The army of Is­lamists you can’t con­trol

It seemed like a good idea for Pak­istan, writes Nisid Ha­jari

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @NisidHa­jari Nisid Ha­jari is a mem­ber of the Bloomberg View ed­i­to­rial board and the au­thor of “Mid­night’s Fu­ries: The Deadly Le­gacy of In­dia’s Par­ti­tion.”

At the out­set of World War II, far from the bat­tle­fields of Europe, Bri­tish colo­nial of­fi­cials in In­dia bought them­selves a ji­had. They se­cretly spread cash all along the tur­bu­lent Afghan fron­tier, en­cour­ag­ing mul­lahs in the Is­lamic tribal re­gion to whip up sen­ti­ment against Bri­tain’s enemies: first the god­less Sovi­ets and their then al­lies the Nazis, later the bru­tal Ja­panese and even­tu­ally In­dian lead­ers such as Ma­hatma Gandhi and Jawa­har­lal Nehru, who were re­fus­ing to back the war ef­fort. The strat­egy was low-cost and sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive. “In some ar­eas,” mar­veled Sir Ge­orge Cun­ning­ham, gover­nor of the North-West Fron­tier Prov­ince, “re­li­gious Tal­ibs [stu­dents] were en­cour­aged to go into the Army — a thing which . . . was un­known be­fore.”

To­day, Pak­istan — one of two na­tions born out of the for­mer Bri­tish In­dia — is pay­ing a high price for pur­su­ing what once seemed like an equally smart and eco­nom­i­cal strat­egy. Years of back­ing for Is­lamic mil­i­tants as tools of the state have spawned a hy­dra-headed mon­ster: Some groups have re­ceived of­fi­cial fa­vor to bleed In­dian forces in Kash­mir; oth­ers have turned against their masters, fight­ing the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment and cost­ing the lives of an es­ti­mated 50,000 sol­diers and civil­ians over the past decade. In­sur­gents have brazenly at­tacked army head­quar­ters and an air base thought to house nu­clear weapons, among other high-pro­file tar­gets. Top gen­er­als, ar­chi­tects of the proxy strat­egy, now ad­mit that the mil­i­tants pose a greater threat to Pak­istan’s se­cu­rity than even arch-ri­val In­dia.

Pak­istan should be an ob­ject les­son for coun­tries like Saudi Ara­bia and Iran, which are busily arm­ing their own surro--

gates in Sunni-Shi­ite proxy wars from Syria to Iraq to Ye­men. Th­ese shadow armies may seem like an ef­fi­cient way to un­der­mine ri­vals with­out com­mit­ting to an of­fi­cial course of war. They’re far eas­ier to raise, though, than they are to rein in.

Pak­istan be­gan to learn this les­son barely two months af­ter its found­ing as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion in Au­gust 1947. That fall, a ca­bal of ad­ven­tur­ist Pak­istani of­fi­cials set in mo­tion a plan that in­volved re­cruit­ing Pash­tun tribes­men from the fron­tier re­gion to in­vade Kash­mir, an in­de­pen­dent king­dom whose Hindu ma­hara­jah was threat­en­ing to join ri­val In­dia — and to take his mostly Mus­lim sub­jects with him. To this day, many In­di­ans be­lieve that Pak­istan’s founder, Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah, mas­ter­minded the op­er­a­tion. In fact, Jin­nah ap­pears to have been un­aware of what his sub­or­di­nates were plan­ning and ini­tially tried to dis­tance him­self from the plot in or­der to pre­serve his de­ni­a­bil­ity: “Don’t tell me any­thing about it!” he in­ter­jected when an aide tried to brief him about 10 days be­fore the in­va­sion. “My con­science must be clear.”

Af­ter In­dian troops raced to Kash­mir to re­pel the tribes­men, Jin­nah hoped to counter openly, us­ing regular Pak­istani units. But Bri­tish gen­er­als — who con­tin­ued to com­mand the In­dian and Pak­istani mil­i­taries for the first cou­ple of years af­ter in­de­pen­dence — feared a wider war and had strict in­struc­tions not to fight each other. On Oct. 28, they pres­sured Jin­nah to re­tract his or­ders.

A sum­mit meet­ing was hastily ar­ranged for the next day in La­hore. Jin­nah wanted an im­me­di­ate plebiscite that would al­low Kash­mir’s cit­i­zens, who were over­whelm­ingly Mus­lim, to de­cide which coun­try they pre­ferred to join. Nehru, In­dia’s first prime min­is­ter, had al­ready promised to ac­cept the re­sults of any cred­i­ble vote. The gap be­tween the two sides should have been bridge­able.

At a cabi­net meet­ing in Delhi that evening, how­ever, Nehru’s col­leagues rounded on him an­grily. “For the prime min­is­ter to go crawl­ing to Mr. Jin­nah when we were the stronger side and in the right would never be for­given by the peo­ple of In­dia,” de­clared “Sar­dar” Val­lab­hb­hai Pa­tel, In­dia’s hard-line home min­is­ter. Cowed by the adamant op­po­si­tion, Nehru took to his bed ill that night “look­ing very seedy and sorry for him­self,” as Lord Louis Mount­bat­ten, gover­nor gen­eral of In­dia, recorded. The sum­mit was hastily called off.

Cun­ning­ham, who had agreed to serve as gover­nor of the North-West Fron­tier Prov­ince again af­ter in­de­pen­dence, saw Jin­nah the next morn­ing. The Pak­istani leader sus­pected that Nehru’s can­cel­la­tion “was just a plot to de­lay things while more In­dian troops were flown into Kash­mir,” Cun­ning­ham recorded in his di­ary. “He said he felt his hands were now free, legally as well as morally, to take any line he liked about Kash­mir.” If In­dia was not go­ing to play straight, why should Pak­istan?

The at­trac­tions of a proxy war now be­came ev­i­dent. If the tribes­men could tie down In­dian forces for two to three months, Pak­istan would gain lever­age in ne­go­ti­a­tions at lit­tle diplo­matic or fi­nan­cial cost. Hud­dling around the bed­side of Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Li­aquat Ali Khan, who was re­cov­er­ing from a heart attack, Jin­nah and his top aides de­cided to re­in­force the in­sur­gents, send­ing up drafts to re­lieve tired fighters and main­tain­ing a con­tin­gent of at least 5,000 tribes­men in the Kash­mir Val­ley. The plan was for Pak­istani pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials to sup­ply arms and ammunition. Cun­ning­ham would pro­vide 100,000 rounds from vil­lage stock­piles.

The tribes­men would be paid in cash when they came back from the front. Jin­nah agreed to en­list a few non-Bri­tish army of­fi­cers in the ef­fort, led by Col. Ak­bar Khan, the direc­tor of weapons and stores and one of the orig­i­nal con­spira- tors. They would be put on leave to main­tain the fic­tion that the mil­i­tants were op­er­at­ing in­de­pen­dently.

Still, it was im­pos­si­ble to keep such an op­er­a­tion se­cret. “What­ever Jin­nah and oth­ers may say the fullest as­sis­tance is in fact be­ing given to the tribes­men,” Bri­tish diplo­mat Hugh Stephen­son re­ported to his su­pe­ri­ors a few weeks later. An­other Bri­tish diplo­mat vis­ited Ab­bot­tabad, a town near the Kash­mir bor­der, and found that “the tribes­men were con­spic­u­ous with their ri­fles over their shoul­ders, girt with ban­doliers and look­ing thor­oughly pi­rat­i­cal.”

To keep them fo­cused on fight­ing In­dia in­stead of rob­bing fel­low Pak­ista­nis, of­fi­cials housed the mil­i­tants on a for­mer stud farm, three miles out­side of town. From there a steady stream of trucks de­parted for the bor­der at night to avoid In­dian re­con­nais­sance planes. Mem­bers of the rul­ing Mus­lim League party openly cam­paigned for vol­un­teers to de­fend Kash­mir’s Mus­lims from their tyrant king and his In­dian al­lies.

Top Pak­istan army of­fi­cials knew gen­er­ally of the scope of op­er­a­tions. The Bri­tish com­man­der in chief, Gen. Sir Frank Messervy, was walk­ing over to Li­aquat’s bun­ga­low one night af­ter the in­sur­gency had got­ten un­der­way. He “saw a bearded fig­ure rush out of the room where Li­aquat was and dis­ap­pear round the cor­ner of the house. I said to Li­aquat, ‘ That was Ak­bar, wasn’t it?’ He hes­i­tated and said, ‘ Yes.’ ” The prime min­is­ter ad­mit­ted that sev­eral Pak­istani of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing Col. Khan, had been sent to Kash­mir to im­pose some or­der on the tribal of­fen­sive. “I agreed to this,” Messervy later ad­mit­ted, “and in fact I ex­pect that the num­ber of of­fi­cers sec­onded to the tribal forces was in­creased.”

Shadow armies may seem like an ef­fi­cient way to un­der­mine ri­vals with­out com­mit­ting to an of­fi­cial course of war. They’re far eas­ier to raise, though, than they are to rein in.

With Jin­nah’s em­brace of the tribes­men, any hope of quickly re­solv­ing the cri­sis van­ished. The de­ci­sion prompted wild re­ports in Delhi, in­clud­ing that the in­vaders were be­ing “pro­vided with mo­tor trans­port, au­to­matic weapons, ar­tillery and even flamethrow­ers.” It con­firmed the be­lief — an ar­ti­cle of faith among many In­di­ans to­day — that Pak­istan’s word could not be trusted and that any op­po­si­tion to In­dian rule in Kash­mir had to be alien and il­le­git­i­mate.

Nehru re­fused to con­tem­plate any plebiscite un­til all of Pak­istan’s “raiders” had been driven from the king­dom. He poured In­dian troops into the theater and threat­ened to with­hold Pak­istan’s share of the Bri­tish Raj’s re­serves, which was worth nearly $2 bil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars.

In­deed, the costs of the op­er­a­tion mounted more quickly than Jin­nah had an­tic­i­pated. Af­ter pro­mot­ing the cam­paign as a holy war, Pak­istan could hardly back down. Yet its fledg­ling gov­ern­ment was es­sen­tially run­ning on fumes; by De­cem­ber 1947, only about $65 mil­lion (in to­day’s dol­lars) were left in its ac­counts. The ji­had, Cun­ning­ham told a Bri­tish diplo­mat, had “hope­lessly un­der­mined all dis­ci­pline and mu­tual con­fi­dence in the [civil] ser­vices,” as ju­nior of­fi­cials were en­cour­aged to abuse their author­ity, siphon off equip­ment, mis­lead their su­pe­ri­ors — any­thing that could be jus­ti­fied as sup­port for the shadow war.

The threat of es­ca­la­tion loomed, too. Af­ter the tribes­men over­ran an iso­lated gar­ri­son of In­dian troops on Dec. 23, a fu­ri­ous Nehru or­dered In­dian gen­er­als to pre­pare to cross the bor­der. He wanted to wipe out the in­sur­gents’ “bases and nerve cen­ters” in Pak­istani ter­ri­tory— a danger­ous idea that still rears its head af­ter Pak­istan-linked out­rages, such as the 2008 Mumbai ter­ror at­tacks. Only af­ter the United Na­tions agreed to take up the Kash­mir case did Nehru back off from his threat.

That first Kash­mir war ended with the state ef­fec­tively par­ti­tioned and the strate­gi­cally valu­able Kash­mir Val­ley in the hands of In­dia. Yet over the en­su­ing decades, Pak­istan re­turned to its tac­tics again and again. The de­ploy­ment of an­tiIn­dia ji­hadists would lead to two more ma­jor con­flicts in Kash­mir — in 1965 and 1999 — the last of which nearly went nu­clear. In the 1990s, Pak­istan threw its sup­port be­hind the Tal­iban takeover of Afghanistan as well, hop­ing to block In­dian in­flu­ence in Kabul.

To­day, with troops bat­tling the Pak­istani Tal­iban in the wilds of North Waziris­tan, army lead­ers are un­der­stand­ably re­luc­tant to add to their chal­lenges by tak­ing on the Afghan Tal­iban and Kash­mir-fo­cused mil­i­tants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Ig­nor­ing such groups car­ries its own costs, how­ever. Of­fi­cial tol­er­ance of Lashkar — whose op­er­a­tional com­man­der, ac­cused of mas­ter­mind­ing the Mumbai at­tacks, was re­cently set free on bail— con­tin­ues to poi­son re­la­tions with In­dia. Cross-bor­der at­tacks in the In­dian half of Kash­mir last year derailed ten­ta­tive talks be­tween the two sides; they’ve yet to be fully re­vived.

Mean­while, the Afghan Tal­iban has un­der­mined a bud­ding rap­proche­ment be­tween Islamabad and the new Afghan gov­ern­ment by re­fus­ing to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, in­stead launch­ing a vi­cious of­fen­sive from its havens in­side Pak­istan. The on­go­ing in­sta­bil­ity threat­ens $46 bil­lion in in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ments re­cently pledged by China — a re­la­tion­ship that’s far more vi­tal to Pak­istan’s fu­ture than the fate of Kash­mir or even Afghanistan.

Mid­dle Eastern pow­ers are be­gin­ning to ex­pe­ri­ence some of the same blow­back from their own machi­na­tions. It’s now clear that the money Saudi Ara­bia and other Persian Gulf monar­chies poured into Sunni mil­i­tant groups in Syria in­ad­ver­tently helped pro­pel the rise of the Is­lamic State. To their con­ster­na­tion, that’s led to a bizarre sce­nario in which the United States finds it­self fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Iraq along­side Shi­ite mili­tias backed by Iran. Rather than top­pling Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad, Wash­ing­ton is bomb­ing his enemies.

Nor should Iran take much com­fort in its ap­par­ent suc­cesses. Its Hezbol­lah prox­ies may have the up­per hand in Syria, and its in­flu­ence over the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment may be un­matched. But Tehran’s gains have united Sunni Arab lead­ers, who have agreed to es­tab­lish a re­gional mil­i­tary force im­plic­itly di­rected against Iran. A nu­clear deal that leaves the Ira­nian en­rich­ment pro­gram in place could spur a re­gional arms race and drive Saudi Ara­bia to de­velop its own bomb, pos­si­bly with help from Pak­istan.

Mean­while, Ira­nian lead­ers ap­pear to be ramp­ing up their sup­port for Houthi rebels in Ye­men. If Pak­istan’s ex­pe­ri­ence is any­thing to go by, the last thing they should ex­pect is a clean victory.


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