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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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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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