Musharraf’s Kashmir Admission Points to Taliban Sponsorship

Former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi.

Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, admitted last week that the Pakistani government uses militants to secure its national interests in disputed Kashmir. That the Pakistani government sponsors militants in Kashmir was no surprise. The surprise was that Musharraf admitted it. However, a greater surprise than the admission was Musharraf’s rational for the use of militants.

The Musharraf interview appears in the German magazine Der Spiegel. At one point, the Spiegel interviewer, Susanne Koelbl, asks Musharraf, “Why did you form militant underground groups to fight India in Kashmir?” Musharraf responds:

They were indeed formed. The [Pakistani] government turned a blind eye because they wanted India to discuss Kashmir. … The West was ignoring the resolution of the Kashmir issue, which is the core issue of Pakistan. We expected the West -especially the United States and important countries like Germany- to resolve the Kashmir issue. Has Germany done that? (word in bracket added)

Koelbl follows up, “Does that give Pakistan the right to train underground fighters?” Defending the policy, Musharraf insists, “Yes, it is the right of any country to promote its own interests when India is not prepared to discuss Kashmir at the United Nations and is not prepared to resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner.

Musharraf’s rational for using militants to further state aims is in part a lesson in foreign policy making. For instance, at what point does the end justify the means? Or, should ethical considerations factor into achieving what are perceived to be vital national security concerns?

The militants that the Pakistani state is aiding in connection with Kashmir have killed many innocent civilians. The most notorious of these militant groups is Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is the same group behind the horrific Mumbai attack in November 2008 that killed over 170 people, including six Americans, and wounded hundreds more. In this attack, multiple gunmen armed with grenades, pistols, and AK-47 machine guns shot at civilians randomly in the city of Mumbai, India’s business capital.

For Musharraf, because the Kashmir issue lays at the center of Pakistan’s national security -“the core issue of Pakistan” as he put it- the state sponsorship of militants is justifiable and by extension the killing of innocent civilians, since this is what militants do. The goal of the militant-usage strategy, according to Musharraf, is to coerce India and the international community to resolve the Kashmir crisis, presumably to Pakistan’s liking or else the bombings and killings will continue.

What is also readily evident from Musharraf’s rational for militant-usage in Kashmir is that such a strategy undoubtedly applies to Pakistan’s number two national security issue, or Afghanistan, since India is behind this issue as well. (Publically, Musharraf denies that Pakistan is aiding the Afghan Taliban.) The Pakistani government’s strategy in Afghanistan is popularly known as “strategic depth”.

Afghanistan is critical to Pakistan’s national security in part because of the border dispute between the two countries but also because of India. Pakistan fears that if India is left unchecked in Afghanistan that it will co-opt the Afghan government leaving Pakistan encircled on its northern and eastern borders. Consequently, strategic depth is Pakistan’s strategy to counter India by gaining influence in Afghanistan. A Pakistan-friendly government in Afghanistan will also be favorable to letting Central Asian trade pass through its country to Pakistan. Today, the Karzai government in Afghanistan has very close ties to India.

After the Musharraf interview, who can doubt now that the Pakistani government is also sponsoring militants to achieve its national security goals in Afghanistan? If it can be doubted surely it is not on ethical grounds.

US officials have alleged for some time that the Pakistani government continues to support the Afghan Taliban, even after the September 11th attacks. The evidence in support of the US allegation is overwhelming. While the US has acknowledged that Pakistan has done a lot to target militants within its borders, it also maintains that the Pakistani government through its military intelligence agency, the ISI, continues to aggressively train and equip militants.

How can this be? How can the Pakistani government be at once killing militants and training them? The Pakistani public strongly disagrees that its government secretly aids militants. As evidence Pakistanis site its military’s ongoing combat operations along the shared border with Afghanistan. Indeed, many Pakistanis have lost their sons in combat with militants.

Who is right? The answer is that the Pakistani government is waging a war against militants but it is narrowly focused only on those militants who are considered a threat against the Pakistani state. The most popular militant group in this category is the Tehrik-i-Taliban, better known as the “Pakistani Taliban”. It is the group believed responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. (The Tehrik-i-Taliban is not to be confused with the “Afghan Taliban” led by Mullah Omar that is engaged in an insurgency against international troops in Afghanistan.)

In stark contrast to the Pakistani government’s policy against groups that threaten the state, it aggressively sponsors other militant groups that further its national security interests. These other groups include the militants fighting in Kashmir as well as those fighting in Afghanistan, namely the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s organization. The latter groups help Pakistan to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter India’s influence there.

Another observation in the Musharraf interview is the contradiction in Musharraf’s argument for militant-usage. On the one hand, Musharraf argues that militants can be used by states to achieve state goals, but on the other hand he laments that Pakistan remains a “breeding ground for international terrorism” some nine years after the September 11th attacks. Musharraf blames the West for this sad development because it abandoned Southeast Asia after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Musharraf’s response is worth quoting at length.

It was jihad and we brought in militants from all over the world, with the West and Pakistan together in the lead role. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the West left Pakistan with 25,000 mujahedeen and al-Qaida fighters, without any plan for rehabilitation or resettlement. While you were mostly concerned with the reunification of Germany, we had to cope with this. Now you expect Pakistan to pull out a magic wand and make all of this suddenly disappear? That is not doable -this will take time.

Musharraf’s response here is puzzling because it would seem to argue against militant-usage, not for it. The Der Spiegel interviewer should have followed up with the following question: “If after the Soviets left Afghanistan the 25,000 radicalized Mujahedeen needed rehabilitation, then why does the Pakistani government continue to induct new militants into state causes?”

In sum, the Musharraf interview is one for the history books, but the Pakistani government needs to reconsider militant-usage. Using militants to achieve state aims is like using the bubonic plague to fight one’s enemies. You might kill your enemies but then you too will die.