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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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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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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Pakistan and the Curse of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

More evidence is emerging that Pakistan’s security establishment is not an omnipotent presence, but rather the victim of what might be called the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice Syndrome,” from Goethe’s classic tale about the dangers of conjuring up proxies one cannot ultimately control. That some of the jihadi forces Pakistan has long directed to do mayhem against others have now turned against it is a predicament, which has important ramifications for the approach India’s new government adopts toward its most vexatious neighbor.

Read the rest of the essay at Fair Observer.

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India Should Not Leave Nawaz Sharif Hanging

Renewed military tensions in the disputed Kashmir region are once again underscoring how even localized incidents there can subvert important diplomatic initiatives between India and Pakistan.  Skirmishes this past January put the brakes on the détente process that picked up steam last year.  The current round of fighting has led to a rising chorus in India demanding that New Delhi rebuff efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to put the process back on track.  These calls are understandable enough – indeed they have a parallel in the running U.S. debate about whether to get tough with Pakistan over its behavior in Afghanistan (examples hereherehere, here and here).  But they are nonetheless misguided. Continue reading