Pakistan’s Proxies: Rising Costs, Uncertain Benefits

airstrikes near Balakot inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
on the 26 th of February, and Pakistani
airstrikes in response, have created anxiety because nuclear conflict lies
at the end of a steep escalation ladder. India was retaliating against a Valentine’s
Day suicide attack
on a convoy of paramilitary forces in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir,
in which 42 were killed. Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM), one of several Pakistan-based militant
groups operating against the Indian state in Kashmir, claimed
responsibility. Indian retaliation targeted
a madrassa thought to affiliated to JeM in Pakistan. India’s position is that because
groups like JeM are proxies of the Pakistani state, crossborder strikes are
justified as a means of preemptive
self-defense combatting terrorism.  This dynamic highlights both the uses and hazards of proxies
as a tool of crossborder coercive statecraft. It follows a long and ignominious
tradition of the use of proxies to weaken strategic competitors that has recent
roots in Cold War competition, and has been used by both India and Pakistan. I
argue that Pakistan’s use of proxies is becoming increasingly counterproductive
as a tool for enhancing its own security by diminishing its neighbor’s, even as
recent Indian policies toward Kashmir have created an environment hospitable for
these proxies. Proxy Conflict and
the International System The deployment of proxies was a common tool of pre-modern
statecraft, using pirates
or bandits
to spread one’s authority and undermine opponents. The principle of sovereignty
established an international norm against states intervening in the internal
affairs of other states, including providing support for rebels. Yet this norm
that has been frequently violated, such as with British sponsorship of the
Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I, or Nazi and Soviet
involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Proxy conflicts were particularly rife during the Cold War,
as a means for the Soviet Union and the United States to compete while avoiding
direct conflict. Soviet
support behind communist and nationalist movements in Southeast Asia, from
the Viet Minh and Viet Cong to the Khmer Rouge and Pathet Lao, undermined French
colonial rule and US military efforts to prop up anticommunist regimes, while
visiting horrific
cruelty on civilian populations. In the 1980s, the US
sponsorship of right-wing contras against the socialist Sandinista regime
in Nicaragua was associated with widespread human rights
abuses . In South Asia, the use of proxies has been frequent and
diverse. Indian intelligence armed
and supplied a proxy rebel force called the mukti bahini to strike
Pakistani military and government targets in East Pakistan, prior to the
Pakistani military’s brutal repression there, India’s military intervention and
Bangladesh’s independence. In the mid-1980s, India covertly
provided arms, training and monetary support to the Tamil Tigers in order
to contain separatism in India. The most dramatic proxy conflict in South Asia followed the
Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The US and its allies funded
and armed mujahidin militias, channeled
and organized through Pakistani intelligence, to attack the communist government
and Soviet military. Pakistan’s own proxies in Kashmir grew directly out of this
operation: the largest Kashmiri militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), arose
from the Markaz Dawa wal Irshad operating
against Soviet forces in Kunar, Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The logic of the use of proxy armed actors is the inverse of
balancing: instead of augmenting a state’s own security in relation to a
competitor by mobilizing resources internally or seeking alliances, a state can
instead weaken that competitor’s security by sponsoring its enemies internally.
This is useful in contexts of structurally unequal power distribution, as in
South Asia. While such activities straightforwardly violate norms of
sovereignty, sponsoring states justify them with recourse to alternative norms,
with varying levels of cynicism: that of self-determination, or resisting
repression, or protecting dignity and human rights. The use of proxies can be hazardous, however. First, terrorism
has, in the post 9/11 era, become a taboo, and proxy groups using terrorist
tactics, and sponsoring states, have been open to international sanction. Most contemporary
proxies are those of great powers using irregular military tactics rather than
terrorism in contexts of civil conflict, as with American-sponsored militias
in Syria or Russia’s “ little
green men ” in Ukraine. Kashmiri-based groups have conducted horrifying
terrorist attacks on civilian targets, such as with the 2008 Mumbai strikes ,
that have rightly elicited international condemnation and attracted stigma.
Thus this form of power projection can leads to increasing international
audience costs and consequences .
Second, the use of proxies involves significant
principal-agent problems; armed groups have their own agendas and can mobilize
their own resources, often through organized
crime . Sponsoring states have little choice but to continue their support
despite these differing goals, or else lose a tool of coercion, or worse, face
violent backlash. After all, Osama bin Laden was an American-funded
proxy in Afghanistan before he became America’s greatest enemy. The Rising Costs of Pakistan’s
Proxies Pakistan’s continued use of proxies in Kashmir is becoming
increasingly costly, relative to uncertain benefits, for its own security and
power projection for four reasons. First, proxies are, once deployed, hard to direct, modulate
or control; Kashmiri militant groups compete with one another in an ecosystem
of violence, responding to incentives and opportunities for action that might
not follow the interests of the Pakistani state. The Pulwama attack, for
instance, occurred only
days before a visit to Islamabad by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and a
subsequent visit to Delhi. Pakistan, aiming to secure a
large loan to address its macroeconomic difficulties, could have done
without the embarrassment. Second, proxies are most effective when deniability is at
all plausible. Despite protestations and demands for proof, Pakistan’s associations
with these groups, going back to the 1990s, is evident; JeM’s headquarters
are in Bahawalpur, deep in Pakistan. As particular groups claim credit for
attacks as a means of bolstering their strength, there is little difficulty in
connecting Pakistan to acts of terrorism in India, either in Kashmir or further
afield. Third, shifts in broader Indian strategy have made the use
of proxies more dangerous. As Srinath Raghavan notes ,
previous Indian governments sought to contain terrorism in Kashmir, avoiding
escalation by denying terrorist groups capacity to operate counterinsurgent
measures, while otherwise exercising strategic restraint and international
pressure. Modi, however, is keen on not managing and defusing but rather
exploiting the Kashmir issue, as a means of burnishing his reputation as a “strongman” . As
the strikes near Balakot show, the Modi government are committed to expanding
the zone of retaliation to Pakistani territory proper. The abandonment of
strategic restraint complicates straightforward strategies of Indian containment
by proxy warfare. Fourth, India connects Pakistan’s use of proxies in Kashmir
with continuing Pakistani relationships with the Taliban, raising suspicions
that Pakistan is destabilizing Afghanistan for
ideological purposes . While it is true that Pakistan sponsored the creation
of both the Kashmiri militant groups and the Taliban in the 1990s, the latter are
presently formidable governance actors operating
a shadow state and controlling nearly
half of Afghanistan, capable of operating independently of
Pakistan. India’s overall strategy of turning Pakistan into an
international pariah through the Kashmir-Afghanistan linkage is unlikely to
succeed given the strength of Pakistan’s relationships with
China and increasingly Russia .
But India’s argument locating Pakistan as the central problem in Afghanistan chimes
with some US policymakers, and can endanger
the current peace talks necessary to forestall a bloody and destructive civil
war following American withdrawal.

In response to Pulwama and but following the 2011 National
Action Plan against terrorism, Pakistani authorities have
cracked down on militant groups, confiscating
assets and arresting
44 suspected militants, including relatives of JeM’s
founder. There are powerful voices within government that argue that Pakistan cannot afford multilateral
sanctions and exclusion from the financial system. But these efforts might fail, for two reasons. First,
arrests and detentions of high-level militant actors in the past have
not been sustained , with deep state actors hedging between containing and
preserving proxies. The judiciary has
been reluctant to prosecute militants for fear of retaliation. Second, the
domestic infrastructure of these organizations is deeply integrated into
Pakistani society. JeM runs
schools and hospitals in poverty-stricken southern Punjab, and thus enjoys
significant popularity there. Sustained actions risks violent backlash against
the state.  Unfortunately, even if Pakistan continues to take
significant, permanent steps in demobilizing its proxies and dismantling its
infrastructure, violence in Kashmir is likely to continue. Increasing conflict in
Kashmir in the last five years has been spurred by the use of blunt coercion –
including the use of shotgun pellets that has
caused widespread blindness – against protestors demanding autonomy and
recognition, leading to widespread
human rights abuses . The state government has
been suspended since June 2018. Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide attacker in
Pulwama, joined
the militancy following a series of injuries and humiliations on the part
of security forces. Former BJP Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha has
said that due to the brutal actions of the Modi government, “India has lost
the people of the valley,” and is only holding it due to military force. The
ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Kashmir has created an environment
particularly hospitable for militant organizations, whether they continue to be
supported by Pakistan or not.   Proxies are a depressingly common tool of coercive power,
and outrage against their use invites charges of hypocrisy. But at the same
time, it is a tool of chaos, with inherently uncertain benefits but specific
costs. Pakistan’s use of proxies has both a history and a logic, but it might
not survive objective scrutiny in 2019.

2019-03-09 | Regional, Security | English |