Two many Musharrafs

Two many Musharrafs

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

From roughing up accredited journalists to expelling “diplomats" to nuclear tests, tit for tat has characterized bilateral relations between India and Pakistan for as long as anyone can remember. While it might offend the sensibilities of civilized people, 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 “nice", simple, forgiving, provocable and, most of all, clear. It is reasonable to say that it is tit for tat that has kept the level of violence between India and Pakistan under control.

Over the years formal and informal arrangements have developed between the security establishments of the two countries to conduct explicit or tacit negotiations. While these have generally prevented a descent into widespread chaos, they did not restrain Pakistan from launching a proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989. And it did not prevent the Kargil war 10 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. But these escalations occurred at times of political ambiguity, essentially, when India didn’t quite know who it was playing tit for tat with. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister in the early 1990s, but it was former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the military brass who called the shots on foreign policy. Similarly in 1998-99, General Pervez Musharraf had his own policy on Kashmir, whether or not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was privy and consenting.

The worrying thing is that India finds itself in a similar situation today. There is a schism in the Pakistani military establishment: between the US-backed combination of Musharraf-Bhutto-General Kayani and the establishment’s hardline Islamists—of which retired general Hamid Gul is the most visible personality. Musharraf might have parted ways with his former associates reluctantly, but he can’t go back now, not after Lal Masjid and the Waziristan operations.

This schism 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 Pakistan. Many of the recent terrorist attacks across India are suspected as being carried out by quarters that do not necessarily take orders from Musharraf. So, who should India be playing tit for tat with? With both factions, actually. But it so happens that India cannot hit back at Hamid Gul & Co. without also damaging Musharraf & Co.

But why care about Musharraf at all? If Islamist hardliners are calling the shots, why not just do business with them? First, it’s not clear whether Gul & Co. have negotiable demands. Second, even if they do, India will have to engage Musharraf at least to the extent that he controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

So, 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. (It has been shown that 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 its task on both previous occasions. While it remains watchful over the developments in Pakistan, New Delhi will need to be able to engage the Islamist faction 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 a tit for tat.

Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati— The Indian National Interest Review. Comments are welcome at