Stability in Pakistan good for India, Afghanistan

Date: 22 Dec 2008



Terrorism a common threat
Stability in Pakistan good for India, Afghanistan
by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (retd) 

Violence and instability in Afghanistan are at a peak, up by 500 per cent since the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. President George Bush is right in saying that Afghanistan had changed - for better or worse - in eight years. This month, the Taliban used a 13-year-old boy to trigger a suicide attack in Helmand province and demolished five US/ISAF logistics convoys in one week inside Pakistan, marking a new low in security on both sides of the the Durand Line. 


It is now clear that Pakistan and Afghanistan are together the epicentre of terrorism. Also described as the incubator of extremism, Pakistan’s clinical reference as an “international migraine” is equally apt. The Mumbai carnage is a direct offshoot of this collective instability sparking yet another India-Pakistan crisis, the seventh since 1984 and the second after the attack on Parliament in 2001. 


It is no accident that the eastward path of the suicide bomber has left its trail from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan stopping short of the Radcliffe Line and India. Only an integrated regional approach can end the periodic turmoil and convulsions rooted in the crucible of violence to our west. Any number of conferences on Afghanistan and Pakistan have recognised this central fact: that without treating Pakistan, the region will continue to suffer from bouts of epilepsy. 

Pakistan created the Taliban and the jihadis - they openly admit now - to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan and Kashmir. After 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, Islamabad’s strategic focus shifted from the east to the west of the country, according to some, India no longer being enemy No 1. Unfortunately, jihadis and co have turned inwards, creating a two-and-a-half-front situation for Pakistan for which they had not bargained. Worse, the Pakistan Army and its unguided missile, the ISI, are unwilling and unable to disown these groups. The spillover of instability stemming from the insurgencies along both sides of the Durand Line and their ripples in the hinterland flow into India also. 


The multiple wars against foreign occupation in Afghanistan, numerous tribal and inter-gang conflicts, sectarian wars and counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda and other shades of Taliban in Pakistan are confined to the border lands crisscrossing the diminishing Durand Line. The writ of neither state runs there. It is the survival of the fittest. Any black and white characterisation of the conflicts is an oversimplification of the complex situation. The Army is involved in selective operations like in Bajaur, but elsewhere it is paramilitaries and local Lashkars who are fighting. 

No Great Game has succeeded here - neither for the British nor the Soviets nor evern Pakistanis; the same is true about the US-led NATO forces. Historian Olaf Caroe had rightly observed: “all wars in Afghanistan start after they have ended”. 


The Taliban are fast closing in on Kabul. Already this year, there have been 129 suicide attacks, some using multiple bombers. Air-strikes have caused more than 400 civilian deaths and Western troop casualties are the highest during the last two years. With a new US President and Military Commander, a grand new strategy is expected for the region. The buzzword is “surge” --- not just military but political and economic too. An additional 30,000 US troops, dialogue with the “reconcilable” Taliban and converting the Durand Line into an economic gateway are elements of a regional strategy which seeks an honourable exit, preserving the gains. 


The key to any strategy on Afghanistan is Pakistan, given the Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries on its territory in FATA, the NWFP and Baluchistan and the logistics lifeline for the US/ ISAF from Karachi straddling these areas to Afghanistan. After the recent pounding of the convoys Americans are considering alternative routes for supplies from the north and west through Central Asia. Feeding Pakistan’s insecurity is Indian investment and intelligence activities in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s assurance to secure the supply lines is as half-hearted as its commitment to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. 

Barring sketchy counter-insurgency operations in Baluchistan and the Northern Areas in the past, the Pakistan Army, trained to fight the Indian Army, has little appetite or expertise to fight unconventional operations. It says it has lost 1200 soldiers in recent battles on the western border in Bajaur and other tribal areas. After the Red Mosque fiasco last year, a demoralised Army has become the target for Pakistan’s Taliban and its other denominations. It does not realise that Pakistan faces an existential threat from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is in a Catch-22 situation: in spite of the government accepting the ownership of the war on terror, people in the western frontier areas believe it is the spillover of the US war in Afghanistan that the Army is fighting. Making matters worse, the jihadis have infiltrated Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. 


For better compliance from Pakistan, the incoming US regime is toying with inducements on Kashmir, Afghanistan and aid tied to performance. Kashmir is a red herring, as even after it is resolved the Kashmiri jihadis will remain unconsummated. Pakistan’s real concerns are the settlement of the Durand Line, a friendly regime in Kabul, access to Central Asia and India’s role in Afghanistan. The question Americans are asking is: can India be restrained in Pakistan’s perceived backyard? Delhi feels it is engaged in legitimate intelligence and diplomatic activity. 


Pakistan is the source of terrorist violence in both Afghanistan and India. It is Pakistan, not India, that has to be restrained in Afghanistan. The Kabul attack on the Indian Embassy was masterminded by the ISI. Pakistan is facing a huge backlash from the jihadis it nurtured. Now, after the Mumbai carnage, there is international condemnation, including a UN fiat to ban terrorist groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. 


Jihadi heat has been unleashed through 68 suicide attacks in Pakistan this year, half of which were in the NWFP with violence bordering Peshawar. Limitations of a weak civilian government with notional control over the Army, and still less over the ISI, are no secret. The Army decides the policy on India, Afghanistan and nuclear assets. 


Restoring democracy is key to stability but only when the Army decides to step under civilian control. Together with the ISI it is using a combination of lashkars and peace deals to fight the Taliban. Till it gets its combat act together and launches full throated counter-insurgency operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban instead of attacks involving aircraft and artillery, which the Indian Army has almost never used, it will never get from the US the approval rating it seeks. 


It may be the ultimate indignity for the Pakistan Army that New Delhi could offer to help it train and launch counter-insurgency operations. The two armies have worked and fought together on several UN peacekeeping missions in Africa; so why not in Afghanistan? At present Pakistan has 18 brigades meant for the east operating along the Durand Line. Pakistan should feel free to move more troops to quell the violence on the western borders. Even after the Mumbai tragedy, India can reassure Pakistan that it will not fish in troubled waters. 

Stability in Pakistan is key to stability in Afghanistan and India. The threat to all three is not from one another but from terrorism. As far as possible, keep the US out of this.