Friday, December 19, 2008
It could have been a scene out of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove except that the hoax call almost triggered a real war between India and Pakistan. On November 28, even as Indian security forces battled the remaining terrorists holed up in the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, Pakistan President Asif Zardari received a call from India stating that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee wanted to speak to him urgently. No one is clear whether the protocols for screening such calls were followed and ‘Mukherjee’ was put through. He reportedly threatened Pakistan with military retaliation if they did not rein in the terrorist groups responsible for the Mumbai attacks. A concerned Zardari is said to have called up the armed forces and put them on high alert. India was puzzled by the sudden build-up.The mystery was solved only when visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice questioned Mukherjee as to why he had made such a threatening call. A mystified Mukherjee denied ever having made it and said the only person he spoke to was his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was in India that time, and that too from a prepared text which had no warnings of an Indian retribution. Rice conveyed the information to Zardari and the situation was defused. A visibly irritated Mukherjee pointed out, “It is worrying that a neighbouring state might even consider action on the basis of such a hoax call.” Stephen P. Cohen, an American expert on relations between India and Pakistan, believes that in every major crisis between the two countries, including the four wars they had fought, there was a serious error of judgment. He regards the hoax call and Pakistan’s reaction to it as one such. The international ridicule and concern apart, the incident damaged Zardari and Pakistan’s credibility in the eyes of the Indian leadership. And blasted any hopes of the two working jointly towards dealing with the new threat that the brazen terror attacks on Mumbai posed.
Yet, the previous day there was an even more significant error of judgment that Zardari and his government headed by Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani had made, which in the eyes of many experts led to the unraveling of the plot behind the Mumbai attacks. In his brief call to Manmohan expressing his concern about the attacks, Gilani had offered to send the director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency to assist in the investigations. By the next morning, Gilani, under pressure from army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, backtracked on his offer and said only a director-level officer would be sent. Zardari explained it away as a “miscommunique”. But it was signal to India and the world that it was Kiyani, not Zardari, who was really calling the shots in Pakistan.It was evident that under pressure from Kiyani and his brass, Zardari’s conciliatory and empathetic tone soon gave way to bellicosity as he spearheaded Pakistan’s shrill campaign of outright denial for any responsibility for the Mumbai attacks, even dismissing arrested terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab, as a “stateless individual”. Zardari then categorically ruled out handing over terrorists on India’s most wanted list and suspected to have taken shelter in Pakistan such as Dawood Ibrahim, the Mumbai don and Maulana Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief. Under pressure from the US, Pakistan did wilt and arrest the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) chief Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi apart from detaining Azhar. But Pakistani leaders reiterated that those arrested would be tried under their law and not be extradited to India. For New Delhi, it was a familiar ploy that would see them being freed after a few months for lack of evidence.
The big message for India: The army is back in control in Pakistan. The fledgling democratic government had become inconsequential in its response to the unfolding crisis. From now on it was Kiyani not Zardari who would have the final say on the future direction that Pakistan would take. A senior Indian official termed it dramatically as, “declaration of the Pakistan Army of its independence.” There is now nothing stopping Kiyani from directly taking charge of governance in Pakistan. But unlike Pervez Musharraf, his predecessor, he has shown no inclination of staging a bloodless coup or taking over as President. Not yet. For the moment he remains content of letting the world know who the real boss of Pakistan is.Long time Pakistan Army watcher Michael Krepon of the Washington DC-based Stimson Center believes “there never really has been a fundamental shift in power in Pakistan” despite the democratic elections in March, 2008. The army, which is the most organised institution in Pakistan, has always been in control of its affairs especially on national security. Krepon doesn’t believe that Kiyani has staged a coup through the backdoor. Instead he argues that Kiyani is only engaged in “balancing pressing external demands with internal security dilemmas.”For India though, the emergence of Kiyani as the real centre of power has serious implications. Given the meticulous way the Mumbai attacks were planned and then executed, it was clear to Indian investigators that this was a commando-type operation that possibly had the involvement of a state actor. With Kasab singing about his LeT and ISI handlers and physical evidence mounting in terms of satellite phone calls, equipment and boats used for the attack, Pakistan’s hand seemed to be smeared all over it. Even Rice told Zardari firmly that the US had evidence to show the links. India, like much of the world, is willing to believe that Zardari and his civilian establishment were probably not involved in sanctioning such a heinous act. But with ISI’s hand or at least that of its “alumnus” in the form of retired officers being seen, the analysis is that the army may be deeply involved in the plot.
The reason the army and therefore, Kiyani, has emerged as the prime suspect is that it stands to gain most from the outcome of the Mumbai attacks. The Pakistan Army has been under tremendous pressure after 9/11 with Musharraf making commitments to crack down on terror groups and go after the Al Qaeda. To keep the brass on board he claimed that the US had promised to put pressure on India to come out with an acceptable solution on Kashmir. He committed over 1,00,000 troops to defend its borders with Afghanistan. But then US demands kept mounting. First it was to deliver the Al Qaeda operatives. Then it was to go after the Taliban, followed by orders to ‘get their leaders’. As pressure mounted to “deliver quality instead of just quantity” the credibility of Musharraf and the Pakistan’s army took a beating. The army was seen as fighting America’s war against fellow Islamists and internal unrest grew.
Musharraf compounded it by clinging to power and trying to muzzle the judiciary into compliance— a move that galvanised civil society against him. Musharraf had to go. So the presidency was distanced from the army with Kiyani taking over as the army chief in November 2007.
Meanwhile, to the army’s growing concern, internal security had deteriorated with rebellions breaking out in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province. Extremist groups with the exception of the LeT were turning against the army and there were even attempts on Musharraf’s life. Worse, Pakistan had its own Taliban to deal with. Suicide attacks and bomb blasts had become the norm. For the first time in the army’s history, there were reports of desertions of some 900 of its personnel in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. Morale was at an all-time low.When he took over as chief, for a while Kiyani made the right noises that reassured the US and India. He wanted his generals to pull out of all political assignments and focus on the army’s primary duty of defending the nation. As a political observer said, “It was a shrewd move because the army by then had become highly unpopular and some of its officers were openly corrupt.” He then cleverly colluded with
Zardari to oust Musharraf from the presidency. Zardari, after taking over as President in September, began threatening the establishment by starting a whole new narrative on relations between India and Pakistan. He talked of not being burdened by the baggage of the past and stated that “India was not a threat to Pakistan,” even dreaming of a visa-free regime between the two countries. He expansively offered “a no first use” of nuclear weapons agreement to India that had the army brass gnashing its teeth.
Pakistan’s army doctrine in recent years rested on the premise that as long as India feared a nuclear first strike by Islamabad, it would not want to engage with its neighbour in a full-scale war. Both, the1999 Kargil War and the 2001 Parliament attack had affirmed to Pakistan that India was chary of waging a full-fledged war with it. Zardari did a quick U-turn on his no first use offer after Kiyani reportedly ticked him off.Kiyani, meanwhile, had begun asserting his independence. When the new government under Gilani came to power in March it passed an order bringing the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry. Within days, the Government hastily rescinded the order, after Kiyani lit into them.
Then when American predator drones began making attacks inside Pakistani territory, Kiyani threatened to blow them out of the sky if they violated his country’s airspace again. He had begun asserting his clout to prove that he was not “America’s general.”. Yet the army remained unpopular and the new democratic dispensation a potential threat to its dominance. So experts believed that the army headed by Kiyani was looking for “a one-shot solution”: Target India. Nothing unites Pakistan like a confrontation with India which also brings the army to the forefrontThe Mumbai attacks must be seen in this light. If India acts on expected lines, it would produce the desired results for the Pakistani army. Already there is a rallying cry across Pakistan to stand as one and that includes the fundamentalists (see box on Pakistan’s options). Everyone now looks upon Kiyani and the army as the only hope to counter an aggressive India. The peace process is on hold and is in danger of breaking down altogether.
If India turns the heat on, Kiyani can legitimately pull his troops out from the unpopular war they are conducting on the Afghan front and reposition them on the Indian border. It would also force the US to intervene and give President-elect Barack Obama an excuse to appoint a special envoy like Bill Richardson to mediate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Such a move is certain to sour the strong relations that India and US have built up after the nuclear deal. All these developments would eminently suit both Kiyani and Pakistan.
Kiyani is no Musharraf, but then that is possibly one of his strengths. Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan: Its Army and the Wars Within, who has interacted with Kiyani says that unlike Musharraf, “who was quick in making decisions and possibly impetuous too, Kiyani is more deliberate and collegiate in his approach.” An avid golfer, Kiyani, 56, is a chain smoker and as another observer put it, “More Pakistani and less cosmopolitan than Musharraf.” Growing up in a working class family (his father was a junior commissioned officer in the army) Kiyani was considered “a thoroughly professional officer” not given to flamboyance. He was the late Benazir Bhutto’s deputy military attaché during her first tenure as prime minister in 1988. When Musharraf usurped power, Kiyani, because of his unquestioned loyalty, had his complete trust. Kiyani was even made ISI chief and, after the assassination attempt on Musharraf, impressed him by bringing the perpetrators to book. His ascension to the top post was seen as a chance for the Pakistan Army to regain its professionalism. Says Cohen, “He is seen as straightforward person—someone who wants to keep the army out of politics.”
Nawaz believes that there is “no dissonance” between Islamabad and Rawalpindi and that the civilian and military leadership is pulling together. He asserts, “They both don’t want a confrontation with India. Kiyani is trying to break the army out of the stereotypes and moulds that it is usually portrayed in.” Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at Carnegie, believes that Kiyani’s assertion over the ISI was limited to telling the political leadership not to trample on what he considered the army’s “prerogative.” Nawaz discounts the notion that the Pakistan Army is keen to pull out of the Afghan front, stating that the war there is as important for the country’s unity and integrity. Cohen agrees: “Moving troops from the Afghan border to the Indian front is like turning the Queen Elizabeth around—it would take a long time doing.”
Yet many Indian experts believe there is much in the Mumbai attacks and its motivations that need explaining. They are convinced that Kiyani and Pakistan played a diabolical role in the attacks and their strategy will become more evident in the months ahead. India faces a major dilemma in its course of action.
It wants the Pakistani army to remain engaged on the Afghan front because it suits India to have the extremists tamed rather than fight in Kashmir. India also doesn’t want to play into jihadi hands and create a crisis that would push the Pakistan Army to the forefront. Also, unlike in 2001 India realises it is not dealing with, “one Pakistan as it was under Musharraf. It has now become a conglomerate of institutions and individuals that has made it almost dysfunctional—a failed state.” With so many divisive forces, Pakistan could easily implode.Nor is India likely to be satisfied with assurances or token arrests of heads of terror groups. “We are not in the word business anymore. We need targeted response from Pakistan—we want to see outcomes and we are willing to think it through,” said a senior official.
He pointed out that the Bangladesh war, which dismembered Pakistan, took over a year of preparation. That included India making an international case for the refugees pouring across its borders, signing a treaty with Soviet Union to neutralise the US, building the Mukti Bahini to fight as a liberation force and carefully marshalling its own armed forces to make decisive strikes in Pakistan. “These are defining moments and you don’t do them overnight. Patience and planning is the key,” he says.
India has to be clear of its end goal which usually translates to what kind of Pakistan does India want. Should Pakistan be to India what Canada is to the US? Does India want a stable Pakistan but not a strong one? Does it want to see the further dismemberment of Pakistan? Does it want to put terrorists operating out of Pakistan out of business? Does it want it to be like Jinnah’s Pakistan that L.K. Advani advocated? Or does it want to prove a limited political and psychological point? After determining its objective, what is key for India is not being predictable but looking for smart options.Getting international pressure put on Pakistan would help. Armed with growing evidence gathered from intelligence agencies investigating the Mumbai attacks, India has mounted a global diplomatic initiative to get Islamabad to hand over some of these fugitives. According to intelligence reports, Dawood was recently admitted at the Army Hospital in Rawalpindi for a kidney illness which has been shared with the US. India then made a strong intervention at the UN Security Council on December 9, on a debate on terrorism asking for the council to ban Jamaat-ud-Daawa, the new front organisation of the LeT, which it did.
Officials say the arrested LeT leaders should be handed over to India. Pakistan uses both the leaders and the terror group as one of its main lines of defence against India and is therefore wary of handing over assets it has built over the years.
If the UPA Government manages to force Pakistan to hand them over, it will be a major step in tackling terrorism. It would also be a deft political move with general elections looming.
India also continues to maintain that it “is keeping all options open”, including a military strike. But as Tellis points out, “A military strike is the first move but it’s not going to be the last one.” India must now be acutely aware there is an ambitious general in Pakistan waiting for us to make a false step.