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Defence Minister Johnston and Australia’s role in Pakistan September 27, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

As we wind down in Afghanistan after a twelve-year war, new Defence Minister David Johnston reportedly says we need to keep our counter-insurgency skills honed, including for possible use in Pakistan (SMH, 21 September 2013).

Mr Johnston and his advisers need to think such statements through. Does he mean a limited role in advising Pakistan on counter-insurgency or does he envision a more robust involvement in maintaining stability? Either way, there is no useful role for Australia, either singly or in concert with its friends and allies.

Pakistan is both a supporter of the insurgency in Afghanistan and involved in counter-insurgency against groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) within Pakistan.

In the former role, the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI, support Afghan anti-government groups like the Haqqani network and harbour the Taliban leadership in Quetta. US intelligence believes the Haqqani network, with support from the ISI, was involved in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008, in which 58 died. The network also allegedly killed the Karzai government’s chief peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Pakistan hosts and supports groups like Lashka-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which target India in Kashmir and more broadly in cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad and New Delhi. The LeT was the perpetrator of the Mumbai attacks of 26 November 2008, in which 164 died. Pakistan has so far refused to hand over the 12 people named by India for involvement in these attacks. Seven have been arrested but not brought to trial. The prosecutor in those cases was recently assassinated. There is evidence of involvement of recently retired ISI officers in assisting with the planning of the attacks.

The Pakistani military is also involved in an intensive counter-insurgency campaign in Pakistan itself. The main enemy in this campaign is the TTP. The TTP and other Pakistani Taliban elements were attacked in South Waziristan from 2007 onward – an action in which reportedly over 1000 Pakistani military and paramilitary have died. However, North Waziristan is a ‘bridge too far’ for the Pakistani military, which has also been restrained by the fact that it is the location of its client, the Haqqani network. The action in South Waziristan was followed by an equally intensive and bloody campaign to clean out the Pakistani Taliban from the once peaceful Swat Valley in 2009. The Pakistani military is also engaged in a sporadic and at times bloody separatist movement in Baluchistan, which has continued since the 1970s. Karachi, a city of about 23 million, is at war with itself. Thousands have died on its streets in recent years.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is estimated to have a larger nuclear arsenal than India. This arsenal is perhaps the most rapidly escalating in the world today. Pakistan was given the design of the 1998 uranium bomb by China, which in turn received it from the Former Soviet Union. China also provided key ballistic missile technology to Pakistan in the form of the M11 missile. China is Pakistan’s all-weather friend. Beijing indirectly threatened India to prevent it attacking Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

In all of this, what is the anticipated Australian role? Is it counter-insurgency advice? If so, that would definitely be ‘teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs’. Australia has sadly lost 40 soldiers in Afghanistan. Each one of them is sorely missed. Pakistan has lost thousands of military and paramilitary in counter-insurgency operations. Its three quarters of a million-strong army is highly professional and highly tested in counter-insurgency. It is also operating on its own terrain.

Or would Australia be expected to have some role in stabilising Pakistan? From what, state failure? This is a country of over 185 million, expected to grow by a further 85 million in the next 20 years. Literacy is 57% overall and 45% for females.

Better a well-targeted aid program directed at addressing the country’s rapidly escalating environmental problems. Better judiciously targeted assistance with education and literacy. Better technical assistance in energy and mining. Better to forget about any military involvement in this complex, difficult part of the world.

But which organisation is to run such a program of assistance? AusAID has had its budget severely pruned and is being sucked into the vortex of Foreign Affairs. It will probably not be up to the job. Meanwhile, Mr Johnston is looking for new possible military engagement and new military expenditure.

Dr Sandy Gordon is a Visiting Fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. He is the author of a number of books on South Asia and the Indian Ocean.


1. Brigadier (R) Naeem Salik, PhD Candidate at CMSS/Political Science & IR, UWA - October 5, 2013

Interesting comments by Dr Gordon. I agree with his criticism of the naive statement of the Defence Minister. However, one would have expected a much more insightful analysis from a veteran scholar of South Asian affairs. The situation in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions is far more complex than explained by Dr Gordon. Pakistan has lost over 40,000 civilians including 3,000 military personnel and over 2,000 police and other security agencies personnel killed and scores of thousands injured and disabled in counter terrorism/counter insurgency operations over the last ten or so years.
I was also surprise at his accepting all the allegations levelled against Pakistan by India, Afghanistan or CIA at face value. He should have known that both LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad are proscribed organistaions in Pakistan for many years now. As for handing over alleged perpetrators of Mumbai incident the fact of the matter is that there is no treaty or agreement between India and Pakistan under which these people could be extradited to India. The court cases were held up becuase the so called dossier provided by India was not good enough to stand in a court of law, nor was Pakistan team of prosecution and defence lawyers allowed to proceed to India to cross examine the witnesses. It is only in the last week that a judicial commission from Pakistan was allowed access to the witnesses and hopefully the matters would now proceed in the courts. Not to deny the fact that judicial processes in South Asia are notoriously slow. I may also add that during a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers at Sharm-el-Shaikh a few years ago the Pakistani PM presented evidence of Indian involvement in fomenting trouble in Balochistan and Tribal regions. Unfortunately, on return the Indian PM came under so much flak from the opposition that there was no question of any investigation on his part.
I fully agree with Dr Gordon that Australia can help Pakistan in its areas of strength and experience and that is in energy and mining. In terms of any military role in Pakistan I agree Australia should stop dreaming of boxing far above its weight.