The Indispensable Ally

December 9, 2008 Topic: TerrorismSecurity Region: South AsiaAsia Tags: KashmirLashkar-e-TaibaInsurgency

The Indispensable Ally

The Mumbai attacks highlighted Pakistan’s shortcomings as an ally in the war on terror. But Islamabad is far too important to leave by the wayside.

The most important questions concerning the terrorist attacks in Mumbai are also obvious ones, yet are not asked nearly often enough by Western analysts. They are: What goals did the terrorists hope to achieve by these attacks? And how to what degree did they achieve them? Regrettably, the terrorists so far seem to have achieved at least a qualified success.

The first terrorist objective was clearly the direct human and physical damage caused, and the direct impact of this damage on India. From this point of view, most unfortunately, the terrorists have pulled off the greatest success in a single operation since 9/11, though less due to their own strength than the weakness of the Indian state. India has suffered a severe economic blow at a most inopportune moment, and the shortcomings of its security system have been cruelly revealed. In fact, its entire claim to be an aspiring great power has been called into question. It still seems extraordinary that a mere ten terrorists can have achieved so much.

The less obvious, but even more important terrorist objective was the effect of the operation on the behavior of India's government. It seems clear that by far the single most important goal in this regard was to worsen relations between India and Pakistan, and wreck hopeful recent signs of reconciliation, like the speech of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in the week before the attacks dubbing the insurgents in Indian-controlled Kashmir "terrorists" and calling for economic union between India and Pakistan. Islamists in Pakistan have spoken and written openly of their desire to disrupt this reconciliation, and ideally to cause a new war between India and Pakistan.

The extremists' interests in such a new conflict, or the threat of one, are threefold. In the first place, Pakistani tension with India tends to boost wider Islamist support, especially since India is now seen as a close ally of the United States. Secondly, tension with India tends to increase support for the extremists in the Pakistani security services. There may well also be a more immediate objective, which is to draw Pakistani troops away from the campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan along the western border with Afghanistan, by forcing the Pakistani military to concentrate troops for defence against the old eastern enemy, India.

So far, the terrorists have not succeeded in creating a new conflict; and they have suffered a serious blow with the Pakistani army's attack on their main base in Pakistani Kashmir and arrest of their leader. However, in many respects India's response to the attacks fell straight into the trap dug by the terrorists. Rather than stressing that India and Pakistan had been victims of the same kind of monstrous attacks on their international hotels (India at the Taj and Oberoi in December, Pakistan at the Marriott in September) and needed to work together, Indian rhetoric, official and still more private, made it sound as if the Indian government was blaming the Pakistani government itself for these attacks. The Pakistani response was bound to be deeply hostile.

It is indeed obvious that the Pakistani state needs to do far more to crack down on home-grown terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba on its territory, and on any serving or former Pakistani intelligence officers still associated with them. It is simply outrageous that seven years after 9/11 there should still be such serious doubts about Pakistan in this regard.

The Obama administration, as a matter of urgency, should dust off an interesting plan drawn up by the staff of Vice President-elect Biden in 2007, arguing for a mixture of greatly increased economic aid to Pakistan with strong, calibrated U.S. pressure on the Pakistani military through cuts to military aid and arms sales.

For Pakistan to target its own militants will admittedly not be as easy as some Western and Indian commentators would have one believe. In recent visits to Pakistan, a senior policeman and intelligence officer have both admitted to me that their services are thoroughly permeated by extremist sympathisers.

After nine years of appointments by ex-President Musharraf, this is not true of the higher ranks of these services; and certainly there is no sympathy whatsoever in the new administration of President Asif Ali Zardari for the forces which murdered his wife Benazir Bhutto. Nonetheless, as my police acquaintance candidly admitted, unless the planning of operations against the extremists is restricted to a very small circle of trusted senior officers, every one is liable to be leaked in advance to its targets.

The presence of extremist sympathisers in the security services reflects the situation in the population in general. Election results which show the Islamist parties' share of the national vote as very low are somewhat misleading from this point of view. Pakistanis who have no desire for an Islamist revolution in Pakistan may still sympathise with Pakistanis who hit at the old enemy, India, or at America, now perceived by much of the population as a de facto enemy of Pakistan.

The situation from this point of view is especially grave in the Pashtun areas, where the Afghan Taliban enjoy overwhelming sympathy as far as their jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan are concerned, and the Pakistani Taliban enjoy lesser but still considerable sympathy in their battles against Pakistani forces.

U.S. missile strikes across the border, though in principle justified-since these areas are being used by the Taliban as a base to attack American soldiers-are increasing anti-American feeling in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. As for U.S. raids on the ground, if resumed these will lead to actual battles with Pakistani forces, the collapse of the U.S.-Pakistani alliance, and a downward economic and political spiral in Pakistan, the depths of which cannot be foreseen.

There is a key point to be made about the role of Pakistan and India in the "war on terror" as far as the United States and the West are concerned, which may at first sight seem counterintuitive, but on reflection should be obvious. In the struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism, Pakistan is a dreadfully flawed and unsatisfactory ally, but it is still an essential ally.

This is because in the end, only Pakistanis can govern and control Pakistan. Any attempt by outside forces to do so will lead to general revolt and a catastrophic increase in global Muslim support for terrorism. The mathematics are unequivocal: With more than 160 million people, Pakistan has four times the population of Afghanistan or Iraq, twice the population of Iran, two thirds the population of the entire Arab Middle East, and possesses nuclear weapons and one of the most powerful armies in the world.

India, by contrast, is not really a useful U.S. ally at all from this point of view, but a potentially disastrous liability. The direct help that India can give to the United States in the war on terror is very limited; while India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, and treatment of its Muslim minority, contribute to inflaming Muslim sentiment in Pakistan and far beyond.

The new Obama administration therefore should be careful to balance pressure on Pakistan over shelter for terrorists with pressure on India over these two points. Concerning Kashmir: It needs to be clearly recognised-and India itself has not denied this-that the latest flare-up of trouble in Kashmir was not due to Pakistani influence, but was purely home-grown, and was a result of a poisonous combination of Kashmiri Muslim aspirations for greater independence, ethno-religious tensions in Kashmir between Muslims and Hindus, and mismanagement by the Indian state.

As far as Pakistan's role is concerned, the last two Pakistani leaders, Musharraf and Zardari, have gone as far as any Pakistani government can go in offering a compromise to India, and India's response so far has been virtually zero. Musharraf essentially suggested a peace deal with India along the lines of that in Northern Ireland, with existing de facto borders recognised but also softened through a variety of common institutions. Washington should launch a new international initiative via the United Nations to seek an Indo-Pakistani peace treaty along these general lines, with the European Union, Russia and China enlisted to add economic incentives and geopolitical pressure.

Secondly, India needs to come under much greater international scrutiny, led by Washington, regarding its treatment of its own Muslim minority. For a long time now, the Indian establishment has been in denial over the bitter and understandable alienation of much of this community, and the way in which this is feeding into terrorism and extremism. We have now seen a row of dreadful terrorist attacks in India over the past year, several of which may well have had connections to Pakistani terrorist groups, but not one of which could have taken place without local help.