By George Friedman
In an interview published this Sunday in The New York Times, we laid out a potential scenario for the current Indo-Pakistani crisis. We began with an Indian strike on Pakistan, precipitating a withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the Afghan border, resulting in intensified Taliban activity along the border and a deterioration in the U.S. position in Afghanistan, all culminating in an emboldened Iran. The scenario is not unlikely, assuming India chooses to strike.
Our argument that India is likely to strike focused, among other points, on the weakness of the current Indian government and how it is likely to fall under pressure from the opposition and the public if it does not act decisively. An unnamed Turkish diplomat involved in trying to mediate the dispute has argued that saving a government is not a good reason to go to war. That is a good argument, except that in this case, not saving the government is unlikely to prevent a war, either.
If India’s Congress party government were to fall, its replacement would be even more likely to strike at Pakistan. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress’ Hindu nationalist rival, has long charged that Congress is insufficiently aggressive in combating terrorism. The BJP will argue that the Mumbai attack in part resulted from this failing. Therefore, if the Congress government does not strike, and is subsequently forced out or loses India’s upcoming elections, the new government is even more likely to strike.
It is therefore difficult to see a path that avoids Indian retaliation, and thus the emergence of at least a variation on the scenario we laid out. But the problem is not simply political: India must also do something to prevent more Mumbais. This is an issue of Indian national security, and the pressure on India’s government to do something comes from several directions.
Three Indian Views of Pakistan
The question is what an Indian strike against Pakistan, beyond placating domestic public opinion, would achieve. There are three views on this in India.
The first view holds that Pakistani officials aid and abet terrorism — in particular the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), which serves as Pakistan’s main intelligence service. In this view, the terrorist attacks are the work of Pakistani government officials — perhaps not all of the government, but enough officials of sufficient power that the rest of the government cannot block them, and therefore the entire Pakistani government can be held accountable.
The second view holds that terrorist attacks are being carried out by Kashmiri groups that have long been fostered by the ISI but have grown increasingly autonomous since 2002 — and that the Pakistani government has deliberately failed to suppress anti-Indian operations by these groups. In this view, the ISI and related groups are either aware of these activities or willfully ignorant of them, even if ISI is not in direct control. Under this thinking, the ISI and the Pakistanis are responsible by omission, if not by commission.
The third view holds that the Pakistani government is so fragmented and weak that it has essentially lost control of Pakistan to the extent that it cannot suppress these anti-Indian groups. This view says that the army has lost control of the situation to the point where many from within the military-intelligence establishment are running rogue operations, and groups in various parts of the country simply do what they want. If this argument is pushed to its logical conclusion, Pakistan should be regarded as a state on the verge of failure, and an attack by India might precipitate further weakening, freeing radical Islamist groups from what little control there is.
The first two analyses are essentially the same. They posit that Pakistan could stop attacks on India, but chooses not to. The third is the tricky one. It rests on the premise that the Pakistani government (and in this we include the Pakistani army) is placing some restraint on the attackers. Thus, the government’s collapse would make enough difference that India should restrain itself, especially as any Indian attack would so destabilize Pakistan that it would unleash our scenario and worse. In this view, Pakistan’s civilian government has only as much power in these matters as the army is willing to allow.
The argument against attacking Pakistan therefore rests on a very thin layer of analysis. It requires the belief that Pakistan is not responsible for the attacks, that it is nonetheless restraining radical Islamists to some degree, and that an Indian attack would cause even these modest restraints to disappear. Further, it assumes that these restraints, while modest, are substantial enough to make a difference.
There is a debate in India, and in Washington, as to whether this is the case. This is why New Delhi has demanded that Pakistan turn over 20 individuals wanted by India in connection with attacks. The list doesn’t merely include Islamists, but also Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI who has long been suspected of close ties with Islamists. (The United States apparently added Gul to the list.) Turning those individuals over would be enormously difficult politically for Pakistan. It would create a direct confrontation between Pakistan’s government and the Pakistani Islamist movement, likely sparking violence in Pakistan. Indeed, turning any Pakistani over to India, regardless of ideology, would create a massive crisis in Pakistan.
The Indian government chose to make this demand precisely because complying with it is enormously difficult for Pakistan. New Delhi is not so much demanding the 20 individuals, but rather that Pakistan take steps that will create conflict in Pakistan. If the Pakistani government is in control of the country, it should be able to weather the storm. If it can’t weather the storm, then the government is not in control of Pakistan. And if it could weather the storm but chooses not to incur the costs, then India can reasonably claim that Pakistan is prepared to export terrorism rather than endure it at home. In either event, the demand reveals things about the Pakistani reality.
The View from Islamabad
Pakistan’s evaluation, of course, is different. Islamabad does not regard itself as failed because it cannot control all radical Islamists or the Taliban. The official explanation is that the Pakistanis are doing the best they can. From the Pakistani point of view, while the Islamists ultimately might represent a threat, the threat to Pakistan and its government that would arise from a direct assault on the Islamists is a great danger not only to Pakistan, but also to the region. It is thus better for all to let the matter rest. The Islamist issue aside, Pakistan sees itself as continuing to govern the country effectively, albeit with substantial social and economic problems (as one might expect). The costs of confronting the Islamists, relative to the benefits, are therefore high.
The Pakistanis see themselves as having several effective counters against an Indian attack. The most important of these is the United States. The very first thing Islamabad said after the Mumbai attack was that a buildup of Indian forces along the Pakistani border would force Pakistan to withdraw 100,000 troops from its Afghan border. Events over the weekend, such as the attack on a NATO convoy, showed the vulnerability of NATO’s supply line across Pakistan to Afghanistan.
The Americans are fighting a difficult holding action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States needs the militant base camps in Pakistan and the militants’ lines of supply cut off, but the Americans lack the force to do this themselves. A withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the Afghan border would pose a direct threat to American forces. Therefore, the Pakistanis expect Washington to intervene on their behalf to prevent an Indian attack. They do not believe a major Indian troop buildup will take place, and if it does, the Pakistanis do not think it will lead to substantial conflict.
There has been some talk of an Indian naval blockade against Pakistan, blocking the approaches to Pakistan’s main port of Karachi. This is an attractive strategy for India, as it plays to New Delhi’s relative naval strength. Again, the Pakistanis do not believe the Indians will do this, given that it would cut off the flow of supplies to American troops in Afghanistan. (Karachi is the main port serving U.S. forces in Afghanistan.) The line of supply in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, and the Americans, the Pakistanis calculate, do not want anything to threaten that.
From the Pakistani point of view, the only potential military action India could take that would not meet U.S. opposition would be airstrikes. There has been talk that the Indians might launch airstrikes against Islamist training camps and bases in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. In Pakistan’s view, this is not a serious problem. Mounting airstrikes against training camps is harder than it might seem. The only way to achieve anything in such a facility is with area destruction weapons — for instance, using B-52s to drop ordnance over very large areas. The targets are not amenable to strike aircraft, because the payload of such aircraft is too small. It would be tough for the Indians, who don’t have strategic bombers, to hit very much. Numerous camps exist, and the Islamists can afford to lose some. As an attack, it would be more symbolic than effective.
Moreover, if the Indians did kill large numbers of radical Islamists, this would hardly pose a problem to the Pakistani government. It might even solve some of Islamabad’s problems, depending on which analysis you accept. Airstrikes would generate massive support among Pakistanis for their government so long as Islamabad remained defiant of India. Pakistan thus might even welcome Indian airstrikes against Islamist training camps.
Islamabad also views the crisis with India with an eye to the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Any attack by India that might destabilize the Pakistani government opens at least the possibility of a Pakistani nuclear strike or, in the event of state disintegration, of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of factional elements. If India presses too hard, New Delhi faces the unknown of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — unless, of course, the Indians are preparing a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Pakistan, something the Pakistanis find unlikely.
All of this, of course, depends upon two unknowns. First, what is the current status of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal? Is it sufficiently reliable for Pakistan to count on? Second, to what extent do the Americans monitor Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities? Ever since the crisis of 2002, when American fears that Pakistani nuclear weapons could fall into al Qaeda’s hands were high, we have assumed that American calm about Pakistan’s nuclear facilities was based on Washington’s having achieved a level of transparency on their status. This might limit Pakistan’s freedom of action with regard to — and hence ability to rely on — its nuclear arsenal.
Notably, much of Pakistan’s analysis of the situation rests on a core assumption — namely, that the United States will choose to limit Indian options, and just as important, that the Indians would listen to Washington. India does not have the same relationship or dependence on the United States as, for example, Israel does. India historically was allied with the Soviet Union; New Delhi moved into a strategic relationship with the United States only in recent years. There is a commonality of interest between India and the United States, but not a dependency. India would not necessarily be blocked from action simply because the Americans didn’t want it to act.
As for the Americans, Pakistan’s assumption that the United States would want to limit India is unclear. Islamabad’s threat to shift 100,000 troops from the Afghan border will not easily be carried out. Pakistan’s logistical capabilities are limited. Moreover, the American objection to Pakistan’s position is that the vast majority of these troops are not engaged in controlling the border anyway, but are actually carefully staying out of the battle. Given that the Americans feel that the Pakistanis are ineffective in controlling the Afghan-Pakistani border, the shift from virtually to utterly ineffective might not constitute a serious deterioration from the United States’ point of view. Indeed, it might open the door for more aggressive operations on — and over — the Afghan-Pakistani border by American forces, perhaps by troops rapidly transferred from Iraq.
The situation of the port of Karachi is more serious, both in the ground and naval scenarios. The United States needs Karachi; it is not in a position to seize the port and the road system out of Karachi. That is a new war the United States can’t fight. At the same time, the United States has been shifting some of its logistical dependency from Pakistan to Central Asia. But this requires a degree of Russian support, which would cost Washington dearly and take time to activate. In short, India’s closing the port of Karachi by blockade, or Pakistan’s doing so as retaliation for Indian action, would hurt the United States badly.
Supply lines aside, Islamabad should not assume that the United States is eager to ensure that the Pakistani state survives. Pakistan also should not assume that the United States is impressed by the absence or presence of Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. Washington has developed severe doubts about Pakistan’s commitment and effectiveness in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, and therefore about Pakistan’s value as an ally.
Pakistan’s strongest card with the United States is the threat to block the port of Karachi. But here, too, there is a counter to Pakistan: If Pakistan closes Karachi to American shipping, either the Indian or American navy also could close it to Pakistani shipping. Karachi is Pakistan’s main export facility, and Pakistan is heavily dependent on it. If Karachi were blocked, particularly while Pakistan is undergoing a massive financial crisis, Pakistan would face disaster. Karachi is thus a double-edged sword. As long as Pakistan keeps it open to the Americans, India probably won’t block it. But should Pakistan ever close the port in response to U.S. action in the Afghan-Pakistani borderland, then Pakistan should not assume that the port will be available for its own use.
India’s Military Challenge
India faces difficulties in all of its military options. Attacks on training camps sound more effective than they are. Concentrating troops on the border is impressive only if India is prepared for a massive land war, and a naval blockade has multiple complications.
India needs a military option that demonstrates will and capability and decisively hurts the Pakistani government, all without drawing India into a nuclear exchange or costly ground war. And its response must rise above the symbolic.
We have no idea what India is thinking, but one obvious option is airstrikes directed not against training camps, but against key government installations in Islamabad. The Indian air force increasingly has been regarded as professional and capable by American pilots at Red Flag exercises in Nevada. India has modern Russian fighter jets and probably has the capability, with some losses, to penetrate deep into Pakistani territory.
India also has acquired radar and electronic warfare equipment from Israel and might have obtained some early precision-guided munitions from Russia and/or Israel. While this capability is nascent, untested and very limited, it is nonetheless likely to exist in some form.
The Indians might opt for a drawn-out diplomatic process under the theory that all military action is either ineffective or excessively risky. If it chooses the military route, New Delhi could opt for a buildup of ground troops and some limited artillery exchanges and tactical ground attacks. It also could choose airstrikes against training facilities. Each of these military options would achieve the goal of some substantial action, but none would threaten fundamental Pakistani interests. The naval blockade has complexities that could not be managed. That leaves, as a possible scenario, a significant escalation by India against targets in Pakistan’s capital.
The Indians have made it clear that the ISI is their enemy. The ISI has a building, and buildings can be destroyed, along with files and personnel. Such an aerial attack also would serve to shock the Pakistanis by representing a serious escalation. And Pakistan might find retaliation difficult, given the relative strength of its air force. India has few good choices for retaliation, and while this option is not a likely one, it is undoubtedly one that has to be considered.
It seems to us that India can avoid attacks on Pakistan only if Islamabad makes political concessions that it would find difficult to make. The cost to Pakistan of these concessions might well be greater than the benefit of avoiding conflict with India. All of India’s options are either ineffective or dangerous, but inactivity is politically and strategically the least satisfactory route for New Delhi. This circumstance is the most dangerous aspect of the current situation. In our opinion, the relative quiet at present should not be confused with the final outcome, unless Pakistan makes surprising concessions.
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