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India Should Not Leave Nawaz Sharif Hanging

Renewed military tensions in the disputed Kashmir region are once again underscoring how even localized incidents there can subvert important diplomatic initiatives between India and Pakistan.  Skirmishes this past January put the brakes on the détente process that picked up steam last year.  The current round of fighting has led to a rising chorus in India demanding that New Delhi rebuff efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to put the process back on track.  These calls are understandable enough – indeed they have a parallel in the running U.S. debate about whether to get tough with Pakistan over its behavior in Afghanistan (examples herehereherehere and here).  But they are nonetheless misguided.

The current tensions broke out two weeks ago when India accused Pakistan of killing five of its soldiers in an ambush along the 450 mile-long boundary – known as the Line of Control  (LoC)– separating the two armies in Kashmir.  Islamabad denies the charge but ever since the two sides have traded gunfire and mortar shelling.  This development comes on the heels of a failed strike by suicide bombers on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad.  Afghan government officials believe the attack was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, or “Army of the Pious”), a high-profile jihadi group based in Pakistan.

The events have left many Indians in no mood to deal with the new civilian government in Pakistan.  A distinguished group of former high-ranking officials – among them, two foreign secretaries, two army chiefs, two heads of the foreign intelligence agency and an air force chief – issued a joint statement advising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be wary of Sharif’s moves.  Separately, another retired intelligence chief upbraided efforts to resume the détente process as rank “appeasement.”  Already the tensions have dented bilateral trade links that looked to be on the upswing, and efforts to resurrect peace talks at the Foreign Secretary-level are now at risk.

The sentiment in India is natural considering how vexatious and infuriating a neighbor Pakistan usually is.  It routinely exasperates those who are willing to go to great lengths to cultivate its friendship.  A good example here is Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who made such an effort to forge a cooperative relationship with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that he practically took up a second residence in Islamabad.  And yet Mullen ended his tenure two years ago by angrily denouncing the Pakistani army’s use of “violent extremism as an instrument of policy” in an effort to exert strategic influence in Afghanistan.

But calls to halt resumption of the détente process are also off the mark.  This is a time for Indian diplomacy to be proactive and farsighted, rather than keep to its usual reactive and blinkered mode.  The focus should be on diligently exploring Sharif’s depths of seriousness as well as his capacity to deliver on promises.  And New Delhi should aim to do what it can to empower the new Pakistani leader vis-à-vis the military establishment in Rawalpindi that is reflexively anti-Indian and eager to preserve its praetorian role.

Those in India demanding a hard line toward Islamabad tend to speak of Pakistan as if it were an ordinary state with a single, unified government.  Yet, on a number of counts, this is far from the case.  First, it gives modern resonance to Voltaire’s old quip that “Whereas some states possess an army, the Prussian army possesses a state.”  The Pakistani military establishment is the country’s most powerful political entity and has an extensive business empire to boot.  And even the tumultuous return to democracy five years ago has not righted the civil-military balance.

Consider how the previous civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari was from the start engaged in a running struggle with the generals in Rawalpindi.  Despite the praise Kayani often receives for confining the army to the barracks, he was contemplating ousting Zardari just months into the president’s term.  The bizarre Memogate affair, which was aimed at diminishing Zardari’s political standing and perhaps bringing down his government, was almost certainly the product of army skullduggery.  As recently as January 2012, coup fears were alive in Islamabad (background here and here), and the men in khaki continue to exercise a strong, behind-the-scenes influence on domestic politics (see the analysis here and here).

Moreover, Kayani was easily able to put the kibosh on Zardari’s friendly signals toward India, such as enunciating a no-first use nuclear weapons policy or proposing to send Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, then head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, to New Delhi for consultations in the wake of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008.  Ditto for Zardari’s short-lived attempt to rein in the shadowy ISI by placing it under civilian control.

It is unclear what set off the current tensions in Kashmir, though it’s possible that the military leadership is staging incidents meant to derail Sharif’s overtures before they even leave the station.   The LoC skirmishes earlier this year may have likewise originated in army efforts to undermine the détente process that had gathered momentum in 2012.  Similarly, the Mumbai terrorist strikes might have been an attempt by some within the Pakistani security establishment to sabotage the intensive backchannel peace talks that took place in 2004-2007 and which reportedly were on the verge of defusing the perennially-inflamed Kashmir issue.

Adding to the complexities of the Pakistani situation, it’s far from clear that the military “deep state” is itself an undivided entity.  That Pakistan’s security agencies have sponsored and employed jihadi proxies to advance objectives vis-à-vis India is beyond doubt, though it remains uncertain whether the top military leadership was aware of or sanctioned the high-profile attacks India has suffered over the past decade.   A prime example is the egregious assault upon the Indian parliament while it was in session by Pakistan-based jihadi groups in December 2001.  According to one well-informed account of the attack, U.S. and British intelligence:

felt that they had evidence that I.S.I. provided systematic support to Kashmir jihad groups….Yet intelligence about whether or how I.S.I. directed particular terrorist strikes within India was less certain; according to officials familiar with C.I.A. intelligence reports, the agency did not have evidence of direct instructions from I.S.I. controllers to jihadi cells to carry out attacks such as the raid on Parliament House.  Nor could India offer specific evidence about what role, if any, Pakistan’s Army or its intelligence services had played in that raid.

And another knowledgeable expert raises the possibility that the parliament attack, which occurred right as the Taliban regime was collapsing, may have been a jihadi effort to divert Pakistani military attention away from the Afghan border precisely when Osama bin Laden and hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were fleeing out of Afghanistan.

A few years ago, then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of freebooting jihadis, perhaps in conjunction with rogue sympathizers inside the deep state, mounting operations aimed at catalyzing unwanted war between India and Pakistan.  The Mumbai attack in late 2008 could possibly fall into this category.

It seems preposterous to believe that Osama bin Laden could reside in Abbottabad, a town fully in the army’s grip, without high-level connivance.   Yet U.S. intelligence has reportedly found no evidence that the top military brass was aware of his presence.  The detailed Pakistani government inquiry into the matter reaches the same conclusion.  It places much of the blame for failing to detect bin Laden on the “breathtaking incompetence and irresponsibility” of the country’s military and civilian institutions – a condition it poignantly terms a “governance implosion syndrome.”  It quotes General Pasha as testifying that “We are a failing state even if we are not yet a failed state.”  And it raises the possibility that unauthorized elements provided bin Laden with key support “at some level outside formal structures of the intelligence establishment.”

Lastly, unlike most other countries, the writ of the Pakistani state – even its military core – is heavily contested.  True, India has its own set of serious internal security problems, as the resurgence of the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in recent years demonstrates.  But these are irritants compared to Pakistan’s profound challenges, which are so dire that some in the Obama administration view the country as akin to the Congo.

Pakistan is a victim of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice syndrome: Some of the jihadi forces it has long directed to do mayhem against others have now turned against it.  Militants have mounted significant attacks against the Pakistani military establishment in recent years, including the army’s main headquarters in Rawalpindi (October 2009); ISI offices in Lahore (May 2009) and Peshawar (November 2009); the navy base in Karachi (May 2011) and an air base near Islamabad (August 2012).  A number of general officers have also been assassinated, and several attempts were made on Pervez Musharraf’s life when he was the military strongman.  Cynics might attach a huge measure of poetic justice to these travails, but they do highlight the tenuous control the Pakistani state exercises over matters within its own borders.

Indians take justifiable umbrage that Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, LeT’s founder and the orchestrator of the Mumbai attacks, freely parades around the streets of Lahore.  He is certainly a man who for too long has been allowed to escape the dispensation of justice.  But his continued liberty may be less a function of official complicity than outright fear of LeT’s large and well-organized numbers.  One security official has admitted that if LeT ever turned against Islamabad, it could send the country “up in flames.”  Moreover, General Pasha acknowledged to the Abbottabad inquiry that even though the government was aware of “foreign miscreants” sheltering urban areas, the lawless conditions prevailing in the country’s major cities deter authorities from apprehending them.

It may be that Pakistan’s multiple dysfunctions have reached the point where all attempts at diplomatic engagement are destined to end in futility.  But it’s worth taking a gamble on Nawaz Sharif.  His hosting of the landmark summit meeting in Lahore in early 1999 with his then Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, shows that he is willing to take risks to improve bilateral relations.  He has now returned to the prime minister’s office in a much stronger political position than Zardari’s government ever enjoyed.  And it’s worth noting how Punjab province, Sharif’s political base, stands to benefit greatly from enhanced trade ties with India.  This is particularly so for the Punjab-dominated textiles sector that is the country’s largest manufacturing industry.

In addition, it is in India’s great interest to do what it can to bolster civilian authority in Islamabad.  This requires New Delhi to diligently search out areas of engagement with those Pakistanis eager for more normalized relations as well as help strengthen a civil society that is increasingly influential and inclined toward peace.  There may be long stretches when such efforts appear in vain but they may end up making a good bit of difference.

In the immediate term, Prime Minister Singh should resist the calls to spurn Sharif’s overtures.  The planned meeting between the two on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly annual conclave in New York next month should go forward.  The same for Singh’s long talked about visit to Pakistan, on which he should bring with him substantive ideas for advancing bilateral relations, including proposals for resolving the dispute over Sir Creek, a 60 mile-long patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh.  Singh has called an agreement on Sir Creek is “doable,”  and a settlement would give significant momentum to the peace constituency in Pakistan by disproving views that New Delhi is unwilling to come to terms on territorial issues.

While Singh is in Pakistan, he and Sharif should give their imprimatur to the constructive dialogue about confidence-building measures that is taking place between retired senior military leaders from both countries.  And they might think about setting up a joint commission of prominent business leaders and distinguished private citizens to develop recommendations about expanding cross-border trade and transportation links.  This would accentuate the cooperative impulses on both sides as well as generate bold ideas and valuable political cover that could never be delivered by risk-averse bureaucrats.

As I’ve argued in an earlier post, bilateral relations are in for a rough spell in the coming year.  The approach of parliamentary elections (due by next May) will distract leadership attention in New Delhi away from the cooperative agenda with Islamabad, while the U.S. military withdrawal in Afghanistan will sharpen the security competition between the two countries.  Messrs. Singh and Sharif should act boldly now to preserve existing gains as well as lay the groundwork for forward movement once a more propitious climate emerges.

This commentary is cross-posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.   I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

 

Author

David J. Karl
David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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