Lashkar-e-Taiba vs Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

Is the fratricidal war here?

It was in 2009 that this blog suggested that a fratricidal war among Pakistani militant groups is possible: the likelihood of this happening would increase as long as Pakistani army persisted with its policy of appeasing the United States while simultaneously nurturing Islamist militancy. The Pakistan army has long relied on groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to act on its behalf—so it is conceivable that they will be employed against Pashtun insurgents, like those belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. (Militant proxies are already being used against insurgents in Balochistan and to terrorise religious minorities in Gilgit-Baltistan).

There were some rumblings of conflict between militant groups the following year. However, this month, the fighting is out in the open.

Mukarram Khurasani, spokesman for the TTP’s Mohmand chapter chief Omar Khaliq, told Dawn.com that hundreds of militants had attacked the Pakistani Taliban positions in Shongrai and the bordering village of Jarobi Darra.

Khurasani also accused Lashkar-i-Taiba commander Haji Abdul Rahim of leading the attackers.

The Taliban’s Mohmand chapter chief also claimed that the attack had been repulsed and said that one attacker was killed while three were injured.

Meanwhile, Lashkar-i-Taiba spokesperson Mahmud Ghaznavi rejected the allegations that the group was involved in the clashes. [Dawn]

The report also claims that the Afghan Taliban had also lined up with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but pulled back after TTP sought Mullah Omar’s intervention. As I wrote in this week’s Business Standard column, this is a tricky situation where the TTP is at war with the Pakistan army but swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, who for his part, is beholden to the Pakistan army. Yes, it’s complicated.

The TTP is spoiling both General Kayani’s and Mullah Omar’s party. Not to forget, there are factions within the Pakistani military establishment that are backing the TTP.

What Karzai seeks from India

How India’s Afghanistan policy might shape up

Suryatapa Bhattarcharya sought my views on Hamid Karzai’s visit to India for his report that appears in today’s edition of The National.

Here is the full version of the Q&A.

What is it that Karzai is seeking from India when we talk about military aid?

What Karzai wants is for other powers to fill the power vacuum that will be created after US troops withdraw. Part of this will be filled by internal realignments—as anti-Taliban forces are likely to coalesce as they did in the 1990—and part of this will have to be filled by external powers.

Karzai’s trip to India is towards both these ends: to get India to use its political and diplomatic capital to shape a modern, liberal, democratic dispensation in Afghanistan; and possibly to employ military power as well.

(Related post: Let the Buzkashi begin—the implications of Obama’s policy shift on Afghanistan)

You have mentioned that it would be better to send Indian troops to Afghanistan (correct me if I wrong) but what sort of implications can that have?

The primary risk to India is a replay of the early 1990s, when militant alumni from the Afghan war were directed towards Jammu & Kashmir by the Pakistani military establishment. Today we still face that question: where do these fighters go? Tens of thousands of Taliban militants and hundreds of thousands of Pakistani militants pose a risk to their home countries as well as to the external world.

If there is a possibility of a 1990s-like situation recurring, India should not hesitate to deploy the necessary military assets to counter the threat. It also makes sense to use a judicious combination of intelligence and security operations to prevent such a threat from materialising.

Karzai is seeking military support as NATO troops pull out. Are they seeking more support for their military institutions in Afghanistan or looking for more support vis a vis the deal signed between India and Afghanistan in 2011?

The situation is still in a state of flux, regardless of what Karzai is asking for at this time. There is no doubt that Afghan army, intelligence and security forces need technical assistance and training. The entire Afghan state apparatus needs capacity-building.

We must see India’s role in Afghanistan as a comprehensive support for the Afghan state. This is consistent with India’s policy over the last decade — alone among international actors, India has chosen to work through the Afghan government.

The question is, of course, whether all this will survive without hard military support. Let’s not underestimate the Afghans—with a supportive external environment they can protect their country.

How does this affect India’s relationship with Pakistan, given the recent troubles Afghanistan has had with Pakistan over border issues?

It’s a balancing act. It’s one that New Delhi is capable of managing.

Let the Buzkashi begin!

The implications of Barack Obama’s policy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barack Obama has executed a very smart policy change—he has effectively dehyphenated Af-Pak by extricating the United States from the long-running Afghan civil war and focusing Washington’s attention on Pakistan. The United States will put in a genuine effort to mitigate the risk of a Taliban take-over in Afghanistan but will essentially leave Afghans to fight out their own affairs. It will, instead, maintain a security presence in the region tasked with keeping military pressure on jihadi militants that pose a threat to its own security.

What does this imply?

First, as far as the United States is concerned, not only Hamid Karzai but the post-2002 Afghan state is dispensable. If the Afghan state cannot secure itself against Taliban revolutionaries or other factions that seek to destroy it, Washington will not be concerned beyond a point. This message, as we will see, has (predictable) consequences.

Second, although the United States will withdraw its troops in 2014, it is not in a form that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex expected. Pakistani generals had long assumed that US withdrawal from Afghanistan automatically implied that they could take over the place the next day through a combination of Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. They had also assumed that they held the cards because international forces depended on their goodwill to make a face-saving exit. President Obama has delivered the Pakistani generals a nasty surprise—the residual US presence on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and drone strikes on Pakistani soil will calibrate how much Pakistan can influence the security and stability of Afghanistan. We have not reached the point yet, but it may well be that international forces need not rely on Pakistani routes on their way out.

Third, as a consequence of Washington extricating itself from Afghanistan, we are bound to see political factions emerge around tribal and ethnic lines, fighting and allying among themselves and seeking external support. This process will strengthen if the Taliban were either to take or share power. Let’s not forget that the mujahideen separated into factions after the Soviets left in 1989 and fought each other. Let’s also not forget that there was no ‘Northern Alliance’ before the Taliban became a dominant political force. So just because there isn’t visible opposition to the Taliban today, it doesn’t follow that there won’t be one if they come to power. Just because Messrs Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani are Pakistan’s proxies today, it doesn’t follow that they won’t reach for each others’ throats tomorrow. Of course this means “civil war”, if only because the Afghan civil war has been ongoing for a couple of decades now.

Fourth, if and when the “civil war” does take place, the United States will become the swing power between the China-Pakistan-Saudi and the India-Russia-Iran alignments. It has so far been engaged in the self-weakening business of preventing India, Russia and Iran from cooperating over Afghanistan. Washington will have to decide which side it intends to back. The smart thing for it to do would be to back neither permanently, rather to back them selectively, while retaining for itself the power and influence that comes from its role as the balancer. For this, though, it will need to have better relations with each of these alignments than they have with each other. Therefore, its ability to swing will depend on whether it can get over its Iran dogma and work out a modus vivendi, at least in Afghanistan.

Fifth, if Pakistan need not keep appearances of being an ally in the war on terror, the military establishment might well prefer to install in power a regime that it is to its liking. To the extent that Pakistani army’s needs for an ‘acceptable civilian face’ to extract money from the United States is diminished, Imran Khan’s—and Hafiz Saeed’s—political fortunes are set to improve.

Finally, India will need to remain open to support political factions in Afghanistan that seek it, even while robustly backing the legitimate leadership of the Afghan state. The most important risk to India’s national security comes from the spillover of veteran Afghan militants. In the early 1990s, Pakistan solved two problems at one go by diverting the surplus militant manpower to Jammu & Kashmir. Given that it has been unable to even begin address the problem of deradicalising its militant manpower base, its leaders—both military and civilian—will be tempted to do the same now. The longer these militants have reason to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the better it is for India. This should be one of New Delhi’s policy goals.

It’s time to dust off histories of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The calculations and risks of the US drawdown

An initial assessment of Barack Obama’s move to begin withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan

Barack Obama has delivered on the commitment to begin the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan this year. While the implications of this move will be analysed in the subsequent days, weeks, months and years, let’s take a quick look at the crux of Mr Obama’s speech:

The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures – one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.

Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe-havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We will work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keep its commitments. For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe-haven for those who aim to kill us: they cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.[WP]

The United States has further reduced its goals in Afghanistan to the most parsimonious: limited to preventing terrorist and other attacks against the United States and its unnamed allies. At the same time, it has shifted the focus more to the East, to Pakistan.

The withdrawal is likely to be stretched over time linked to political developments in Afghanistan. However, even if the withdrawal is precipitous,the United States will retain its offensive strike capabilities—think drones and special forces—in the region. In fact, these might even be scaled up as a counter to the ‘weakness’ created by lowering the number of combat troops in Afghanistan. These capabilities will both provide teeth to US diplomacy as well as allow it to place limits on the military-jihadi complex’s ability to escalate militant violence. The question for New Delhi is whether Washington will define these limits in such a way as to prevent terrorist and militant attacks on India, or will it see the latter as a necessary price to protect itself?

Mr Obama’s calculation might work. He is, though, betting that US drone attacks and special forces operations will be possible and sufficient should Afghanistan’s political dynamic decisively swing towards surrogates of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex or radical Islamists of the al-Qaeda variety. Mr Obama has either accepted or ignored this risk, which informs the thinking of the US armed forces. The question then is: should the tide change towards the Taliban, during the process of withdrawal, will Mr Obama continue with the current course, or review the United States’ options?

What happens to the jihadi militants that are currently being engaged by US forces in Afghanistan? What will they do with their ‘free time’ once they have fewer Western troops to fight against? Demobilisation of radicalised, violent and effectively illiterate men is a challenge that receives less attention than it should. This may yet be the most important factor that undermines the success of Mr Obama’s calculations.

In many ways, transforming Afghanistan from a combat zone to a diplomatic war zone—with negotiations among the United States, the Afghan government, the Pakistani military establishment, Taliban forces and others—could be a positive for India. After all, New Delhi is much more comfortable, and arguably has many more options, in political games than military ones. Yet it is the only player without a strong stick. Also, given the UPA government’s domestic weaknesses, its ability to pursue a determined foreign policy course in Afghanistan is in some doubt.

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

Hanging around the Y-junction

The United States can only delay making the real strategic decision

It was interesting to see, towards the end of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, members of the Obama administration realise that the United States is in the same place today as it was in early 2009. Recent events validate that assessment. Frustrated with the Pakistani army’s refusal to shut down taliban safe havens, the US-led forces attacked across the border killing Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani military retaliated by shutting down the supply route, letting taliban militants destroy some trucks and show that it has the ability to inflict some pain. This was roughly the state of affairs when Barack Obama took over as president.

This is exactly what we had argued:

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat. [Operation Markarap]

What now? It is unlikely that President Obama would choose “direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex” just yet. The race to find options short of that is almost certainly on, and a “throw them a bone” alternative will be sought. There are three possible bones. First, to accept a pro-Pakistani political dispensation in Afghanistan. Second, to accept the “legitimacy of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”. Third, to press India to compromise on Kashmir.

The first option doesn’t appeal to General Ashfaq Kayani at this stage because he believes he can get there without the United States. The second option is a status symbol they can do without, not least because China continues to support the expansion of the Pakistani arsenal. The third option might just do the trick, because which Pakistani general is immune to the potential glory of being the one who won Kashmir?

So expect Washington to exert pressure on India over Kashmir. Expect pressure to restart the composite dialogue and suchlike. It’ll take the Obama administration a year or so to realise that this is a dead-end. General Kayani will probably realise it a little before Washington does. And then what?

Well, we told you already. Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat.

USAID’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa mistake

US humanitarian relief is empowering Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex

As feared, the world’s humanitarian response to Pakistan’s flood crisis is strengthening the very Islamic militant groups that constitute a long-term threat to international security. Nothing exemplifies this as Rajiv Shah, the USAID chief, visiting a camp run by Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD) front organisation, and the latter basking in the glory of an endorsement by its professed enemy.

“It is nice to meet you. Thank you for your service here,” ABC News quotes Dr Shah as saying ‘when [the USAID chief] gave this warm welcome to a senior member of FIF’. The Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) is the Jamaat-ud-Dawa by another name.

The Obama administration will have its share of blame for the political consequences of its failure to learn from the experience of the 2005 earthquake. Evidently, it has not spared a thought for what might happen in a post-deluge Pakistan where the military and the jihadi groups are more popular than democratic political parties. [See Militants, disaster relief & policy]

Notice the difference between the reactions of the JuD and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to foreign assistance. The JuD was happy to host Dr Shah’s visit. The TTP plans to kill foreign aid workers. That’s because the JuD takes its orders from the Pakistani army—literally, as this 2005 photograph shows–but the TTP probably doesn’t.

The difference might cause the United States to make more mistakes.

Why have one Afghanistan

…when you can have two?

The call for the partitioning of Afghanistan is not new. In December 2003, for instance, Randall Parker of the ParaPundit blog argued that “(it) would be less trouble in the long run if Afghanistan was just split up with the Pashtuns getting their own country while the other groups either form a single country for a few separate countries. The other groups could even take pieces of Afghanistan and merge them with their ethnic brothers who speak the same languages and have much the same cultures in bordering northern countries.”

Yet, despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.

So what should we make of the recent debate that started after Robert Blackwill, one of the most astute American strategists, called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan?

The least worst option for the United States, Mr Blackwill contends, is to give the south to the Taliban, and concentrate on holding and building the north and the east of Afghanistan. This will not only turn the Pakistani military establishment’s dream of “strategic depth” into the nightmare of Pashtun nationalism, but also upset the tenuous ethnic balance in Pakistan by weakening Punjabi dominance. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is to prevent the collapse of Pakistan, this is heretical. However, since this is also a time when the Obama administration is looking for ways out of the mess it is in—not least in terms of domestic politics—heresies might stand the best chance of gaining acceptance.

Mr Blackwill has already succeeded in exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his critics. Ahmed Rashid points out that partition won’t be popular with Afghans (as if a Taliban takeover will be) and otherwise points to the bloodiness that accompanies a redrawing of borders (as if the status quo is bloodless). The “only solution” according to him, “is dialogue between the genuine Taliban leadership, Kabul and Washington for a power-sharing deal at both the centre and in the provinces.” This, from the man who wrote the book about the genuine Taliban leadership!

Chimaya Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth reject the partition proposal and propose, instead, that “the solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan’s affairs.” That is a very good idea. The question is how? The authors propose “that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”

Now this might sound convincing if you are an optimist with faith in the United Nations, but the authors are silent about just why the Pakistani military establishment will play along? Pakistan might even sign such a treaty if the price is right, but if the force of US arms didn’t prevent the Pakistani army from interfering in Afghanistan, a piece of paper and the UN Secretary General’s platitudes are, to put it mildly, less likely to.

Perhaps the best critique of Mr Blackwill’s proposal comes from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He charges the strategic establishments with hubris where “the relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.” His case for caution is well-made: that India “should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control.”

However, this injunction must be balanced against the concern that India should not be lulled into inactions whose consequences, likewise, it cannot control. What ultimately is likely decide the issue is the nature of the strategic cultures. Washington, with its action bias, ends up suffering the consequences of its action. New Delhi, with its (in)action bias, ends up suffering not only the consequences of its own inaction, but also the consequences of the actions of others.

For now, the call for the partition of Afghanistan, as both K Subrahmanyam and Mr Mehta note, is likely a shot across the bow, a warning for General Ashfaq Kayani. Even so, New Delhi would do well to prepare for such an outcome too.

What triggered the Lahore massacre?

Bigotry was an unlikely trigger

“How can anyone blame a Muslim,” the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked rhetorically in a landmark 1993 judgement, “if he loses control of himself on hearing, reading or seeing such blasphemous material as has been produced (by the Ahmadis).”

Initial reactions to the terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore yesterday have focused on the official and popular bigotry against the heterodox sect in Pakistan. Intolerance towards the Ahmadi community is being seen as the explanation behind the massacre of worshippers, allegedly and by their own admission, by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the ‘Punjab wing of al-Qaeda’.

While that narrative explains why the Ahmadis were targeted at all, it does not answer the important question of “why now?” Ahmadis have been victims of official discrimination, political violence and popular invective for as long as Pakistan has existed. ‘Sectarian’ terrorist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have not only been in existence for a long time but are political allies of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party that is in power in Punjab province.
Organisations like these had the capability and the motives to massacre Ahmadis all this while, but until yesterday, the violence was ‘below the radar’.

There is a need, therefore, to look beyond religious bigotry as the immediate cause of yesterday’s violence.

Tthe attacks could have been triggered by the allegation—by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir—that the controversial Khaled Khawaja was, among others, working for the Ahmadis. Because Mr Mir’s words were widely publicised it is possible that hotheads in one or more of the militant groups decided to deliver a violent response. While this has happened in the past—as when a television personality’s anti-Ahmadi vitriol triggered a lynching—it was never on this scale.

If the Lahore attacks indicate that reactionary violence has escalated to this scale, then Pakistan is closer to the precipice that many people think. It is also unlikely. Instead, the scale of the attacks and the choice of the targets suggests that the Pakistani military establishment has once again, used terrorism to change the dynamics of its current situation. The large number of casualties will grab international attention. That the targets were Ahmadis will not play too badly with the domestic audience. But why?

The Pakistani military establishment uses terrorism essentially to create conditions that are favourable to its leadership and interests.

First, Taliban violence in Afghanistan primarily rises and falls with Washington’s moves away and towards Pakistan’s proxies there.

Second, terrorist attacks in Pakistan primarily rise and fall with Washington’s moves away and towards the Pakistani military establishment. Scaring the United States with the bogey of jihadis getting hold of nuclear weapons is an old, time-tested way for the army chief to be anointed with sash of indispensability. Escalating violence or triggering political crises also allow the military establishment to fend off US pressure to do things that it does not want to do.

Third, terrorist attacks in India primarily rise and fall with the Pakistani army’s need for an alibi to avoid fighting along the Durand Line. They are also connected with ensuring that the Pakistan army remains the real power in the country, regardless of what the civilian government wishes.

For the last several months, it appeared that General Kayani was having his way with the United States—with the London conference, strategic dialogue with the Obama administration, inflow of funds and so on. Compared to the violence of the previous year, things were relatively quiet in Pakistan…until Faisal Shahzad turned up and rocked the military establishment’s boat. Suddenly, not only was Hillary Clinton warning of dire consequences, but the US national security advisor and CIA chief personally put the Pakistan army on notice to move against militants in Waziristan. Meanwhile General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is looking for ways not to retire on schedule.

As long as the United States keeps the pressure on the army to move into North Waziristan, there is a higher risk of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The risk increases to the extent that there is a lack of clarity as to whether General Kayani will stay on.

Has the Inter Jihadi League started?

A good chance that it has

In March, Sultan Amir “Colonel Imam” Tarar and Khaled Khawaja—men deeply mixed up in the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—were kidnapped. By the end of April, Mr Khawaja was found dead. This week the government of Pakistan’s Punjab province announced that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the chief of the Pakistan army-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba, is in the crosshairs of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In February 2009 this blog argued that conflict between jihadi groups aligned to different quarters within the military-jihadi complex is possible, and the question was one of timing. Again in October 2009, in a post on the coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis, this blog suggested that:

Despite their principals in the military establishment being at loggerheads, the proxies themselves have so far not attacked each other. Shared ideology, old boy networks and management by the ISI on the one hand and by the al-Qaeda leadership on the other have prevented a large scale fratricidal war among the jihadis. While a hot conflict between the jihadi proxies of the GHQ and Gul & Co factions is unlikely, it is not impossible. If the management mechanisms come under stress, the jihadis could train their guns against each other. [The Acorn]

It’s hard to say for sure, but there is a chance that the playoffs in the Inter-Jihadi League may have begun in earnest.