Pathankot, Charsadda and the Curse of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Image 2The complexity of South Asia’s security dynamics once more came into full view last month.  The new year was barely more than a day old when a group of Pakistan-based jihadis slipped into a major Indian air base at Pathankot and engaged in a multi-day firefight that left at least seven security personnel dead and wounded about 20 more.  The attack came less than a month after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of the possibility of “an unintentional conflict” between New Delhi and Islamabad sparked by a terrorist strike.

New Delhi places blame for the assault on a militant outfit called Jaish-e-Mohammad (“The Army of Mohammad”), which is also thought to have played a role in the brazen December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament – an event that in turn ignited a months-long military confrontation between India and Pakistan.

Two weeks after the Pathankot attack, another jihadi band snuck across the border from Afghanistan and massacred least 20 students and teachers at a university in Charsadda in the northwestern part of Pakistan close to the country’s tribal belt, a notoriously lawless area festooned with all kinds of extremist organizations.  Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a faction of the Pakistan Taliban that had carried out the horrific December 2014 slaughter of some 140 children at a school in nearby Peshawar that is managed by the Pakistani army.

Both attacks this month were conducted at widely-separated locations by two different jihadi networks with distinct agendas.  JeM, which benefits from links with Pakistani’s security services, is focused on wresting control of the Indian portion of Kashmir away from New Delhi. The Pakistan Taliban, on the other hand, directs its energies to attacking the institutions of the Pakistani state.

But both groups share a few similarities.  First, they find shelter in cross-border sanctuaries, effectively placing them beyond the retaliation of the aggrieved countries.  JeM has been officially banned in Pakistan since 2002 but nonetheless maintains an open presence in the country’s Punjab heartland.  Indeed, Pakistani authorities have attempted in recent years to build up the organization in an attempt to diminish the Pakistan Taliban’s ideological appeal and lure away its foot soldiers.

In contrast, the Pakistani army has mostly driven the Pakistan Taliban out of that country.  But the group has found refuge in Afghanistan, in connivance with Afghan officials seeking to pay Islamabad back for its patronage of the Afghan Taliban.  A senior Pakistan Taliban leader recently conceded to a Western journalist that “In Pakistan we can hardly operate anymore.  In Afghanistan, we have no problem going anywhere.”

A second similarity between JeM and the Pakistan Taliban is that they are manifestations of what can be called the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

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Pakistan’s Evolving Nuclear Weapon Posture: Impact on Deterrence Stability

This essay provides an overview of the ongoing quantitative and qualitative changes in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and their impact on deterrence stability vis-à-vis India. Prominent among these trends is a major expansion in fissile material production that enables the manufacture of lighter and more compact warheads optimized for battlefield missions; the development of cruise missiles and shorter-range ballistic missiles possessing dual-use capabilities; and a greater emphasis in doctrinal pronouncements on the need for strike options geared to all levels of conflict. Although these trends pose problematic ramifications for the risks of unauthorized and inadvertent escalation, deterrence stability in South Asia is not as precarious as many observers fear. The challenges of fashioning a robust nuclear peace between India and Pakistan cannot be lightly dismissed, however, and policy makers would do well to undertake some reinforcing measures.

Read the full essay in a special issue on “Nuclear Stability in South Asia” published this week in The Nonproliferation Review.

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Hamid Gul and Pakistan’s Schizophrenia

The recent passing of Hamid Gul, the Pakistani general who served as head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the late 1980s, elicited a good deal of media commentary about the instrumental role he played on several fronts: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the jihadization of Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the destabilization of the Punjab and Kashmir regions in India.

But Gul also exemplified the oscillations within the Pakistani military establishment between anti-India paranoia and the desire to stabilize relations with Delhi.

The example of Hamid Gul and his successors illustrates what is a basic frustration for Indian leaders: Any rapprochement with Pakistan can only come about via a military establishment that swings between paranoia and pragmatism.  The anti-India fixation receives much focus these days.  But officials in New Delhi would also do well not to lose sight of the desire to find equilibrium in relations.

Read the rest of the essay on Fair Observer‘s website.

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India-Pakistan Relations: Everything Old is New Again

Midnight’s Furies, Nisid Hajari’s new book about the violent division of the British Raj in India, has garnered much praise for its focus on how the decisions taken by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1946-1948 period embittered India-Pakistan relations right from the very start.  But one of the volume’s under-noticed contributions is highlighting how bilateral security issues with plenty of modern-day resonance were also present in spades at the creation.

Read the rest of the essay on Asia Sentinel‘s website.

One of the issues I examine in the essay is the peril of catalytic war — that is, the danger of freebooting non-state groups mounting operations aimed at provoking inadvertent conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way of advancing their own interests.  I argued in a post last month that a number of militant attacks illustrate this menace, and the Indian government seems to be believe that this week’s terrorist attack in Gurdaspur in the Indian state of Punjab may yet another example.

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India, Pakistan, and the Problem of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The National Interest website has posted my essay questioning whether the deterrent signals India is sending toward Pakistan these days are all that relevant to the gravest terrorist threats India faces from that direction.

India’s commando raid into Myanmar the other week has generated a great deal of debate about the propriety of New Delhi’s chest-beating and its utility to the specific challenge of jihadi attacks emanating from Pakistani soil.  Some criticize the Modi government for seeking domestic political gain while embarrassing the regime in Myanmar which clearly wants to keep its anti-militancy cooperation under wraps.  Others question the wisdom of highlighting operational details about an instrument of state power that should properly remain in the shadows.  And still others doubt whether a similar special-forces mission can even be undertaken against Pakistan-based targets.

Unexamined in the discussion, however, is the critical question of whether the deterrence signals India is transmitting are even applicable to the threats emanating from Pakistan.  The bombastic attitude in New Delhi these days fails to differentiate between jihadi groups over which Pakistan has some control and uses to its own strategic purposes as opposed to the large number of outfits that operate in defiance of the Pakistani state and see triggering unintended conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests.

Last fall Reuters quoted an Indian security official as acknowledging that “It has been clear for some time that there is no [jihadi] group that is fully within [Pakistan’s] control. They are all itching for independent action, some want to have a go at us immediately.”  Yet so far, Mr. Modi’s government shows no evidence of even recognizing the resulting deterrence conundrum.   But the failure to do so could well lead to military conflict neither country intends.

Indeed, the challenge of preventing mass-casualty attacks by Pakistan-based jihadi groups may not even be one well addressed by threats of punitive retaliation – either in the military realm or by suborning terrorism inside Pakistan as the Modi government has suggested (see here and here).  Rather, the priority might better be placed on bolstering India’s domestic counterterrorism apparatus, whose woeful state was laid bare by the November 2008 Mumbai attacks (see here, here, here and here) and whose repair remains unfinished (see here, here and here) more than six years later.

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India and the Limits of Effective Deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan

By emphasized the resort to covert action in response to another major attack on Indian soil from Pakistan-based militants, did India’s defense minister implicitly acknowledge the sharp limits of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan?

Read the rest of the essay via The Diplomat.

See here for an earlier post on the problems of Modi’s hard line toward Pakistan.

[UPDATE, June 9: The Indian army today carried out an airborne commando assault on two militant camps in neighboring Myanmar.  The operation, which reportedly inflicted “significant causalities,” was in response to a militant attack a few days ago that killed nearly 20 Indian troops in Manipur, a state in northeastern India that is afflicted by insurgents sheltering in Myanmar.  The Indian action was also motivated by “specific intelligence” pointing to more imminent militant attacks.

Some analysts argue that the Indian strike “is not likely to go unnoticed in the neighborhood” and will have a salutary effect on Pakistan’s behavior.  This is most probably not the case, however, since today’s operation was launched with the permission of the Myanmar military and focused on targets located a few kilometers inside that country.  In contrast, a cross-border raid aimed at Pakistan-based jihadis would be a much more difficult and risky undertaking, so much so as to give pause to Indian political leaders.]

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Musharraf Needs a History Lesson on Kargil

My last post took issue with the historical amnesia of some Indian political leaders regarding the record of diplomatic engagement with Pakistan.  I turn my attention now to the self-serving reading of the 1999 Kargil mini-war between the two countries being offered by Pervez Musharraf, who was Pakistan’s army chief at the time and is currently in the dock facing charges of high treason for suspending the Constitution and implementing emergency rule in 2007.

In remarks the other week, Musharraf claimed he initiated the conflict in order to retaliate against India’s military intervention into the 1971 political crisis in East Pakistan that eventuated into the creation of Bangladesh as well as India’s 1984 surprise seizure of the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas north of Kashmir that is contested by both militaries.  As Musharraf boasted, “I believed in a tit-for-tat policy on all fronts.”

He has advanced this point before, such as in his 2006 memoir in which he contended that the Kargil operation was a splendid tactical success that was undone by the fecklessness of then- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  But the truth of the matter is far less flattering to Musharraf’s reputation as a military leader and to the Pakistani army’s claim of institutional competence.

The Kargil conflict, named for a town in the mountainous reaches of northern Kashmir around which the fighting took place, began in early 1999 when a sizeable Pakistani force (numbering at least 1,500 – 2,000 and perhaps more) of lightly-armed mountain infantry troops infiltrated across the Line of Control – as the Kashmir divide between Indian and Pakistani troops is called – and seized large swaths of rugged territory that had been vacated by Indian soldiers during the winter.  By the time the intruders were discovered in May, they had occupied over 300 square miles of Indian territory and were in a position to interdict a strategic highway linking the Siachen Glacier to the rest of Kashmir.

In response, New Delhi launched a fierce and sustained counterattack.  The ensuing two-month battle featured intense ground fighting, heavy artillery barrages and the first combat sorties undertaken by the Indian air force since the Bangladesh war.  The crisis was finally defused by a combination of Indian battlefield successes and U.S. diplomatic intervention.

Significant details about the conflict remain a matter of debate, including the casualty figures.  Two years ago, the Indian defense minister reported that 530 battle deaths occurred on the Indian side, though the Indian army’s official website lists the number at close to 1,000.  And while Pakistan refuses to disclose its losses, observers estimate 400-700 fatalities.

Two recent sources have provided important clarification to parts of the historical record, however.  The first is a 2009 study of the crisis that is the most authoritative to emerge to date.  The second is a series of disclosures (here and here) made last year by retired General Shahid Aziz, who was the head of the analysis branch of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency during the crisis.  He would later go on to serve as director-general of military operations and chief of the general staff – both prestigious positions in the Pakistani army.

The two sources paint a far less heroic portrait than the one Musharraf supplies.  To start, Musharraf and a handful of other military leaders planned the Kargil operation in such isolation that little thought was given to broader coordination within the Pakistani army as a whole, the other military services or the wider government.  The lack of foresight resulted in utter disarray in Islamabad’s response once the Indians discovered the incursion.  Aziz, for example, calls Musharraf’s scheme an “unsound military plan based on invalid assumptions, launched with little preparations and in total disregard to the regional and international environment.”

Moreover, the failure to prepare for the possibility of an Indian counterattack meant that no provision was made for troop reinforcement and logistical supply of units occupying captured territory.  And Islamabad’s desperate insistence once the battle was joined that the intruders were not Pakistani soldiers but jihadis over whom it had little control all but foreclosed coming to their rescue. Aziz is particularly harsh on this latter point, excoriating Musharraf for sending men into battle without doing detailed planning and then abandoning them once the fighting began.

As I noted last year when Aziz’s disclosures first surfaced, Musharraf’s misleading puffery has relevance beyond the question of who bears personal blame for the Kargil fiasco.  It taps into a false narrative long sustained by the Pakistani army, in which it is the only institution capable of safeguarding the nation’s well-being against India’s external depredations and the domestic follies of civilian-led administrations.

This line has decisively warped civil-military relations throughout Pakistan’s history.  Musharraf used it to justify his coup against Nawaz Sharif a few months after the Kargil crisis wound down.  And aided by subservient media outlets, it has been employed in the post-Musharraf period to undermine two successive elected governments seeking to improve relations with India, the first led by Asif Ali Zardari in 2008-2013 and now the one run by Sharif, who is back in a return engagement as prime minister.  But as the record of the Kargil conflict makes clear, the army’s narrative is far from solid.  The sooner it is discredited, the better for Pakistan’s development as a democratic polity.

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