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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The BJP Needs a History Lesson on Pakistan Policy

An earlier post on India’s new get-tough approach toward Pakistan quoted M.J. Akbar, the national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political home, as saying that New Delhi has no interest in engaging Pakistan diplomatically until Islamabad proves its credibility as a negotiating partner by lifting the shadow of terrorism.  In a discussion at the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last week, Mr. Akbar elaborated on this stance by saying, “There was 10 years of unrelenting goodwill” by Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, toward Pakistan “but it achieved nothing in return.” (An audio recording of the full discussion is available here.)

There is no doubt that Pakistan is a vexatious and duplicitous neighbor to all countries sharing borders with it.  In particular, as the new books by C. Christine Fair and Carlotta Gall remind us, it must surely hold the patent on the use of non-state proxies to inflict injury on adjoining nations.

But is the specific claim advanced by Akbar – that Indian diplomacy toward Pakistan over the last decade was futile – accurate?  Two huge pieces of contradictory evidence come to mind on this count. Continue reading

The Wagah Bombing and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Pakistan

As a series of earlier posts note (here, here and here), the last few months have cast new light on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem in Pakistan.  Drawing on Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control, this refers to the predicament Pakistan finds itself in whereby some of the Sunni-based jihadi forces it has long directed to do mayhem against others have now turned against it.

Besides causing increasing levels of chaos inside Pakistan*, the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem raises significant questions for Indian deterrence policy vis-à-vis its vexatious neighbor.  As then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned a while back, an ominous possibility exists that freebooting jihadi groups will mount operations aimed at catalyzing inadvertent war between New Delhi and Islamabad as a way to advance their own interests.  A timely illustration occurred in early September when jihadi forces assaulted a naval dockyard in Karachi, apparently with the aim of seizing a Pakistani frigate that would then be used to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.

Although some details remain unclear, the suicide bombing earlier this month at Wagah, the main road border crossing with India, could well be another example.  The deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan in over a year, it killed nearly 60 people, including three Pakistani paramilitary troops, and injured well over 100.  It occurred just inside Pakistani territory as the famous border-closing ceremony involving Indian and Pakistani guards was concluding at the end of the day.

A variety of jihadi outfits have claimed responsibility.  One of these, the Jundallah, a Pakistani Taliban offshoot, states that the bombing was in retaliation for the major military assault the Pakistani army launched this past summer to clear anti-government militants from the North Waziristan tribal area, a notoriously lawless zone along the border with Afghanistan that has become infested with all sorts of jihadi groups.  The operation commenced shortly after the terrorist attack on Karachi’s international airport in early June, and a senior commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan acknowledged earlier this month that it has weakened the Haqqani network, one of the main Pakistan-based jihadi groups fighting in that country.

But Wagah remains a curious choice if the real objective was payback for the North Waziristan operation.  Even with a heightened police profile due to the Shia holy day of Ashura, the public spaces in near-by Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, would have offered a much more inviting target.  The security presence at Wagah, which had been beefed up due to an intelligence report about a possible attack, should have served as a deterrent.  Indeed, the suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at a security checkpoint half a kilometer away from the border.

This detail points to the possibility that the attack’s true objective was the infliction of mass casualties on the Indian side of the border.  If such an event had occurred, already strained ties between New Delhi and Islamabad could have been pushed to the breaking point.  As the eminent Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, notes:

Militant groups such as the [Pakistani] Taliban – which wants to topple the government in Islamabad – would like nothing better than a conflict between India and Pakistan to distract the army from north Waziristan. The easiest way to achieve this would be by planting bombs on the border, leading both governments to levy accusations of terrorism against each other.

Indian security officials have reportedly reached a similar conclusion.  The Economic Times quotes one as saying that “It appears the target of the bomber was India with collateral damages across the border, but he exploded due to some miscalculation.”

Further underscoring this possibility are the statements issued by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a newly-formed Pakistani Taliban splinter group also claiming to behind the bombing.  Its spokesman tweeted that “This attack was a message to the governments on both sides of the border. If we can carry out an attack on this side, then we can attack the other side too.”  He also warned that the group had set its sights on India and would avenge the deaths of Muslims in the disputed Kashmir region and in Gujarat, the home state of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Following this threat, the Indian security services issued an unusual alert about a strike by Pakistan-based terrorists in the port city of Kolkata (Calcutta), causing the Indian navy in turn to hurriedly send two of its visiting warships to sea.

Reuters quotes 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 it is unclear whether Mr. Modi’s government understands this as well.  The “zero-tolerance policy” it has adopted toward Islamabad suggests not.  But the failure to differentiate between jihadi forces over which Pakistan has some control and those that operate entirely in defiance of the Pakistani state could well lead to military conflict neither country intends.

*UPDATE, November 20: The newly-released Global Terrorism Index reports that, with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan was the country most affected by terrorist activity in 2013.  The anti-state Pakistan Taliban was responsible for almost a quarter of all terrorist-related deaths that year, as well as half of all claimed attacks.  The report also notes that India ranked sixth, behind Syria but in front of Somalia and Yemen, in terms of the impact of terrorist action.

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The Problems with Modi’s Hard Line toward Pakistan

The new Indian government has pursued a noticeably harder line toward Pakistan-based terrorism than its predecessor.  During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and promised to “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language because it won’t learn lessons until then.”  He has responded to the ongoing firefights along the Kashmir divide with aggressive shelling.  Consonant with his tough-guy image, that “The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated,” and displaying his skill in wordplay that “This is not the time for empty talk [‘boli’] … but for bullet [‘goli’] for our soldiers.”The new Indian government has pursued a noticeably harder line toward Pakistan-based terrorism than its predecessor.  During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “zero-tolerance policy” and promised to “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language because it won’t learn lessons until then.”  He has responded to the ongoing firefights along the Kashmir divide with aggressive shelling.  Consonant with his tough-guy image, he boasts that “The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated,” and displaying his skill in wordplay he proclaims that “This is not the time for empty talk [‘boli’] … but for bullet [‘goli’] for our soldiers.”

Mr. Modi’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, stated last week that while New Delhi is willing to talk with Islamabad, “effective deterrence” is key to dealing with Pakistan.  Referring to the cross-border skirmishes in Kashmir, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley similarly warns that “Our conventional strength is far more than theirs and therefore if they persist with this, the cost to them would be unaffordable. They will also feel the pain of this kind of adventurism.” And a senior government official reports that “The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”

The merits of this tougher posture have sparked a lively debate within India.  Some observers caution that “machismo has never worked as a plan against Pakistan” and that an approach based solely on coercion is “a dangerous game” that could easily spin out of control.  A former Indian envoy to Pakistan contends that a policy of escalatory response is “what the Pakistani army wants and we are falling into this trap.”  Others, however, argue (here, here and here) that Mr. Modi has no choice but to reply robustly to what are deliberate Pakistani tests of his resolve.

But beyond this debate, there are other problems associated with Modi’s new line toward Pakistan that have so far escaped much notice.

Read the entire essay in The Diplomat.

[UPDATE, October 31: In an opinion piece in The Hindu today, Sharat Sabharwal, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, echoes some of my points.  He writes:

“Faced with Pakistan’s firing across the LoC, we have no option but to respond. However, in general, more subtle strategies to contain and counter threats from Pakistan would be in our interest.

Finally, the jingoistic and threatening rhetoric in a section of our media in response to each provocation from Pakistan does us no good. Our growing power ought to be felt by our adversaries and not flaunted. Threatening language tends to drive a significant number in Pakistan, who think constructively of relations with India, into the arms of the security state proponents.”]

[UPDATE, November 2: A suicide bombing today killed over 50 people, including three members of Pakistani Rangers, a paramilitary organization, and injured well over 100 others, at Wagah, the main border crossing between India and Pakistan.  The attack occurred on the Pakistani side of the border and just as the famous border-closing ceremony involving Indian and Pakistani guards was concluding at the end of the day.  Several jihadi groups, including Pakistani Taliban splinter groups and an Al Qaeda offshoot, have claimed responsibility.  The attack’s objective is unknown at present but had it caused Indian casualties, it would have further strained already fraught relations between the countries, conceivably prompting Indian military retaliation.]

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Pakistan: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Strikes Again

My last post examined the significant anti-state violence in Pakistan caused by a myriad of non-state actors residing within its borders, and highlighted the danger of freebooting jihadis mounting terrorist operations aimed at catalyzing unwanted tensions between Islamabad and its neighbors.  The problem is rooted in what can be called the Sorcerer’s Apprentice syndrome, from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control.  Among other things, it raises difficult questions for how New Delhi and, to a lesser extent, Tehran structure credible deterrence equations with a country that is being challenged internally by capable militant elements it once supported.

Two developments in the last month or so underscore these points.  The first is an audacious seaborne jihadi assault upon a naval dockyard in Karachi, which Pakistani security forces were only able to beat back following a six-hour gunfight.  According to a detailed statement by the newly-formed Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the strike had a two-fold objective.  One was to take control of a Pakistani frigate and “steer it toward the Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.”  The other aim was to seize another frigate and use it to attack U.S. Navy vessels operating in the region.

If successful, the operation would have vastly exacerbated Pakistan’s fraught relations with New Delhi and Washington.  During the recent electoral campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “zero-tolerance policy” against Pakistan-sourced terrorist attacks, and he has pursued a noticeably tougher line in the on-going skirmishes along the Kashmir divide than his predecessor.  As a senior official in the Indian home ministry puts it, “The message we have been given from the prime minister’s office is very clear and precise. The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses.”

Speaking a few days ago, Modi reiterated this stance, proclaiming:

Today, when bullets are being fired on the border, it is the enemy that is screaming. Our jawans [soldiers] have responded to the aggression with courage. The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated… People know my intentions and I need not express those in words. When the jawans have to speak, they speak with their fingers on the trigger… and they will continue to speak that way.

Given the new political atmosphere in India, a naval engagement initiated by Pakistan-based jihadis could quickly escalate into a perilous military confrontation between New Delhi and Islamabad.  And an attack upon U.S. Navy ships by these groups carries its own dangers.

Following the May 2010 car bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square by a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, the Obama administration put Islamabad on notice that future terrorist attacks on American soil emanating from Pakistan would result in retaliatory military action.  Indeed, President Obama used an October 2010 White House meeting with Pakistani senior officials, including then-army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to repeat this message, which according to Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington at the time “sounded more ominous coming directly from the president of the United States.”

The second development is an increasing series of attacks by Pakistan-based Sunni insurgents upon border posts in the Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran, which is roiled by a disgruntled Sunni minority in the predominately Shiite country. The assaults have caused Tehran to warn that it will launch hot-pursuit operations into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to control its borders.

[UPDATE, October 17: The deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps yesterday reiterated that Tehran reserves the option of launching military strikes into Pakistan if Islamabad fails to take action against Baluchi rebels staging cross-border attacks.]

[UPDATE, October 18: A Pakistani paramilitary officer was killed and four other personnel were injured yesterday when their vehicle came under fire by Iranian border guards.  Dozens of Iranian troops also raided a village along the Iran-Pakistan border.  More on these developments here, here and here.]

So much of the regional security environment in South Asia turns on a Pakistan that is unable to keep its raging domestic turmoil from spilling over into the neighborhood. Expect to see more of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as the country’s internal travails mount.

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