Pakistan Nears the Breaking Point

After the initial shock of the Mumbai attack wore off in Pakistan—and the international consensus that the attackers were Pakistani coalesced — there was an immediate and emotional rejection of the idea that long-suffering Pakistan should be further destabilized under U.S. and Indian insistence that the miscreants be pursued inside Pakistan’s borders.

A common theme in Pakistan’s media is that the Mumbai attack was carried out by Hindu extremists, or even was a false flag operation carried out by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to provoke a conflict with Pakistan.

One commenter opined, Maybe this wasn’t India’s 9/11. Maybe it was India’s Oklahoma City.

That’s very bad news for the United States and its covert struggle inside Pakistan against government and public apathy concerning the Western struggle to stabilize Afghanistan, and to neutralize pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda elements in the Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

Pakistan’s Zardari government, which is almost doglike in its desire to please the United States, is nervously playing word games about cooperating with India as the United States demands, while it drags its feet in order to keep in step with its domestic constituency.

The U.S. is fully aware of the fragility of the Zardari government, and popular resistance to U.S. aims in the region, and is trying to tread carefully, eschewing the rhetoric of the war on terror.

However, by the momentum of its policies, the desperate need to keep Afghanistan from going down the tubes, its pro-India tilt in South Asia, and the discovery of another lever to compel Pakistan’s cooperation, the United States appears determined to disregard or steamroll over Pakistan’s obvious anxieties.

Seemingly eager to demonstrate that he possesses an invincible tin ear when it comes to Pakistani politics, Admiral Mullen took advantage of his meeting with Zardari to press Pakistan’s participation in what is possibly the only initiative less popular than assisting the Indians in a murder investigation—America’s bloody counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Trouble is, the War on Terror dog doesn’t hunt anymore where it matters most—Pakistan.

Today the rhetoric of the war on terror is irretrievably linked to the United States, its failed strategy, its dubious objectives…and Islamabad’s coerced participation in a U.S.-orchestrated military, political, economic, and security drama that threatens to rip Pakistan apart.

The result is skewed narratives, distorted policies, an unavoidable but counter-productive American reliance on arm-twisting instead of persuasion, and a visceral Pakistan opposition to U.S. policies that is reaching the point of desperate revulsion.

And, triumphant Democrats be warned, it doesn’t look like things will improve in an Obama administration.

But to me the Mumbai attack looks a lot like blowback from the U.S. campaign to rein in Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) apparatus and orchestrate an anti-Taliban/anti-al Qaeda united front of democracies stretching from Kabul to Islamabad to New Delhi.

Any proven involvement by Pakistani state institutions in the Mumbai attack would be a catastrophe for Pakistan-India relations.

It would immediately provoke the shift of Pakistan’s military focus and resources away from a conflict it detests—the U.S. imposed counterinsurgency in west Pakistan’s Frontier and Tribal Areas (FATA)–to an arrangement much more comfortable for Pakistan’s army: the familiar display of ritualized hostility and the deployment of a conventional order of battle on the eastern border with India.

Therefore, despite some hard-to-explain anomalies, there is a determined effort by the United States, with the obliging assistance of the media, to squeeze the Mumbai outrage into a conventional South Asian tale: a brutal episode in the proxy war between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, with militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Kashmir independence organization nurtured by Pakistan’s ISI serving as shock troops in the struggle.

The Mumbai operation was carefully planned over an extended period—perhaps a year—apparently in Pakistan.

The terrorists had an entire merchant ship at their disposal, as well as an arsenal of weapons. Their complex plan to evade detection by the Indian military involved locating and hijacking a suitable vessel. They got their vessel, executed the hapless captain (and apparently his crew), and continued on their mission.

Further reports indicate that the attackers left timed explosive charges in the two taxis they took to reach their targets, in order to kill the drivers and further cover their tracks.

The subsequent assault culminated in near simultaneous attacks on multiple targets and a protracted siege at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel where the attackers held off Indian commandoes for sixty hours.

No wonder that people are thinking that al Qaeda or Pakistan’s ISI are the only two organizations that could have carried out such a massive, well-planned assault.

Efforts to paint the attack as a LeT initiative are less convincing.

Clearly, the elephant in the room is Pakistan’s ISI, which has supported LeT as a proxy in its struggle with India.

The ISI, which nurtured the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan (with U.S. aid) and supported the Taliban government is not sympathetic to America’s faltering effort to create an anti-Taliban bulwark in Kabul.

It is especially unhappy that the United States has abandoned any pretense of even-handedness in the Pakistan-India relationship.Washington has overtly tilted toward New Delhi.

An eyebrow-raising nuclear giveaway negotiated bilaterally between the U.S. and India allowed India to normalize its relationship with the international nuclear and non-proliferation community even while the Bush administration denied the same facility to Pakistan.

Even more dangerously, the United States has chosen to allow India to establish itself in Afghanistan—Pakistan’s only regional geopolitical asset and ally, at least when it was controlled by the Taliban–at Pakistan’s expense, thereby coupling a long-term American presence and the fate of the Karzai regime with New Delhi’s continued influence inside Afghanistan.

Now that the battle in eastern Afghanistan has become desperate and the Taliban have been exploiting their safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the U.S. has been pulling all the political, military, and economic levers at its command in order to compel Pakistan’s active and effective cooperation in the struggle, and to force Islamabad to accept a security condominium in South Asia by which the U.S. is the dominant power, India its ally, and Pakistan a disrespected client of dubious loyalty and reliability.

A wake-up call for Pakistan was undoubtedly the American response to the suicide bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul in July 2008.

Rather than tacitly understanding Pakistan’s right to punish Indian meddling in its Afghan/Muslim back yard, or just shrugging its shoulders at yet another episode in the brutal South Asian dance of death between New Delhi and Islamabad, the United States came down openly and unequivocally on India’s side, dispatching a CIA official to confront Pakistan over the matter and, significantly, leaking the news of intelligence linking the ISI to the attack to the New York Times.

With the fall of Musharraf, the U.S. disenchantment with Pakistan appears to have intensified. When Musharraf was forced from office despite heroic U.S. measures to prolong his reign, the United States lost a relatively capable ally with strong links to his country’s military and intelligence services.

Instead, it now finds itself forced to work through a willing but undeniably feckless and unpopular civilian government led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari.Recognizing Zardari’s weakness, the United States has apparently made the decision to insert itself more directly into Pakistan’s internal affairs. Pakistan’s sovereignty has been eroded by the United States to a degree that is not generally appreciated in the U.S.

It’s not just the U.S. military incursions into Pakistan, and the drone attacks that have recently spread beyond the tribal regions to take out Taliban and al-Qaeda elements in the North West Frontier Province.

It also involves the United States asserting more and more overt direction of events inside Pakistan in order to compensate for Pakistan’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for a polarizing and high-stakes battle against the Taliban in Pakistan’s west.

It is difficult to look at the public humiliation that the United States has subjected Pakistan to on the issue of an IMF loan without wondering if it is part of a plan to bring the civilian government to heel.

Indeed, in an event that is either the sign of the ever-increasing militarization of U.S. foreign policy or a signal that international aid to Pakistan must conform to America’s security strategy—or both—none other than the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Petraeus, discussed Pakistan’s needs at the IMF annual meeting.

When energy and food price bubbles, the global recession, and a healthy dose of government mismanagement and inaction pushed Pakistan on the brink of defaulting on its foreign debt in November 2008, the United States forced Pakistan into the arms of the IMF—considered inside Pakistan a symbol of national humiliation that compromises its status as a proud regional power.

The IMF conditions for its $7.6 billion loan, including a slate of price and tax increases in a severe recessionary environment seem wrongheaded enough to exacerbate the crisis and force Pakistan’s government to become even more dependent on the so-called “Friends of Pakistan”, the group of nations that the U.S. has corralled to control the flow of further international assistance to Pakistan.

Since Zardari’s backing from the army is almost non-existent, the U.S. has apparently also taken military matters into its own hands, coordinating its anti-Taliban strategy—and delivering its demands for actionable intelligence—in direct meetings with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani, most memorably summoning the general to a meeting on board the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln with Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus in August of this year.

As veteran South Asia reporter and analyst Syed Saleem Shahzad pointed out in a recent article in Asia Times, a U.S. decision to bypass the Foreign Ministry and brief Pakistani legislators directly raised some eyebrows:

The riskiest element of the U.S. strategy is an effort to rein in the notoriously independent and pro-Taliban Inter Services Intelligence apparatus of Pakistan’s military. Taliban sympathizers inside and outside the ISI have presented roadblocks to U.S. efforts to pursue Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda assets aggressively, and the United States has been looking for ways to bring the refractory intelligence service to heel.

The Zardari government is apparently not up to the task. Prior to his state visit to the United States in August—during which he received a pointedly-leaked “charge sheet” from a deputy director of the CIA describing ISI—Taliban links– Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani proudly announced that the ISI would henceforth report to the civilian cabinet.

It was an assertion that he was forced to retract in the most humiliating and public matter imaginable within 24 hours.

As Shahzad reports, reining in the ISI and its supporters is a consistent U.S. objective:

“High-level meetings between US intelligence and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have already been held at different levels to devise plans to cripple the support systems of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

“Two prominent names came under discussion at these meetings: retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul and a former ISI official, retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja.

Gul, a former head of the ISI, is suspected of providing political and moral support to the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan. Last year, former premier Benazir Bhutto named him as a suspect for the October 18 attack on her life in Karachi. She was subsequently assassinated in December.

Khawaja was the first person in the country to assist the displaced families of Arab fighters who fled to Pakistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001… Tightening the noose around people such as Gul and Khawaja and the like is one way to cut off support for the Taliban.

The battle has begun in earnest in preparation for next year’s showdown.”

Maybe the showdown over the ISI’s more-than-tacit support for the Taliban began a little earlier than expected—in November 2008 in Mumbai.

Hamid Gul headed the ISI from 1987 to 1989, during the height of the mujihadeed insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He has spent 20 years organizing insurgencies and terrorism in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He conceived and executed the ISI’s successful campaign to organize a right wing Islamacist party to oppose the PPP in the 1980s. In a letter written in late 2007, Benazir Bhutto named him as one of the three likely organizers of her anticipated assassination. He’s violently anti-Indian and the architect of the Kashmir insurgency. In the aftermath of America’s abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989 and U.S. sanctions on Pakistan’s nuclear program, he’s passionately anti-American, turning against Musharraf when he became, in Gul’s view, too accommodating to the United States’ Global War on Terror demands.

In retirement, Gul speaks for a powerful conservative political and military constituency that values Pakistani independence, a hard line against India, and disdain for the anti-Taliban policies the United States is pushing on the PPP civilian government.

His views probably resonate more with Pakistani public opinion than the pro-U.S./India-accommodating policies of the Zardari government.

It does not appear that anyone—inside or outside of Pakistan—can mess with the ISI or Hamid Gul lightly.

In reviewing its South Asia policy—and trying to keep the fragile rapprochement of the Indian and Pakistan governments from shattering into a million bloody pieces in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack–the Bush administration may be acquiring a belated understanding of how its overt pro-India tilt and heavy-handed approach toward Pakistan have combined to create an atmosphere inside Pakistan charged with bad things: feelings of persecution, humiliation, encirclement, and peril.

Gul used the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Society as a platform in his campaign to bring down Pervez Musharraf, a fact that Asif Zardari is certainly uncomfortably aware of.

In an eerie reprise of the August scenario, the Zardari government backed down and announced that the ISI chief would not go to India.

If the Mumbai massacres were organized and condoned by the ISI as a provocation, I suppose we can say “mission accomplished”.

The fundamental hostility between India and Pakistan has been affirmed, the inability of the PPP government to back up its U.S.-mandated good wishes toward India with meaningful action has been exposed, and the willingness of the ISI to meet challenges to its power with brutal violence has been revealed.

And by targeting Americans, Britons, and Jews, the attack was overtly linked, not to the never-ending squabble between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, but to the U.S.-led security policy for Afghanistan and South Asia

According to Pakistan’s The News, the Taliban in western Pakistan responded to the heightened tensions with India with a suspiciously prompt and unanimous offer (met with an suspiciously prompt and positive response from the government) to cease operations so that Pakistan’s army could shift its resources to the east:

“All main militant groups fighting in Fata, from South Waziristan to Bajaur and from Mohmand to the Khyber Agency, have contacted the government through different sources after the Mumbai bombings and have offered a ceasefire if the Pakistan Army also stops its operations.

And as a positive sign that this ceasefire offer may be accepted, the Pakistan Army has, as a first step, declared before the media some notorious militant commanders, including Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Fazlullah, as ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis.

These two militant commanders are fighting the Army for the last four years and have invariably been accused of terrorism against Pakistan but the aftermath of the Mumbai carnage has suddenly turned terrorists into patriots.

A top security official told a group of senior journalists on Saturday: “We have no big issues with the militants in Fata. We have only some misunderstandings with Baitullah Mehsud and Fazlullah. These misunderstandings could be removed through dialogue.”

Pakistan’s normally fractious media has also circled the wagons on the nation’s behalf in denigrating the Indian allegations, earning rare praise from the military:

Even if the Mumbai attack was not choreographed by elements within the ISI to generate a confrontation with India and give Pakistani elite and popular opinion an excuse to back out of the bloody and unpopular campaign it is pursuing at America’s behest in FATA, the result appears to be the same.

The Zardari government’s capitulation to its domestic critics on the issue of dispatching the ISI Director General is a bad augury for the United States. Pakistan is threatening to backtrack on rapprochement with India and active participation in U.S. security operations in the west.

Although America’s transparent desire to keep a lid on the crisis (and Pakistan’s troops fighting on the Afghan border) has forestalled the usual martial chest-thumping and deployment of Pakistan and Indian army divisions eyeball to eyeball, the Indian government could not resist summoning the Pakistan High Commissioner to the External Affairs Ministry to receive a demarche (protest note) containing a list a laundry list of 20 bad guys, apparently including a key TeL operative, that India wants extradited from Pakistan.

A new government even more eager to wave the bloody shirt may be in the offing.

The virulently Hindu-nationalist BJP is waiting in the wings to put India squarely on a confrontational, anti-Muslim footing.

From The Hindu:

“By the time he landed in Mumbai, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha L.K. Advani had begun expressing mild criticism of the government for not being hard enough on terror. Before the evening wore out, the BJP had finalised its new election campaign for New Delhi, which appeared in many newspapers on Friday morning: “Brutal terror strikes at will, weak government, unwilling and incapable.”

“While one senior BJP leader admitted that the first reaction to the Mumbai incidents was that it would appear wrong on the part of the party to criticise the government when it faced a “war-like” situation — Mr. Advani himself initially described the terror attack as a “full-scale war on India” — the leadership felt that it could not let go of the opportunity to electorally cash in on the episode.”

That’s the dilemma for the United States.

Its security policy is not particularly popular in South Asia. Washington is trying to orchestrate support for those policies through democracies that are weak and/or equivocal about loyally toeing the U.S. line. Finally, the heavy-handed approach and frequent resort to violence it has resorted to in the region routinely unleashes forces that America cannot consistently channel and control.

And the real danger for U.S. interests is that, as the U.S. continues to lean on the weak reed that is the Zardari administration, Pakistan will opt out of a war in Afghanistan and an American security policy for South Asia that looks like a disaster for Pakistan’s military, economy, and society.

In a recent article, Asia Times’ Shahzad presents a worst-case scenario:

“The situation in NWFP [the North West Frontier Provinces] is spiraling out of control, with militancy spilling over from the tribal areas into this province.

“In the past four days, militants have abducted a record 60 people from the provincial capital Peshawar, most of them retired army officers and members or relatives of the Awami National Party (ANP), which rules in the province. The Taliban have butchered many people with affiliations to the ANP or those with relatives in the security apparatus.

“Meanwhile, North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply convoys passing through Khyber Agency en route to Afghanistan have come under increasing attacks. In the most recent incident, militants destroyed 40 containers in supposedly secure terminals in the middle of Peshawar.

“In this anarchic situation, the Jamaatut Dawa (LET), with its well-defined vertical command structure under the single command of Saeed, could commit its several thousand members, virtually a para-military force, to the cause of the anti-state al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani militants.

“What has stopped the anti-India orientated group from doing this is its under-riding loyalty to and support from Pakistan. If the authorities start to mess with the LET, beyond the routine rhetoric, all hell could break loose inside the country.

“Similarly, if pressure is placed on the ISI, there could be a severe reaction from the more hardline elements in that organization, as well as in the military.

“To date, the authorities have not given any indication of their plans. If they do indeed resist the overtures of Mullen and Rice, it is most likely that the Pakistani armed forces will withdraw from the Swat Valley and Bajaur Agency, leaving that area open for the Taliban-led insurgency n Afghanistan. Militants can also be expected to launch further attacks on India, with dire consequences for whole South Asia region.

“Yet the alternative of cracking down on the LET is equally unappealing, and potentially as disastrous.”

It isn’t just the Pakistani leadership that’s faced with a tough decision.

Faced with the Mumbai outrage, the U.S. can reconsider its South Asia approach—and its secret war against pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan–or intensify it.

However, as John McCain and Condoleezza Rice fly into India to express their outrage and sympathy, the FBI, and Scotland Yard put their forensics teams at India’s disposal, and the Indian government, perhaps with the backing of both the Bush and incoming Obama administration, threaten to enmesh Pakistan in the toils of the international investigation, censure, and sanction mechanism usually reserved for America’s enemies, the United States does not appear to fully understand that Pakistan is getting pushed closer to its breaking point.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.






Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.