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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pakistan Owes Much, But Not Suicide

By Firdaus Ahmed

29 October, 2009

Pakistan is no stranger to being at the vortex of global conflict. With Operation Rah e Nijat it finds itself once again centre stage; not for so much for its army is doing in Waziristan but the counter the operation has incited elsewhere in the country. The death toll elsewhere has surpassed 300 in the run up to the operation and since its launch. This is as anticipated. Musharraf had walked the tight rope in his years in power hoping to avoid just such a predicament. But his tenure was on Bush’s watch in which US radar screens had Iraq written all over them. Kayani has been denied the option by a watchful Obama pursuing his ‘war of necessity’. Zardari had for his part ordered the army to expel the Taliban from Waziristan way back in the aftermath of the Swat operation. The Army had taken time to prepare, using the excuse that the civil administration was not prepared to cope with the human aftermath of conflict. It was right. Pakistan cannot cope; therefore its Army should rethink strategy.

Conflict has an inbuilt tendency to spiral. This inherent feature of war is tempered by political aims limiting conflict. This is the Clausewitzian principle. Applying conflict theory to Pakistan, the bloody contest has potential to harden positions through a cycle of vengeance. The resulting spiral or slippery slope would involve greater application of military force and a more violent and indiscriminating counter. This has been the precedent of such conflict both in Algeria through the early to mid nineties and in Iraq in mid decade. The bomb blasts of this month in Iraq are signs of reversion. Thus, there is no guarantee of success, even from using greater military force in pursuit of the elusive position of strength. Strategic prudence requires a revisit to the aspect of political ends.

Political ends alone determine the levels of military means to be applied. The Powell-Weinberger doctrine, thought up in the run up to Gulf War I, was to ensure that the ghost of Vietnam is exorcised through a successful military campaign. The test of war aims was through a set of questions, prominent amongst which was: Is victory at all possible? The answer to this in the context of Pakistan can be taken as negative. In case the assessment is that Pakistan cannot win against the insurgents, should it be entering into a conflict with them in first place? This begs the question: Why cannot it win?

Pakistan’s Army is better at controlling irregular wars, witness its proxy wars against the Soviet Union and in Kashmir. Its counter insurgency skills are not only wanting, but in its use of artillery and air power against insurgents are positively counter productive. The Swat operation yielded the largest displacement of people in the region in so compressed a time frame since Partition. The Pakistani Army does not have the luxury of numbers in comparison to its adversary, the Indian Army, for it to ‘clear and hold’ such a large area as the FATA. The Pushtun insurgents and their Islamist allies of the Al Qaeda are reputed to number 15000 and are spread into NWFP and northern Baluchistan. They have penetrated the Punjabi heartland and the Saraiki belt through the umbrella linkages with the Punjabi Taliban. This assortment of foes is battle hardened, reasonably led and equipped enough to keep the Army at bay. This implies that to whittle them down, greater levels of force of questionable effectiveness would require application. The insurgent counter, as demonstrated all through October, would be to expand the theatre of operation through terror attacks into Punjabi heartland, thereby destabilising Pakistan’s core areas.

Concerns cannot be limited to Pakistani territory alone. The ISAF has demonstrated like incompetence to the north. The commanding general there, General McChrystal, has stirred up the latest round of policy review in Washington. Obama is awaiting the outcome of the Waziristan operation, along with the results of the run off elections, to make up his mind on sending more troops. It is likely that Obama would honour the opinion of the military expert on ground, specifically since the report was solicited by Washington for just such a policy review. However, in case it is decided not to send troops, then the political aims would be suitably moderated depending on what is doable in the circumstance. The decision would be dependent on the assessment of whether its allies in Islamabad and Kabul are up to the task of taking on the Taliban on respective sides of the Durand line. The centre of gravity of the opposition being in Pakistan, it is consideration of whether Pakistan would be able to ‘take out’ the Taliban that will determine the outcome of the review. As assessed above, this is not possible without compromising the very stability of Pakistan. With stability risked, there is no guarantee the Pakistani state can survive.

Therefore, it is unlikely the US would press Pakistan harder, knowing that regional stability and US purposes in the region require a coherent Pakistan. This could imply a political opening up to the Taliban, even as additional troops, not amounting to the 40000 asked for, are made available. This is not impossible to visualise in light of increasing public distaste for the war and the necessity for Obama to be responsive, particularly in glow of the Nobel Peace prize. Consequently, there is no reason for Pakistan to inconvenience itself in operations that threaten its very stability.

The US would prefer to see at a minimum the Al Qaeda remnants wrapped up. The Al Qaeda has been considerably degraded over the past eight years. The current operations in Waziristan are to cause attrition in particular to the Uzbeks there. The operation’s aims met, the Pakistan would be wise to likewise switch to a political mode; one equally democratically responsive to the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. No nation can be compelled to commit suicide even for the sake of supposed best interests of the international community.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


President Obama chaired the UN Security Council meeting that resulted in Resolution 1887 calling on states to abide by obligations under NPT. This presumably includes those under Article VI regarding ‘negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. This is in keeping with his agenda outlined at Prague of ‘America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’.

In conveying India’s position on the Resolution its Permanent Representative endorsed Obama’s aspiration on ‘prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons and providing for their complete elimination within a specified timeframe’. However, that the onus was on the US was evident from the twist in the tail: ‘It is clear that the international community would look to the countries with substantial nuclear arsenals represented on the Council for meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament.’ India’s position is quite clear. The bottom line is that India is agreed with Obama’s most quoted sentiment from his Prague address: ‘This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime.’

The global disarmament initiative can be expected to progress with India’s tacit support at least till the Non-proliferation Review Conference in May next year. Any prospects of progress on a regional level are linked with those on the global level due to presence of China as a player in southern Asia. Given that India seeks notional parity with China and China, in turn, would look towards movement on the US-Russia nuclear front, the regional nuclear situation cannot be expected to change. However, the worsening regional security environment, with India figuring in both conflict dyads possible, suggests a South Asian track needs be progressed irrespective of the global agenda. In respect of China, while a war has been predicted as early as 2012, the difficulties of late

A consideration of the position of those with stakes involved would indicate whether this can happen. Some scientists of the ‘strategic enclave’ have already staked out their position for more tests. The strategic community would busy watching the global scene and writing ‘I told you so’ editorials. Maximalists would lead the drive for maximising fissile material stocks before the window closes. Academics would add a chapter to the disarmament syllabus. The military is content with the ‘triad’ that has something for all three. The politician is not likely to go out on a limb. The government is yet to recover from its Sharm es Sheikh revealed limitations. The NSA is reduced to cautioning the media against foreign policy determining levels of ‘hype’.

A disarmament agenda is not likely to come about on its own. Redirecting the energies of these institutions would be required. The scientists would require to be held accountable for delivering in the power sector, now that the nuclear deal has opened up vistas. The military would be happier with conventional armament made possible by a speedier acquisitions process. The strategic community should be challenged to divine contours of a peace dividend that it had visualised in the run up to nuclearisation. With these three sectors quiesant, the less pressured the political class can permit a reaching out to neighbours. The government, not requiring watching its back, can proceed more firmly. The media will then catch the fresh wind in its sails. A self-reinforcing loop can then bring a regional disarmament track alive.

Such an agenda can be set in case nuclear dangers in South Asia are openly discussed. Presently, reliance on the good health of deterrence is such that military strikes are discussed as response options to another 26/11. With no ongoing talks to act as buffer, such a response may be inevitable. The expectation that Pakistan is a rational state – one repeatedly proven false earlier - may not withstand the test of conflict. With respect to China, the mutual NFU is taken for granted. Three chiefs have in the recent past hinted at the redefinition of China in Indian perceptions. China for its part, either to take pressure off Pakistan; in reaction; or cognisant of the subtext of the Indo-US strategic partnership, is making the moves that serve to justify Indian apprehensions. Given the ‘face’ staked in any future conflict, rescinding of the NFU in a crunch situation by either side would be small price.

Proximity of nuclear dangers should be used to energise a peace and disarmament movement. It can originate only in India. Pakistan, given the feisty media and middle class, would likely catch it thereafter. China would then have no recourse but revert to the bonhomie of ‘peace and tranquillity’. For this to happen, the peace discourse requires going mainstream. Operating out of the margins only enables its marginalisation as ‘radical’ or ‘out of the box’. The key argument for breaking out would be that it would otherwise take a break in the nuclear taboo in South Asia to usher disarmament; now a distinct probability.

Kissinger gets it wrong again. He got it wrong earlier in his extension of the bombing campaign into Cambodia during the Vietnam war; in bullying India during its humanitarian intervention in East Pakistan; and in bad mouthing Mrs Gandhi along with his boss, Nixon. He has got it completely wrong this time in believing that accommodation of the Taliban in Kabul threatens India because in his words: ‘India (is threatened) by general jihadism and specific terror groups’. He was in the midst of advising Obama against a policy of accommodation with the Taliban by asking for help from the threatened neighbours in his Newsweek article, ‘Deployment and Diplomacy’.

Arguing against a former National Security Advisor to two Presidents, Nixon and Ford, is not easy. Especially since his views find echo in the ‘boots on ground’ school of the strategic community. The assumption of this school of thought is that a return of the Taliban to Kabul would witness a reversion to the pre 26/11 era. While its allies in the Northern Alliance would be scattered, India would be particularly vulnerable on two counts. They believe that Taliban expansion into Kashmir would revive the insurgency there. Also that a Taliban ‘victory’ could lead to creeping Talibanisation in India’s susceptible minority. It follows therefore that the foe should be fought away from the home turf. Thus far the US was doing a considerable job keeping the Taliban occupied in the Af-Pak region. They fear that the outcome of the current rethink in the US and the public hand wringing there may prove to be beneficial for the Taliban. Kissinger, for his part, weighing in against such a possibility, required that tackling the Taliban be outsourced to the neighbours. This school would be most happy to oblige being amenable to the idea of Indian troops containing Pakistan by keeping the Taliban at bay in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the return of the Taliban would be a mediated one. Those being courted are referred to as the ‘moderate’ Taliban, implying they are purchasable and non-ideological. The surge, reportedly of up to 40000 troops that General MacChrystal has requested in his report leaked to the Washington Post, is to suitably contain the hard-core Taliban and grind down Al Qaeda remnants. In effect, military action will continue, to suitably incentivise the Taliban to come for talks. This implies that the Taliban at the negotiating table would be those willing to accede to the demands made by the west. These would necessarily include a reconciliation with those of the erstwhile Northern Alliance who sided with the west in the toppling the Taliban. These terms would include a promise of good behaviour by the Taliban in return for a share of power. This means neighbours need not worry about triumphalism-driven expansionism.

Secondly, the US would unlikely leave in a hurry. Their exit would be stage-managed over perhaps half a decade. They would likely be confined initially to bases from where they would be free to operate against the Al Qaeda and their continuing supporters among the Taliban. This way the present day counter insurgency, gaining in unpopularity in the populations of the west and in host societies, would be discontinued, being no longer required. The emphasis would shift to anti-terrorism operations relying on technology and stand off weapons. Therefore, the fear of the Taliban turning against their neighbours would not arise, even if the capability to do so exists.

Thirdly, while the Taliban have earned their reactionary image by their revolting ideology and actions, a proportion of this can be attributed to the pressure-cooker of war. It is believed that the Taliban are so backward looking that they would not like to see development. Therefore, any promise of assistance with reconstruction is unlikely to work with the Taliban. Attributing this to them is to disregard history. Ever since their advent in power late last decade, they did try and reach out for recognition and assistance. However, this led partially to their association with the Al Qaeda, further ensuring that they were denied engagement by the international community. Two, poppy cultivation had been curtailed when they were in power last. It has resurfaced not only because of rule by warlords, but also as a result of the war. Therefore, the expectation that those coming over ground can be controlled through assistance in reconstruction is not unfounded.

Lastly, it is important to interrogate the degree of Taliban influence in both Kashmir and of their ideology among Muslims in rest of India. In Kashmir, there has been little evidence of direct Afghan Taliban participation as fighters. Though there have been reports of Afghan war veterans in the insurgency there, these are exaggerated since those involved are colourful and projected as larger than life. Further, statistics from Kashmir are unreliable on this count since any unidentified body is usually passed off for Afghan by security forces outfits competing for glory. That Kashmiri militants died in missile hit Taliban camps owes to the Taliban lending their services as trainers. This is a common phenomenon on the insurgent network. For instance, the LTTE were linked with the Maoists and the Kerens with North East groups.

With respect to rest of India, Muslim perpetrated terror has been over-hyped by the media. This has led to an eclipse of the terror perpetrated by right wing extremists passed off as Muslim perpetrated. In case suspicious instances, such as the recovery of the bombs in Surat after the Ahmedabad bomb blasts of last year, are subtracted, and those organised by Pakistani groups, then a more accurate picture of the terror originating in the minority emerges. The image of a minority vulnerable to terror inducement from the Taliban can then be safely discarded. The fear of ideological penetration - of Talibansiation - is also questionable. The minority in light of the Sachar Committee report revelations appears more concerned with existential and secular issues of bread, education and jobs. The expectation that Afghans could serve as a role model for them is to underestimate the ‘idea of India’, to ignore the syncretic fount of Indian culture and to do injustice to the draw of India’s economic miracle. Any angst that still exists has local causes, with the linkage to radical Islam being tenuous at best or a self-serving canard at worst.

Therefore, the case for India to fall in line with the Kissinger formulation - that all but asks for troops deployment - is wanting. Debunking it is important, for over the coming period commentary from the hawks can be expected to dominate the air waves and hog inches of print columns. This will create the ground for politicians to look more approvingly at military involvement that currently appears far-fetched. As it is, India is creating the capability for intervention through exercises in interoperability with the US military. It would lead to India backing the military dominant option against the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine.

The US is contemplating pushing Pakistan to ‘do more’, the Kerry-Lugar bill being the sweetner. This option is fraught with dangers of destabilisation of Pakistan with its knock on effects on India. Engaging Pakistan in talks could help extract a promise of Pakistani control over any anti India stance of the Taliban and also a cessation of India directed terror by Pakistani groups. In exchange India can offer to let up its containment of Pakistan in Baluchistan and Afghanistan and collaborate in reconstruction. Such ‘win-win’ options can only emerge once blinkers are forced off. Else the war announced by the bombing yet again of the Indian embassy in Kabul is set to escalate.

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