barbara, Mr Fazlullah is Mr Sufi Mohammed’s son-in-law.

It is the third time in the last year that the the Pakistani government is attempting to strike a deal with the father-in-law in order to get the son-in-law to cease violence. It has failed twice—because Mr Fazlullah and Swat are pieces on a larger chessboard that also includes, among others, Baitullah Mehsud and Waziristan. These two militant leaders have been able to whipsaw the half-hearted attempts by the Pakistani state machinery into submission.

And a little background: The erstwhile princely state of Swat, headed by the Wali, had a traditional justice system based on an admixture of tribal and Islamic laws. This was abolished when Swat was integrated into Pakistan in 1969—and was replaced by a corrupt, tardy and unpopular bureaucratic system under the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) regulations. General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamisation project and the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan got mixed up with the popular resentment against a failed judicial-administrative system. Mr Sufi Mohammed’s TNSM began as protest movement against the PATA regulations, which naturally took the shape of a call for Sharia. In 1993, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against the PATA regulations. You would think that some other system came into effect. But it didn’t. A judicial vacuum followed—nobody bothered with trifling matters like a proper judicial system for the people of Swat and its neighbouring districts.

There have been previous announcements of the imposition of Nizam-e-Adl in Swat, but it is unclear if the people’s need for a justice system, any justice system, was met. But the issue of a justice system is distinct from what Mr Fazlullah & Co are trying to establish. The Taliban agenda is to set up an Islamic state on the lines of Mullah Omar’s erstwhile regime in Kabul. Going by their electoral preference—for the secular Awami National Party—it is clear that the people of Swat don’t want that. But now that the Pakistani state has abandoned them, that’s likely to be what they are going to get. [Update: See Sepoy’s post]

Where does all this take us? Well, the fact that the Pakistani government had to settle for political realism within its boundaries suggests that it does not have the power to prevail over the TTP. The attempt to explain away its surrender as a tactical move is hogwash—unless the Pakistani military establishment undergoes a radical transformation, it is unlikely that the government will ever be able to reclaim the lost territories.

Strategically, the surrender will embolden the Taliban forces elsewhere. General Kayani was caught describing the Haqqani militia in Afghanistan as Pakistan’s “strategic assets”. As long as the military establishment continues to believe that the Taliban can be strategic assets it is only a matter of time before the Taliban hegemony crosses across the Indus into the Punjab province. K Subrahmanyam thinks that the Pakistani generals might not want to live under such a regime. But who knows what a combination of delusional thinking, radicalisation and political realism might lead to?

Tailpiece: It is touching to see an op-ed columnist describe Mr Sufi Mohammed as “a simple and peaceful man who does not preach violence except in the way of jihad against non- Muslims.”

Related Links: Swat in Pragati: Articles by Manan Ahmed & Ayesha Saeed

Al Faida – how Pakistan milks the US and NATO

NATO’s supply route through Pakistan is a gravy train for the military establishment…and the Taliban

Western troops fighting in Afghanistan depend on the Karachi-Khyber-Kabul supply route for  70 to 80 percent of their needs. While its importance to US and NATO forces has received considerable coverage in recent months, there has been less attention given to its importance for Pakistan’s military establishment.

The National Logistics Corporation (or the National Logistics Cell, NLC) is an ostensibly civilian entity staffed by serving and retired military personnel, and owned by the Pakistani army. According to the February 2009 issue of the Herald, a Pakistani monthly, it charges NATO between 200,000 to 250,000 Pakistani rupees per container arriving at Karachi, and pays private truckers between 100,000 to 150,000 for moving them to Afghanistan. In other words it makes a neat 100,000 Pakistani rupees in middleman’s fees. Going by an average exchange rate of 65 Pakistani rupees to a US dollar, the NLC made around $1500 per container.  The number of  containers landing in Karachi daily has varied between 1000 in early 2002, to around 300 earlier this year. Taking the lower figure, the NLC made around $450,000 every day, or over $164 million each year. Between 2002-2008, the NLC made at least $1.15 billion. And the meter is still running.

The Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force, collects a minimum of $150 per container in security charges from truckers, which adds up to $115 million over 2002-2008. This money goes directly to the Pakistani military establishment and is in addition to the $10 billion that the Bush administration gave Pakistan over that period. [This analysis is based on the figures in Massoud Ansari’s “My Way, Not the Highway”, in Herald February 2009, and Jawwad Rizvi’s “Rs 90 million go in air daily” in The News January 28-29, 2009 (via PEW). Mr Rizvi adds that the NLC charges between 15,000 to 25,000 Pakistani rupees for “no objection certificates”]

That’s not all. Karachi port authorities made at least $260 per container in assorted port charges, or around $200 million over seven years. The Pakistani government collects a fuel tax of Rs 25 per litre of diesel. According to one estimate the average fuel consumption per container per trip is 1200 litres, which amounts to $460 in taxes per trip. Over seven years fuel tax revenues alone are to the tune of $350 million. So the ‘civilian’ government received at least $550 million in additional revenues from the exercise.

The truckers themselves make around $1900 per container, and made around $1.5 billion over the past seven years. Clearly, they didn’t keep all of this, having to pay off various government officials and militants. Some of the trucking companies could well have owners connected to the military establishment.

That’s not all, either: the ‘militants’ collected an average of $400 per container to let them pass through their territory. Over $300 million went into the their pockets.

That too is not all. For only around 60 percent of the goods were actually delivered to their recipients, the rest being lost, stolen or destroyed en route. A flourishing trade in US and NATO military equipment exists in the markets of Pakistani towns like Peshawar and Quetta. Everything from crates of alcohol to helicopter spares is on the block.

That’s a lot of al-Faida for the Pakistani economy and for the Pakistani military establishment—a rough estimate is around $500 million per year. The political economy around the supply route is likely to have created strong vested interests in ensuring that the gravy train does not stop. Yet the Pakistani military establishment is ready to put these benefits at risk—squeezing the route to exert pressure on the US and NATO in Afghanistan. So where are the clever Indian analysts who argued that transit revenues from the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline will prevent the Pakistani military from disrupting the natural gas flows to India?

Taliban, Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex and the United States

Some Taliban are allied with Pakistan, against America. Other Taliban are against Pakistan because of America. None of them are ‘moderate’.

Choose your pick: aspirin or scotch. You’ll need help to cope with this week’s news from Pakistan.

First, there is Mullah Omar and his shura, all but openly operating out of Quetta in Balochistan, reliably with the connivance of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Mullah Omar’s group is primarily interested in fighting Western troops in Afghanistan.

Second, there is the Pakistan Taliban, operating out of Bajaur and Swat, in Pakistan’s FATA region. Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah are primarily interested in fighting Pakistani troops in Pakistan (although the converse is not entirely true). Even so, Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah are patriotic Pakistanis, as the Pakistan’s military spokesman informed us after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, going to the extent of threatening to attack India in case of the latter declared war on Pakistan. Then again, they just threatened to kill the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, for not taking up arms against the Pakistani government.

Third, out of the blue, or rather out of the grave the Pakistani army presumably dug for him, comes Mustafa Abu-al Yazid, one of al-Qaeda’s ‘top leaders’, with a video threatening India with all sorts of dire consequences were it to go to war with Pakistan. The video is out of pattern with those released by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and could well have been the handiwork of the ISI’s psy-ops unit.

Confusing? Well, yes. But even so, it should be clear that other than Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah (who form the core of the Pashtun militant groups that form the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) the Pakistani military establishment is comfortable with the other jihadi groups—whether it is Mullah Omar’s Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen and groups fighting in Afghanistan, like the Haqqani militia.

And if there is a problem between Mehsud & Fazlullah and the Pakistani government, it is largely due to the deployment of the Pakistani army in FATA. But to the extent that Pakistan’s military establishment complex finds it unacceptable for the Pashtun tribesmen to extend a Taliban-style regime over FATA and NWFP—which will happen if the army backs out completely—this creates trouble for both Pakistan’s civilian government and the military establishment. This is the big problem: and as K Subrahmanyam and M D Nalapat envisage in this month’s Pragati—the war to Talibanise or DeTalibanise Pakistan is inevitable.

If we take Hamid Mir’s word for it, the fact that the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen have come under the Pashtun Pakistan Taliban’s crosshairs validates the use of the term "military-jihadi complex", as the military and the jihadi establishments are joined at the hip. But if the Pakistan Taliban carry out their threat, can we expect the Lashkar-e-Taiba to direct its energies against the Mehsuds and the Falzullahs? Actually, it’s not a question of possibility—it ispossible. The more important question is what will it take?

Further, the alliance between Mullah Omar and the Pakistani military establishment may well have survived the Bush administration. But there are signs that under Barack Obama, the United States might attempt to crush the Quetta shura, despite Pakistan’s best attempts to convince it otherwise. In the event that the United States manages to sever this alliance then Mullah Omar might well make common cause with Messrs Mehsud and Fazlullah, thereby driving the Pakistan military establishment to side with the United States. Indeed, this is the outcome that Richard Holbrooke and General David Petraeus should be working towards.

What about al-Qaeda then? Whatever might happen to its relationships with the Taliban groups, the Pakistani military establishment has an enduring interest—beans, cats and skeletons being involved—in keeping Messrs bin Laden and Zawahiri out of US hands. Besides, it is al-Qaeda that helps Pakistan by providing ‘senior leaders’ who can be killed by UAV-fired missiles, and yes, occasionally by appearing in threatening videos.

On handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban

…and holding them to account by threatening to bomb them from the air

Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure rips apart Anatol Lieven’s op-ed in the Financial Times advocating a US pullout (linkthanks Joshua Foust). Among others, Dr Lieven recommends that “the aim should be a radically decentralised Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee—under threat of aerial bombardment—not to give shelter to terrorists.” And this is what the former infantryman says in response:

Notwithstanding some of ridiculous recommendations made earlier in his article, this is where Mr. Lieven goes clean ’round the bend….This man is a PhD, for Pete’s sake, and he’s advocating ceding a large area of Afghanistan to the Taliban? Has this man been smoking the Taliban flowers [BBEAA]

You should just read the whole post instead of these sanitised excerpts. But before you do, just look at the perspicaciousness in the following:

You see, short-sighted educated people like Anatol Lieven threaten my sons’ lives. I want for my sons to go to Afghanistan… as tourists, not as Soldiers. Mark my words, if we abandon Afghanistan because it is too hard right now, we will consign ourselves to at least another generation of warfare in what will definitely become known as “The Long War” instead of the GWOT. We will be back in Afghanistan with the stain of two abandonments on our faces instead of just one, and the Afghans will most assuredly not be any happier to see us the next time. [BBEAA]

Indian submarine says an unfriendly hello to Chinese destroyers

So an Indian submarine was caught snooping around the two ships that China sent on an anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden. The South China Morning Post (subscription only | available here) reports that the two ships and the Indian submarine were "locked in a tense standoff for at least half and hour" on January 15th. (linkthanks V Anantha Nageswaran)

According to the report—the Indian submarine tried to jam the warships’ sonar systems, and tried to evade them by diving deeper. But it was "eventually" cornered and force to surface. In the meantime, the Chinese ships activated their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and prepared their torpedoes for action.

That’s how the movie ended. But what the Chinese naval strategists will be worrying about is "just when did this movie start"? They will also be worrying about whether the ending was somehow or the other scripted by the Indians.

In any case, as the SCMP points out, while "provocative and unfriendly" such an incident is hardly unusual. China knows this all too well, given that its submarines buzzed a US naval carrier group and its ‘fishing boats’ travel on two thousand mile fishing expeditions.

Given how rare it is to see a Chinese destroyer in the Arabian Sea, it is understandable that the Indian navy wanted to have a closer look. And even if the SCMP might not have all the details right, the message from this incident cannot be lost on the international community. Not least in Beijing.

Related Link: Pragmatic Euphony on the China and the military equation