13 January 2009
[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by DAWN]
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late November, Pakistan’s government in Islamabad is scrambling to show grief-stricken Indians and the world that Pakistan is actually able and eager to mount successful counterterrorist operations. In the meantime, India is still considering its military options, and the US is finding itself in the awkward position of biased mediator, but a mediator with options, nonetheless.
Indian ire in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was so unmistakable that it prompted Islamabad to sound the loudest alarm bell in its arsenal: insisting that it could only fight one war at a time, Pakistan warned Washington that a vengeful India would compel Islamabad to redeploy the 100,000 troops currently assisting the US War on Terror in northwest Pakistan to its eastern border with India, Pakistan’s greatest strategic threat. Hearing the message loud and clear, President Bush dispatched Secretary of State Rice to Delhi to calm the Indians—much as Washington had in the past—to ensure that Pakistan has the resources and flexibility to fight al Qaeda and its various supporters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Yet from Washington’s perspective, both the political and military implications of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan—especially the kind that involves Pakistani troop movements—open many new doors to a war on terror that appears increasingly bleak.
The View from Washington
First, India is not alone in its profuse criticism of Pakistan’s failure to fight the very terrorists it bred during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Seven long years into the war on terror, Washington remains convinced that Pakistan is still unwilling and/or unable to make good on its counterterrorism commitments on the other side of the Durand Line. It was difficult enough to compel Islamabad to deploy twenty percent of its roughly half-million-man army to the northwestern border during President Bush’s first term, and that contribution only led to a steadfast resurgence of the Afghan Taliban and the near-steroidal growth of the Pakistani Taliban.
Facing dim prospects, over the last 18 months the Americans have begun taking matters into their own hands, dispatching the much-resented predator drones to kill senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders with greater frequency, and deeper into Pakistan’s heartland, no less. With President-elect Barack Obama insisting that he will allocate more American soldiers and resources to the ‘real’ war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has nowhere to go but down, especially as the Pakistani Taliban rip the country apart. It is in this context that a redeployment of Pakistani troops frightens Washington—regardless of who occupies the White House.
But according to a flood of recent press reports, if India seems likely to attack Pakistan, then both the Pakistan Army and the militants they are supposed to destroy could find themselves facing the same grave threat in India. Various militant factions and supporters of the Taliban—all the way from South Waziristan up to the Swat Valley—would put their wars with NATO and Islamabad on hold and find their way to Kashmir or the Indian border.
The Composition of a United Pakistani Defense
In practice, no matter how likely Pakistan’s warring factions are to unite to confront an Indian attack, Islamabad’s ability to influence that union is another matter entirely. First, it is important to note that Pakistan would need all the help it could get if India invades, say, Azad Kashmir, the small Pakistan-occupied territory that is also the operational headquarters for much of the anti-Hindu resistance, including the perpetrators of the Mumbai siege, Lashkar-e-Taiba. But to make any use of these eager militias in a conventional war, Islamabad would have to arm them with far more weapons and hardware than the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) has traditionally and quietly bestowed upon them. And given the Taliban’s animosity for the secular government in Pakistan, Islamabad would only provide these jihadists and militant nationalists with sophisticated weaponry if Pakistan were facing imminent defeat by India. Otherwise, Islamabad, Washington and Delhi all know exactly where those weapons would be aimed once the Mumbai storm blew over.
If, however, Washington or Delhi pressures Islamabad to an unprecedented degree—and it seems that only foreign invasion could do so—then the Pakistani military would be tempted to utilize the plethora of Taliban and Kashmiri militant groups as Pakistan’s front line of defense—IE, cannon fodder—for an invigorated insurgency in Indian-occupied Kashmir. And unsurprisingly, many such militants would jump at the opportunity. One could even envision a scenario where—given enough pressure on Islamabad—the Pakistani military would quietly inform Delhi of the positions and plans of these militants, making them easy targets for the Indian Army. And such theatrical backstabbing would hardly be new to this conflict, nor would these cadres be difficult to replace when Islamabad was out of the spotlight. President Musharraf certainly performed such a feat in the months after 9/11 when he allied with the US, though the result was more a severing of Islamabad’s official ties to militants than it was a severing of those militants’ actual abilities.
A more likely confrontation, however, would involve the two armies meeting at their mutual international border and the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, where they would stay for a period of months—perhaps exchanging artillery and air strikes until Washington negotiates a ceasefire. (This very scenario played out three months after 9/11, when a motley crew of Kashmiri militants stormed India’s Parliament.) But once at a stand-off, neither the civilian nor military establishments in Pakistan will make the first move because they know they will lose. Yet in preparation for a conventional Indo-Pak war, these militias would have little to offer at the border and would thus, if for a time, be neutralized.
Leveraging a Shuffle at the Northwestern Border
In the meantime, however, US and NATO forces in Afghanistan would be in the unfamiliar position of having neither friends nor foes on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. And this would present Washington with equally unfamiliar flexibility.
The US presidential transition could alter this dynamic, but under these circumstances, the most likely benefit to the US would manifest in southern Afghanistan, where the resurgent Afghan Taliban would face potentially crippled supply lines of weapons and equipment, which are currently flowing from the Pakistani Taliban and the tribal clans loyal to them in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). If those middlemen are busy at Pakistan’s eastern border, there will be fewer available at the western border.
Another possibility is that, like their Pakistani counterparts, the Afghan Taliban might also flock to the Indian border or LoC to fight the Indians. Numerous Taliban leaders and foot soldiers are foreign-born and tied to the militant Pashtun world by marriage and lifestyle; but many are jihadists at heart and would drool at the prospect of a glorious war on numerous fronts. Though less likely, in either scenario, the Afghan Taliban would be stretched uncharacteristically thin without support from across the border, and the US/NATO/Afghan forces would be less hindered to improve security and perhaps earn a little loyalty from local Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan. At the very least, there would be fewer obstacles to US intelligence gathering and infiltration, which is always in desperate need of a boost.
Either way, however, a substantive contingent of the Pakistani Taliban and their supporters will probably remain in the NWFP/FATA and continue supporting the Afghan Taliban. In the end, Pashtuns are notoriously territorial, and some will not be interested in repelling the Indians from the land of their ethnic rivals in Pakistan’s eastern provinces.
In this case, Washington would be able to test Pakistan’s claim that—as limited as Islamabad’s assistance has been since 2001—the war on terror would be in a far worse state without Pakistan’s help. Willfully testing this claim has always been too risky for the US because the price of being wrong could be frightfully high, but if Islamabad refuses to keep its contingent of soldiers on Pakistan’s western border anyway, then as a silver lining, Washington might be able to test this notion and use it as a basis for strengthening or drastically altering the US-Pakistan relationship.
After all, even if every observant Western official already knows that little will change on the ground without the Pakistani soldiers, then mounds of supporting evidence for such assertions would be critical for the Obama Administration to justify greater and deeper incursions into northwestern Pakistan to eliminate al Qaeda and its support structure. Naturally, Washington will have to test these waters more before diving in, but the situation in Pakistan is likely to get much worse before it gets any better, and the water aught to feel tantalizingly welcoming in the year to come.
As usual, another significant obstacle to such a test is logistical. If and when Islamabad and Pakistan’s military leadership in Rawalpindi agree to redeploy these soldiers eastward, there will be no one to guard and reinforce US and NATO supply lines from Karachi’s port—where roughly 75% of such supplies transit—to central and southern Afghanistan. Even before the siege in Mumbai, supply lines for the US, NATO and Afghan militaries have become increasingly vulnerable to the whims of the Taliban-led insurgency, especially in the vicinity of Peshawar.
In fact, with thousands of more US troops set to deploy to Afghanistan, this vulnerability will only increase, and the 60,000 locally recruited and poorly trained soldiers in Pakistan’s Frontier Corps would be forced to fill the vacuum left by Pakistan’s Army. For a while now, American military planners have been exploring alternative and inevitably more cumbersome routes through central Asia, but without a “Peshawar Awakening” some time soon, the stage is set for a worsening of security along the treacherous border, with or without the redeployment of Pakistani troops.
Given the presidential transition in Washington, it is still unclear if the US will be able to improvise its military approach to southern Afghanistan, at least in the near term. Nevertheless, if the tensions remain high between India and Pakistan, the US might benefit in the long term from the internal solidarity in Pakistan and the decreased intensity of conflict in the tribal regions on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Obviously, a calamitous war between the two South Asian rivals is far too high a price to pay to obtain a temporary calm in western Pakistan that may or may not benefit anyone. But if escalation is the path that India chooses—despite Washington’s calls for restraint—then high-octane saber-rattling on both sides of the Indo-Pak border (especially if it lasts for many months) could actually suit Washington rather well.