October 20, 2007Foreign AffairsSecurity

Tit-for-tat with Musharraf’s Musharraf

It’s hard enough having to deal with one Pakistani military establishment. But India finds itself having to deal with (at least) two.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Two Musharrafs, at least

Two many Musharrafs

You can’t blame Amit Varma for writing that the tit-for-tat that characterises official relations between India and Pakistan is petty and immature”. But he is wrong. From roughing up accredited journalists, to expelling diplomats’ to nuclear tests, tits and tats have been exchanged for as long as anyone can remember. While it might offend the sensibilities of civilised people around the world, it is also true that tit-for-tat is not only the best performing strategy for such games’ (iterated prisoner’s dilemmas). It is also simple, nice”, forgiving, provocable and, most of all, clear. Indeed, it is reasonable to say that it is tit-for-tat that has kept the level of violence between India and Pakistan under control. (Strictly speaking, India is playing a nicer” version of tit-for-tat that gives Pakistan more chances.)

Over the years formal and informal arrangements have developed between the security establishments of the two countries to conduct explicit or tacit negotiations. While they have generally prevented a descent into widespread chaos, they did not restrain Pakistan from launching a proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir in 1989. And it not prevent the Kargil war ten years on. Why did tit-for-tat fail to prevent these major escalations of conflict? Well, nuclear weapons, for one, had an important role to play. Pakistan’s newfound (but undeclared) nuclear status allowed it to conduct a massive infiltration in Kashmir in the early 1990s, without the fear of inviting an all out war. Strategic deterrence after the 1998 nuclear tests allowed Pakistan room for the Kargil incursion.

But these conflicts took place at a time of political ambiguity, essentially, when India didn’t quite know who it was playing tit-for-tat with. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister in the 1990s, but it was President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the military brass who called the shots on foreign policy. Similarly in 1998-99, Gen Musharraf had his own policy on Kashmir, whether or not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was privy and consenting. (In contrast, the Brasstacks tensions of 1987 didn’t lead to war because Gen Zia-ul-Haq was firmly in power)

The worrying thing is that India finds itself in a similar situation today. There is a schism in the Pakistani military establishment. On one side is Gen Musharraf, supported from the outside by the United States and from the inside by Benazir Bhutto. On the other, as Benazir Bhutto’s recent remarks explicitly confirm, is the hardline Islamist faction—of which retired Gen Hamid Gul is the most visible leader, and Baitullah Mahsud, the main bogeyman. Musharraf was a member of this group until he made his u-turn after 9/11. He might have parted ways reluctantly, but can’t go back now, not after Lal Masjid and the Waziristan operations.

It is this schism that complicates India’s negotiation processes with Pakistan. It is clear that the Musharraf regime does not have full control over all the jihadi groups that operate out of it. There is reason to believe that many of the recent terrorist attacks across India—the second Kargil war—are being carried out by quarters that do not necessarily take orders from Musharraf. So who is India playing tit-for-tat with? Well, with both factions: but it so happens that India cannot hit back at Hamid Gul & Co without damaging Musharraf & Co.

So why care about Musharraf at all? If it is the Islamist hardliners that are calling the shots why not just do business with them? First, it’s not clear whether Gul & Co have negotiable demands. But even if they do, there’s one reason why India will have to do business with Musharraf. Because he has control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

India finds itself having to do business with the men who control Pakistan’s nukes and with the men who control its terrorists. It is possible that they are both colluding in a good cop/bad cop routine. Collusion can trump tit-for-tat in iterative prisoner’s dilemma games. Even so, simultaneously engaging two Pakistani power centres is India’s principal challenge, not least because it has disastrously failed at it task in both previous occasions. While it remains watchful over the developments in Pakistan, it will need to be able to engage Gul & Co in tacit negotiations if it is to prevent the Pakistani crisis from spilling over. Before that it needs to assess just how nasty a player it is likely to encounter and what cards it needs…to engage in tit-for-tat.

As Amit says, the people of India and Pakistan do suffer because of this seemingly juvenile routine. The truth is, the people of India stand to suffer a lot more if we don’t play the game well.



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