The Pakistani army’s operation in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan is the most sustained in five years of selective counterinsurgency against the local Taliban. The toll already is immense: 1.9 million internally displaced, including tens of thousands housed in tents on parched plains; 15,000 soldiers battling 5,000 guerrillas; and more than a thousand dead, mainly militants according to available counts but also soldiers and of course civilians.

The war has not been confined to Swat. In revenge for losses there, the Pakistan Taliban has unleashed a torrent of attacks in Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and other cities, killing scores. “You know it’s serious this time: The scale of the army’s campaign confirms it. You fear the war is at your door,” said Sajjad Ali from Mardan, a city adjacent to Swat.

The war is the fruit of a failed peace process, denounced by the United States as an “abdication” that had allowed the Taliban to within 60 miles of Islamabad. In February, the provincial government had proffered a localized form of Islamic law in Swat in return for the Taliban disarming and recognizing “the writ of the state.” The insurgents observed their commitments only in the breach, which included the slaughter of their opponents. In May the army “reinvaded” Swat.

Pakistanis historically have been hostile to campaigns against the Taliban, casting them as “America’s war.” But not this time: The army, the civilian government and most Pakistanis, including the largest opposition party, support the Swat offensive. “The atrocities of the Swat Taliban galvanized public opinion,” says Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the US. “It produced a coincidence of military resolve, political consensus and strong public support. And because the US was not seen as calling the shots in any pronounced way, this helped the government pursue a very aggressive policy.”

The public support manifests as a spontaneous, generous solidarity. In cities like Mardan, Peshawar and Swabi, people have literally opened their homes to the refugees. In vast tent cities near the banks of the Indus, volunteers deliver food, clothes, utensils and shelter. The relief work, involving all parts of Pakistani civil society, is led by the Islamic charities.

One such charity is Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD). Last December the Pakistani government banned JuD and arrested its amir, Hafiz Saeed, following the JuD’s designation as a terrorist group by the United Nations. Saeed founded Lashkar-e Tayaba, the Pakistani jihadi group that India alleges was behind the attack in Mumbai in November 2008. In Pakistan, it is widely assumed that JuD and Lashkar are one and the same organization. On June 2, the Lahore High Court ordered Saeed’s release on the grounds that the state had supplied “insufficient” evidence to warrant his detention. India responded by saying that the decision raised “serious doubts over Pakistan’s sincerity in acting with determination against terrorist groups and individuals operating from its territory.” India has since conditioned any return to peace negotiations with Pakistan on the latter taking action against LeT and other jihadi groups.

For the Obama administration — which has cast Taliban and al-Qaeda “sanctuaries” in Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan as the “single greatest threat” to America — the enigma is whether Pakistan’s military establishment is friend or foe in America’s war against Islamic militancy. “I’ve rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials,” ceded Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s point man for “Af-Pak,” when asked that question in February.

The dispute in Washington about how to perceive the Pakistani army runs along two colliding tracks. Track one says the army is a friend. Even before Swat, the Pakistani army had lost 1,000 men to Taliban and al-Qaeda guerillas in the tribal areas. Pakistan’s premier military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had “rendered” more than 600 al-Qaeda suspects into CIA hands, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks. Currently the Pakistani army is fighting the Taliban not only in Swat but also the tribal areas of Bajaur, Orakzai, Mohmand, Khyber and South Waziristan.

Track two says the army-ISI combination is a foe. It allows Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his Shura council free run in Pakistan’s Balochistan province from where they direct the insurgency in Afghanistan. It shelters Afghan Taliban commanders like Jalaluddin and Sirjuddin Haqqani in North Waziristan. And it supplies money, arms and training to jihadi groups fighting the Indian army in Indian-occupied Kashmir, including the “banned” Lashkar.

The two tracks collide because both, in part, are true. The army is combating the Pakistan Taliban and its jihadi allies in Swat and elsewhere, seeing their spread as a danger to Pakistan’s integrity as a state. One hundred and twenty thousand soldiers have been mobilized to fight them. But 250,000 remain rooted on the eastern border facing the Indian army, and primed by organizational formation, weaponry, ideology and ethos to a vision that defines India, not the Taliban or al-Qaeda, as the “strategic enemy.” That vision must change if Pakistan is to defeat the enemy at home.

Jockeying for Kashmir

For the last 61 years the fight has been fought, mostly, in and for Indian-occupied Kashmir: the territory New Delhi and Islamabad have contested since the 1947 partition cleaved them into two states — and Kashmir into “Pakistani” and “Indian” parts. Sometimes (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) the war has been hot. More often it has been waged via Pakistani proxies against a standing Indian military. Since 1989, it has been channeled through a low-intensity, Pakistan-backed separatist-Islamist insurgency that has killed 50,000 people and incurred an Indian military occupation three times the size of America’s in Iraq and three times as lethal.

Of all the jihadi groups the ISI nurtured in Kashmir, the Lashkar was the deadliest, but there were others. Their collective purpose was to “bleed India” until New Delhi surrendered Kashmir to Islamabad. Before September 11, 2001, the collaboration was overt. Lashkar and other jihadi groups recruited fighters throughout Pakistan, but particularly from southern Punjab. They launched hundreds of guerilla attacks on Indian soldiers and civilians and fought alongside the Pakistani army in the 1999 invasion of Kargil, the last time the two armies went head to head inside Indian Kashmir.

In December 2001, India charged Lashkar with attacking its parliament in Delhi, bringing the two countries to the brink of nuclear war. Under American pressure, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s then-military dictator, banned Lashkar and other jihadi groups. Moves against the militants in 2002 seemed like bluffs at the time. In fact, they were the beginning of a slow change. Steered by Washington, Islamabad and New Delhi went from nuclear brinkmanship to a truce across the armistice line in Kashmir. In 2004, Musharraf began a peace process or “composite dialogue” with India predicated on the oath “not to permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.” What had commenced as a feint by Pakistan’s military establishment was hardening into policy.

The ISI demobilized thousands of jihadi fighters in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. Some of their camps were moved inland, including, ironically, to the Swat Valley. Six army divisions (about 80,000 to 100,000 men) were repositioned from the eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan, where the army was becoming embroiled in its first clashes with the Pakistan Taliban. Under the command of Gen. Ashfaq Kayani (now army chief of staff), the ISI was reformed, with the more Indo-phobic and jihadi officers purged. Guerilla infiltration into Indian-occupied Kashmir slowed to a trickle.

Some of the army’s senior officers believed that because both Pakistan and India had become nuclear powers, hot war was no longer an option. More importantly, many generals were convinced that the army would not be able to preserve its preeminent position in the Pakistani state or defend its enormous corporate interests in the economy without sustained growth which would require peace with India. Musharraf was the leading proponent of this new thinking. In 2004, he authorized Khurshid Kasuri, the civilian foreign minister at the time, to open “back-channel” negotiations with India on a possible settlement for Kashmir, one that would in essence give Islamabad an honorable exit from what had become an unwinnable war.

Over the next three years a deal took shape: Demilitarization would neutralize the two Kashmirs, open borders would unite them, and a form of self-government or autonomy would partly satisfy the Kashmiri aspiration to self-determination. The army agreed to the nucleus of this draft agreement with the proviso that the Kashmiris vote on it. “This was to allow the army to give up historic positions without appearing to,” said Hasan Rizvi Ashkari, a military historian.

The back channel ran aground in the storm that wrecked Musharraf after his illegal sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2007. Many fear that the attacks in Mumbai may have sunk prospects for a Kashmir agreement forever. But the progress of the discussions had suggested that the military was open to a resolution and had taken steps in that direction. “When the Kashmir camps were initially dispersed, the boys [fighters] were told that it was just a temporary measure because of 9/11,” a senior jihadi leader told the BBC in 2008. “Then the arrests and disappearances started. The boys realized fundamental changes were underway and quietly slipped away beyond the control of the Pakistani authorities.” This is what happened in the Swat Valley where jihadi cells joined forces and lent enormous firepower to local Islamist groups demanding shari‘a law. The pattern was repeated in the southern Punjab and Islamabad.

Deprived of support from their old (state) godfathers, the “youngest and most radicalized members” were drawn to new groups, says historian Ahmed Rashid. They “joined up with al-Qaeda and the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. They embraced the global jihad to fight US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later attacked the Pakistan government.” Rashid believes this al-Qaeda, Taliban and jihadi nexus is the motor driving much of the violence that has rocked Pakistan, Afghanistan and India in recent years, including Mumbai, the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and the recent wave of attacks in Pakistani cities.

In other words, after 2004 many Lashkar and other jihadi cadres ceased focusing their militancy exclusively on India or Kashmir. They fragmented and morphed into multiple cells with ties to al-Qaeda and other Pakistani Sunni sectarian groups, sometimes acting in alliance, sometimes autonomously, but together having an outreach that included Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Kashmir, Iraq, Europe and beyond. The ISI was loath to cut ties with groups over which it did maintain some sway, like the old Lashkar-JuD nexus. Nor was the ISI inclined to abandon entirely the proxy war strategy in Kashmir before a settlement had been reached. “If we did that, Kashmir would go cold and India would bury it forever,” said a senior army general in 2005.

IoK has warmed. In 2008 there were 41 militant infractions across the armistice line, double the 2007 total. The upward curve has continued in 2009, with several skirmishes between the two armies. For the first time since 2004, Lashkar cadres have publicly surfaced in the southern Punjab, proselytizing for jihad. Seminaries and schools are acting as recruiting centers, with the traffic in students moving in both directions between the Punjab and the tribal areas. Funerals in both provinces eulogize “martyrs” in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

None of this could happen without the knowledge of the ISI. Militant activity increased in the twilight between the end of Musharraf’s military rule and Pakistan’s new civilian government. Yet the new militancy seems to have little to do with the mass demonstrations for independence that shook Indian-controlled Kashmir in the summer of 2008, or with insurgent violence there, which remains low. It has more to do with Afghanistan or, more precisely, with India in Afghanistan.

India’s Regional Dominance

Pakistan has been worried by India’s widening footprint in Afghanistan since the Bonn conference in November 2001, where Afghan factions came together to determine their country’s post-Taliban future. The Afghan Taliban was purged from any interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, and replaced by forces loyal to the Northern Alliance. The Alliance had opposed the Taliban regime before September 11 and fought with US troops to topple it. India, Iran and Russia were its main sponsors; Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban. Neither the Taliban nor Islamabad was invited to Bonn. “This was our original sin,” said Lakdar Brahimi, the UN’s envoy in Afghanistan, who chaired the conference.

India remains one of Karzai’s few champions. And Afghanistan is seen to be very much within New Delhi’s sphere of regional influence. India has four consulates and has given the Afghan government $1.2 billion in aid: a huge investment for a country that is 99 percent Muslim and with which India shares no border. New Delhi has built the new national parliament in Kabul, runs the Afghan electricity and satellite systems and has helped train its army and intelligence forces, the latter staffed by many ex-Northern Alliance commanders.

India’s most ambitious Afghan project is a new highway, routed across the western border to the Iranian port of Chabahar, that circumvents landlocked Afghanistan’s need to use Pakistani ports to the Gulf; Islamabad deems these trade and energy corridors vital to its economic future. For the Pakistan army, the highway’s importance is clear: India seeks to consolidate an alliance with Iran in western Afghanistan to counter Pakistan’s influence in eastern Afghanistan. This is a continuation of the pre-September 11 war in a post-September 11 infrastructure, with India, Iran and the Karzai government on the one side, and Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban on the other. “The army feels under siege,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst.

In 2004, the Bush administration tilted US South Asia policy toward New Delhi, lured by the size of India’s markets and its potential role as a strategic “counterweight” to China, Pakistan’s closest regional ally. In 2008, the US signed an agreement that allows India to buy civilian atomic technology, including nuclear fuel, from American firms, even though Delhi is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. Pakistan was granted no such privilege; on the contrary, it is denounced as a rogue for developing the bomb by stealth and for the proliferation activities of its former top nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan. Some in Congress want aid to Pakistan tied to US access to Khan for questioning.

For all the fabled “chemistry” between Bush and Musharraf, since September 11 Washington has treated Islamabad as a gun for hire, providing certain weaponry and around $2 billion per year in exchange for securing supply lines for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and for fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas. By cooperating in these ways, the army may have hoped that its interests would be taken into account in the post-invasion reconstruction. Yet unlike Iran or India — and despite the services or sacrifices rendered — Islamabad was given no say in the formation of the Afghan government or in its nascent military forces. This strengthened Pakistani perceptions that Musharraf and his army were mercenaries fighting “America’s war.” The Taliban, by contrast, were deemed Afghan or at least Pashtun nationalists resisting a foreign, colonial and anti-Muslim occupation.

These realities help explain the army’s selective counterinsurgency in the tribal areas. In Bajaur, Mahmond and to a lesser extent South Waziristan, the army has often been ruthless in campaigns against the Pakistan Taliban. This is partly revenge for the killing of Pakistani soldiers. But there is also the perception (and, the army insists, evidence) that “Pakistan’s enemies” are fomenting the militancy. A commander in Bajaur says many of those captured or killed by the army are Afghans, including Tajiks or Uzbeks, while the tribal areas are almost exclusively Pashtun. The inference is obvious. Some “insurgents” are “agents” working for Afghan intelligence and/or India.

In North Waziristan, on the other hand, the preferred policy is to negotiate ceasefires with tribal militants who openly provide fighters and arms to Afghan Taliban commanders like the Haqqanis. Unlike the Pakistan Taliban, these tribal militants do not attack the Pakistani army other than to avenge US drone attacks. “They’re our people; they’re not our enemies,” says an ISI officer.

A Pakistani analyst — who declined attribution — says these dual policies explain the enigma of the Pakistan army. It will act against those who threaten the state, such as the Taliban in Swat and al-Qaeda-linked militants elsewhere. But it will not act against those who, like the Afghan Taliban, seek only a haven from which to fight American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. In fact, “the ISI has retained its links to the Afghan Taliban because it wants to use them as a bargaining chip in Afghanistan,” says the analyst. “The Pakistan army wants to have a bigger say in whatever new regional dispensation America is planning. The view within the army and ISI is if the Afghan Taliban is abandoned, this would strengthen the Afghan government, as well as India in Afghanistan, at Pakistan’s expense.”

A Fork in the Road

Prior to his election, Barack Obama was clear on the link between peace in Kashmir and war in Afghanistan. “If Pakistan can look to the east with confidence, it will be less likely to believe its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2007. Ensconced in the Oval Office, the president now dismisses Islamabad’s focus on New Delhi as paranoia. “The obsession with India as a mortal threat to Pakistan is misguided [because] their biggest threat right now comes internally,” he said in April 2009.

The shift seals a “new” American policy toward Pakistan that marks more continuity than change with Bush’s second term. Under Obama, US drone attacks into the tribal areas — inaugurated by Bush — have continued and may be extended to other areas of Pakistan. Whatever good will Obama hoped to generate through increases in civilian aid has been wiped out by the increase in Pakistani deaths by American rockets.

The Pakistan aid bill before Congress, although promising a “deeper, broader, long-term engagement with the [Pakistani] people,” could be as conditional as anything tendered by Bush. Military aid is not to be tied only to fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda but may require Pakistan’s pledge not to support “any person or group that conducts violence, sabotage or other activities meant to instill fear or terror in India.” Some members of Congress want aid to Pakistan linked to moving troops from the eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan.

American policy towards Kashmir also reveals India’s widening influence in Washington. In an intensive lobbying effort, New Delhi made clear to Obama that his envoy would be shunned if any link were made between Kashmir and Af-Pak. It worked. In a trip to Islamabad in April, Holbrooke refused to even say “Kashmir.” And while in New Delhi, he was effusive about India’s “critical role” in the region without which “we cannot settle Afghanistan and many other world problems.” The implication was that Kashmir, clearly, is not among them.

This Indian-American axis presents Islamabad with a fork in the road. One way goes back. The ISI again could try to bleed India via surrogates in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the hope that its regional concerns will be addressed, above all a final status for Kashmir and recognition of its western border with Afghanistan. But such a strategy would likely fail; pursuing foreign policy objectives through guerilla violence rarely worked in the past. It simply creates conditions of friction that al-Qaeda, the Taliban and jihadi groups can exploit to keep 80 percent of Pakistan’s military manpower and hardware pinned down on India rather than on them or the tribal areas. Mumbai and the Taliban’s conquest of Swat are two examples of just how useful a diversion this can be.

The alternative is to go forward and insist that Kashmir, Afghanistan and Islamic militancy are regional problems requiring regional solutions. India is right to insist that Pakistan go after those nationals and groups implicated in Mumbai and other attacks in India with the same vigor as it is currently going after the Pakistan Taliban in Swat. But equally New Delhi must recommence serious negotiations to resolve Kashmir and other outstanding water and land disputes with Islamabad.

On such bases Pakistan and India could come together to agree to terms for coexistence in a neutral and neutralized Afghanistan. For economic, energy and geopolitical reasons, both nations have an interest in their roads crossing in Kabul. But the road must start in Kashmir.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "The Afghan Triangle," Middle East Report 251 (Summer 2009).

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