South Asian blowback
By Stephen Blank
The crisis generated by Pakistani-supported and Kashmir-based terrorists continues. Although both sides' rhetoric has cooled, India's and Pakistan's armies remain mobilized. Pakistan has had to concede that terrorist infiltration into Kashmir continues and that elements of al-Qaeda have also successfully escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Meanwhile, under pressure to reverse years of support for Islamic terrorists amid key components of Pakistani security policy, President General Pervez Musharraf is unilaterally assuming ever greater dictatorial powers. These developments offer significant and immediate strategic and political implications that must be faced.
Pakistan's policy of support for terrorism in Kashmir and India, and for the Taliban in Afghanistan, destabilized Central Asia and generated the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent attacks on India and Kashmir. Pakistan's policy has also unintentionally endangered its own stability. The foreign pressure to adopt a new policy and the resistance from key domestic constituencies who embraced and implemented the previous policy have forced Musharraf to assume ever more power even though he has failed to subdue the pro-terrorist elements in his armed forces and is rapidly forfeiting popular support. Not only is there danger of a war, with India, that Pakistan cannot win, but the al-Qaeda remnants and the Kashmiri terrorists have also opened what evidently is a permanent second front in Pakistan. That second front continually menaces the American war on terrorism and threatens to destabilize Pakistan.
They could only do this with support from military, police and intelligence elements in Pakistan, thereby illustrating that regimes who actively employ terrorism as an instrument of national policy run the risk of becoming hostage to the intentions, objectives and capabilities of the terrorists. This is a critical lesson for other governments in and around the Caspian littoral - as well as around the world - who have sponsored terrorism and separatist movements.
Specifically this applies to Russia. We must remember that many of the Chechens' most notorious leaders cut their teeth as GRU and FSB operatives in the Abkhazians' 1992 war against Georgia. The blowback that has since occurred in Chechnya shows that the regime that creates the terrorist unit should not be surprised to then find out that the terrorists have goals of their own. The current Georgian crisis and the Russian threats of a wider war involving Georgia show that few in Moscow have learned very much from the past.
At the same time, terrorists have exploited the weakness of Pakistan's government to create a second front that will not easily be dislodged. Musharraf's government cannot disband the Islamic militants, and it fears allowing American operations against them. Thus they will probably long possess the means, will and capacity to destabilize Kashmir, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over time, therefore, they will not only prevent Afghanistan's recovery but also surely destabilize Pakistan sufficiently to create chaos and something approaching ungovernability. That outcome will obstruct the overall pacification and recovery of Central Asia, and keep the Indo-Pakistani crisis at a perpetually high degree of tension. And given the risks to Pakistan's nuclear capability, it will simultaneously experience intense external pressure to put its house in order even as it is under attack from within.
The ease and cheapness with which this second front may be established also entails tying down significant numbers of US troops for a long time in the kind of war which the United States has historically found to be an uncomfortable experience that is alien to its military services' institutional culture. We can easily expect that under conditions of protracted warfare these terrorist elements might restore their ties to Central Asian insurgents, perhaps with support from Pakistani authorities, and then relaunch their insurgencies in Central Asia. It is also quite possible that a long-term American occupation of Central Asian bases under conditions of protracted combat against the terrorists could generate hostility against the US presence among the local populations. In that case, indigenous anti-regime elements could exploit that sentiment to recruit new members, attack those troops and bases and regain support and strategic coordination from external terrorists. Then America's military presence in Central Asia, the only effective force available to counter terrorism, would come under enormous pressure in the field and in the United States.
The foregoing observations highlight some vital strategic issues. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the strategic prizes in this campaign and their stability is extremely fragile and under constant risk. Despite American victories, the terrorists have survived and gained a relatively immune privileged sanctuary in Pakistan. Exploiting support from their supporters in Pakistan's military and intelligence institutions, they have put the stability and the security of Pakistan at risk, further destabilized Kashmir, and thereby opened up a relatively immune second front in the war on terrorism. Thus they retain the capability to gain at least occasional tactical initiatives while US forces are barred from effectively conducting operations in Pakistan and strategic-political considerations compel India to rely exclusively on coercive diplomacy against Islamabad. The ensuing strategic situation puts Pakistan and Afghanistan at continued, constant and high degrees of risk, and also virtually ensures that the war on terrorism will be a protracted multi-front war.
Undoubtedly the terrorists and their supporters count on prolonging the war to attack both the US military presence in South and Central Asia and the cohesion of the anti-terrorist alliance, particularly at its weakest points, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today it appears that the victories over al-Qaeda and the Taliban, though impressive, are hardly decisive. They are important tactical victories but their conversion into lasting strategic settlements that decisively terminate this war is far from certain. Though Afghanistan's strategic situation has improved, Pakistan's has deteriorated sharply. As that instability feeds into Afghanistan's instability and potentially back into Central Asia, our assessment for the future of South Asia and Central Asia must remain guarded because their stability also remains precarious.
Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks
(The views expressed do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government)
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