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.

It’s not drone strikes, stupid!

Why patriotic Pakistanis must channel their anger against the military-jihadi complex

It is reasonable to argue that patriotic Pakistanis are angry with the United States for conducting a campaign of drone attacks in their country, even if the intended targets of the attacks are taliban militants and if the impact on innocent civilians (via the Lowy Interpreter) is smaller than what the Pakistani media makes it out to be.

But it is entirely another thing to justify acts of terrorism—like Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to explode a car bomb at New York’s Times Square—which is what the Pakistani foreign minister did. “This is a blow back” said Shah Mehmood Qureishi. “This is a reaction. This is retaliation. And you could expect that. Let’s not be naive. They’re not going to sort of sit and welcome you eliminate them. They’re going to fight back.” Even as the US authorities try to find answers to when Mr Shahzad was ‘radicalised’, his own confession that he was motivated by anger against drone strikes is enough of an explanation.

This, however, does not absolve Pakistan. On the contrary, it is a damning indictment of the Pakistani government’s policies—that continue to this day—that have resulted in it being rightly accorded the dubious distinction of being the epicentre of international terrorism.

First, contrary to what is made out to be, Pakistan didn’t start employing jihadi groups during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s—it has used Islamist militancy and terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy since 1947 (Read this review of Praveen Swami’s book). But it is true that it was during the anti-Soviet war that the Pakistani military establishment acquired—from the United States and others—the training, mindset, resources and infrastructure to conduct international terrorism. The United States is responsible for helping Pakistan build that infrastructure, but its roots are as old as Pakistan is. (See Sadanand Dhume’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal)

Second, not only did General Musharraf’s regime refuse to dismantle the jihadi infrastructure he failed to take any meaningful steps to deradicalise the population. The school syllabus continued to inject poison. Madrassas and mosques linked to extremist organisation continue to spew venom against the United States, Israel and India for crimes real and imagined (largely the latter). All this is amplified by the ‘free’ media of which the less said the better. Cleaning up all this would have been a Herculean task for the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari—but it doesn’t even stand a chance now that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has seized effective control of the levers of power.

These are ideal conditions for someone like Faisal Shahzad to acquire all that is required to set off a bomb in New York.

Finally, the United States has been forced to conduct drone strikes because the Pakistani army refuses to go after al-Qaeda and taliban militants that are holed out in its territory. These strikes would be unnecessary—at least by the United States—if the Pakistani army were to genuinely engage in a real war against the jihadis and militants that operate in Pakistan’s cities as much as in FATA.

The Pakistani army’s refusal to act against the jihadi groups, therefore, lies at the root of why patriotic Pakistanis end up getting angry with the United States. Its support for and tolerance of the jihadi groups makes Pakistan the most attractive destination for wannabe terrorists. To complete the circle, the Pakistani government and media can be counted on to deflect the blame towards the United States, setting the stage for more anti-Americanism.

The thoughtful among the patriotic Pakistanis must understand that if their country is regularly in the dock for being a source of international terrorism, it is because their government is in a deadly embrace with jihadi groups—what we call the military-jihadi complex. Destroying this complex, demobilising the jihadi groups and deradicalising Pakistani society is more in Pakistan’s interests than it is in India’s and the United States’s. For its part, the Obama administration ought to realise that building power plants in Pakistan is a poor substitute for this urgent, necessary task.

The hosing down of Faisal Shahzad

Expect Pakistan to cover up

Ultimately, the US authorities moved faster than Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American suspected of carrying out the (failed) car bomb attack at New York Times Square on May Day. They got their man before he boarded a flight to Dubai. They might also have identified Mr Shahzad’s local accomplices. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that announcing the name of the suspect and the fact that he recently returned from Peshawar is likely to have caused the process of hosing down of Mr Shahzad’s tracks in Pakistan. For the Pakistani ‘agencies’ can not only hose down the park where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, they can ‘hose down’ an entire village as we saw in the case of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab.

In the days to come it is likely that the Pakistani government will declare that it will co-operate with the United States, that it will not even ask for proof and dossiers, blame Hakeemullah Mehsud’s taliban group and suggest a connection to drone attacks. However, if there are links connecting Mr Shahzad to people connected to the Pakistani army, intelligence or its surrogate militant groups, they’ll be gone by tomorrow.

The US authorities tried—unsuccessfully—to keep the operation to nab the suspect under wraps until they got their man. Unfortunately, they didn’t think it necessary, or perhaps felt that it wouldn’t be possible, not to warn off the Pakistani side.

Lahore intensification

Trying to understand why terrorists are attacking Lahore

As Pakistan’s internal jihadi civil war intensifies, it is important to note that the groups targeting Pakistani cities—specifically the Pakistani army and law-enforcement agencies—are not the same ones as those that the Pakistani military establishment uses to attack India.

It is highly likely that the perpetrators of this week’s attacks on Lahore are terrorists belonging to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Sipah-e-Sahaba or those connected to the Karachi Deobandi groups. They are against the Pakistani army’s collaboration with the United States, duplicitous though that collaboration might be. Their recent attacks might have been provoked by the killing of Qari Zafar, one of the leaders of this faction, in a drone attack earlier this month. Similarly, the yesterday’s targeting of a Sipah-e-Sahaba leader in Karachi was likely an operation carried out by ISI in retaliation.

These groups are different from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that the ISI uses to attack India.

Related Post: Is a fratricidal war between the two sets of jihadi groups in the offing? Or, as Marvin Weinbaum testifies, are the two groups one Deobandi, one Ahl-e-Hadith, coming together?

Pune and after (2)

The implications of terror-on-tap

A few remarks on yesterday’s terrorist attack on Pune (and an attempt to summarise the discussions over email, twitter & telephone).

There were two bombs. The one that went off was an improvised explosive device (IED) likely to be using ammonium-nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) with an RDX booster. The other was a bag containing 7kg of explosives found inside an auto-rickshaw. The use of these relatively simple explosives, set to explode when a victim handled them, suggest that this was an “instant noodles” type of attack.

It is likely that the attacks were carefully calibrated and deliberately dialed to a relatively limited level. It is big enough to upset India, but not big enough to get the world’s capitals too concerned. In other words, the international pressure on Pakistan would not be significant, even as the Indian government will be compelled to react.

It is clear that the military-jihadi complex has acquired the capability to mount terrorist attacks against India at several levels of escalation. That is the most disturbing aspect of the Pune attack—not only can the military-jihadi complex use terrorist attacks for political purposes, it has the ability to both pick targets and the level of violence. India does not have a matching response to Pakistan’s strategic use of terrorism.

What would a matching response look like? There are two broad directions: one, develop the ability to respond in a tit-for-tat fashion, across the levels of escalation. Two, get to the root of the problem by destroying the military-jihadi complex. There is, of course, the suffer-in-silence approach which, as much as it is likely, will be increasingly counter-productive.

German Bakery in Pune has been called a ‘soft target’. But a target is ‘soft’ merely because the ordinary people in and around it are unaware, unconcerned or incompetent. As much as there is a need for the Indian government to improve its strategic responses, there is a greater need for ordinary citizens to be alert, prepared, responsible without being spooked out. It is about a kind of balance that government, media and civil society are simply incapable of.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony and The Filter Coffee on how India should respond.

Pune and after

And a question for Washington

Pune was attacked today, days after days after a top leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba named Pune as a target city at a public rally the Pakistani authorities permitted him to address (linkthanks @offstumped). (And yet, a significant element of Maharashtra’s law enforcement machinery was not engaged in securing the state against a potential terrorist attack. It was engaged in securing the state against potential hooligan attacks. If there was ever a time to hold the Shiv Sena and its grotesque leadership to account, it is now.)

Despite the Lashkar-e-Taiba threat, it is too early to definitively attribute the attack to the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. But it is clear that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex has every reason to escalate tensions with India through the use of terrorism. Without the excuse of “tensions to the east”, Pakistan would have nothing left to explain to Washington its double-dealing on the taliban.

As an INI co-blogger said, New Delhi should ask the Obama administration just how committed Washington is to targeting the military-jihadi complex, because otherwise, what’s the point of talks and suchlike?

How India might ‘lose’ Afghanistan

Would you co-operate with a mere regional power if you feel you have beaten two superpowers?

Kanti Bajpai is one of India’s best academic experts on international relations—and one who this blog holds in high regard. His op-ed in the Times of India today (linkthanks Raja Karthikeya Gundu), however, overlooks something big.

Arguing that India must stop relying on the United States to stabilise Afghanistan and “discipline Pakistan” he calls for “Indian policy on Afghanistan must move towards a regional understanding that includes in the first instance Pakistan and perhaps Iran.”

The fundamental compact between India and Pakistan must be of a simple, robust nature: that both countries have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. India has an interest in overall stability and the protection of northern, non-Pashtun Afghans as well as various other minorities including Sikhs and Hindus. Pakistan also has an interest in the country’s stability and in the Pashtuns finding their rightful place in any future government of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan could agree therefore that India will continue to provide developmental aid and that Pakistan will have influence on political developments, the goal of both countries being to help evolve a lasting, just and inclusive political system…In addition, India must resume talks with Pakistan. [TOI]

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that either the Pakistani military-jihadi establishment will either play along or that it will cease to exist. And that is a big assumption. Moreover, the assumption is all the more unlikely to hold specifically in the event Dr Bajpai’s prediction of a US pullout by 2012 comes about.

Why so? First, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will perceive a US withdrawal as its second victory over a superpower. This will strengthen its hand in Pakistan’s domestic politics and further encourage it to escalate the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir. Indeed, triumph in Afghanistan will make the military-jihadi complex less likely to engage in meaningful dialogue with India over bilateral issues.

Second, once Western troops leave, and a pro-Pakistan regime gains control, why would the Pakistani military establishment want to permit Indian developmental aid? Isn’t it far more likely that it will approach China and Saudi Arabia for financial assistance, which the latter would readily provide?

If the Indian government goes ahead with Dr Bajpai’s recommendations before dismantling the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, it is likely to ‘lose’ Afghanistan to Pakistan & China.

The idea of India attempting to reach a regional understanding with Pakistan and Iran is a good one. It is exactly what the Indian government ought to do—right after the military-jihadi complex has been destroyed.


Update: Dr Bajpai responds:

Thank you for your thoughts on my piece.

I think Churchill said that democracy was the worst system except for all the others. A regional compact on Afghanistan is the worst alternative except for all the others.

The Vietnamese beat two superpowers as well—the French and the US. But it has not exactly got them very far.

The real issue is: what is most likely to give us a shot at stability and a long-term solution? The US cannot be part of a long-term solution because it is not in the region.

The reason that Pakistan might come to terms with India on it is that New Delhi is not likely this time to just pull out of Afghanistan in terms of its diplomatic and developmental presence. Pakistan cannot therefore count on having its way in Afghanistan. Also, a new Afghanistan, at some point, even if it dominated by the Taliban, will be a problem for Islamabad—on territory, on Islam.

The Islamic-jehadi complex in Pakistan has to be wrestled to the ground by the Pakistanis. The US will not be able to degrade it. As long as the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is not much chance that more moderate Pakistanis–in the ISI, in the rest of the Army, in civil society, in the political parties–will be able to root out the jehadis.

The Chinese are going to muscle in on Afghanistan sooner or later anyway. They are already putting in money. The Chinese are the next superpower, and they certainly cannot be kept out of Afghanistan if they don’t want to stay out. This is something we in India will have to accept. The Chinese are going to be everywhere—from Bhutan and Nepal to Bangladesh and Burma, from the Maldives to Sri Lanka. Their power is going to outstrip ours by some degrees for the next 35 years. They will find Afghanistan a difficult place to operate but given their fears about Xinjiang they will keep their involvement fairly limited, hoping that Pakistan will do the job.

Terrorism for the cameras

On this week’s terrorist attack on Srinagar

“Barring that it took place around the corner from the offices of Srinagar-based television stations,” writes The Hindu in today’s editorial, “there was little to distinguish the incident from dozens of similar fire engagements that regularly take place in the State.”

During the course of the attack, the Pakistani handler instructed the terrorists to prolong the attack for as long as they could, to conserve ammunition by carefully firing single or two-round bursts. “You must make every effort,” said the handler “to stretch this through the night and the whole day tomorrow.”

As good an example as you can get, to demonstrate that terrorism is theatre. As Bruce Schneier wrote:

The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. [Bruce Schneier]

This was not a brainless 3act of terrorism involving indiscriminate attacks aimed at creating mass casualty. This was a clever attempt to achieve the same effect but with the limited resources at their disposal. The terrorists counted on the television media to act as the force multiplier. They didn’t entirely fail, as Pragmatic Euphony points out.

But when Indian intelligence authorities released intercepts of conversations between the terrorists and their handlers, the tables were turned. It is unclear if jihadi organisations fire (pun unintended) their handlers, but Junaid presents a fit case for dismissal. If your strategic intent is to prove that the violent ‘freedom struggle’ in Kashmir is not dead, it is not too clever to give the game away by using a phrase like “breathe life into a dead horse.”

(Of course, it is possible, though unlikely, that the intercepts that were released were false or doctored. That still doesn’t change the final score.)

Where’s David Miliband now?

Shouldn’t he tell his boss “to be alive to the impact of his government’s counter-terrorism strategies on minorities?”

The New York Times reports that a “radical Islamic group planning a protest march through the streets of a town that has achieved iconic status in Britain for honoring the passing hearses of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan ran into a stiff rebuff from the British government on Monday.” The British prime minister has stated that he is “appalled” and the home secretary has indicated that he is inclined to ban the rally.

Where’s that cabinet colleague of theirs, David Miliband? The British foreign secretary had found it appropriate to speak at the site of a terrorist massacre at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel and lecture his hosts on the “need to be alive to the impact of our counter-terrorism strategies on minorities.”

We strongly agree with Gordon Brown that “any attempt to use this location to cause further distress and suffering to those who have lost loved ones would be abhorrent and offensive.”

That’s exactly what we want to impress upon Mr Miliband.