On India–Pakistan: Hope for the Best, and Prepare for the Worst


“We know the Indians,” Pakistan army chief Pervez Musharraf told the civilian government while briefing them about the Kargil War in 1999. “They will negotiate seriously only under maximum pressure,” he said, according to an account of the briefing given by then-Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz in his memoirs. However misguided that calculation proved to be, it is a view that continues to resonate today in the Pakistani security establishment, as shown by this month’s attack on the Pathankot Indian Air Force base. Whether the attack was ordered by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), or was an independent initiative by militant groups who are allowed to operate openly on Pakistani territory, the basic principle remains intact. Pakistan, in the eyes of the military, must stand up to what it sees as Indian hegemony and continue to assert its claim on Kashmir. The history of relations between the two countries since they conducted nuclear tests in 1998 suggests this is unlikely to change in the near future. Pakistan has relied on its nuclear weapons to deter Indian retaliation while actively supporting militants friendly to the Pakistani state, even as others turn against it. The effect has been to seal Pakistan within its own dysfunction, making it more, rather than less, insecure. Thus for all the genuine hopes of peace among ordinary people in both countries, the far greater likelihood is for more attacks on Indian targets — the assault at Pathankot was followed by an attack on the Indian consulate in the Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif. That in turn raises the risk of Indian retaliation — not immediately but in the course of this year or next — leading to a fresh crisis in South Asia.

The Kargil War set the tone for what has become a persistent strategic blindness in the Pakistani security establishment. In the winter of 1998–1999, Pakistan moved troops across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir into mountain positions on the Indian side above the towns of Dras and Kargil. Seen from Pakistan, the move appeared to make sense — in the army’s eyes, mirroring an Indian move in 1984 to occupy passes leading into the Siachen glacier, which lies in uninhabited high mountains beyond the end of the LoC. But the timing, coming so soon after the nuclear tests, showed how little Musharraf and the small group of generals around him understood how the outside world would react to what it saw as a reckless act of nuclear brinksmanship. Just as misguided was the calculation that India would negotiate more seriously under pressure. The Kargil operation coincided with a peace initiative by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who travelled to Lahore in February 1999 to sign a peace treaty with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The intrusion was not specifically designed to scuttle Vajpayee’s peace initiative — plans for Kargil were set in motion before that. Accounts differ on exactly when the plan was given former approval — ranging from within weeks of Musharraf becoming army chief in October 1998 to the middle of January, according to Musharraf’s own ghost-written memoirs. But the sequence of events was such that it looked to the Indian public like a deliberate act of sabotage. Since the winter ends late in that region, the Pakistani intrusion across the LoC was not discovered until May. A furious India sent its troops up into the mountains to evict the Pakistanis, backing them up with air and artillery strikes of such intensity that the initial Pakistani plan for a quiet push across the LoC became untenable. The United States — alarmed by the prospect of the conflict escalating into a nuclear war — threw its full weight behind India for the first time since 1947 and gave Delhi unequivocal diplomatic support. It insisted Pakistan must withdraw its troops. With the military tide beginning to turn against it, and no international cover, Pakistan was forced to order its troops to retreat. Underlining how poor the military’s judgment had been, in the Kargil War Pakistan found no support even from China, a country it considers its closest ally.

Along with strategic blindness is a deliberate looseness in command and control that is intended to provide plausible deniability to the Pakistan army about the actions of Pakistan-based militant groups. This applies to different degrees. By managing militant groups through the ISI, which includes retired officers paid off the books to liaise with these organizations, Pakistan has been able to promote the idea of “rogue” intelligence agents following their own agenda. That argument is questioned by those who say that in an organization like the ISI, staffed by army officers and subject to military discipline, no one could operate independently for long without being held to account. Even if it is true that some operations are supported at the line level rather than by ISI leadership, the officers giving the go-ahead and providing resources are believed to be acting in accordance with broad guidance from above. This arrangement reduces control, but provides enough cover to introduce an element of doubt, making it harder to pin specific acts of terrorism on the military leadership. Further down the chain of command is the relationship between the ISI and the militant groups, which in turn are trying to follow their own agendas while retaining friendly enough ties with the Pakistani state to give them space to operate. The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), involved in the 2008 assault on Mumbai, has generally been held on a tighter leash. The Jaish-e-Mohammad, blamed by India for the Pathankot raid, and possibly also linked to the attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, has historically had more of a tendency to go its own way. Few outside Pakistan believe the attack on Mumbai — which required months of intensive combat training and logistical help from Karachi — could have been planned without the Pakistan army leadership being aware that something was in the works. But the extent to which it knew of the details remains unclear. The pattern described by former officials from the region and the West is one where the military leadership would decide it was time to turn up the heat on India. It would then issue that directive through the ISI to different militant groups without getting too heavily involved in the precise choice of targets or timing. This makes it relatively hard to control even when intervening events change the international environment. A case in point was the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, blamed by Delhi on the Jaish-e-Mohammad and which, by some accounts from Pakistan, took even Musharraf by surprise. One possibility is that the wheels for an increased tempo of attacks on India were set in motion after a failed summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee in Agra in July 2001, and allowed to keep turning even after Sept. 11 radically changed the regional environment. If correct — and very few are privy to conversations between militant groups and their handlers in the ISI to say for sure — it adds yet another layer of complexity in any efforts to lower tensions between India and Pakistan. India responded to the attack on parliament by mobilizing its army along the border with Pakistan, bringing the two countries to the brink of all-out war in 2001–2002.

If strategic blindness and loose command and control play a powerful role, a possibly even bigger problem lies in the Pakistan army’s own view of domestic security. Pakistan has been losing control of the jihadis for years — such was the global scale of transnational terrorism that grew out of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the ISI could not possibly hope to manage it all. Its solutions have been short-term fixes — as strategically shortsighted as the Kargil operation — that have simply perpetuated the problem. First of all it tried to divert the attention of militants to India, Kashmir and Afghanistan to prevent them turning against the Pakistani state. Secondly, it has cultivated militant leaders who remain friendly to the Pakistani state in the hope they can help rein in the others and focus their energies on objectives aligned with Pakistani security state interests. Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, is one such leader. Azhar has always been close to the ISI — he was sent by Pakistan to try to restore order among Kashmiri militant groups in 1994, arrested and imprisoned by India and then sprung from jail after what Delhi says was an ISI-masterminded hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar in 1999. Soon after his release, he set up the Jaish-e-Mohammad in what looked like an effort by the ISI to bring different jihadi groups to heel. Both he and LeT founder Hafez Saeed live openly in Pakistan and could not survive without support from the Pakistani military. But Azhar — more than Hafez Saeed — is also the glue that holds together the Pakistan-backed, India-focused militants with transnational jihadis like al Qaeda. In 1993, Azhar is believed to have traveled to Kenya, acting as a link between al Qaeda and Somali militants who later that year killed 18 American soldiers in street battles in the Somali capital Mogadishu dramatized in Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down.” One of his closest relatives, the British jihadi Rashid Rauf, was seen by Britain before his death in a drone strike as a major player in al Qaeda attempts to attack the UK. The Pakistan army and the ISI have been trying to unstick that glue for more than two decades. Sometimes the security establishment appears to be succeeding and violence falls. After an attack on an army school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 144 people, most of them schoolchildren, the army has gone all out against the Pakistani Taliban and violence within Pakistan has come down considerably. But as long as the “good jihadis” remain in play they preserve the milieu in which “bad jihadis” can flourish, threatening the security of the region and of Pakistan itself. Yet in one of the many paradoxes that has made this such an intractable problem, the more insecure Pakistan becomes, the less likely it is to turn against those militant leaders who remain friendly to the Pakistani state for fear of losing control altogether. Conversely, when violence within Pakistan comes down, the security establishment believes it has got the jihadis under control and would feel more comfortable being adventurous. The obvious comparison is with addicts who believe they have their addictions under control. The only solution would be a radical change in the worldview of the Pakistan army to the point that it drops its attempt to compete with India, uses its well-established ability to manage the media to change public opinion, including on Kashmir, and begins deep surgery to uproot all militant groups. There is no sign of that.

Indeed the actions and language of the current Pakistan army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, suggest instead that almost nothing has changed in the military outlook since the days of Musharraf. In January 2014, Masood Azhar resurfaced in public to pledge revenge for Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri hanged by India in February 2013 for his role in the attack on the Indian parliament. In May 2014, Gen. Sharif revived an old line that Kashmir was the “jugular vein” of Pakistan. At the end of May, Prime Minister Sharif attended the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and promised to pick up the threads of the agreement he had reached with Vajpayee in Lahore in 1999. The Pakistan army has never accepted the Lahore Declaration — all the more so since it contains a reference to implementing in letter and spirit the Simla Agreement, a peace treaty forced on Pakistan after its defeat in its 1971 war with India. Sure enough, the efforts made by the civilian prime minister to open talks with India went nowhere. In July 2015, gunmen who India said were sent by the LeT attacked a police station in Gurdaspur district in Indian Punjab, and also tried and failed to blow up a passenger train. On Christmas Day 2015, Modi made a short stopover in Lahore to meet Sharif, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan since Vajpayee. For the briefest of times, hopes were raised of an improvement in India–Pakistan relations. By then, though, the wheels were already in motion for the attacks in Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif.

For now India appears to be banking on putting pressure on Pakistan to arrest those it blames for the Pathankot attack while holding out the promise of further talks. In doing so the Modi government is following a pattern set by his predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of reaching out to the civilian government in the hope of strengthening the pro-peace constituency in Pakistan. India and Pakistan should hold talks, just as the United States and the Soviet Union talked during the Cold War, because both have nuclear weapons and need to minimize misunderstandings. But, unfortunately for those who hope such talks will lead to peace, there is no clear evidence that dialogue is more effective than threats of retaliation in producing a reduction in overall violence. For example, the Indian military mobilization in 2001–2002 — though criticized within India for its erratic roll-out and ill-defined aims — did help bring down violence in Kashmir, in part thanks to U.S. pressure. Once again alarmed by the prospects of a conflict escalating into a nuclear war, Washington leaned on Pakistan to curb infiltration across the LoC. That in turn helped to create enough space for India to hold reasonably fair state elections in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in late 2002. These remained an exercise in managed democracy, with Delhi heavily influencing the competing political parties, but nonetheless served India’s aim of bringing Kashmiris into the political process. India has subsequently held two more state elections. In contrast to the outcome of the mobilization, peace talks between envoys of Prime Minister Singh and Musharraf — which came the closest to sketching out of framework to resolve the Kashmir dispute — ended with the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. According to testimony given by the American David Headley, who has admitted scouting out Mumbai for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, he made his first surveillance trip to the Indian city in September 2006 — right when the talks appeared to be nearing a breakthrough.

In the years between 2003 and 2016, nearly 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence, according to figures collated by the Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal. Pakistan has seen foreign investment fall and economic growth braked as it tried to shake off an international reputation as a failing state. Yet with every worsening year, the Pakistani military continued to cling to militant proxies as the best hope of ensuring its international and domestic security, backed by nuclear weapons to deter retaliation. If it did not change even when thousands of its own citizens were killed, including its own soldiers, there is little reason beyond wishful thinking to suppose that any real transformation is in the offing. Even though Pakistani public opinion is turning against the use of non-state proxies, the underpinning ideology of the state as defined by the military — as one in competition with and threatened by India — remains intact. The army continues to count on “good jihadis” to try to shape the direction of militancy. It is developing tactical nuclear weapons to deter any Indian retaliation — even though the only plausible reason for India to drop its focus on expanding its economy and risk military action against Pakistan would be if it were to face another big Mumbai-style attack, or series of smaller attacks, by Pakistan-based militants.

In such an environment, another major crisis in South Asia similar to those seen during the Kargil War and the 2001–2002 standoff remains a serious risk. U.S. options in heading this off are limited. It can apply some pressure by making its financial support for Pakistan contingent on action against militant groups that thrive on Pakistani territory, as argued by Alyssa Ayres. In doing so, it should consider drawing up a checklist to judge whether the military is making a genuine change in policy. Too often in the past the United States has accepted tactical moves by the army — for example by temporarily rounding-up militants or putting their leaders under house arrest — that reduce international pressure while leaving the militant infrastructure intact. Rather than focusing on action against individual militants — who more often than not are eventually released — it should examine how far the ideology has changed. How far, for example, has public opinion been shifted towards a less confrontational attitude to India? Where does the rhetorical position stand on Kashmir? What efforts have been made to prepare the public, through journalists and media known to be friendly to the army, for a compromise on Kashmir or a broader peace agreement with India?

Washington also needs to calibrate its public rhetoric far more carefully. Comments such as those of the State Department spokesman last week — effectively lending U.S. credibility to Pakistan’s stance that it is going after all terrorist groups — are unhelpful. While this language might maintain good relations between Washington and Islamabad/Rawalpindi, such provision of U.S. diplomatic cover to Pakistan is likely to aggravate India, making a crisis more rather than less likely. In Indian eyes, experience of the past couple of decades suggests the only time the United States has been willing to put serious pressure on Pakistan — for example in Kargil — was when Delhi used or threatened military force. Washington should be very careful not to reinforce that assumption.

Beyond that, the United States should ensure that despite the multiple distractions in the Middle East, it is properly prepared for a fresh crisis. China has been helpful in the past in managing Pakistan — though a strategic rival of India, China has no interest in seeing a major war on its doorstep. The United States should build on that, while continuing to encourage nuclear confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. In other words, it needs to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It will be in a stronger position to do that if it remains very clear-sighted about how little has changed since those days of the Kargil War. With every new army chief that takes office, Washington somehow convinces itself Pakistan has turned a corner. It never does.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen war. Her second book, “Defeat is an Orphan, How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War”, will be published in July. She can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.


Photo credit: openDemocracy