Pakistan’s Militants Trouble New Delhi and Islamabad

Daniel Markey, CFR’s expert on South Asia policy, says accusations of complicity between Pakistan and the Mumbai terrorists will further complicate U.S. efforts to balance ties with South Asia’s two giant rivals.

December 02, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism



India’s has accused "elements inside Pakistan" of orchestrating the late November terrorist attacks on high-profile targets in Mumbai. While such accusations often follow attacks inside India, the scale of these attacks put them in a new category. Daniel Markey, a CFR Senior Fellow, was until last year a South Asia expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. He says India’s accusations may be based on hard evidence, but cautions that Pakistan’s government may be unable to control the "Frankenstein’s monster" it created when it helped train terrorists to infiltrate and fight against Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region. "These groups have developed an independent capacity to raise resources and an independent capacity to plan and prosecute operations in Afghanistan, in India, and, unfortunately for Pakistanis, increasingly within Pakistan."

It appears that any time there’s an incident like this in India, particularly an incident involving Muslims in India, the government immediately points its finger to Pakistan and often to the area administered by India in Kashmir. How much of this is based on actual evidence and how much just seems to be a reaction that India has to any of these type of incidents?

I think any reporting that you get out of India on these kinds of events that comes out within the first few hours is almost certainly not related to some sort of actual data or evidence. It’s only through the evidence that they get maybe out of interrogations--this one individual that they actually were able to arrest and presumably interrogate at great length already--that’s when you start to realize that they might actually have a sense as to what’s really going on. Even then, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad are groups that are always named every single time something goes wrong and subsequently we know that they are not always the ones that were directly responsible for the attacks even if they may have some indirect linkages to the groups that actually perpetrated them. So from my perspective, it’s always useful to wait at least twenty-four hours and see if some more reliable evidence actually comes out. In this instance, because we’re starting to hear about the idea that they came via Karachi, that apparently this one individual they arrested says that he was somehow trained in a Lashkar-e-Taiba  camp or was associated with them, it starts to make more sense. But even then, the complexity of these groups, they’re not as distinguishable as they once were, or as distinct as they once were. There are multiple and overlapping relationships in terms of the facilities they use and the training and so on.

These two groups have been pegged for years as groups which have at least received support and some training from inside Pakistan to disrupt Indian rule in Kashmir. There are some analysts today that feel the Pakistani government, having developed its own pretty serious terrorist challenge internally, has really lost control of these two groups. Is that fair to say?

"In [America’s] effort to make clear how devastating we see this attack as having been and how counter to our goals in India, we might start to raise hackles in Pakistan unintentionally and give the Indians reason to believe that we’re more on their side than on the Pakistanis’."

I think it’s absolutely fair to say that this looks more like a Frankenstein’s monster kind of situation in Pakistan than it looks like a directly controlled and manipulated and directed militancy that’s driven by the top leadership in Islamabad. So that means exactly what you say, which is that historically these groups Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and others were very clearly in the pay of the Pakistani state intelligence and military. In time, however, what they’ve done is these groups have developed an independent capacity to raise resources and an independent capacity to plan and prosecute operations in Afghanistan, in India, and, unfortunately for Pakistanis, increasingly within Pakistan. They’ve turned against the hands that once fed them. So that’s the nature of the problem now. It is actually still complicated by the fact that there appears to be evidence of continued complicity or at least passive relations between the Pakistani state and some of these groups.

For years the Israelis tried to hold Yasser Arafat responsible for the actions of various groups that were either within Fatah and described by the Palestinian Authority government  as out of control militants or were actually outside it. The Israelis held them responsible one way or another. Is that essentially the Indian position with the Pakistani government here?

I think it had been the Indian position and was certainly the Indian position in 2001-2002, where the Pakistani government and President Pervez Musharraf after the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 came out and took some actions, banned some of these organizations, and the Indians still came out and said, "Look, you’ve got to get your house in order. We blame you; it’s your territory." And there are certainly Indians who still believe that. But I think what has changed is that Indians are starting to see evidence that supports the Pakistani claim that their leadership, including their military leadership, is directly threatened by some of these groups. So I think the Indians, at least Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, are somewhat more reluctant to go down that path of just blaming Pakistan because what they see in the Pakistani state is a state of weakness. Now maybe the Israelis saw the same thing in Arafat, and they honestly didn’t care. They gave up on him and decided that he could not be, as they say, a partner for peace. And at some point maybe the Indians will come to that conclusion. I’m hopeful that they haven’t reached that conclusion yet, that instead what they see in the Pakistani government is a weak but increasingly more well-meaning potential partner.

There’s another analysis out there that it’s not just these groups which are really out of control of the civilian government in Pakistan, but the ISI, the Intelligence Services, and the military itself really don’t appear to be under the complete control of the civilian government. Is that a fair statement?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

It’s absolutely fair, and I don’t think there are too many people who would honestly suggest that the Pakistani civilians completely control their military at all.  The military sets it own budget, it sets it operational plans, and although this military head of the army is more amenable to sharing his plans and, in fact to some degree, letting the civilians set a strategic framework for his operations, he’s still very much in control of his actual operations and that holds for the ISI as well. So what you have in Pakistan is, in relative terms, a strong and dominant national institution in the army and a relatively weaker civilian political leadership that is only in the very early stages of trying to balance out the influence and sort of come to any kind of command relationship over the military. I think they’re a ways off from that.

This crisis in Mumbai occurred as India is building up to national elections. There’s a lot of talk about the Congress Party being in some serious trouble now. They’re under a lot of pressure and criticism for their handling of the attacks. Should we be wary of public statements from the Indian government right now on this?

You’re right, the Congress Party is feeling very much under pressure and I think recognizes that the upcoming national elections weren’t looking particularly good for them because of the economic downturn, and this is one more reason why they are probably anticipating a significant loss of support at the polls relative to the last elections. For that reason they’re really going to have to--at some level they have to find a face-saving way out of this. The resignation of the home minister is one piece of it. Pressuring the Pakistanis to yield on something will have to be another piece of it, I think. And demonstrating as a government that they are taking firm steps to improve India’s internal security will have to be a third piece. All these things are very hard, and I think the opposition BJP, which hasn’t been a particularly effective party in opposition, is already looking to exploit this politically.

Up until now, the charges of not providing enough security, which have been leveled by the BJP after a series of attacks in India over the past several years, really haven’t stuck. They haven’t found an audience. But an event like this, hitting such symbolic targets of Indian wealth and rising power, economic power, is probably going to touch more people and make them more concerned about the state of their national security, possibly shifting some votes toward the BJP, although I have to imagine that the national economy will still be more of a campaign issue in the end.

Now you could look at this in a perspective that says that if there was, in fact, some group that actually crossed the border with Pakistan, India might feel somewhat relieved. It has an enormous Muslim minority and unrest among that group would be maybe an even greater challenge. Is that right?

There is a problem if these kinds of attacks, like some of the ones over recent months apparently have been perpetrated by this group, the Indian Mujahadeen, which has at least got some significant indigenous connections, not necessarily from Pakistan or Bangladesh or anywhere else but Indian.  And the problem with these indigenous strikes is that they raise questions about India’s capacity to actually live and make workable a multi-ethnic, as they say, secular Indian state, to maintain that as a national identity and to make it workable. So if the attack comes from the outside it doesn’t necessarily damage that national identity side of things, but it does threaten a cross- border level of violence with their neighbor in Pakistan that is probably almost as dangerous. So different kinds of problems, and yes, in some ways it is nice for the Indian government to be able to point fingers outside the country in terms of a political sense, in a domestic politics sense, but I would say no matter how the Mumbai attack ends up being in terms of who is responsible and where the strings run, they do have an increasing problem with domestic violence or internal violence perpetrated by Indian Muslims and unfortunately it appears Hindu nationalists as well.

"These groups have developed an independent capacity … to plan and prosecute operations in Afghanistan, in India, and, unfortunately for Pakistanis, increasingly within Pakistan."

What’s Washington’s role here? It strikes me that this is just an absolute hornet’s nest for policymakers.

It’s very difficult, certainly, for the incoming Obama team as they’re just getting their footing but also for the Bush administration to do much more than certainly counsel restraint on both sides, and that’s clearly happening. The only other piece--because the United States is a country that enjoys relatively good relationships with both governments--is that we can help, if there is a face-saving way to avoid any escalation here, we may be able to help find it and find it rapidly to avoid unnecessary escalation that’s driven by politicking on both sides. So that’s where a lot of talk--I’m sure the phone lines are burning up; I gather Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is in Delhi or on her way--that’s where the United States can play a role. But it’s important to recognize that the India-Pakistan conflict is one that we’ve seen an improvement in that relationship over the past several years primarily driven by those countries themselves, not by the United States. And there’s always been relatively little the United States could do--in the way of leverage that is more significant than what either state has in the way of interests with respect to the other. In other words, the United States can be helpful, and we can help to find solutions. If the two sides are willing and able to put them on the table, we can bring them closer together, but unfortunately we don’t have the capacity, I think, to impose a solution.

Our public statements are watched very closely on both sides and if I have one concern it’s that we might in our haste or in our effort to make clear how devastating we see this attack as having been and how counter to our goals in India, we might start to raise hackles in Pakistan unintentionally and give the Indians reason to believe that we’re more on their side than on the Pakistanis’, when in reality, this really needs to be framed as a fight against the militants or the terrorists, not an India vs. Pakistan issue.