The concept was heavy on strategy and avoided concrete steps unless they were required to illustrate an argument
Khursheed Ali Khan was no run-of-the-mill general. Behind a laissez-fair demeanor, he was a serious practitioner of military art, with a sterling soldierly character. In a wargame, he tasked me with making a plan, but then I suggested modify it to bring out a few lessons. Nothing unusual, except whenever a visitor would pick holes in my design, K always clarified why it was forced upon me.
As NWFP governor, he asked me -- as I had recently left the service-- to outline a few ideas on how to address some intractable issues. The paper I wrote was titled “Three Ks that defy resolution”. These were Kabul, Kashmir and Karachi.
The K word was to acknowledge the proposal’s sponsor. A quarter century may have elapsed, but in a discussion the other day when similar subjects came up, I had to revisit my old thesis. It was based on some ideas that we from the military used to pester the political governments with, and having headed the National Defence College, one believed our core issues needed a structured approach. The concept was heavy on strategy and avoided concrete steps unless they were required to illustrate an argument.
It was really self-evident. Issues with a long gestation period -- all three Ks were brewing for decades -- would need to be thought through for the long haul. Overtime, there would be developments needing adaptation or modification of original assumptions, even of plans.
In Afghanistan, for instance; after the Soviet pullout, infatuated with the resistance we realised at great cost that the tribesmen may have pursued a common agenda against the occupiers, but were now rivals for Kabul’s throne. A historian in the decision-making echelons would have sounded the right alarm. Genuine Afghan hands were strongly opposed to using unconventional warriors in set-piece battles like Jalalabad, and later against the Northern Alliance.
When the Taliban emerged as an anti-Mujahideen force, its momentum may have surprised us; but not the old Communist cadres growing beards to drive militia tanks and fly the helicopters.
Later we may have factored in the role of spoilers, but our counter-measures were mostly transactional. India’s Afghan strategy was, of course, Kautilyan, but because of our neighbourhood advantage it could be contained. But our official sources exaggerated it to the extent that paranoid Afghans were convinced our involvement in Afghanistan was essentially to keep India out. After the Soviets left, America’s interests were never aligned with ours. We still sucked up to them-- and even believed post-9/11 that our bilateral ties were again “strategic”.
Besides improving ties with Iran and Russia, and keeping China and Turkey on board, we did well to retain leverage with Taliban against great external pressure for two decades and could thus bring them to the table whenever required. But we now need some experts inAfghan psyche and those with credibility among the key factions to steer the intra-Afghan dialogue, or to disengage from this messy affair.
The Kashmir imbroglio was no less complex. Surprised by the robustness of the popular surge for independence in the early 1990s, we never really got a handle over the multiple challenges such movements present --providing an effective political umbrella; influencing the militancy so that it didn’t lead to any unintended consequences; and creating the necessary rapport with resistance groups. Finding the right mix of military and non-military prongs required a more subtle direction than swinging between arming the resistance to abandoning it.
Engaging India in the Composite Dialogue framework was wise, and there may have been even some collateral benefit in Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s four-point salvo; but if anyone believed Indians would voluntarily give up their position of advantage, he should have his head examined. After August 5, 2019, the handling of developments in the Valley clearly showed there were hardly any experienced hands in our Kashmir policy cells, and our responses were therefore limited to cartography and rewriting milestones.
I don’t think I ever understood the rise and fall of Karachi, but it was quite clear our once vibrant multi-ethnic megapolis was heading for an implosion – and all of us with our eyes wide shut.
Even a cursory look at this narrative suggests issues with roots in history, or simply too complex, were beyond the depth of our state structures. On core issues, one needed a core group to charter a course, steer its conduct, and adapt it to the evolving environment.
A bureaucratic or politically partisan system could not be entrusted with this -- not only because its key members were mostly on the move, but also as those at the helm often force the pace to add a feather in their otherwise colourless cap.
K took the paper to BB --then in her second incarnation as PM --who didn’t seem terribly pleased as with the Taliban now taking big strides in Afghanistan, she didn’t want to share the spoils of the “victory” with a hybrid group that had the Opposition on board.
Nevertheless, she appointed a pretty clued-up security adviser, who all by himself had no sway with the hands-on the Afghan wheel, which only moved in the military track. Before that Nawaz Sharif had made it clear his Kabulpolicy would be conducted by his kitchen cabinet, not the Afghan cell. Soon thereafter he outsourced the Kashmir struggle to a private contractor. However, both mainstream parties had a common approach on Karachi: break up the MQM and let the devil take the hindmost.
It is of course unfair to put all the blame for fly-by-night policies on political leadership. Members of the Deep State were reluctant to permit any rank outsiders, regardless of experience or expertise, in the decision-making corridors. Who knows when a group, even if dominated by the civil and military hierarchy, working under the chief executive and essentially in an advisory role, would get enough traction due to its sound judgment. That could blow the myth of the State’s claim to total wisdom.
No surprise there. People in power are always protective of their turf. But the worst part is that they seldom pick up the courage to tell their political masters, civil or military, that most of our festering issues may not be fixed in an estimative timeframe -- and therefore their management should take priority over a wishful outcome.
A council of wise men has always been a good idea since Plato’s days.