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India can hurt Pakistan without waging war

By Shaunak S Agarkhedkar
December 26, 2008 18:05 IST
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Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States of America, ran a brilliant campaign built around the message of "hope and change". Aided in part by a thin resume that lacked the baggage of controversial positions, by a largely sympathetic media, and by a financial crisis that derailed his rival's campaign, Obama won the election.

Obama's vague campaign message about "hope and change," coupled with his emphasis on "judgement" rather than solid policy positions on critical issues, permitted millions of people to project their own expectations and ideas of "hope" and "change" onto Obama, and identify with him. The only concrete and lasting position he took was to continuously attack George W Bush's policies, especially the Iraq war.

Most of Obama's positions on other issues changed, sometimes more than once, between the Democratic primaries where he had to please the "liberal left" and the general elections where he shifted swiftly towards the centre on most important subjects. Overall Obama came across as a pragmatist who would not shy away from dialogue with anyone, regardless of their ideological positions.

This was, for the voters, a refreshing change after Bush's 'with us or against us' attitude and seems to have won him many an independent vote. Obama's thin resume and his vague, almost nebulous campaign message have now raised questions about the policies he will implement once he assumes office. Questions about his position on Pakistan and India have elicited significant interest following his statement of intent on Kashmir which was hastily taken back by his transition team after the election.

The bedrock for Obama's candidacy and hence his entire campaign was his opposition to the Iraq war, the one position he stuck to throughout, and used very effectively to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election. He characterised the Iraq war as 'a war waged without a clear rationale, based more on ideology and politics than fact or reason,' and sought to contrast it with the Afghanistan war which he made a focus of his foreign policy, saying he would make it the central front in the war against terror if elected. Obama emphasised that he would prosecute the Afghanistan war more vigorously by pulling troops out of Iraq and putting them in Afghanistan.

After becoming the Democrat nominee in June, he took an aggressive position on Afghanistan in an attempt to blunt McCain's perceived advantage on national security. The issue of cross-border terrorism from within Pakistan's north-western territories gave him the opportunity to demonstrate "hawkishness" and strength on national security and thus reduce its relevance as an election topic. Obama repeatedly proclaimed that as President, he would approve cross-border raids and attacks into Pakistan in order to destroy Al Qaeda. Expectedly this position was received with much hostility in Pakistan which saw it as a challenge to its sovereignty, and put the Pakistan government in a tight spot by bringing to the fore the issue of cross-border American raids on Pakistani soil.

Alternative supply routes?

Meanwhile in the Caucasus the Russo-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia caused a chilling of the already cold Russo-American relations. A resurgent Russia, high on oil imports and its dominance of Europe's energy supplies, did not seem to have any qualms taking on and smashing an American ally. Caught in a war on two fronts and a rapidly degenerating financial crisis, the US was unable to do much and demonstrated its lack of leverage over Russia. The post-conflict bellicose posturing by both Russia and the US involving ballistic and anti-ballistic missiles near the Ukraine-Russia border has hardened attitudes on both sides.

Iran continues its quest towards acquiring nuclear weapons. Multilateral attempts made by the US to stop it do not show signs of succeeding. Russia and China, primarily, have continued to block punitive sanctions that may cause severe pain to the Iranian economy.

With Obama set to assume office in January, speculation is rife that Israel may pre-emptively strike at Iran's nuclear facilities before Bush hands over office to Obama. Iran-Israel relations look unlikely to improve. In case conflict breaks out, the US will be forced to aggressively side with its ally, Israel. Therefore Iran-US relations do not show signs of a recovery.

The Global War on Terror, characterised as a rational war by Obama, and as a barometer for his competence on national security, is not headed for a conclusion one way or another anytime soon. To continue this war the US needs access to Afghanistan through Iran, Russia (and other central Asian republics), China or Pakistan. Iran is unlikely to provide access and the US may not wish to provide the regime in Teheran any leverage associated with such an arrangement. Furthermore, if Israel does indeed pre-emptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities, there is a high probability of war breaking out and the US risks getting dragged into the war to support Israel.

Russia is flexing its muscles in Europe and is opposing the US and NATO through words and actions. The US doesn't have much leverage against it and does not possess the diplomatic or military resources to effectively threaten and keep Russia in check. Seeking access through Russia would require the US to make several concessions, possibly related to former Soviet republics in Europe. It is doubtful if an Obama administration would possess the political capital to make such concessions without appearing weak.

The US could try to supply its war effort in Afghanistan through China. The Afghan-China border is only 76 km long, and a supply effort through it would be complicated by the terrain (the Pamir mountains), the small border, and proximity to Pakistan's northern regions which could be leveraged by the Taliban in Pakistan to disrupt supplies. Moreover, such an arrangement with China would be far less desirable to the US given the security dynamics at play between the two countries.

The TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor

For the US, Pakistan represents its best chance for continuing the Afghan war and successfully prosecuting it. With its economy on the brink of failure, the civilian government in Pakistan understands the need for continuing the existing arrangement with the US. Obama's statements on cross-border raids, however, have resulted in quite a bit of domestic pressure on the Pakistan government. It will try and extract as many concessions as they can from the US in order to maintain the status quo with respect to supply lines into Afghanistan and a continuation of its crackdown on radical Islam within its own fold. The recent attacks on NATO supply lines in Pakistan may have been intended to remind the US of Pakistan's indispensability to the GWOT in Afghanistan. Obama will have to ensure that the Pakistan government remains stable and an ally because it represents his best chance at appearing strong on national security, which has been a problem for Democrats since Jimmy Carter fumbled on Iran.

Though Pakistan is ruled by a civilian government, its powers are severely limited by the Pakistan Army which has long been the de-facto ruler of Pakistan. The army controls the Inter-Services Intelligence. Despite recent moves by the government to reign in the ISI by having it report to the ministry of interior, which was revoked, the nascent civilian government's control over the army is tenuous at best and illusory at worst. The army controls a number of corporate enterprises that range from private security firms and bakeries, farms, schools, to insurance companies, cement and cereal manufacturing plants. It is estimated that they control more than 10 percent of Pakistan's GDP. Profits from these enterprises are understood to be funnelled back into the army through various channels, giving the army a degree of financial autonomy from the civilian government. Its leverage over the civilian government is as great as it was in the past when civilian governments explicitly served at the pleasure of the Pakistani Army.

The Pakistani Army derives its moral legitimacy as the real leadership and cream of Pakistani society by portraying itself as the bulwark of Pakistani defence against a larger and supposedly hostile India. The army retains its stranglehold over the government and society by maintaining this opinion in the popular mindset through the manipulation of the media and events. Of all the constituents of Pakistani society, the army has the least incentive to see a normalisation of relations with India and a cessation of hostilities of the regular and irregular kind.

It is in their interests to keep India hostile by repeatedly provoking it through low intensity warfare. This has nothing to do with the Kashmir issue which is merely a rallying cry, an excuse to motivate jihadi groups and get them to do the army's bidding.

A negative incentive is needed

The need for India to provide the Pakistani State and people with a negative incentive for their support of terror is obvious. The Pakistani Army plays on these fears to maintain its moral, mental and physical base among the people. Unless the army is provided with sufficiently strong negative incentives, it is unlikely to back away from its support to terrorist organisations. Following the terror attacks on Mumbai, Pakistan adopted a belligerent attitude towards India's demands and used the threat of Indian retaliation as an excuse to redeploy troops from its Afghan border, where they were engaged in fratricidal operations against the Taliban, to its eastern border with India.

The Pakistani Army has always been unwilling to act against the Taliban, and this unwillingness was intensified after a series of high-profile losses in the NWFP, and especially in the Swat valley, where hundreds of Pakistani soldiers are believed to have deserted. Any bellicose pronouncements or moves by India play into its hands by giving it an excuse to reduce its involvement in the unpopular GWOT. Such pronouncements also have the effect of shoring up domestic support for the army and undermining the authority of the civilian government even further.

The United States is unlikely to accept any let-up in Pakistan's efforts on its western border, and this gives the Pakistanis a strong hedge against India. The US does not seem likely to permit India to attack Pakistan overtly for fear of diluting its own GWOT. The US sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to India and Pakistan to soothe tempers is a step in this direction. Bush is not facing re-election. Bush doesn't have much time left to prove anything.

Obama, in less than a month, will be a first-term president considered by an overwhelming majority of his electorate to be soft on national security. Grappling with an immensely complex economic crisis from day one of his term, he will be desperate to prove his national security credentials and having framed the GWOT as a referendum on his credentials, his administration will do everything possible to continue to prosecute the war.

This has direct implications for India since it reduces the options available. The US will not allow India to get away with overt offensive action against Pakistan. An India contemplating military action against Pakistan must also contend with Pakistan's patrons in China. The Chinese have invested a lot of time, effort and money into making Pakistan an effective counter to India in South Asia. Even if India manages to convince the US that attacking Pakistan is an imperative for the GWOT, China is unlikely to let the dynamic duo of democracy steamroll their favourite client state. And yet India must act. Unless the power centres in Pakistan feel pain, they will continue their support for terrorist activities against India.

India's best options lie on the covert and economic sides of the spectrum. Instead of sabre-rattling and threatening Pakistan, thus allowing Pakistan to demonstrate how hopelessly dependent the US is on them, India would do well to investigate every option at its disposal for hurting Pakistan without appearing to do so.

Dreams of attacking Pakistan, even of surgical strikes against terror camps inside Pakistan, are just that -- pipe dreams. The State should deal in realism and should work within the constraints imposed by external and internal conditions instead of pleading for help from other States. Considering that the Pakistani Army controls more than 10 percent of the economy and receives profits from their corporations, moves designed to hurt Pakistan's economy and specifically the enterprises owned and operated by the army would go a long way in demonstrating that India is unwilling to let herself be bled.

Covert operations designed to hurt those involved in nurturing terrorist organisations would suitably complement the economic measures taken to isolate the corporations owned by the Pakistani Army. India could also investigate the possibility of providing covert aid to the people of Baluchistan who have demonstrated time and again that there is no love lost between them and the Pakistan government.

Till date India has mostly played defence in the face of repeated escalation. Being defensive has meant that all the destructive actions as well as countermeasures employed have been on Indian soil and have worked against Indian citizens. This has never hurt Pakistan the nation and the power centres within it. If India wishes to be successful in controlling and reducing both the intensity and frequency of terrorist activities directed against it, it must go on the offensive and take the fight to Pakistani soil and the breeding grounds of terror.

A closer inspection reveals that India possesses a number of options of hurting the power centres in Pakistan without actually appearing to do so. Whether the Indian government pursues these measures is debatable and depends on a number of factors. It is certain, however, that a business as usual attitude will only embolden the radical elements within Pakistani society and allow the Pakistani power centres to leverage even more irregular assets to provoke and destabilise India.

An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, Shaunak Agarkhedkar works as a strategy consultant with a multinational

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Shaunak S Agarkhedkar