The beans that will spill in Chicago

Regarding Tahawwur Rana’s trial in Chicago

Here are some comments I made in response to questions asked by a British journalist regarding the the trial of a Chicago businessman of Pakistani origin, on charges related to the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Q: How important is this trial for those who watch the India-Pak relationship. Are we really going to learn something new?

While it’s unlikely that the trial will reveal anything that’ll add to what we already know about the big picture, some details might emerge as to the exact pathways in which the military-jihadi complex operates.

The trial is important because it involves the third and remaining judicial branch of the US government into US-Pakistan relations. It will be increasingly difficult for administration officials to obfuscate the involvement of Pakistani military & government officials in conniving in or abetting terrorism & insurgency. Congress is already reflecting massive public outrage against Pakistan for having allowed Osama bin Laden to stay out of US hands for so long. The trial will add other source of pressure on the Obama administration.

Q: Manmohan Singh has gone out of his way to reach out to the Pakistanis; do you believe those efforts could be undermined by any revelations from the trial?

Hard to say, but unlikely in my opinion. His initiatives have been taking place despite Kasab’s capture and confession, despite the broadcast of intercepts of chilling conversations between the 26/11 terrorists and their handlers, despite Headley’s confession, despite stonewalling and brazenness from senior Pakistani officials. I’m not sure what new information can emerge that’ll undermine his outreach, which I think is dogged and dogmatic.

Having said that, the one way it can cause New Delhi to jam the brakes if the revelations come in sync with a new development on the ground that raise tensions. I’ve previously argued that another terrorist attack in an Indian city that can be traced back to Pakistan will put his continuance in office in jeopardy.

How possible is it for there to be good relations between India and Pakistan while the military continues to back militant groups?

As long as Pakistan continues to use terrorism as an instrument of policy, it cannot have good relations with any country, leave alone India. An increasing number of people in Pakistan have received this message. To the extent that editorials and op-ed pieces in Pakistani English dailies reflect a section of public opinion, there is a huge change compared to ten years ago. The Urdu press is a different story.

New Delhi’s policy does not show any sign of trying to overcome this fundamental problem, by making the containment and dismantling of the military-jihadi complex a central policy objective. Instead, the Singh government seems only to want to buy time. It’s unclear what it intends to do with the time, because it has done nothing to spur India’s long-term economic growth.

Pax Indica: Double trouble

Between the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state

Excerpts from today’s Pax Indica column:

Margulies
Image credit: Margulies

…What this means for the rest of the world is that it is a challenge to implement policies that distinguish between the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state. This is because the effects of policy are fungible between the two. When the international community imposed sanctions on Pakistan after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the average Pakistani suffered more than the average military officer and the average jihadi militant. The military-jihadi complex was able to externalise the punishment. But when the international community rewarded Pakistan for agreeing to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the average Pakistani benefited less than the soldier and the militant. The military-jihadi complex cornered the goodies. Not only are the effects of external actors transferable, they are controllable by the military-jihadi complex.

This is the crux of the problem. Of course, the policies adopted by New Delhi and Washington do not show that they have even registered this. They do sometimes distinguish between the civilians and the military, arguing that the former have to be strengthened relative to the latter. Grief awaits those who follow this script, because the military-jihadi complex has both civilian and military manifestations. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for instance, are marching to a different band, compared to Interior Minister Rehman Malik and President Asif Ali Zardari.

Many observers hoped that Pakistan’s civilian government would use the Abbottabad incident to go one up over the military establishment. Instead, Prime Minister Gilani stoutly defended the ISI and shook his fist at the United States. “Civilians vs military” does not explain this as much “military-jihadi complex vs putative Pakistani state”. It makes sense if you look under the civilian attire and realise that Mr Gilani has been the military’s man from the time Mr Zardari became president.

As the United States enters a fresh phase in its relationship with Pakistan, it is all the more important to get the game and the players right. It’s not only about strengthening the civilian government, but really about bolstering the putative Pakistani state. It is not only about giving money to the civilian government but making sure that the civilian government itself is not comprised of people batting for the military-jihadi complex. It’s not only about punishing the military establishment, but making sure that the military establishment does not transfer the blow to the putative Pakistani state. Unfortunately, the Pakistani elite cannot be relied upon to play a constructive role in this process: they are more likely to bandwagon onto the military-jihadi complex in order to preserve the predatory nature of the status quo system.

Of course, it’s not easy. We still need to think about how we can contain the military-jihadi complex without snuffing the life out of the putative Pakistani state. But treating them as two different things will inject a clarity in the way we approach the problem. [Read the rest at Yahoo!]

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!]

Pax Indica: Understanding Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex

Identifying the source of the threat

Excerpt from today’s Pax Indica column at Yahoo!:

The military-jihadi complex is a dynamic network of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance.

What does the military-jihadi complex comprise of? Obviously, it includes the Pakistani armed forces, their intelligence agencies, their commercial enterprises (that Ayesha Siddiqa refers to as ‘MilBus’) and cliques of retired military officers and their associated political-economic interests. These might be said to constitute the first node.

The second node consists of radical Islamist organisations and their large networks of militant groups, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Given that these groups rely on Islamism to recruit and motivate their cadres, they are also connected with international Islamist causes and networks such as al-Qaeda. Organised crime syndicates are another aspect of this node.

The third node is formed by political and bureaucratic actors who might be members of various political parties and occupy positions in the government, but represent the interests of the military-jihadi complex. The fourth node includes civil society groups, think tanks, NGOs and sections of the media. [Yahoo!]

Risk of youth bulge unrest in India

The inaugural piece of my new fortnightly monthly column in DNA

Yesterday, I wrote about how to spot the next revolution. Demographics was one indicator. Specifically the existence of a youth bulge (young people constituting a large fraction of the total population) has been found to be correlated with high levels of unrest and violence.

“What about India?” many asked. At 26, the median Indian is not only older than the median Middle Eastern Arab, but will cross 31 by the year 2026. Rising opportunities, growing incomes, a hopeful mindset, democracy and freedom of expression mean that the chances of mass unrest are slim.

But it’s important not to be caught up with the good news in the big picture, for the macro data masks the variation at the micro level. In the first installment of my new fortnightly column in DNA, I argue that the data are serious enough for us to consider youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security, and that the time to take mitigatory steps is now.

The dark side of the demographic dividend: So demographics might partly explain why the countries of the Middle East are unstable, but why should it concern us? Well, because the youth bulge phenomenon might put at serious risk India’s ability to benefit from the celebrated “demographic dividend”. If reasonably healthy and reasonably educated young people do not find enough opportunities then India has an abundance of grievances available to agitate them. While the 15-24 population of India as a whole will peak this year and then decline over the next decade, there are many parts of the country where the age structure indicates the risk of youth bulge unrest.

…the data are sufficient enough for us to regard youth bulge violence as a long-term risk to national security. Going by the National Commission on Population’s projections to the year 2026, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi will experience a net increase in young people. The numbers in the 15-24 age group will grow in Bihar, Assam, Haryana, Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Gujarat. States that cannot both reduce grievances and create enough opportunities are likely to get into trouble. [DNA]

You should also look at Dilip Rao’s insightful post at Law and Other Things that I cite in my article.

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.

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”.

When BlackBerry went to New Delhi

BlackBerry must comply with Indian law. India needs a new debate on privacy.

Yes, terrorists can use anything to communicate with each other, plan attacks and help carry them out.

Hafiz Mohammed Saeed can write letters, in code, and send it by post to his sleeper agents in India. He probably does that. But not all means of communications are alike in their ability to help terrorists carry out attacks. A terrorist with a satellite phone with real-time voice and data connection is far more dangerous than a terrorist who carries letters in his pocket. So the argument that terrorists can use anything to communicate is not a valid counter to the argument that government agencies can prevent, investigate and prosecute terrorists better if they are capable of intercepting or blocking real-time communications.

For instance, there is a reasonable argument that the damage to life and property in Mumbai during the 26/11 attacks might have been lower if the terrorists had been denied access to real-time communications, from satellite phones, to cellular phones to broadcast television. There is also a reasonable argument that the ability to intercept the phone calls made by the terrorists plays an important role in prosecuting them in courts of law and in courts of public opinion. India’s law enforcement agencies have had the ability to tap your phone for ages, but apart from the odd political scandal, it is difficult to build a case that this has somehow led to the infringements of the rights of ordinary citizens.

The current debate over Blackberry’s messaging system must be placed in this context. The ongoing discussion between the Indian government and Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that provides BlackBerry services, involves two inter-related issues.

First, whatever might be RIM’s values, business practices and corporate policies, its business in India is governed by Indian law. The contention that “no one else has a problem with our service” is no defence—India has security considerations that might be peculiar to it, and as long as the requirements are constitutionally legitimate, RIM must comply. It is disingenuous to conflate the legitimate authority of a constitutional democracy—imperfect as India’s is—with that of the demands made by totalitarian or authoritarian states. The two are morally and practically different. [See this editorial in the Globe and Mail].

RIM could insist—as it has just done—that it is not treated any differently from others in the field, but it cannot get away with the excuse that its corporate policy overrides the rule of law in India.

Second and the more important issue is for India to establish due processes to determine just who, under what circumstances and under what checks and balances gets to actually block or intercept communications. A national debate over digital privacy, powers of government and mechanisms for redressal is now urgent, as the Indian economy and society become ever more reliant on communications networks.

It is clear that citizens need greater, more credible safeguards. It is also clear that the government needs to be more capable of addressing threats that arise from advances in communications technology. What is not clear is whether the political establishment sees these as priorities worthy of wider public deliberation. The usual practice of passing legislation without adequate parliamentary debate is neither likely to reassure citizens of their rights nor offer new ideas to law-enforcement agencies.

This blog has consistently argued against blunt measures like banning telecommunication services, even and especially in insurgent & terrorist affected areas. Governments must learn how to operate in an information-rich, networked world. Therefore, to the extent that the Indian government’s threat to block BlackBerry services is a device to press RIM to better co-operate with the law-enforcement agencies, it is tolerable. Such a threat is credible only if it can hurt both the government itself and RIM. This appears to be the case.

However, it would be a serious mistake if the government were to make such a ban permanent. Not because India needs the BlackBerry, but because the underlying rationale is self-defeating.

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.

Excerpt:

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)

Pax Indica: The call General Kayani cannot make

A pessimistic prognosis regarding Pakistan’s transformation

Imagine that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani wakes up one fine morning and decides that the Talibanisation of his country now risked destroying the military establishment that nurtured it since 1947. The militant groups that the army had used to attack India and Afghanistan on the cheap were not only creating trouble for Pakistan around the world, but had wrecked Pakistani society and its economy. General Kayani can tolerate all that, but reckons he will soon have to choose be-tween cutting them down to size or joining their bandwagon, perhaps as their “amir-ul-momineen.” Imagine that he chooses the former option, if only to con-tinue enjoying the “al-Faida” that has come the Pakistani army’s way since 9/11.

“Get Pasha on the line,” he barks at his orderly. Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, chief of the Agency That Should Not Be Named, picks up the phone from his well-appointed office in the unmarked building near Islamabad’s Aabpara market.

“Pasha, shut them all down, and this is an order.” General Kayani doesn’t stop for pleasantries or preamble, fearing that the ever-reasonable Pasha will find ways to dissuade him.

“Sir, yes sir! And what then, sir?” Pasha asks. Kayani has known Pasha long enough to know this was not a rhetorical question.

How will the Pakistani government — which can’t even collect taxes, electric-ity and water bills from anyone who refuses to pay them — demobilise hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate, violent, combat-hardened and thoroughly radi-calised young men? The civilian political leadership, bureaucracy and police sim-ply do not have the capacity, competence and power to put anyone other than low-ranking jihadi leaders under arrest, that too temporarily. The only institution that has the prerequisites necessary to take on the jihadi groups is the Pakistan army.

Those on the margins are likely to explore alternatives to martyrdom, but the hard core of the jihadi firmament won’t give in without a bloody fight.

***

Forty-year-old Brigadier Adnan, tasked to dismantle and neutralise a jihadi hub in South Punjab, tugs at his beard. He has deep misgivings about the mission he has been charged with, even as he gathers his officers for the operational brief-ing. As he explains how they will take out the militant headquarters and such, he sees that most of his subordinates have puzzled looks on their faces. Finally, the brigade-major, an energetic 25-year old infantryman, speaks up. “Sir, why are we targeting these boys?”

“Because, uh, they are putting Pakistan in danger.”

“How sir? They are only fighting against the Amrika, the Israel and the India. They are only doing what we should. They are doing it because our Crore Com-manders have decided that al-Faida is more important than the real mission. And sir, you do know that our men watch television.”

Brigadier Adnan gives his beard another tug. This was not going to be easy.

***

2000 militants surrendered in one week, and it fell to Colonel Bashir to deal with them. They had been lodged in a hurriedly erected camp outside the village for identification, debriefing and triage. If his job was not difficult enough, the bloody Americans wanted to poke their noses into his business. Their spies were everywhere. Yet he knew his problem was the easy one – the really wicked prob-lem would begin when these boys went home to their towns and villages and fig-ured out there was nothing for them to do there. Some would find ad hoc employ-ment with the local feudal landlord, who could use their special talents. Most, however, would do — what? Other than working the farm for the landlord, there was little to keep them occupied, much less employed.

Colonel Bashir was not even thinking about their minds. Would minds, once radicalised, ever shrink back to their original state?

***

Now you know why General Kayani will never give such an order in real life. The Pakistani state and its society simply does not have what it takes to dismantle, demobilise and de-radicalise the hundreds of thousands of militants that operate in that country.

In a 2007 study on militant recruitment in Pakistan, C Christine Fair, now as-sistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies notes: “Limited evidence suggests that both public school and madrasah students tend to support jihad, tanzeems, and war with India, and are more intolerant toward Pakistan’s minorities and women. Thus, if Ethan Bueno de Mesquita’s model is correct, creating educational and employment opportunities may not put an end to militancy because tanzeems can recruit from lower-quality groups. In the long term, however, interventions of this kind may diminish the quality of terror pro-duced, rendering tanzeems a mere nuisance rather than a menace to regional secu-rity. This would be a positive development.”

That would be a positive development, yes, but, as she points out in the very next sentence, “(the) problem with school reform and employment generation ef-forts is not only that they may be beyond Islamabad’s capability and resolve but also that there may be no feasible scope for U.S. or international efforts to per-suade Islamabad to make meaningful reforms on its own.”

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this is going to get a whole lot worse, as the population grows, the education system continues to radicalise minds, the media reinforces prejudices and the military establishment exploits geo-political opportunities to stay on the same dangerous course.

In the face of this grim reality, the antics of the motley bunch of slick political operators that pass off as the Pakistani government are tragicomic. Politicians like Yusuf Raza Gilani and Shah Mahmood Qureshi mask their impotence by outrageous grandstanding intended to score points with the military-jihadi com-plex.

It is a good idea for India to engage the various players in Pakistan to manage — to the extent that it can be managed — the fallout of the turmoil across its north-western borders; so, too, to engage all of Pakistan’s external sponsors. Even so, neither India nor the rest of the world can escape the consequences of Pakistan’s transformation. Driven as much by strategy as by sentiment, Prime Minister Man-mohan Singh is genuinely committed to leaving a legacy of good relations with Pakistan. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

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