ISI’s change of course and other stories

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex will need more then the prospect of diplomatic isolation to change its policies.

Cyril Almeida’s report reads too good to be true.

Facing international isolation—read lack of support from the United States and even China—Pakistan’s civilian leaders confronted the ISI chiefand got him to permit action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and their respective leaders. Not only did they say this to the general’s face, but even more surprisingly, the general tacitly consented to law enforcement action against the groups. That’s not all, he agreed to visit every province, meet the local political, military and ISI leaders there, and persuade them to change course.

The appropriate reaction to this report is: yes, and teenage hippos rollerblade.

Yet, the fact that such a report made it to the press is interesting. Taken at face value, it does suggest that the strategy of persuading Pakistan’s supporters might be working. [I have argued for this before, on Yahoo! and WSJ]

However, it would be credulous to believe that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to change course merely on account of the prospect of international diplomatic isolation. Rawalpindi & Islamabad are masters are exploiting fissures in the world order to survive and promote their interests, and at a time when there are so many growing fissures in the international system, they shouldn’t find it hard to do so. The isolation explanation, by itself, is not convincing enough.

What is more likely is that the military establishment is playing for time ahead of a leadership transition as Gen Raheel Sharif retires next month. All his potential successors need all potential allies within the political system, and at this time, it is unlikely that any of them would want to antagonise their nominal political leaders. Gen Raheel himself might calculate that he needs friends to ensure that he enjoys his retired life.

Ergo, Mr Almeida’s report should not rouse great hopes in India. In any case, what matters are results on the ground; not official statements or unofficials leaks to the media. Worse, if the Pakistani army wishes to retalitate to an Indian surgical strike (that it says did not happen) with a similar strike of its own, for the sake of pyschological parity, then a report like this is just the kind of thing to leak.

Why India should not get into the fight against ISIS

The jihadi threat to India comes from Pakistan, not Syria.

Upon his return from the United States, defence minister has announced that India is prepared for an operation against ISIS under a UN resolution. He must have said this under pressure from Washington, for there it makes little sense for India to step into what is essentially a Middle Eastern problem.

The core of ISIS is not really interested in India, at least at this time. Its focus is on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbouring countries. Its attacks on European cities in pursuit of its core goals.

Sure, ISIS has announced a wilayah or province in the subcontinent, but that is as real as an ISIS province on the moon. It might be aspirational, it might help them in its propaganda to project itself as bigger than it is, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has far more to worry about for a long time before he can be interested in planting his flag somewhere in India. New Delhi will have enough time to prepare before ISIS decides to pay attention to conquering India. Till such time, it is in India’s interests to let the galaxy of powers currently involved in fighting the ISIS to do so, and to prevail.

What about Indians who are going to Syria to fight for the ISIS? Well, the best strategy is to hope that they don’t come back, and ensure that they are interrogated and charged if they do. This is the kind of work India’s intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities do, and ought to step up.

Finally, what about Islamists in India who wave the ISIS flag during protests? Shouldn’t we take them to be supporters of ISIS? Well, no. The ISIS flag is as much an inspirational totem to them as portraits of Khomeini, Arafat and bin Laden that used to be seen in their times. The effect is not unlike that of auto rickshaw driver gangs that organise themselves around portraits of movie stars. It is very unlikely that the said movie stars have any opinion on auto rickshaw fares and policies. For the drivers, though, the portraits are a totem to organise around and differentiate themselves from their counterparts. In the case of ISIS, police and intelligence agencies ought to identify individuals and groups claiming inspiration from it, and keep them under surveillance.

The primary jihadi threat to India still comes from Pakistan: the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups controlled by the Pakistani military establishment remain the principal threat. Few Western countries want to engage in seriously countering this threat, as it is not vital to their national interest. India, on the other hand, has no choice but to fight. It is important to concentrate on this project and not open unnecessary fronts in the Middle East.

Related Link: My colleague Rohan Joshi asks if a clash between ISIS and Jamaat-ud-Dawa is imminent.

Pakistan’s new big jihadi show

Where militant defend the military from foreign sponsors and domestic puppets

When the jihadi face of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex brazenly showed itself in the form of a Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) rally in Lahore last month, it appeared that the military face had used ‘non-state actors’ to send a signal both to Washington and its own people. The street power and anti-Americanism of jihadi militants would impress upon Washington the need to continue to do business with the relatively more reasonable military establishment. At the same time, the rally and the rhetoric would channelise public anger at the US/NATO attack on a border position in the Mohmand Agency in a way the military establishment liked.

It also revealed the utter contempt the military establishment has for the game of dossiers-and-lawsuits over the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai the powerless civilian government of Pakistan has engaged New Delhi in. For here was Hafiz Saeed, the chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, not only out in the open, but addressing a massive, high profile public rally. It is unlikely though, that the show was staged for India’s benefit.

A month later, and after another such rally in Multan, it appears that the Difa-e-Pakistan project has at least two other objectives.

First, the presence of Deobandi leaders and groups at these rallies suggests that the military establishment is attempting to close the gap that arose between the two after the Lal Masjid massacre of 2007. If the military establishment can forge a ‘common minimum programme’ with the key Deobandi groups, the likelihood of the Pakistan Taliban and related groups ratcheting down their war against the Pakistan army increases considerably. There is a price Pakistan will have to pay for such a compromise, but because it benefits the military establishment, that price will be paid.

Second, the Difa-e-Pakistan movement provides the military establishment with a way to split Imran Khan’s base. Why would they do that, because wasn’t Mr Khan their man? Well, whether or not he is their man, it would not suit the military establishment’s purpose for him to more powerful than it would like.

It may well be that Mr Khan, convinced of his own power, is dancing less to the piper’s tune. In his interview on Indian television in November 2011, Mr Khan declared that he would bring the armed forces under civilian control, wind down all militant groups and deweaponise Pakistan. That’s not quite what the men in khaki would like. That’s certainly not what the jihadi groups would like. So even if Mr Khan is trying to be everything to everyone—he didn’t turn up at the Difa-e-Pakistan rally, but sent a letter that was read out—the prospect of a popular Prime Minister Imran Khan attempting to boss over the military-jihadi complex would be unwelcome to both the generals and the jihadis. Difa-e-Pakistan claims to be, err, ‘non-political’. It nevertheless can exert pressure on Mr Khan. More importantly, it can split his vote in the upcoming elections.

All this is fine as far as Pakistan’s domestic power struggles go. The immediate question for India and the rest of the world is the risk of spillover. Would emboldened jihadi groups be satisfied with mere rhetorical attacks against India and the United States?

Pax Indica: Why they killed bin Laden now

The military-jihadi complex is likely to grow stronger

In today’s Pax Indica column on Yahoo, I warn that India has at best two summers before cross-border militancy and terrorism rise again.

You might remember a Shekhar Suman gag on Zee TV’s Movers and Shakers several years ago: An angry George W Bush announces that the United States will bomb the place where Osama bin Laden is found to be hiding.

Hearing this, Vajpayee looks under his bed, pauses, and with a characteristic flick of his wrist says: “Thank God! He isn’t here!”

Over in Rawalpindi, General Musharraf looks under his bed, sighs in relief, and says: “Thank God! He is still here!”

Shekhar Suman, more than most Western analysts, got the plot right. Keeping Osama bin Laden out of Washington’s hands was vital in order to prevent having to publicly deal with revelations of how the Pakistani military-jihadi complex not only was connected with al-Qaeda, but might also have been involved in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. [Read the rest at Yahoo!]

Gurukanth Desai is not “of Indian origin”

Suspected British jihadi must have used a Gujarati Hindu name to avoid suspicion

Soon after the British authorities released the names of nine suspected terrorists yesterday, most Indian media reports rushed to tell us [1 2 3 4] without a hint of doubt or uncertainty, that one of them was “of Indian-origin.” Given that there was very little time for them to do background checks, they just assumed that a person going by the name of “Gurukanth Desai” must be a person of Indian origin.

They didn’t even google him up.

If they had, they would have found that Gurukant Desai is actually the name of the lead character in Mani Ratnam’s 2007 movie Guru. Gurukanth is an unusual first name for a person with the surname Desai. Gurukanth Desai is also an unusual name in a list in which the others are Abdul Malik Miah, Omar Sharif Latif, Mohammed Moksudur Rahman Chowdhury, Shah Mohammed Lutfar Rahman, Nazam Hussain, Usman Khan, Mohibur Rahman and Abul Bosher Mohammed Shahjahan.

It should have raised eyebrows and, at the very least, a qualifier indicating that he might be of Indian-origin. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. [The Calcutta Telegraph was an exception]

It turns out—as I pointed out on twitter yesterday—that Gurukanth Desai, 28 years old and a father of three, is Abdul Malik Miah’s brother and of Bangladeshi origin. The Hindu Gujarati name, taken off a Hindi film, was probably adopted to ward off suspicion.

Apart from exposing lazy journalism in India, this episode is yet another indication that Indian embassies and consulates must exercise much greater care while issuing visas to people presumably of Indian-origin.

This is also disturbing because it might make visa applications and travel more difficult for the genuine Gurukanth Desais of the world, not least because it is impossible to prevent jihadis from assuming names like David Coleman Headley or Gurukanth Desai. This case is an argument against profiling based on religion, but where such profiling exists, a Mr Desai or Mr Singh might become a little more suspect. (This is not to say that there cannot be real jihadis of Gujarati Hindu origin, as the case of Dhiren Bharot/Abu Musa al-Hindi tells us. Rather, that such cases are exceptional and very rare.)

Tailpiece: A few years ago, friends of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London 7/7 bombers, gave their names as “Sanjay Dutt” and “Shahrukh”…and the New York Times reporter didn’t get it.

Some bollocks

What is that they are smoking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Yesterday, it was David Pollock’s turn to make an incredible argument: that Pakistan won’t stop supporting the Afghan Taliban and other jihadis unless the US “accommodates” its interests in Afghanistan. In short, according to Mr Pollock, that means pushing the Indians out and sending Afghan officials to Pakistan for training.

It’s unclear what expertise Mr Pollock has over Afghanistan & Pakistan, but you would have thought that people in Washington are aware of the events of the 1990s. Afghanistan came to host a number of international jihadi groups, in addition to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, because Pakistani interests were accommodated in the manner he suggests. We know how that turned out for the United States, India and for Afghanistan.

You would have also thought that people in Washington are aware of what many Afghans think of Pakistan. Sending Afghan security personnel to Pakistan (instead of India) for training might sound like a good idea, until you hear Afghan men and women tell you exactly what they feel about Pakistan. According to a survey conducted by ABC News, ‘BBC’ and others, 81% of Afghans had unfavourable views of Pakistan, 73% felt that it is playing a negative role in Afghanistan. Maybe, just maybe, Mr Pollock should worry about accommodating their wishes and interests.

It is no one’s argument that Pakistan should be stopped from promoting its interests in Afghanistan or anywhere else. The main problem is Pakistan’s use of jihadi terrorism and Islamist extremism as instruments of state policy. There is nothing to suggest that appeasing the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will miraculously cause it to abandon its long-standing strategy. On the contrary, just like what happened after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, an emboldened military-jihadi complex will just get more ambitious.

Related Post: Robert Kaplan misses the plot

Don’t hype the iMuj

The Indian Mujahideen might be hiding their weakness

After a long polemic on the Kashmir issue a letter claiming to be from the Indian Mujahideen gets to the point on the fourth of the five pages. It dedicates today’s shooting of a tourist bus outside Delhi’s Jama Masjid to what it calls the “martyrs…who proudly laid down their lives valiantly fighting…the Delhi police on this day.” They refer to the two terrorist suspects killed by Delhi Police at Batla House two years ago. The letter also refers to current events like the developments over the German Bakery case in Maharashtra and communal disturbances in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.

Into this long list of grand grievances is a relatively quotidian one—“teenaged Salman was brutally beaten up repeatedly by the Delhi Police and was hospitalized.” The letter says that today’s attack is their “unique reply to this and we are always on our toes for a Tit-for-Tat response”.

The inclusion of the beating up of a teenager by Delhi Police in a list which has complaints of an altogether different level suggests that the issue was close to the hearts of the perpetrators. Despite its grandiose claims, the Jama Masjid shooting might have been carried out by people with very local grievances who nevertheless are plugged into the overall narrative of victimhood.

So too the reference to the Batla House shootout. Moreover, the fact that the letter says that the suspects at Batla House died while “valiantly fighting” the Delhi Police undermines the claims of those who argue that the dead were innocent, because innocent victims seldom engage in valiant gunfights with policemen.

The nature of today’s attack—essentially a drive-by shooting with pistols—is not quite the same as the synchronous bombings that the Indian Mujahideen have carried out in the past. It also occurs after a longish lull. It might be that the operational tempo and capacity of the Indian Mujahideen has weakened. The inclusion of a minor local grievance might indicate an inability to find more professional, committed operatives. [Update: There are reports of a botched car bomb as well, strengthening the above argument]

In other words, the iMuj might be masking their weakness with bombast and the perceptions of vulnerability relating to the next month’s Commonwealth Games. Few would have taken such a shooting seriously if it were not for the Games. Which is why even as the law enforcement and intelligence agencies go about their work tracking the perpetrators down, it is important for the media to refrain from hyping up the Indian Mujahideen threat.

Heck, after all, these are people who threaten India with…seepage. The letter is titled “As we bleed, so will you seep”.

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:


I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

Militants, disaster relief and policy

Should the international humanitarian response use militant groups for emergency relief?

As Pakistan grapples with a natural disaster, the charitable fronts of jihadi organisations have begun playing a significant role in providing emergency relief. Even as international humanitarian actors consider their response, it is important to understand that the way the aid is delivered affects political outcomes. Done properly, aid can bolster the capacity of the civilian government. Done wrong, it can strengthen jihadi groups, both financially and in public esteem. This is an unpublished case study I did in May 2008—and is relevant in the current circumstances.


In circumstances—like post-earthquake PAK or post-tsunami Jaffna (Sri Lanka) and Aceh (Indonesia)—non-state actors were arguably the most effective organisations. Should international actors refuse to co-operate with such organisations, even if this means blunting the humanitarian response? Alternately, can the international community escape the moral (and geo-political) consequences of rendering terrorist and radical regimes legitimate in disaster affected regions?

Towards a politically aware intervention.

A practical way to address this quandary is to evolve international consensus on responsibility for political outcomes. Purely humanitarian organisations (like the ICRC) could take a value-neutral approach towards short-term rescue and relief. Their intervention policies should be made transparent to their donors, recipients and the international community. On the other hand, governments and government-linked organisations (like USAID) could be more discriminating in their partnerships and attach conditions to bring about desired political outcomes. This means that different governments could choose their local partners and strategy according to their own values and interests.

Post-disaster events in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia call for an international humanitarian response framework that balances immediate relief with long-term political outcomes. Even as the world moves towards this, individual international actors would do well to define whether or not their mission includes responsibility for political outcomes. Ambiguity will almost certainly lead to outcomes as in Pakistan, where the strengthening of the military-mullah nexus contributed in no small part towards deepening that country’s political crisis and worsening regional and international security.

You can download the whole case study here (250 KB, PDF)

A strategic shift towards extremism

The silent majority in Pakistan is not moderate

Move over Wikileaks, the sit-back-and-take-notice piece of information comes from Pew Global Attitudes Project. It’s latest report on attitudes towards extremism shows just how bad the world’s Pakistan problem is.

We are used to hearing the cliche that the majority of Pakistanis are moderate. Well, this is what the survey shows:

Pakistanis overwhelmingly support making segregation of men and women in the workplace the law in their country (85%), and comparable percentages favor instituting harsh punishments such as stoning people who commit adultery (82%), whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (82%), and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion (76%). Support for gender segregation and for severe punishments is pervasive across all demographic and regional groups.

Majorities among those who identify with modernizers and among those who side with Islamic fundamentalists in a struggle between the two groups endorse making harsh punishments the law in Pakistan. However, those who identify with fundamentalists are much more likely than those who side with the modernizers to support harsh punishments under the law. For example, 88% of those who say they identify with Islamic fundamentalists favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion, compared with 67% of those who side with the modernizers. [PewGlobal emphasis added]

If that’s not bad enough, there’s more: the proportion of people who identify themselves with ‘modernisers’ has decreased from 71% to 63%. As the survey report says “even though Pakistanis largely reject extremist organizations, they embrace some of the severe laws advocated by such groups.”

Almost all Pakistanis say that terrorism is a big problem. They disapprove of terrorist and militant groups that directly or indirectly target Pakistanis. Disapproval ratings for al-Qaeda, ‘The Taliban’ (presumably the Mullah Omar group), Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistan Taliban) and Afghan Taliban are 53%, 65%, 51% and 49% respectively. When it comes to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a group that attacks India the disapproval rate falls to 35%. The LeT enjoys higher support too—at 25% it beats al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban who are tied at 18% for the second place.

As many as 40% of the respondents answered “don’t know” or refused to answer to the question whether they viewed the Lashkar-e-Taiba favourably. Even if we accept the the improbable contention that four in ten Pakistanis somehow do not know about the LeT despite its nationwide presence, the fact that such a large proportion of the population is ambivalent about this outfit strengthens the hands of its supporters.

What does all this mean? Well, that the majority of Pakistanis disapprove of extremist groups only to the extent that they cause trouble for and in their own country. When seen in the context of their perception of the threat from India and the salience of the Kashmir issue, their ambivalence towards the LeT is understandable. Also understandable is why neither the Pakistani civilian government nor the Pakistan army will act against the LeT. It supports our argument that there is a limit to which the Pakistani army can genuinely fight jihadi groups—how long can they fight those who share the same vision? In this context, it is not difficult for the military-jihadi complex to engineer events to pursue its own geopolitical agenda.

What is not understandable though is just why anyone—in Washington, New Delhi or even in Pakistan itself—thinks that endogenous change is possible. The United States is deeply unpopular despite all the financial, political and diplomatic support it gives. President Zardari is deeply unpopular despite his perhaps genuine attempts to improve relations with India, which ostensibly, is what three in four Pakistanis say they support. General Kayani and the military are held in high regard, despite their obvious lack of interest in quelling extremist groups and in improving relations with India.

More than averages it is the margins that are important. At the margin, Pakistanis have grown closer and more accommodative of extremism and its practitioners. And Obama administration officials want the Pakistani government to continue the “strategic shift” away from militant groups. It’s not happening, Barack!