All posts by Shuja Nawaz

Brinksmanship in South Asia: A Dangerous Scenario

Reports of military movement to the India-Pakistan border must raise alarums in Washington DC. The last thing that the incoming Obama administration wants is a firestorm in South Asia. There cannot be a limited war in the subcontinent, given the imbalance of forces between India and Pakistan. Any Indian attack across the border into Pakistan will likely be met with a full scale response from Pakistan. Yet, the rhetoric that seemed to have cooled down after the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks is rising again. It was exactly this kind of aggressive posturing and public statements that led to the 1971 conflict between these two neighbors. Pakistan has relied in the past on international intervention to prevent war. It worked, except in 1971 when the US and other powers let India invade East Pakistan and lead to the birth of Bangladesh. What makes the current situation especially dangerous is that both are now nuclear weapon states with anywhere up to150 nuclear bombs in their arsenal. If India and Pakistan go to war, the world will lose. Big time. By putting conventional military pressure on Pakistan, is India calling what it perceives to be Pakistan’s bluff under the belief that the United Sates will force nuclear restraint on Pakistan?

The early evidence after the Mumbai terrorist attack pointed to the absence of the Pakistan government’s involvement in the attack. Indeed, the government of Pakistan seemed to bend over backwards to accommodate and understand Indian anger at the tragedy. But, in the weeks since then, as domestic political pressure mounted on the Indian government to do more, talk has turned to the use of surgical strikes or other means to teach Pakistan a lesson. It was in India’s own interest to strengthen the ability of the fledgling civilian government of Pakistan to move against the militancy within the country. But it seems to have opted for threats to attack Pakistan, threats that, if followed up by actions, may well derail the process of civilianization and democratization in that country. India must recognize the constraints under which Pakistan operates. It cannot fight on two fronts. And it lacks the geographic depth to take the risk of leaving its eastern borders undefended at a time when India has been practicing its emerging Cold Start strategy in the border opposite Kasur. Under this strategy, up to four Integrated Battle Groups could move rapidly across the border and occupy a strategic chunk of Pakistani territory up to the outskirts of Lahore in a “limited war”.

For Pakistan, there is no concept of “limited war”. Any war with India is seen as a total war, for survival. It risks losing everything the moment India crosses its border, and will likely react by attacking India in force at a point of its own choosing under its own Offensive-Defensive strategy. (That is probably why it is moving some of its Strike Force infantry divisions back from the Afghan border to the Indian one.) As the battles escalate, Indian’s numerical and weapon superiority will become critical. If no external intervention takes place quickly, Pakistan will then be left with the “poison pill” defence of its nuclear weapons.

The consequences of such action are unimaginable for both countries and the world…

The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) conducted an analysis of the consequences of nuclear war in South Asia a year before the last stand-off in 2002. Under two scenarios, one (with a Princeton University team) studied the results of five air bursts over each country’s major cities and the other (done by the NRDC alone) with 24 ground explosions. The results were horrifying to say the least: 2.8 million dead, 1.5 million seriously injured, and 3.4 million slightly injured in the first case. Under the second scenario involving an Indian nuclear attack on eight major Pakistani cities and Pakistan’s attack on seven major Indian cities:

NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculates that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.

Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimates that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

Studies by Richard Turco, Alan Robock, and Brian Toon in 2006 and 2008 on the climate change impact of a regional nuclear war between these two South Asian rivals, were based on the use of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices of 15 kiloton each. The ensuing nuclear explosions would set 15 major cities in the subcontinent on fire and hurl five million tonnes of soot 80 kilometers into the air. This would deplete ozone levels in the atmosphere up to 40 per cent in the mid-latitudes that “could have huge effects on human health and on terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems.” More important, the smoke and sot would cool the northern hemisphere by several degrees, disrupting the climate (shortening growing seasons, etc.) and creating massive agricultural failure for several years. The whole world would suffer the consequences.

An Indo-Pakistan war will not cure the cancer of religious militancy that afflicts both countries today. Rather, India and Pakistan risk jeopardizing not only their own economic futures but also that of the world by talking themselves into a conflict. The world cannot afford to let that happen. The Indian and Pakistani governments can step back from the brink by withdrawing their forces from their common border and going back to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. The United States and other friends of both countries can act as honest brokers by publicly urging both to do just that before this simmering feud starts to boil over.

This piece appeared in The Huffington Post, 26 December 2008

Maximum Terror in Mumbai: Confusion Reigns

24 hours after they began, the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai have produced scores of deaths and wounded and, potentially could end with even more deaths of innocent hostages. What is scarier though is the possibility that this incident may spell danger for India-Pakistan relations at a time when a much-needed thaw seems to be emerging. Confusion reigns in Mumbai, as the authorities try to understand the nature and the reason for these attacks.

Earlier unconfirmed reports on CNN that identified the MV Alpha as a Karachi-registered ship that allegedly carried the attackers proved to be incorrect. The Indian navy boarded the MV Alpha and confirmed that it was, in fact, Vietnamese-registered and had no connection with the attacks. The possibility remains that the ubiquitous “foreign hand” will be blamed for the terrorist actions. Unless there is strong evidence linking Pakistan to the attacks, India would be well advised not to fall back on that option.

Similar to the earlier attacks in New Delhi, chances are that this is a homegrown outfit. It may well be operating under a false flag of the “Deccan Mujahideen”, a hitherto unknown group. But what adds to the confusion this time is that there was no statement from the attackers against the Indian political and social system and no demands were made. Rather, there was a focus on selecting British and American hostages. This may well point to the participation of an Islamist group with ties to militants operating in Kashmir or against the state inside Pakistan. Why?

Just one day before the attack, at a meeting in Islamabad of the Home Secretaries of India and Pakistan, an agreement was reached on a wide range of measures aimed at combating terrorism. According to Dawn of 25 November 2008:

“The two sides agreed for the first time to stop blaming each other for any untoward incident without evidence. Under the joint anti-terrorism mechanism, a two-member committee has been formed, comprising additional foreign secretaries of the two sides. The committee will exchange information about terrorists. The agreement on an anti-terrorism mechanism is being considered a big step for improvement of relations.

The resolve to enhance cooperation between their civilian investigation and security agencies — Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — is another significant achievement made during the talks.”

The Islamist militants fear that the increasing cooperation between India and Pakistan against terrorism and President Asif Ali Zardari’s effusive words on warmer relations with India will leave them without a recruiting base in Pakistan. They would rather derail the nascent peace process between Pakistan and India, using, among other things, the rising unhappiness among Muslim youth in India about their lack of economic and social development.

To its credit, the Indian government set up a high-level committee two years ago to investigate the plight of the Muslims of India, who despite being close to 150 million strong have a disproportionately tiny share of India’s burgeoning wealth. The Sachar Commission report of November 2006 confirmed what Indian Muslims had long known: they were well below national averages for education, skills development, employment, and economic opportunities. Some 38 per cent of Muslims in urban areas and 27 per cent in rural areas lived below the poverty line. But today, nearly two years after the release of that report, there is still talk about “targeted intervention” and many of the actions being discussed are still in the future tense. Even when these plans are implemented, at the notoriously slow pace of Indian bureaucracy, it will take years to make up for the ill-effects of previous discrimination. Meanwhile the “youth bulge” in the Indian Muslim population will become increasingly susceptible to the lure of the militants.

One ray of hope came recently at the recent annual conclave of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind of India, where leading religious scholars spoke against terrorism. As one Mullah stated: “There is a world of a difference between terrorism and Jihad”. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, all countries with huge Muslim populations, and all susceptible to Islamist militancy, would do well to publicize that stance in their battle against terrorism at home and abroad. Whether the terrorism is home grown or imported, the world does not need a repeat of the Mumbai mayhem.

This piece is available on Huffington Post at

Focusing the Spy Glass on Pakistan’s ISI

Only in Pakistan does the appointment of a new spy chief elicit more commentary than, say, a Prime Minister under today’s political system, where the presidency holds the power strings. The appointment of Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha as the new head of the Inter Services Intelligence earlier this week has raised expectations about a change in the direction of the ISI and Pakistan in the war against terror and militancy in the borderlands with Afghanistan and inside Pakistan proper. While the changes in leadership of the army in general and at ISI by the new army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani hold much promise, military actions alone do not guarantee a change in direction of the fractured economy and polity of Pakistan. Without a clear sense of understanding and control by the civilian government of all aspects of governance, Pakistan risks muddling through a crisis that may worsen in the days ahead. On the Afghan border, the risk of confrontation with the United States remains. Inside Pakistan, the militants are on the prowl and challenging the writ of the state.

What does the appointment of General Pasha portend?

First, this is the formal assertion of power of the new army chief, who will complete his first tumultuous year in office this November, a year marked by the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the holding of relatively free and fair elections, largely because the army provided security and refused to be drawn into the political process, and the formation of a short-lived coalition between the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and its erstwhile arch rival the Pakistan Muslim League of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Finally the past year saw the abrupt departure of President Pervez Musharraf, who once he had shed his uniform, lost his grip on power. He was succeeded by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Ms. Bhutto, who has taken firm ownership of her party. Throughout all this, General Kayani maintained a quiet but firm posture, stating repeatedly but not too often to provoke disbelief that he wished the army to return to its professional roots and leave governance of the country to the elected civilians. In a country that has seen too many army chiefs change their minds about this relationship with the civilians, many still believe that he may either change his stance or be forced to do so by deteriorating circumstances in the country.

By removing Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, a former close associate of General Musharraf from the ISI, Kayani has put in place his own close associate, someone who has been at the heart of decision making at army headquarters as Director General Military Operations. This is the office that prepares all military plans and coordinates thinking on strategies. Pasha, a bright, confident officer with twinkly eyes and an analytical mind, has had deep experience at this job and has been involved in crafting policy in the fight against militants inside Pakistan as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. FATA is home to the Afghan Taliban, the home-grown Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP), and the Punjabi Sunni militant groups that were once favored by the ISI in the Kashmiri operations against India but now have broken out of control and tied up with Al Qaeda and TTP elements in the frontier region.

Pasha will be appointing three new deputies: major generals responsible for Evaluation, Operations, and Internal wings of the ISI. The previous incumbent in charge of evaluation, Major General Muhammad Mustafa has been promoted to Lt. General and made the Chief of General Staff at army headquarters. He had been a Kayani associate when Kayani was heading the ISI. The head of operations ( handling relations with Mujahidden groups in Kashmir and other similar groups), Major General Asif Akhtar, and the head of the internal wing dealing with counter terrorism and political issues inside Pakistan, Major General Nusrat Naeem, are reported to have been superseded for promotion by junior officers and moved to other jobs in the army itself. With his own appointees in these key positions, Pasha will have an opportunity to exercise control over the ISI from the get go. But the key will be his ability to control operations in the field, especially ISI contractors and field operatives who deal with the Afghan Taliban and whose performance will the basis of either close cooperation with or confrontation with the United States.

The issue that will continue to bedevil decision making at the ISI and in the civilian government in Islamabad is whether Pakistan will finally take a firm position against the Afghan Taliban, who, unlike the TTP, have till now not been seen as taking a hostile position against the army or the government of Pakistan. They rely on tribal affiliations to enter and exit from FATA surreptitiously; avoiding any battles with Pakistani army of Frontier Corps (FC) elements. Will Pakistan now take affirm position on dealing with them, telling them in effect; “You can come into FATA but cannot leave then to fight in Afghanistan”.  If they refuse, Pakistan’s army risks opening yet another front in the counterinsurgency in its frontier region. IS it capable of doing that?

Pasha understands very well the shortcomings of the army, the FC, the local civil administration in FATA, and provincial and central governments in the war against the militants. In a long interview with me this summer, he explained the weaknesses of the system in place now and what the army is trying to do to shore up its end of the fight. But he described the need for a three-pronged strategy involving “development, political, and military” and analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of each part of this troika. His frustration with the lack of will of previous governments at the center and the provinces was palpable, as was his criticism of military actions that were not coordinated with and supported by development efforts. The absence of promised development assistance from the United States figured in his narrative as did the inefficiency of civilian bureaucracies that failed, in his words, to assess the situation with on-site visits in the FATA and application of funds to meet the urgent and basic needs of the people. Pasha’s own previous experience as head of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone informs his sensibilities about dealing with conflict and post-conflict situations. Like other generals and officers in the field in FATA and Swat, Malakand, and Dir inside the North West Frontier Province itself, he echoed the view that the army needs to avoid civilian casualties “since we are fighting inside Pakistan, against our own people”. The US needs to understand this reality too.

The Pakistan army is not equipped for the counterinsurgency. Its training is for conventional war. So is its equipment. It lacks adequate night vision goggles and attack helicopters and heli-lift capabilities, for example. The United States has promised to replace its outmoded ogles with newer more effective models and has offered some Cobra helicopters but not all of them have been delivered. Some are still being refurbished. The militants attack isolated posts in small numbers. The army cannot reach those spots in a hurry with enough troops to catch and destroy them when they are visible. The US needs to find ways of providing Sikorsky Blackhawks or even third party sales of MI-8 or MI-16 troop-lifting helicopters to meet Pakistan’s needs. It is replacing its own Blackhawk fleet with newer models. Even refurbished Blackhawks are better than none for Pakistan.

While Pasha will no longer be involved in the operational planning and preparedness of the army, he will be at the frontline of the dealings with the militants groups in the field. How he handles the relationship with the Afghan Taliban will be key to his success. He foresees the need for a tripartite relationship between the Political Agents, who represent the government in FATA, some Maliks, and the Mullahs or moderate elements of the Taliban. By bringing in the moderates he sees the chance to isolate the radicals. At the same time be recognizes that the age-old system of PAs and Maliks running the affairs of FATA cannot be resurrected. Things have changed on the ground and the people of the region are much more politically aware and active. Pasha also does not see a potential convergence between the Afghan and the local Taliban. The civilian head of the Ministry of Interior, Rehman Malik, has been reported to as seeing a lack of difference between those two groups. In July, Malik was at the center of a controversial move to bring the entire ISI under the control of his ministry. How will this relationship now develop between Pasha and Malik? Pasha has been closely involved in Kayani’s frequent exchanges with the US commanders in the region and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. He was the one that Kayani took with him to the meeting on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea.

Now Pasha will report to both Kayani and the Prime Minister. And he will be a critical interlocutor in dealings with the United States. He brings to the job not only long experience in the military but also his UN experience and a sharp political sensibility, bolstered by the confidence of his army chief. Will he be able to win the confidence of the Prime Minister and President of Pakistan and that of the principal ally, the United States by changing the direction of the ISI? That is the question that only his actions can answer.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within. He can be reached at