Khursheed Ali Khan was no run of the mill general. Behind a laissez faire demeanor, he was a serious practitioner of military art – and that included a sterling soldierly character. In a war-game he tasked me to make a plan, but then suggested that I modify it to bring out a few lessons. Nothing unusual about it—except that whenever a visitor would come pick holes in my design, K (as he was popularly called) always clarified why it had been forced upon me.
As governor of the then NWFP, he asked me – as I had recently left the service – to outline a few ideas on how to address some of our intractable issues. The paper that I wrote was titled “Three Ks that defy resolution”. These were Kabul, Kashmir and Karachi – and the K word was to acknowledge the sponsor of the proposal. A quarter of a century may have elapsed since then but in a discussion the other day when similar subjects were brought up, I had to revisit my old thesis. It was based on a few ideas, we from the military used to pester the political governments with – and then having headed the National Defence College, now a university, one vainly believed that our core issues needed a structured approach. The concept of that article was therefore heavy on strategy and avoided concrete steps unless required to illustrate an argument.
It should in fact have been self-evident. Issues that have a long gestation period – all three Ks for example were brewing for decades – would need to be thought through for the long haul. Overtime, there would be developments that required adaptation or modification of the original assumptions, even of plans.
In case of Afghanistan for instance; after the Soviet withdrawal, infatuated with the resistance we realized at great cost that the tribesmen may have pursued a common agenda against the occupiers, but were now rivals for the throne of Kabul. An historian in the decision-making echelons would have sounded the right alarm. And indeed genuine Afghan hands were strongly opposed to employing the unconventional warriors in set piece battles like Jalalabad – and later against the Northern Alliance. When the Taliban emerged as an anti-Mujahedin movement, its momentum might have surprised us; but not the old communist cadres growing beards to drive the Militia’s tanks and fly their helicopters.
In due course we might have factored in the role of the spoilers, but our counter-measures were mostly transactional. Indian Afghan strategy was of course Kautilian, but because of our neighbourhood advantage it could be contained. Instead, our official sources exaggerated it to the extent that the paranoid Afghans were convinced that our involvement in Afghanistan was essentially to keep India out. After the Soviets left, the American interests were never aligned with ours. We still continued to suck-up to them—even believing that post-911 our bilateral relations were again “strategic”.
Besides improving our relations with Iran and Russia – and indeed keeping the Chinese and the Turks on board – we did well to retain leverage with the Taliban against great external pressure for two decades – and were thus able to bring them to the table whenever required. But we now need some experts of Afghan psyche and those with credibility amongst major factions to steer the intra-Afghan dialogue—or to constructively disengage from this messy affair.
Kashmir imbroglio was not any 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 did not lead to any unintended consequences; and creating the necessary rapport with disparate resistance groups. Finding the right mix of military and non-military prongs required a more subtle direction of the struggle than swinging between arming the resistance to abandoning it to its own devices. Engaging with India in the Composite Dialogue framework was wise, and there may have been even some collateral benefit in Musharraf’s four-point salvo; but if anyone believed that the Indians would voluntarily give up their position of advantage, one should have his head examined. Post 5 August 2019 handling of the developments in the Vale clearly showed that there were hardly any experienced hands in our Kashmir Policy Cells – and our responses were therefore limited to cartography and re-writing milestones.
I don’t think I ever understood the rise and fall of Karachi, but it was quite clear that our once vibrant multi-ethnic mega metropolis was heading for an implosion – with all of us watching with our eyes wide shut.
Even a cursory look at the above narrative would suggest that 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 a politically partisan system could not be entrusted with this mission—not only because its key members were mostly on the move, but also because 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 the PM – who didn’t seem terribly pleased because with the Taliban now taking big strides in Afghanistan, she didn’t want to share the spoils of the presumed victory with a hybrid group that had the opposition on board to ensure broad-based support. Nevertheless, she appointed a pretty clued-up security advisor, 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 quite clear that his Kabul Policy would be conducted by his kitchen cabinet and not by the Afghan Cell. Soon thereafter he outsourced the Kashmir struggle to a private contractor. However, both the mainstream political parties had a common approach on Karachi – breakup the MQM and let the devil take the hindmost.
Of course it would be unfair to put all the blame for this fly-by-night policies on the political leadership. Members of the deep state too were reluctant to permit any rank-outsiders, regardless of their experience or expertise, entry in the decision-making corridors. Who knows when a group – even though dominated by the civil & military hierarchy, working under the aegis of the chief executive, and essentially there in an advisory role – would get enough traction due to its sound judgment and credible composition. That could blow the myth of the state’s claim on 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 estimated 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.