Pakistan: Now or Never? Perspectives on Pakistan Thu, 31 Oct 2013 07:39:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 India-Pakistan border flare-up a zero-sum game Wed, 30 Oct 2013 16:15:50 +0000 (Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

At places along the Line of Control (LoC), barely a wire separates the Indian soldier and his Pakistani counterpart. The genesis of the recent flare-up was the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Indian side of the LoC. The media blitz in Delhi found more fodder with a spike in infiltration attempts and exchange of fire beyond the LoC at posts across the international border.

Hostilities reached their peak with the detection and elimination of a rather large group of infiltrators in the Keran sector north of Srinagar. In between, the militant groups in Kashmir valley seemed to have drawn inspiration and staged a well-executed attack on a police post and an army unit in Jammu and Kashmir, deep inside Indian territory.

What are the possible reasons for this spurt? Are these tactical with local commanders acting in isolation, or do they reflect a strategic design?

The first assessment, well-nigh obvious, is that these are not localized incidents exacerbated by the enthusiasm or retaliation of junior commanders. Their sheer spread and intensity are indicators of the plot having been written deep inside Pakistan; possibly at the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Further, the use of mortars at the LoC would have required permission from the headquarters of the Pakistan army.

The obvious strategic rationale for orchestrating violence across the LoC is internationalizing the Kashmir issue. As the graph of violence rises, the concern of the international community about this hot spot, lying astride the borders of two nuclear states, escalates. Incidentally, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in the United States at the time, seeking U.S. intervention in Kashmir.

For the new democratic dispensation at Islamabad, there was perhaps also the necessity of reassuring the power blocs in Pakistan: the army, ISI and the jihadi establishment; of the government’s continued tolerance, if not patronage.

The terror establishment in the Kashmir valley hasn't had a spectacular success for long. The attack on an army unit refurbishes its image and rejuvenates morale, although it might be inadequate for boosting recruitment in its ranks.

On the Indian side, media pressure seems to have influenced the response and created a catch-22 situation. If punitive retaliation was not declared, the media-instigated frenzy would have led to citizens baying for the government’s blood.

The question that arises is what should be the Indian response in terms of the bilateral relationship. The answer is that even nations at war have kept channels of communications open, and so should it be; however, at a substantially lower level.

Both parties can pursue trade and commerce as India awaits a stronger Pakistan government to pull the nation out of the grip of terror. Meanwhile, the hopes that Nawaz Sharif had generated in the Indian polity and informed citizenry have gone up in smoke.

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Drones over FATA – next year may be the last they are legal Wed, 23 Oct 2013 13:09:59 +0000 Selective tweeting, selective outrage and selective media reporting – everyone has a view on drones. On one hand, the United States is accused of lying about civilian deaths in its drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, of human rights abuses, and of operating outside a transparent legal framework. On the other, many of those opposed to drones brook no nuance, reserve their outrage only for people killed by Americans  rather than by the Pakistan Army or the Taliban, and promote a dangerous ahistorical narrative that militants are the result rather than the cause of drone strikes.

The people who live in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) don’t get much of a say at all. Used by Pakistan for decades as a deniable base for jihad, FATA has been deprived of full political and economic rights by the same country that protests loudly that drone strikes violate its sovereignty. The United States in turn has been able to exploit the ambiguous status of FATA to run a secret campaign whose precedent in international law is likely to haunt it as more and more countries acquire their own armed drones.

In the midst of all the polemics, two new reports, one by UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson and the other by Amnesty International, have come as a breath of fresh air into the debate on drones. Relatively measured, they deserve to be read in full.

Both argue that the number of civilian casualties from drone strikes in FATA is greater than admitted by the United States – Amnesty by citing detailed case studies from field research and Emmerson by quoting the Pakistan government as saying that at least 400 civilians had been killed.

But neither rules out the use of drones altogether – Emmerson goes as far as to say that “if used in strict compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.”  That is a point lost on many anti-drone campaigners – Pakistan Air Force strikes and Pakistan Army shelling in FATA are also a form of remote killing without trial – but they are likely to kill even more civilians.

Amnesty, in its more detailed 61-page report, says that it “recognises that some U.S. drone strikes may not violate human rights or international humanitarian law”, while arguing that the secrecy around the programme makes this hard to assess.

To my mind, however, the most interesting issues raised in these two reports are not about whether drone strikes are a “lesser evil” compared to other weapons, or even about the exact number of casualties, but about whether they are legal.

Emmerson writes, for example, that while there was strong evidence drone strikes were conducted in the past with “the active consent and approval of senior members of the Pakistani military and intelligence service”, civilian politicians had passed a parliamentary resolution on April 12, 2012 demanding an immediate end to drone strikes. Many suspect the military, which dominates security policy, continues to give either tacit or explicit approval to drone strikes – an allegation the army denies. But according to Emmerson, it is the view of the civilian government which counts.

“Under the constitutional arrangements in force in Pakistan, the democratically elected government is the body responsible for Pakistani international relations and the sole entity able to express the will of the State in its international affairs. Suggestions of continued cooperation at the military or intelligence level do not affect the position in international law,” he says.

Without Pakistan’s support, the United States could argue the drone strikes are justified in self-defence as long as its troops remain in Afghanistan and continue to be attacked by Taliban fighters based in FATA. However, come the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops are due to be withdrawn from Afghanistan, that argument will no longer apply.

The Amnesty International report points to a roughly similar conclusion – drone strikes in FATA could in theory be explained as self-defence given the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan but will become much harder to justify legally after end-2014.

Amnesty notes that a key uncertainty in assessing the legality of drone strikes is whether FATA counts as an area of armed conflict subject to the laws of war.

As a very rough summary, drone strikes outside of an area of armed conflict would be seen as extrajudicial executions and against international law. Drone strikes inside an area of conflict could in theory comply with the laws of war – provided these took adequate measures to protect civilians and targeted FATA-based Taliban and other fighters participating in the conflict in Afghanistan.

Amnesty quotes the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as saying that in defining participants in conflict, “measures preparatory to the execution of a specific act of direct participation in hostilities, as well as the deployment to and the return from the location of its execution, constitute an integral part of that act.”

However, Amnesty questions whether drone strikes can also be legally justified to protect western countries against plots by al Qaeda and its allies emanating from FATA.
“Amnesty International does not accept the USA’s view that international law allows it to engage in a global and pervasive armed conflict against a diffuse network of non-state actors or that it is lawful to kill individuals anywhere in the world at any time, whenever the USA deems appropriate. “To accept such a policy would be to endorse state practices that fundamentally undermine crucial human rights protections that have been painstakingly developed over more than a century of international law-making,” it says.



Assuming the two reports are correct in their assessment – and that will be for experts in international law to debate – it becomes increasingly hard to see what could legally justify continuing U.S. drone strikes in FATA after 2014.

Would, for example, Afghanistan be allowed to ask the United States to keep up drone strikes in FATA for its own protection rather than for U.S. troops? That seems highly unlikely given that any country could then invite the help of an ally with armed drones to strike targets across the border of an unfriendly neighbour.

Whether or not Pakistan has ceded control of parts of FATA to the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and other foreign militants; whether or not it deprives people of FATA of full political rights, it remains sovereign Pakistani territory – a point the government continues to stress. And the Durand Line border between FATA and Afghanistan – which Kabul has never recognised – is nonetheless recognised by the United States.

Or to quote Emerson, the continued use of drones in FATA would be a “violation of Pakistani sovereignty, unless justified under the international law principle of self-defence.” He added that he welcomed comments from the United States that it had a timeline for ending drone strikes.

Ironically, the legality issue could eventually become a problem for Pakistan itself.

What if Pakistan itself were to realise that it could no longer contain the threat from al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban and – reversing its official public view – actually welcome U.S. drone strikes? After all, in the past drones strikes have also targetted Pakistani Taliban leaders in FATA, giving them the triple purpose of protecting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, disrupting plots against the west, and limiting the threat to Pakistan from militants whose declared aim is to impose their views across the country.

If Emmerson is correct, U.S. drone strikes in FATA could happen legally after 2014 only with the explicit agreement of the Pakistan civilian government. Yet the more threatening the Pakistani Taliban become to Pakistan, and the more they kill Pakistani politicians, the less likely any civilian government is to take the risk of publicly endorsing U.S. drones. (Even if Pakistan were to acquire its own drones, it would then need satellites to run these in FATA with  live transmission of images to a control room outside).

Trapped by its own rhetoric,  Pakistan after the end of 2014, might get what it wished for – or what it said it wished for – an end to drones.

Find me on Twitter @myraemacdonald

Read the reports at:

Interim report to the General Assembly by UN Rapporteur

Amnesty International report on drones: Will I Be Next?

For a leaked document giving Pakistan government estimates of civilian deaths, broken down by incident,  see this July 22, 2013 report in July by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Amnesty International 2012 report on human rights abuses by security forces and the Taliban in FATA.

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From Mogadishu to Mumbai, managing urban conflict Sun, 13 Oct 2013 16:18:21 +0000 At first glance it is an unlikely comparison – the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based gunmen and the disastrous 1993 operation by U.S. troops against a Somali warlord in Mogadishu.

But David Kilcullen, a former adviser on counterinsurgency in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, compares the fighting in the two cities in often unexpected ways in his new book “Out of the Mountains” to convince people to think more about urban conflict.

In the case of Mumbai, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group behind the attack turned the city to its advantage. It spent months getting to know its layout and dynamics, with Pakistani-American David Headley carrying out detailed reconnaissance. The 10 gunmen who snuck in by sea from Karachi and went on to kill 166 people were able to hide among the many boats plying smuggling routes. They landed in Mumbai’s coastal slums where nobody thought to report them to the police. “They didn’t get in there secretly; it is just that people thought they were smugglers,” says Kilcullen.

They communicated with their handlers back in Pakistan, taking advantage of the explosion in internet communications which have linked the world’s cities. They consciously exploited the chaotic urban environment in multiple attacks during a three-day siege.

In Somalia, the opposite was the case for the U.S. operation in the coastal capital Mogadishu meant to capture two lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed and which went badly wrong after two U.S. helicopters were shot down. Before the operation – which inspired the book and film “Black Hawk Down” and whose 20th anniversary was this month – U.S. forces had less than six weeks to get to know how Mogadishu worked.
“Unlike LeT, however, the Americans didn’t nest in the city’s natural flow; they deliberately ignored it,” Kilcullen writes.

When the U.S. operation went wrong, the city turned against them; 18 Americans and at least 1,000 Somalis were killed in a bloody search and rescue mission which left deep scars on the United States, putting it off for years from intervening overseas with U.S. ground troops.

Kilcullen cites the two examples – among many in a dizzying tour of the developing world’s rapidly growing coastal cities – in an effort to persuade military strategists in particular to start planning for urban conflict after years of fighting in mostly rural areas in Afghanistan. “It is not so long ago that the entire military doctrine on cities was ‘don’t go there’,” he says.

With the obvious exception of Iraq, he argues that some of the earlier experiences of 20th century urban warfare had been forgotten by a generation who fought in Afghanistan after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. In the interim, cities – usually concentrated along the coast – had been changed enormously by population growth and the increased connectivity made possible by the internet.


Kilcullen acknowledges that many of the problems which confront modern cities, from population growth to crime to urban riots, are not new. In his book he cites commentary on urbanisation from the 14th century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun to Charles Dickens and Karl Marx to more recent scholarship. Paris, he notes, had been redesigned in the 19th century by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann with wide boulevards to give ease of military access after the street fighting in the 1848 revolution.

He also cites research showing that the growth of cities encourages economic development – though he questions whether the vast urban sprawls in developing countries will be able to show the same adaptability seen in developed countries which industrialised earlier with far smaller populations.

But while he draws heavily on existing scholarship on cities, he is hoping to bring a fresh perspective as a relative newcomer to the multiple problems of urbanisation. And it is there the book comes into its own; not so much as an original theory of cities but as a highly readable work in progress on everything from links to drug-smugglers in diasporas to gang warfare in Latin America to flooding in Dhaka.

Kilcullen uses his experience of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan – where the Taliban often managed to out-govern the United States and its allies even as they were outgunned – to try to explain how non-state actors operate in an urban environment. By offering their own predictable system of rules through their courts, the Taliban had pulled in supporters, who would often then become beholden to them if they ruled in their favour. Belief in the Taliban ideology, he argues, would come after being drawn into that net rather than, as is usually assumed, the cause of support for insurgents.

A similar form of “competitive control”, he suggests, could also be at work in cities where governments have to compete with criminal gangs and other non-state actors to win over populations. It is a model that could be applied well, for example, to Karachi, where criminal gangs, political parties, Islamist militants and the government all compete – with varying degrees of coercion and violence – to win the loyalties of people in different areas.

Rather than arguing for such authoritarian measures as Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, Kilcullen calls for more attention to be paid – with the help of local communities – to understanding the ecosystems of cities “as living, breathing organisms” and to seeing these as a changing system of flows of people and goods rather than a spatial construct frozen in time.

It is an ambitious book – the title “Out of the Mountains” refers to Kilcullen’s call for the generation who fought in Afghanistan to turn their attention to “the implications of the coming age of urban, networked, guerrilla war in the mega-slums and megacities of a coastal planet.” But it is also one that will bring the problems facing modern cities to an entirely new set of readers at a time when governments throughout the world are trying to work out how to manage them better.

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China re-wires its West Fri, 04 Oct 2013 09:27:14 +0000

By Raffaello Pantucci

(Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London)

In his seminal article from October 2012 advocating for China’s ‘March Westwards’ Beijing University Dean of International Relations Wang Jisi spoke of a ‘new silk road [that] would extend from China’s eastern ports, through the center of Asia and Europe, to the eastern banks of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean coastal countries in the west.’ In addition to this route to Europe, ‘A major route from China’s western regions through the Indian Ocean should also be constructed as quickly as possible.’ An ambitious geopolitical sketch of the world seen from Beijing, but one that is being brought to life under President Xi Jinping, whose recent tour of Central Asia provided some definition of what exactly China is aiming for in its western relationships.

There were many significant moments during President Xi’s tour of Central Asia. He planted a tree and opened the CNPC-managed gas field at Galkynysh in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan he signed agreements with an aging Islam Karimov, in Kyrgyzstan he attended an SCO Summit and deals worth $3 billion (a small sum compared to investments in neighbors, but nonetheless a substantial amount for Kyrgyzstan whose 2012 GDP $6.5 billion), and in Kazakhstan he presided over the signing of deals worth $30 billion and gave a keynote speech at Nazarbayev University. In many ways, it was this speech that provided the clearest insight into China’s strategy towards Central Asia, outlining a ‘silk road economic belt’ that would ‘open up the transportation channel from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.’

Five days after President Xi gave this keynote address in Kazakhstan, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Sun Weidong, gave an equally ambitious speech at the National Defence University in Islamabad. In between platitudes about China and Pakistan being ‘brothers’ he spoke of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that brings together ‘the transportation infrastructure, the energy and economic zones along the corridor, which will organically combine China’s ‘Western Development’ strategy and ‘Opening up to the West’ policy together with [a] Pakistani blueprint for national development.’ China’s strategy in Pakistan is both integrally bound into Pakistan and China’s national development.

These two speeches illustrate the greater vision that Professor Wang was talking about. A ‘silk road economic belt’ to bring European markets closer to China, as a ‘organic’ binding transforms Pakistan into a highway for Chinese goods to get to the Indian Ocean. The ultimate aim for Beijing: to reconnect its western province Xinjiang to the world and open it up for trade. Under-developed and riven with ethnic tensions that continue to spill over into violence, Beijing’s solution is an economic development strategy that needs routes to markets. Hence a highway through Central Asia to Europe and a path through Pakistan to the Indian Ocean.

The odd man out in this broader vision is Afghanistan that sits squarely in between these two routes. China has invested in some routes through the country, but these are at best subsidiary paths to the outer edges of the routes from Central Asia to Xinjiang or possibly a longer-term vision to directly correct Iran to China. But where Afghanistan can play a spoiler in this plan is to disrupt broader regional stability – in particular in Pakistan where a difficult situation on the ground will likely get further exacerbated by a negative outcome post-2014 in Afghanistan. In Central Asia a similar threat exists, but appears far less existential – militant groups previously occupied fighting western forces in Afghanistan may flow back home to Central Asia, but they are unlikely to have the sorts of numbers necessary to overthrow regimes. Nevertheless, an unstable Afghanistan would have negative repercussions on the region and all of this would displace China’s broader strategy.

The grander Chinese vision may be imperiled by potentially negative fall-out in Afghanistan, but the reality is that there are numerous short-term problems that are already hindering the situation. Pakistani instability has always presented a problem for Chinese firms: back in September 2011 China Kingho pulled out of a massive investment in southern Sindh in fear of the security of its workers (though this now may be back on). And the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan is so difficult that in late 2012 Li Deming, the head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the country wrote an op-ed in Global Times highlighting all the difficulties Chinese firms faced in the country.

Difficulties notwithstanding, China is making moves to fulfill the reality of the broader vision. There is already a route for goods to go from China to Europe by rail, and it is already possible to travel by road from Kashgar to Gwadar through Pakistan. And Chinese firms are working to re-develop these routes either using national development banks or through the Asian Development Bank. As the world looks elsewhere, China is re-wiring the infrastructure of its western neighbors to bind them ‘organically’ into Beijing’s domestic development strategy.


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Despite rising India-Pakistan tensions, little planning for the next big crisis Mon, 12 Aug 2013 11:33:08 +0000 In the very early days after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, some in India, for the briefest of moments, believed Washington might be coming around to its point of view: that the problem and source of “cross-border terrorism” lay in Pakistan. Instead, an aggrieved India was forced to look on as Washington turned to its old ally Pakistan to help it fight the war in Afghanistan.

It was in that sour mood that New Delhi reacted with increasing anger to Pakistan’s support for Islamist militants targeting India in Kashmir and beyond. In October 2001, nearly 40 people were killed in a suicide attack on the legislative assembly of Jammu and Kashmir state in its summer capital Srinagar. When militants attacked the Indian parliament in Delhi on December 13, 2001 – an attack blamed on the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed – India mobilised for war.  Soon close to a million men were deployed on either side of the border in a tense standoff that was not resolved until the following summer, and only then after intense U.S.-led international diplomacy.

To those of us who witnessed the build-up to the 2001-2002 standoff, the rising tensions between India and Pakistan – with both sides accusing the other of escalating fighting on the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir – bear a troublesome resemblance to that time. Then and now are bookended by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan which began in 2001 and is due to end in 2014.

In the interim was a period of relative calm on the India-Pakistan front.  The two countries agreed a ceasefire on the Line of Control in late 2003; infiltration of militants from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir slowed to a trickle; violence in the Kashmir Valley – at the heart of a separatist revolt – came down dramatically. Even after 166 people were killed in the 2008 attack on Mumbai, blamed by the United States and India on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, Delhi only “paused” talks and took no retaliatory military action.

There were many reasons for that restraint: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was personally committed to the peace process; Delhi preferred to focus on its economic growth; the failure of the 2001-2002 mobilisation highlighted the difficulties of war between two countries which openly tested nuclear weapons in 1998; Pakistan was preoccupied with Afghanistan.

And there are many reasons for it breaking down now: Singh has been weakened by domestic political and economic crises while his Congress party, facing elections next year, is being taunted by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for going soft on Pakistan while Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafez Saeed, seen by India as the mastermind behind Mumbai, preaches openly at home.

Adding to that are concerns in India that as the Afghan war winds down, Pakistan will redirect Islamist militants to the Kashmir jihad – just as it did when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Pakistan denies backing the militants. And again an aggrieved India is looking on fearing the United States might stitch up a deal with Pakistan to give the Taliban a share of power in Afghanistan as it tries to find a respectable exit to the long Afghan war.

But whatever the many different reasons, what should worry people in South Asia and beyond is that the relative calm in India-Pakistan relations during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may turn out to have been the exception rather than the rule. (The deterrent effect of both countries having nuclear weapons played a role; but did not prevent either the Kargil war fought on the Line of Control in 1999, or the 2001-2002 standoff where troops were mobilised all along the border.)


Adding to those worries is the fact that both countries – albeit with limited success – have been trying to advance their military capabilities since 2001-2002. In India, the so-called Cold Start Doctrine is meant to allow it to launch a military strike at very short notice in retaliation for any major militant attack traced back to Pakistan. Indian defence analysts are sceptical about whether it would work; the problem is that Pakistan believes it could.

In response, Pakistan has been trying to develop tactical “battlefield” nuclear weapons which could be deployed against an advancing Indian army.  While there are questions over how successful Pakistan has been in achieving this, these could in theory dilute India’s policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons; even the use by Pakistan of a battlefield nuclear weapon against Indian troops on its own soil could trigger massive Indian retaliation.

Yet there is almost no contingency planning for a crisis, either within South Asia or outside. Unlike the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, where deterrence was underpinned by a sophisticated system of signalling and ultimately Mutually Assured Destruction, India and Pakistan are poor at signalling and unevenly balanced.

In the 2001-2002 standoff, India and Pakistan had almost no means of communication, having severed air links and thrown out their respective ambassadors; yet both had an unnerving tendency to assume they knew the red lines of the other. When the tensions over the 2001-2002 mobilisation peaked, western countries called on their nationals to leave India and Pakistan, fearing that any escalation would rapidly get out of hand.

The same could happen in any future crisis. India might, for example, try to limit fighting to the Line of Control, seeking maximum gains before outside powers forced a ceasefire. But any unplanned escalation to the international border would draw in Indian troops who could, in theory, then become vulnerable to battlefield nuclear weapons.  Pakistan has said it would use nuclear weapons only if its survival were threatened; yet compared to India it is long and narrow, easily cut in half and its second city Lahore is only 25 km (16 miles) from the Indian border.

Alternative scenarios are if anything even worse – were India to deploy its air force, Pakistan would have no means of knowing whether these carried nuclear or conventional weapons.

Nobody is suggesting the two countries are hurtling towards war.  India is still focused on reviving economic growth and has little to gain from a war. Even Narendra Modi, the presumed prime ministerial candidate for the BJP in the coming elections, has built his reputation by cultivating ties with the business community, restraining his traditional hawkishness on Pakistan. And Pakistan has far too many problems dealing with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies in al Qaeda, based in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, to risk a crisis on the Indian border on the east.

So there is still time for India and Pakistan to build lines of communication to help both countries manage a crisis that neither wants, and to consider how to improve their signalling, particularly on the use of nuclear weapons.  And there is still time for the outside world to work out how they could intervene to prevent any new crisis from escalating.

The problem is that, lulled by the relative restraint of the last decade or so, few are planning for the next crisis.  Most debate is limited to, and defined by, what happened over the last 10 years – the discussion revolves around whether the LoC ceasefire will hold, or the extent of India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan. If these years prove to be an anomaly for India-Pakistan relations, everyone needs to be thinking much more broadly.

And of course, the idea that there is still time assumes that al Qaeda and its allies do not try to exploit the rising tensions, using a major attack in India to throw a match into the tinderbox.

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In Pakistan, Kashmir becomes a new rallying cry Wed, 24 Jul 2013 17:24:28 +0000 To understand the second-order effects in Pakistan of violence in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, look no further than the Twitter feed of Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafez Saeed.

After last week’s killing of four protesters by Indian security forces in the Jammu-region town of Gool, he tweeted that “there can be no friendship, trade whatsoever” with India until the Kashmir issue is resolved. Addressing Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who says he wants better relations with India – he demanded that his PML-N government take a clear stance, and insisted that “strong decisions on Kashmir will strengthen and unify Pakistan”.

The comments of a man suspected of involvement in the 2008 attack on Mumbai – an allegation he denies – would be greeted in India with irritation, at best. In Kashmir itself, many ordinary people would regard with dread the prospect of a revival of the Kashmir jihad in which tens of thousands died at the hands of both Indian security forces and Pakistan-backed militants.

But in Pakistan, his condemnation of Indian security forces would resonate. The idea that fellow Muslims in Kashmir must be liberated has become so mainstream that few stop to ask whether Pakistan’s own motivations are really that different from those of India – controlling the region rather than supporting its independence or autonomy.

After the protesters were killed, Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement expressing deep concern. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan tweeted that “Am shocked at the silence of PMLN Govt on this latest violence against Kashmiris.”

The outrage comes within a context – a time when Pakistan is trying to decide how to tackle Islamist militants, once nurtured by the army to counter India in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and now increasingly turning their guns on people at home.

It also coincides with a willingness in Pakistan to believe allegations made this month that an Indian police official had suggested the Mumbai attack was a false flag operation conducted by India against itself – a line that played into a penchant for conspiracy theories and a tendency to blame violence in Pakistan on “outside forces”.

The problem, both with these conspiracy theories and the more generalised sympathy for the goals of militant groups – be it the liberation of Kashmir or the quest for influence in Afghanistan – is that it makes it all the harder for Pakistan to come up with a coherent anti-terrorism policy.

The point here is not to say who is right or wrong about Kashmir – both inside and outside the disputed region you can find multiple versions of nearly every detail of its past and present. The point is that the dispute, which in recent years had been put on the backburner, is once again becoming increasingly corrosive inside Pakistan itself.

That should be a cause for worry for everyone, for Pakistanis; for the people of Jammu and Kashmir; for Indians facing a radicalising Pakistan on its border; and for western countries hoping that Pakistan will tackle militancy as part of efforts to stabilise Afghanistan before the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014.


The Kashmir dispute is unlikely to be resolved soon. With Indian elections due next year it would be nearly impossible for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take risks on Pakistan policy without opening up his ruling Congress party to attack from the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But that does not mean the region’s future should not be debated – including with those who live there – to prevent the hardening of a narrative which sees Pakistan as the outraged victim only able to defend itself (and Kashmir) through the use of non-state actors and India as the alleged brutal face of occupation.

That may in turn require a debate on its history.

In a carefully researched book published last year, “The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir”, writer Christopher Snedden studied the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir to show why Indians and Pakistanis have such very different views of the region’s history.

He argues that the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir – now divided between the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (Ladakh, the Kashmir Valley and Jammu) and Pakistan-controlled territories (Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir) – was never deliverable as a single entity even in 1947.

Significantly, he demonstrates how going beyond the propaganda, Indians and Pakistanis actually experienced history quite differently.

According to the Indian version, the Kashmir dispute was triggered when Pashtun tribesman from Pakistan invaded the Kashmir Valley in October 1947, forcing the hand of the Hindu maharajah who pledged the entirety of his kingdom to India in return for support from Indian troops.

Since the Indian version relates to the Valley, the focus was on Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, then its most popular politician. Snedden notes that Abdullah was deeply suspicious of the principles underlying the creation of Pakistan, seeing it as “an emotional Muslim reaction to Hindu communalism”. “Abdullah and his colleagues, many of whom were Muslims, also perceived (correctly) that Pakistan would be dominated by feudal elements, as well as being a society in which Kashmiris and their reform agenda would have little power,” he writes.

The Pakistani version is very different. Far from the Kashmir Valley, the people of Gilgit rebelled against the maharajah and declared for Pakistan.

The people of Poonch, in the Jammu region, rebelled against the maharajah and also took up arms in response to the killing of Muslims during the revenge slaughter that accompanied Partition. Notably, in contrast to the Indian version, Snedden documents how the Poonch rebellion began before the Pashtun invasion of the Kashmir Valley. Moreover, it was fuelled by Partition violence sweeping across Punjab, whereas the more remote Kashmir Valley was largely spared the communal bloodletting at the time.

Significantly, many of those people who rebelled in the Jammu region would later end up either in Azad Jammu and Kashmir or in Pakistani Punjab – where the “Kashmir cause” continues to resonate.

Thus we have two different versions – one in India that focuses on the Kashmir Valley; one in Pakistan whose view is informed largely by events in Jammu. There are many other variations depending on whose experience you chose to highlight; the important point is that the Indian and Pakistani versions spring from a different geography.

It is unlikely the history will ever be agreed. But the differences in the versions can be narrowed.


A few years before he was forced out of office in 2008, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf had agreed with Indian Prime Minister Singh a draft roadmap for peace in Kashmir. The plan would have effectively disaggregated the old kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, formalising the division that has existed since 1947.

While there would be no exchange of territory, both countries would seek to make borders irrelevant and find ways of cooperating across the region through an unspecified “joint mechanism”.

Whether the roadmap would have worked or not has never been put to the test. It was never discussed in public, neither with the people of India and Pakistan, nor with the peoples of the different regions which once belonged to the former kingdom.

The Mumbai attack put paid to any real hopes of reviving the plan in the short-term, and the Indian and Pakistani governments subsequently focused instead on slow, steady moves to build  relations incrementally, including through trying to increase trade ties.

But with the “quiet” phase –  whereby the Kashmir dispute was set to one side in favour of tackling less intractable issues – now apparently drawing to a close, it might be time to dust off the roadmap and give it a public airing.  An agreement may not be in sight in the near future, but at least it offers an alternative narrative to those who see no diplomatic solution to the Kashmir dispute, not now, not ever.

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In Pakistan, Egypt can find some pointers on democracy Sun, 07 Jul 2013 06:56:55 +0000

In all the casting-about for comparisons to the confusing events in Egypt, three come easily: Pakistan, where coups were celebrated and later regretted; Algeria,    where a cancelled election led to a vicious civil war; and Turkey, where the army repeatedly intervened to nudge along multi-party democracy while retaining power behind the scenes.

None are particularly apt, not just because of national differences but also because of changes across time – Egypt’s was the world’s first coup to unfold live on Twitter, connecting people in ways that would have been unthinkable in the days when army interventions were imposed on bewildered populations.

And the choice of parallel is essentially political. Optimists might prefer the Turkish model, where the army ousted governments which had lost popular support over corruption, polarising politics or violence – and then forced early elections to retain at least a facade of democracy which was eventually allowed to take root.

Their optimism, though, hardly translates to Egypt. For a start, Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union anchored its democratic reforms. Moreover, it was never colonised, unlike Egypt, Pakistan and Algeria, where armies inherited power structures set up for the benefit of a foreign elite rather than the people, making transitions to democracy all the harder.

Pessimists point to Algeria, where an estimated 200,000 people died in the civil war which erupted after the military in 1992 suppressed an election Islamists were poised to win.

The comparison makes little sense on paper – unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian Islamists enjoyed popular support but were never allowed to govern. A country with a far smaller population than Egypt relative to its size, Algeria also had a tradition of insurgency from its 1954-1962 independence war against France. Its civil war was largely ignored by outside powers, unlike Egypt whose strategic location guarantees international involvement. And its violence was exacerbated by the return of Algerians who had fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But Algeria nonetheless has resonance for propaganda purposes, playing into the idea promoted particularly by al Qaeda and its jihadi allies that political Islam can never succeed in a democracy. Alluding to that idea, Egyptian President Muhamed Mursi’s National Security Adviser Essam El-Haddad wrote in a farewell Facebook post that, “the message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims”.

Pakistan offers a comparison for neither optimists nor pessimists. Under repeated attack by the Pakistani Taliban, it is regarded with suspicion by much of the outside world because of its army’s role in nurturing Islamist militants in the past. Yet this year for the first time in its history, a Pakistani government completed its term and handed power this year to another elected government. And therein lie some possible lessons for Egypt.

Both Pakistan and Egypt are large Muslim countries with powerful armies whose critics accuse them of acting to protect their own economic and political interests in the guise of defending the nation. Both try to balance the need for U.S. aid with conservative populations who have more sympathy for political Islam than secular western values. And as was the case in Egypt, all of Pakistan’s coups – the most recent was in 1999 – were popular initially.

In the chorus of international commentary on Twitter about Egypt, few were more vociferous than Pakistanis in warning Egyptians against supporting military intervention. “As a Pakistani, I can safely say to the people of Egypt: Been there, done that – and it was definitely the wrong choice/ path taken,” tweeted Pakistani journalist Omar Quraishi.

For Pakistan, building the foundations of a democracy has been a long haul. It made many mistakes along the way. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for example, tried to shore up his support with the religious right by overseeing the declaration in 1974 of Ahmadis as non-Muslims – a precedent which paved the way for broader persecution of minorities and led ultimately to the entrenchment of a frequently abused blasphemy law. His attempt at religious populism, which also included banning drinking and gambling, failed: he was overthrown in a 1977 coup and hanged in 1979.

In the 1990s, repeated quarrels and Machiavellian manoeuvres among Pakistani politicians made it easier for the army to manipulate and bring down governments. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed early signs of authoritarianism, his overthrow in the 1999 coup by General Pervez Musharraf was celebrated with the distribution of sweets.

But then the politicians learned: if they were to claw power away from the army, they had to set the rules of the game among themselves. A chastened Sharif, exiled to Saudi Arabia, signed with the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) a Charter of Democracy laying out the ground rules in London in 2006.

At the time, the Charter received little international attention. Musharraf was still comfortably in power – the mass protests led by lawyers that eventually forced him out were a year away. But after elections were held in 2008 bringing in a PPP-led government, the Charter helped the democratic project stay the course.

As leader of the opposition, and scarred by the coup which had deposed him, Sharif rarely attacked the PPP-led government to the extent it might become vulnerable to military intervention. PPP leader and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari – a man whose unpopularity rivalled that of Mursi – worked to build up the institutions of democracy, for example devolving power to the provinces, rather than concentrating purely on his own party’s power base. Come this year’s elections, Sharif’s patience was rewarded with a resounding mandate.

Pakistan’s democracy remains fragile. The army continues to dominate foreign and security policy. Like Egypt, Pakistan faces an economic crisis – both need an IMF bailout; both have to confront myriad governance problems, a burgeoning youth population, and loud demands from armed and unarmed Islamists for the introduction of a stricter interpretation of sharia. Like Egypt, Pakistan lies on a geopolitical faultline, making it both strategically useful and vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers.  Yet it managed to pull off the first full democratic transition in its history this year at a time when it faced chilly relations with India to the east and the fall-out of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan to the west.

All countries are different; there is no reason to assume Egypt will follow the same trajectory as Pakistan.  But the approach taken by Pakistan’s politicians is well worth studying; not least for their understanding that armies do not hand over power easily; and that building a democracy requires years of consensus-building among rival politicians to agree how to set the rules.

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The uncertainty principle and the India-Pakistan relationship Fri, 10 May 2013 06:20:57 +0000 (Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters, the IDSA or the Indian government)

"The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa," said Werner Heisenberg in his 1927 paper on subatomic particle behaviour in quantum physics. While the context could be continents apart, this uncertainty principle perhaps best describes the trajectory of India-Pakistan ties.

As India's western neighbour faces the ballot box after a tumultuous five years of civilian leadership, there is both apprehension and hope in New Delhi. There is acknowledgement of the democratic process that has run its five-year course for the first time under a civilian leadership that has been constantly under attack, but there is also fear. A fear triggered by the incessant bloodletting and political violence that has marred campaigning in Pakistan. Being called the bloodiest in the country’s history, it is also being seen as targeting the moderate voices in Pakistan - the ones India views as approachable.

Initially, there was optimism in India after all leading political parties in Pakistan articulated the normalisation of relations with India in their manifestoes and it wasn’t just mere posturing. Yet when the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) - appeared to have been singled out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (or Pakistan Taliban) as targets, scepticism grew. These are parties which have traditionally espoused better relations with India.

The intentions of the current front-runners in the election race - Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and wild card Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf - have been subject to speculation. The invisible hand of encouragement from the Taliban to certain sections within these parties is not being dismissed.

In a roundtable brainstorming session of experts for the Pakistan Project led by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), there was growing apprehension about the “formalisation of the process of capture of state power by Islamists by democratic means”.

Smruti Pattanaik, co-ordinator for the project, says “Imran Khan emerging as kingmaker in the polls will worry India because no matter how liberal he is as a leader, his party has links with the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).” The DPC comprises of 40 right-wing religious groups in Pakistan, whose patrons include Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief accused of orchestrating the 2008 Mumbai attacks; Fazl-ur-Rehman Khaleel, founder of the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen; and former ISI chief Hamid Gul.

There has been stringent criticism of the DPC by the English media in Pakistan, which is heartening, but there is also reason to believe it is “giving clear shape for the first time in many years to an underworld of hyper-nationalism, militancy, sectarianism and faith-based politics whose influence in Pakistan has until now operated largely beneath the surface.” An impression of tacit backing by the Pakistan army headquartered in Rawalpindi only exacerbates suspicions across the border.

The last few diplomatic encounters have also been setbacks. The beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control in early January began the tailspin. Recently, the death of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani jail led to a retaliatory strike on Sanaullah Haq, a Pakistani prisoner at an Indian jail in Jammu. It has ended badly. Sanaullah’s death is being interpreted as tit-for-tat diplomacy. The shrill media coverage on both sides of the border has polarised public opinions further.

Depending on how you want to look at it, the Pew Poll 2013 infers that Pakistanis feel as threatened by the Taliban as they do by India. “When asked to choose which is the greatest threat to their country – India, the Taliban or al Qaeda - respondents are divided between India (38 percent) and the Taliban (33 percent). Only 4 percent name al Qaeda. Views have shifted significantly since last year, when 59 percent chose India and 23 percent said the Taliban.” The polls also said 45 percent of Pakistanis were worried about the influence of India in Afghanistan.

The Political Barometer, a survey conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, has also raised eyebrows. It projects that while China was the most popular country in Pakistan, only 28 percent of its respondents would vote for a party which pledged peaceful relations with India. The survey shows an “alarming trend in which  society is getting more radicalized where 53 percent want the government to promote hijab; 30 percent consider honor killing acceptable and justified and 26 percent  want the government to ban women working along with men.” On the upside, 72 percent believe minorities should have equal rights.

In an era where perceptions drive reality, these figures will only make many Indians more uncomfortable. The 2008 Mumbai attacks are still very much a fresh memory. In the run-up to Indian elections due in 2014, mass opinion is already being mobilised. Pakistan is often a rallying point, considered a domestic issue more often rather than a foreign policy one. With political consensus broken on the peace process with Pakistan and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party pushing the embattled Indian government to take a more hardline stand, New Delhi’s concerns will revolve not around who captures the throne in Pakistan, but what they do afterwards. Uncertainty will continue to be the driving principle in India-Pakistan ties.

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Pakistan’s brutal elections Tue, 30 Apr 2013 04:01:07 +0000  

One day, a 10-year-old girl died. The next, a seven-year-old boy. The victims of the   relentless attacks on election meetings in Pakistan are so very rarely named that you have to start counting the ages of the children to give some kind of human meaning to the deaths.

More than 50 people have been killed ahead of elections on May 11 that should have been a milestone in the country’s history, the first time a democratically elected government completed its term and handed power to another through the polls. Instead it has turned into a bewildering bloodbath where a mother or father taking their child out to watch history being made cannot be sure of bringing them home alive.

At one level, the violence is neither without meaning nor bewildering.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, have given it a very specific meaning. They have said repeatedly they will attack the Peshawar-based Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has its roots in Sindh province, and the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). They have been as good as their word. All three have been bombed, although the ANP, the last clear line of Pashtun resistance to the Pakistani Taliban, has borne the brunt. Since all three oppose the Taliban, the TTP is making it harder for them to bring out their voters or hold political rallies, effectively trying to rig what should have been a free and fair election in favour of right-wing parties more sympathetic to their cause.

The TTP have also been specific about what they want – the implementation of sharia (presumably their interpretation of it) throughout Pakistan. TTP spokesman Eshsanullah Ehsan, speaking to Dawn newspaper, also made clear that they would not stop with the three parties currently under attack.

“We are against the secular and democratic system which is against the ideology of Islam but we are not expecting any good from the other parties either, who are the supporters of the same system, but why they are not targeted is our own prerogative to decide,” the spokesman told Dawn.

At another level, the deaths are both meaningless and bewildering.

 The election will be decided in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif faces a fierce fight against the Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. (The PPP, which led the outgoing coalition government, is hoping the two will damage each other enough to allow it to scrape by with a respectable number of seats.)

Both the PML-N and PTI have a reputation of being soft on the Taliban and Punjab has largely been spared the violence seen elsewhere. As a result, those dying outside Punjab are being killed in an election which is not theirs to decide – at least not at the national level. All three parties have insisted that the elections must go ahead. Yet there is an element of martyrdom creeping in

.Democracy was supposed to usher in a more pluralistic Pakistan, whereby the country’s different ethnic groups and provinces would find ways of negotiating a fair share of power and resources without violence. It was meant to provide a transition away from a centralised military-run state to one which, in the long run, would be more stable by incorporating everyone. Instead, the elections, and the geographical unevenness of the TTP attacks, have emphasised the dominance of Punjab. The resentment created will haunt Pakistan for years – the loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was triggered by the effective disenfranchisement of voters there after elections in 1970.

And despite the very clear statements by the TTP, much of the country remains bewildered about who they are and what they want.

For years, Pakistanis in the heartland have been coached on a narrative that militant violence was an overspill from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and, more recently, caused by the use of drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is as though pre 9/11 history – when jihad was exported to Kashmir and Afghanistan rather than causing trouble at home – does not exist.

That narrative has been accompanied by an Orientalist view of the people of FATA (assumed to be backward, riled up by drones, and politically not allowed to speak for themselves) that allowed many Pakistanis, wrongly, to equate them with the TTP. Few pay attention to what the Pakistani Taliban themselves say they are – a loose grouping of Pakistanis, including Punjabis, allied with Afghan fighters, among them the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda.

The TTP have never said they will end violence if Pakistan severs relations with the United States and stops drone attacks in FATA. They have said they want their view of how Pakistan should be run imposed on the whole country, one in which democracy has no place. Yet still the PML-N and PTI are hedging their bets. Either out of opportunism or lack of understanding, neither have come out and openly condemned the Taliban. The PML-N has a long history of accommodation with sectarian groups in Punjab. Imran Khan – who for years has insisted that TTP violence is a response to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its use of drones – has pleaded with the TTP to end its attacks until the elections are over.

The TTP have been remarkably clever; they have sown fresh tensions in the country between Punjab and elsewhere. They have shown themselves able to attack almost at will with a single-minded determination to influence Pakistan’s elections. The TTP spokesman was even quoted by Pakistan’s Express Tribune as citing European philosophers, when he said elections were contrary to Pakistan’s Islamic values. “The two are contrary to each other because Islamic laws and values come from Allah Almighty, while the secular doctrine comes from Rousseau, Kant and Bentham.”

They are not just angry tribesmen riled up by drones. They have a plan. And Pakistan, no matter how many nameless children among the dead, does not.

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From the ground in Afghanistan, an uncertain future Tue, 23 Apr 2013 08:49:06 +0000


Arriving into Kabul you are struck by two contrasting images. Streets jammed with noisy traffic, pavements spilling with hawkers and women in sky-blue burqas wending their way through the crush of people. And then just a few metres from this bustle of everyday life are whole streets walled off, defended by layer upon layer of guards with machine guns behind sandbags and blast barriers set up in a zigzag manner to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber.

These are the green zones of the Afghan capital where the top international military brass, diplomats, officials, and staff of the dozens of non-government organisations work and live and party, cut off from the turbulent nation outside, like virtual prisoners.

A drive inside the wire can be an eerie experience; SUVs with jammers silently racing down the street past huge unmarked buildings that look like fortresses with 20 ft high walls and heavily armed guards on watchtowers, looking at you nervously.

You know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic outside, and that everything can change within a minute an attack begins of the type the Taliban or more specifically the Haqqanis have repeatedly carried out deep within the most secure enclaves.

Less than two years before the western military withdrawal is completed and security responsibilities for the whole nation handed over to Afghan national forces, the walls are getting higher, the concertina wires strung further out and more areas disappearing under the security blanket in what must be one of the world’s most militarised capitals.

The west is leaving – indeed the whole conversation last summer was about the departure and whether it will be advanced – but so fraught is the situation that the unspoken fear is that withdrawing forces may be targeted. For some, it has brought back memories of the 1842 retreat of the British army from Kabul that went horribly wrong with the annihilation of the entire force down to the last man, woman and child except for a surgeon who survived to tell the tale of Gandamak massacre.

The withdrawal this time will obviously be a far different affair, carried out on giant C130s instead of horseback as happened then. But just in case and in a reminder of the Taliban strength, one of the issues that figured in track ii talks that Taliban representatives had last year in Paris was to ensure the orderly withdrawal of French troops from eastern Kapisa province where they have faced a spate of attacks. The surge troops that president Barack Obama sent are already gone, and now across Afghanistan the United States is shutting down scores of bases as the remainder 66,000 troops draw down, leaving Afghan forces to fight an undefeated Taliban.
Each time I visit Afghanistan, and this is beginning from the spring of 2002 when the Taliban had been vanquished and hope was high, more and more parts of the country have become no-go areas. You are shown a map each time and the areas marked in red that denote high risk are not just the south and east of the capital, but the north as well and the immediate environs of Kabul itself including Wardak—the logistical route to mount an attack on the Afghan capital. There was a time when the north was considered safe, but now the furthest you can visit without raising the level of risk is the Panjshir valley.

To fight this resilient enemy, Afghan national security forces (ANSF) have been built up to a strength of 350,000, more than double NATO’s peak strength of 150,000 soldiers, but this is a force that has been raised overnight, built up of 95 percent of recruits who could not write their name or count till 10 at the time of entry.
Worse, even granted the Afghans war-fighting abilities, the ANSF lack the air power, the surveillance capabilities, logistics and medical facilities that were available to NATO. Yet even then, the world’s most advanced military failed to prevail over the Taliban.

The strategy, as a senior commander told me recently, was never to build an ANSF that could operate without international assistance, because it was simply unrealistic. Instead the idea was to develop a military which would lead the fight against the insurgency but backed by international forces that would help with the logistics, medical facilities and above all air power which is key to fighting in the mountainous country.

Indeed, even America’s far more developed European allies such as France and Britain rely on U.S. support for operations, as we saw in the Mali mission when French jets were refuelled by the United States air force.

But the American people are done with the Afghan war, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and as they struggle with an uncertain economic recovery and fatigue, there is little appetite for a prolonged engagement in far-off Afghanistan.

Over the next few weeks, president Obama will decide on the recommendations of his commander in the region that a force of 6,000 to 20,000 troops is needed. The white house has suggested that 3,000 to 4,000 may be sufficient, and just before president Hamid Karzai was visiting Washington in January, the administration indicated even the zero option was on the table.

While a force of 20,000, largely of special forces, could still be in a position to help out ANSF on some covert missions, anything in the range of 3,000 can only perhaps defend the bases in Bagram, Kandahar and perhaps U.S. Installations in the capital. One suggestion is to reach an agreement under which the United States will maintain and have access to a number of bases they built but will be handing over to the ANSF. That way, they can still spring in forces to carry out missions rather than arriving cold turkey in the country.

In any case, the sense in Washington and which is echoed in Kabul, is that it’s time to liquidate the mission and if any footprint has to be kept, it has to be ultra-light.

Some people do argue, though, that while the fight is far from over in Afghanistan, it might be even more serious in next door Pakistan and for that reason alone, America must have a presence. The seeping radicalisation of Pakistani society, the violent extremism it has bred, constitutes a threat to itself, but also to its neighbours including Afghanistan, India and beyond.
For now though, with the United States turning its back on Afghanistan, the regional countries are back in play and no country has clawed back into the frame as much as Pakistan has in just over the past few months. From the ignominy of the bin laden raid when the world discovered that the world’s number one fugitive was living in relative comfort in a Pakistani military town, to returning to a key role in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban, the security establishment has fought back. As the United States pushes for talks with the Taliban now that it has decided to end the military mission, Pakistan has freed the first batch of prisoners to help set the stage for negotiations and promised to release more.
Late last year, Afghanistan’s high peace council visited Pakistan and set out a roadmap for talks that had been drafted by the inner circle of President Hamid Karzai in coordination with Pakistan.

The roadmap envisions, among other points, a series of confidence-building measures to be implemented in the first half of 2013. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are to work together towards arranging direct peace talks between the HPC/government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Further down the road, the next steps are a ceasefire, an understanding on the withdrawal of international forces as well as modalities for the inclusion of Taliban and other armed opposition leaders in the power structures of the state.5

While the goals seem a bit too ambitious given the ground situation and the inflexibility shown by the Taliban, the centrality of Pakistan to the endgame has been reasserted. It leaves India, which has invested treasure and some blood over the past 11 years, pushed to the sidelines.

A return to a Pakistan-based fundamentalist regime allowing militant groups sanctuary is exactly the outcome India has sought to avoid in Afghanistan, providing aid and investment designed to reduce the landlocked nation’s reliance on Pakistan.

Thus, the highway that India helped build linking western Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar offers the country an alternate access to sea, other than its sole route to Karachi port.
India has also committed itself to development of the Hajigak iron ore mines, an investment that can run to $11 billion, which if it went through could transform central Afghanistan. Thanks to the northern distribution line it has set up, Kabul is no longer a city suffering blackouts. It has gifted Afghanistan its new parliament building and hosted a rising number of students at its universities. Above all, many of the officer corps has taken courses at top Indian military institutions, and under a strategic partnership agreement signed in oct 2011, the Door has been opened to expanding this programme.
And yet, as the endgame nears, it is Pakistan— blamed by Afghans for most of their problems—which is offering to safeguard its future. The geographical reality puts it in that position along with shared religious, ethnic and cultural links, but to the Afghans it is another tragedy that they must turn to the very country they trust the in the least to help them.

You can see that on the ground in Kabul. Driving through its deserted streets at night time, you are likely to be stopped at street corners by policemen once, twice or even more at any of the dozens of checkpoints.

If you look like a South Asian their guard is up even more. “Pakistani or Indian?” The cop barks out as you lower your window. When I answer “Indian”, he wants me to produce a passport to prove that, and as it happens, I am not carrying one.

So I am pulled out of the car in the Afghan winter and given a full body search, with the policeman muttering under his breath that everyone goes around claiming to be an Indian, especially Pakistanis.

To be an Indian in Kabul is to be greeted warmly wherever you go, whether it is negotiating a security barrier or seeking a meeting with a government official. There is an easing of tensions (in Afghanistan, the fear uppermost in the mind is that the stranger at the door could be an attacker and you don’t have too long to judge), Bollywood is almost immediately mentioned, and your hosts will go out of their way to help.

To be a Pakistani is a bit more fraught. The body search is rigorous, the questioning hostile, and, more often than not, you have to be rescued by a western colleague especially if you are entering one of those heavily guarded, unmarked restaurants frequented by foreigners.

To the ordinary Afghan, India and Pakistan have followed two different paths in the country beginning from the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 when there was hope in the air and you could walk in the streets of Kabul (instead of trying to escape it) to the current time when the Taliban have fought back and hold the momentum as the west withdraws after a long and ultimately, unsuccessful engagement.

While the Indians have been applauded for helping build roads, getting power lines into the capital, running hospitals and arranging for hundreds of students to pursue higher education in India, the Pakistanis are accused of the violence that Afghans see all around them, from the attacks in the capital to the fighting on the border and the export of militant Islam. It’s become reflexive: minutes into an attack, the blame shifts to Pakistan. “they must have done it.”
A rand study into the differing strategies adopted by the rivals in Afghanistan quotes a 2009 BBC/ABC news/ARD poll which showed that 86 percent of Afghans thought Pakistan had a negative influence in Afghanistan, with only 5 percent saying it had made a positive contribution. India’s impact, by contrast, was seen as positive by 41 percent of Afghans and negative by only 10 percent. Overall, 74 percent of Afghans held a favourable view of India against 8 percent of those who had a positive impression about Pakistan.

That’s the scale of the challenge before Pakistan as it tries to manouevre its way back into a post-2014 settlement and install a regime that would protect its interests. Unlike 1996 when it helped the Taliban’s rapid ascent to power, Pakistan has a raging insurgency within its own borders straddling Afghanistan. It may need to lean on the Afghan Taliban to rein in the Pakistani Taliban that remains a recalcitrant enemy and it certainly does not have the level of leverage it had with the Afghan group as it did more than a decade ago.

In that and in the huge goodwill of the Afghan people lies perhaps India’s opportunity. It must remain invested in Afghanistan, expand the scale of its training of the ANSF both at top counter insurgency schools in India and in situ, and tie its plans with both Russia and Iran, both of whom are equally concerned about the potential return of the Sunni Taliban in Kabul.

(A copy of this article appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of SCHOLAR WARRIOR, a quarterly journal of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi)




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