Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Turmoil on the Western Front


Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, with US Afghanistan commander, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th July 14

On June 30, after years of vacillation, Pakistan’s army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which is named after the Holy Prophet Mohammad’s sword in the battles of Badar and Uhud. Ground troops advanced into North Waziristan to confront jihadi groups that still remained after weeks of drone strikes and fighter attacks. Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, insists that all militant groups are in the crosshairs --- the “bad Taliban” that is sworn to destroy the Pakistani state, as also the “good Taliban” that the army has nurtured as a deniable weapon. Yet, judging by the limited militant resistance in an area acknowledged as Jihad Central, fighters from the army-friendly Haqqani network, as well as others, appear to have crossed into safe havens in Afghanistan.

Even so, Pakistan’s army appears likely to remain in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for years, dealing with a combination of intractable problems --- a displaced, alienated, radicalised and well-armed populace; the near-total lack of development and employment; and cross-border jihad waged from save havens in Afghanistan, across the Durand Line. Like the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan too will learn that invading and occupying a hostile area is easier than pacifying and governing it and restoring normal life.

The opening of this new front, along with simmering unrest in Baluchistan, is bad news for Pakistan’s military posture vis-à-vis India? Of Pakistan’s four army corps (each with 40-50,000 soldiers) that it earmarks for attacking India, two corps will now be largely unavailable. The Peshawar-based 11 Corps (denominated XI Corps), which has the wartime task of attacking across the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir (LoC in J&K), will be too embroiled in FATA to be moved to the eastern front. At best, Pakistan’s army planners in General Headquarters (GHQ) could return 50,000-odd soldiers to the LoC, from where they were milked out for operations in FATA. Also unavailable to Pakistan will be much of the Quetta-headquartered 12 Corps (XII Corps), which has the operational role of attacking into India in the plains and deserts of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

In this development could lie the beginning of the end of GHQ’s misguided doctrine of “strategic depth”, a nebulous concept, interpreted variously. General Mirza Aslam Beg, who succeeded General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988, viewed strategic depth in geographical terms: Afghanistan was a space into which Pakistan could withdraw military units and equipment in the face of a deep Indian invasion. Others have viewed strategic depth in political terms, with Pakistani security resting on a pro-Islamabad regime in Kabul. The previous army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, has provided a more convincing politico-military description, defining strategic depth as the assurance of a secure and stable western border, stemming from a friendly regime in Kabul, which would ensure that Pakistan never has to fight a two-front war.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb dismisses the fiction that Pakistan could have a stable western border. The burgeoning of anti-Islamabad jihadi groups in FATA, some with links to Afghanistan’s virulently anti-Pakistan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), provides India with a dangerous lever to keep the pot boiling in FATA. That this is front and centre in Islamabad’s thinking is evident from repeated allegations in Pakistan that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is acting at the behest of India. From New Delhi’s strategic perspective, it is completely unnecessary to foment trouble in FATA; there is enough happening on its own. A key New Delhi policymaker told this columnist, tongue-in-cheek, but with a degree of perceptiveness. “We have reverted to the British defence model of the 19th century, when the defence of India began at the northwestern frontier. The only difference is that now Pakistan is conducting that defence for us.”

True, Pakistan could at any time employ the “America option”, i.e. pound the area with air strikes, launch a ground offensive into areas already evacuated by militants, target a handful of foreign jihadi groups, and then declare victory before returning triumphantly to the barracks. Yet that would only be a return to the status quo ante, when waves of embarrassing, retaliatory attacks in the Pakistani heartland on iconic targets, such as the Karachi airportm had forced the military’s hand. The United States military had the option of returning to Fortress America; the Pakistan army can withdraw no further than Rawalpindi.

There is growing evidence that the Pakistan military understands this. Cyril Almeida, the well-respected columnist for the Dawn newspaper, reveals that he was briefed in November 2010 by then army chief, General Kayani, on the army’s on-going operations in South Waziristan. Almeida recalls General Kayani telling him that, since most terrorist attacks in Pakistan originated from North Waziristan, that area would have to be cleared eventually. At that point, he was held back by several factors --- a preoccupation with South Waziristan; fear of terrorist retaliation across “Pakistan proper”; the absence of political consensus for the operation; and the fact that North Waziristan was safe haven for the army’s key “strategic asset” in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network. Most of these factors still prevail. Yet the reach and profile of the jihadi groups in FATA make standing by impossible.

What does this mean for the way Pakistan’s military will defend that country against an irreconcilably malevolent India, as it sees us? Inevitably, GHQ will place greater reliance on its nuclear deterrent, to compensate for the devaluation of its conventional military strength and the inevitable realisation that even currently reliable instruments like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are double-edged weapons. Senior Pakistani officials have already announced clear proof of tight operational linkages between the TTP and the LeJ. In the circumstances, GHQ will almost certainly walk further down the dangerous path of operationalizing tactical nuclear weapons. For India, that will only complicate the security calculus and force a review of our outdated nuclear doctrine.

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