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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:02 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:02 | SYDNEY

A short history of Pakistan's reckless adventurism



11 December 2008 09:29

Christopher Kremmer (pictured) is a former ABC and Fairfax South Asia correspondent. He is now a research scholar at the University of Western Sydney. This two-part post draws on an article first published in the SMH.

The recent attack on India's largest city of Mumbai was a ruthless bid to change the geopolitical game in South Asia. It was a provocation designed to inflame relations between India and Pakistan, and divert attention and resources from the struggle against terrorism elsewhere in the region.

All evidence points towards Pakistan as the launching pad for the attack. All the main suspects — including al Qaeda, the Taliban, Laskhar-e Taiba, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) or rogue elements associated with it, and even the government itself — are based there. Yet the government insists it remains strongly committed the fight against terrorism, and wants good relations with India.

Pakistan's carefully cultivated ambiguity makes it extremely difficult for anyone to be sure who exactly is responsible for Mumbai. In that context, knowing what the attack was designed to achieve may be a better basis of framing a response than knowing who did it.

Killing people and temporarily paralysing the cities in which they live is never the sole reason behind terrorist attacks. There are always political — and sometimes geopolitical — objectives. When the territory of one country is used to attack another, the motivation is usually geopolitical.

This year, Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari has expressed his desire for better relations with India. In recent weeks he has reshuffled the senior leadership of ISI. While welcome, this is not the first time an elected leader has attempted to end Pakistan's institutional hostility towards India. The track record of such attempts is dismal. Historically, the most powerful position in the country is not the president but the Chief of Army Staff, and in the face of army opposition, no civilian leader has ever succeeded in breaking the mould.

This is because Pakistan's rivalry with India is not based on political differences but on geopolitical interests expressed in a national security doctrine that deems Pakistan to be incomplete and impossible to defend so long as the Kashmir Valley remains under Indian control. It is also because India and Pakistan are based on competing, if not openly hostile ideologies; India is the product of secular, democratic thinking, Pakistan is a child of Islamist thinking.                 

It should surprise no-one that the use of Islamist extremists to secure foreign policy objectives is as old as Pakistan itself. In 1947 Pashtun tribemen from the newborn state of Pakistan crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir backed by the Pakistan military. Their action triggered the first Indo-Pakistan war.

In the 1980s, Pakistan, acting with the full US support — raised the jihadi brigades that successfully fought Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Later, these militants were redirected to fight the Indians in Kashmir. In the 1990s Islamabad armed and organised the Islamic student movement that became the Taliban militia, and used it to install a 'friendly' government in Kabul.

In early 1999, while Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was hosting a sumptuous banquet for peace with his Indian counterpart in Lahore, Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf was executing a bold plan to occupy a large swathe of Indian-controlled territory in the Kargil sector of Kashmir.

Less than a year earlier the two nations had tested nuclear weapons amid bellicose outpourings of strident nationalism. When India began military operations to re-take the seized territory around Kargil, Sharif flew to Washington in a vain effort to enlist American diplomacy to allow Pakistan to keep its gains, but was rebuffed. India eventually settled the matter by military force.

In each of the cases mentioned, Pakistan's actions were deliberately covert.

Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests should logically have brought a new sobriety to the country's relations with India. In fact, the opposite occurred. The Kargil operation of 1999 illustrated a belief that Pakistan's new weapons of mass destruction would allow it to continue its reckless military gambits with impunity. The whole adventure was conducted behind the smoke screen of a civilian government wanting better relations with its neighbour, while its troops dressed themselves as indigenous Kashmiri mujahideen rebels. The covert use of force to create a crisis was followed by diplomacy to lock in gains which the Pakistan Army was unable to hold. The squalid affair was an abysmal failure, and India emerged triumphant.

In its first 40 years of existence, Pakistan's proclivity for high-risk military adventures in the region was encouraged by its security relationship with the US. The 9/11 attacks should have brought an end to that cosy relationship. Unfortunately for America and the world, the Bush Administration revived it, declaring Pakistan as an ally in the 'War on Terror'.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has officially sworn off the use of non-state Islamist actors to prosecute its regional policy, but Pakistani hardliners tend to see this retreat as a purely tactical one. Just three months after the attacks on Washington and New York, Pakistan-backed Islamists of Lashkar-e Taiba stormed the Indian parliament, narrowly failing in their quest to murder the entire Indian Government. The attack led the two nations to the brink of war. Large scale bombings of Indian cities have continued ever since, intensifying in the past year, always accompanied by Pakistani denials. The old habits of impunity and ambiguity die hard.

Which brings us to Mumbai, the subject of my next post.

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