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Opt for covert war

Opt for covert war

Author: Hiranmay Karlekar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 28, 2002

While the Government is understandably furious with Pakistan for the latter's relentless proxy war waged against this country through cross-border terrorism, it should realise that a war is what the Musharraf regime has every reason to welcome at this juncture. This will become clear from a study of the strategic context in which the present tensions have to be seen. To defeat Pakistan's proxy war, India has to radically change its response pattern and rethink the basic premises of its approach towards Islamabad.

The strategic context mentioned above has been set both by Pakistan's continuing cross-border terrorism and the United States-led war against global terror. Pakistan had no alternative to joining the latter. Given its close links with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, refusal would have brought immediate and severe US retribution. Islamabad's ruling military and civilian elites, unlike Osama bin Laden and other jihadis, are comfort-loving and have much to lose and, hence, flinched from the prospect.

Having sided with the Americans, the Musharraf regime's main problem has been ensuring its own survival and persisting with - as well as retaining its capacity for perpetrating - cross-border terrorism, its principal means of annexing Kashmir and implementing Pakistan's basic strategic objective of balkanizing India and dominating the sub-continent. The question of the regime's survival arises because a large section in the Pakistan's Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate are Islamic fundamentalists with deep sympathy for, and close links with, the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Angry with the Musharraf regime for supporting the Americans, and capable of posing a serious threat to it, they can be mollified only if they can be convinced that alliance with the US is a tactical move which enables Pakistan to provide clandestine shelter to Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and men fleeing Afghanistan, and keep alive the organisational infrastructure for perpetrating cross-border terrorism against India.

To carry conviction with Islamic fundamentalists, the Musharraf regime has allowed leaders and men of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban fleeing Afghanistan, to enter Pakistan and the ISI to shelter them. It has sought to retain the capacity for perpetrating cross-border terrorism by splitting up banned fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM) and reincarnating the fragments under different names. In fact, it has tried to kill two birds with the same stone by deploying escapees from Afghanistan in its proxy war against India. They account for a significant section of about 3,000 terrorists who have been housed in 60 camps recently opened in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Also, apart from those sheltered in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, about 20,000 or so have been accommodated in tents outside Muzaffarabad, the capital of POK.

The Musharraf regime must have realised that the Americans would not be amused if they found out what it was up to. It, however, gambled on their not doing anything drastic - obviously hoping that the US and its allies would not push it beyond a point while the war against terrorism continued. It seems also to have relied on Pakistan's unmatched ability to take Americans for a ride. Things were going rather well, particularly after President Musharraf's strident condemnation of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism in his address to the people of his country on January 12 and his categorical assertion that even jihad "in the name of Kashmir" would not be allowed. US leaders hailed the speech. The banning of the LeT and JeM, the closure of their offices, freezing of their accounts and the arrest of around 2,000 of their followers further confirmed them in the view that the Pakistani President was a reliable and resolute ally in the war against terrorism.

It, however, soon became clear that the banning and freezing of the accounts of the LeT and JeM were farcical exercises. The arrested were released in a few days. Also, Pakistani intelligence inputs about the presence of Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Pakistan were minimal. The Americans became suspicious and started sending their own police and special forces personnel along with Pakistani soldiers hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban escapees in Pakistan's tribal areas.

This has angered not only Islamic fundamentalists in the Pakistani Army and the ISI but also many tribal chiefs who sympathise with the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, or are steeped in the Afghan custom of not turning out a refuge-seeker, or have made the grant of refuge into good business. The chiefs have warned that they will attack US forces if the latter try to ferret out suspects from their ranks. There has thus emerged a very genuine possibility of clashes between tribal chieftains and US-led forces. Also, the Americans cannot be unaware of the camps in POK and that they harbour thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. They will, sooner or later, destroy these unless Pakistan dismantles these and hands over to them the people they want.

The US can hardly afford to leave thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists under Pakistani protection given reports by its Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies that both organisations have fully regrouped and are planning major strikes against it and Britain. Indeed, the US-led war against terrorism is liable to turn into a war against Pakistan unless the latter drastically changes its duplicitous policies.

An India-Pakistan war will upset the logical drift of events and introduce many imponderables into the situation. The urgent need to stop it will shift the attention of the US and the West from the war against terrorism. It will enable Pakistan to withdraw its troops engaged in joint operations with the US-led forces along the Afghanistan border on the ground that they are needed at the front. All this and the confusion created by the war, will give the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban further time to regroup and strike back. It will enable President Musharraf to rally the bulk of Pakistan behind him and drive a wedge between India and the US. The latter, annoyed with India for having disrupted its war against terrorism, may then lean more towards Pakistan.

While it can be no one's case that India mortgages its options to the US, the strategic importance of its ties with the latter and the increasing convergence of the interests of the two countries in the region, should not be forgotten. Besides, thanks to pressure by the US, Russia and other countries, any India-Pakistan war will be short. Hence, even the most spectacular strikes by India will not permanently destroy Pakistan's capacity to unleash cross-border terrorism. The latter will be revived sooner than later because, defeat, as in the 1971 war, will leave the generals thirsting for revenge and the social, economic and cultural breeding grounds of terrorism will remain.

On the other hand, India can keep Pakistan permanently on the defensive by waging a relentless proxy war against it by utilising its ethnic, religious and political faultlines. It will have a natural advantage in this in terms of both its resources and size. It has the strategic depth to withstand a proxy war in border areas without crumbling. Pakistan does not have it, and a well-planned and relentlessly-executed proxy war can play havoc with its life. India has the blueprints for it. It must summon the will, recognising that friendship with Pakistan is a mirage that forever beckons the seminar-circuit dilettante.

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