Little ado about Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s arrest

A big catch goes unnoticed

It is amusing to see the international media report the capture of Baitullah Mehsud’s two-bit spokesman as a headline story and if at all, somewhere towards the end of the page, mention that Qari Saifullah, the allegedly late Mr Mehsud’s “close aide” had also been taken into custody. Amusing because if the Qari Saifullah who was apprehended in Islamabad is really the Qari Saifullah Akhtar as he appears to be, then he’s really a big fish. A bigger fish than Mr Mehsud himself.

Mr Akhtar is the leader of Harkat-ul-Jihad-Islami, an organisation that is the link between al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the Pakistani military establishment. His curriculum vitae is long and varied and ranges from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, to carrying out terrorist attacks in Jammu & Kashmir, to attempting to topple the Pakistani government, to helping Mullah Omar first fight the Northern Alliance and then the United States. More recently, he has been accused of attempting to assassinate Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and of carrying out the attack on the Islamabad Marriott in 2008. Did we mention he believes that he is “a Khalifa who has the traits of both Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Ahmad Shah Abdali”—a religious ideologue and warrior rolled into one?

You would think that such a man’s arrest should make headlines in Pakistan and elsewhere. So far, it hasn’t. Three of Pakistan’s biggest English newspapers have brief reports about his capture and four-day judicial remand. The Pakistani authorities do not seem too keen to play it up, perhaps because they are unsure whether they’ll have to let him go for—you guessed it—the lack of evidence. Yet what Pakistan does with Mr Akhtar important. “If the United States yet again proves unable to ensure Akhtar’s prosecution,” a senior Union Home Ministry official told The Hindu’s Praveen Swami, “we have almost no reason to expect there will be credible action against anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

Given the state he was found in—badly injured in a drone strike—Mr Akhtar’s ‘arrest’ is probably going to save his life. It is pertinent to ask whether his arrest was motivated by a desire to bring him to justice, or merely restore him to his health.

Update: At least according to one source, Mr Akhtar was ‘arrested’ a month ago.

Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites

When to worry a little and when to worry a lot

In an article for West Point’s CTC Sentinel (pdf) Bradford University’s Shaun Gregory draws attention to a serious matter—the terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

Before we discuss the controversial part, let’s look at his conclusion.

The risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine. Moreover, knowledge that such a transfer has occurred may not become evident until the aftermath of a nuclear 9/11 in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. It remains imperative that Pakistan is pressured and supported, above all by the United States, to continue to improve the safety and security of its nuclear weapons and to ensure the fidelity of those civilian and military personnel with access to, or knowledge of, nuclear weapons. The challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from Pakistani Taliban groups and from al-Qa`ida constitutes a real and present danger, and the recent assaults by the Pakistan Army on some of these groups in FATA and in the NWFP is a welcome development. Nevertheless, more steps must be taken before the threat is neutralized and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential danger to the rest of the world. [Shaun Gregory/CTC Sentinel]

Despite reassurances by the heads of governments of Pakistan, the United States and India, this is a conclusion that few serious analysts can find fault with. Unless you are the editorial board of the New York Times you will use every opportunity available to mitigate the risk that terrorism and nuclear proliferation will come together from and/or in Pakistan. Prof Gregory does well to bring this important issue into public discussion.

The controversial part of Prof Gregory’s article was his assertion that “Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have already been attacked at least thrice by its home-grown extremists and terrorists over the last two years.” Unless he has more evidence than he reveals in the article, this argument is tenuous.

Pakistan observers have known about jihadi attacks on military and nuclear complexes and personnel, but there is little evidence in the public domain to suggest that these attacks involved an agenda to take control of nuclear weapons or radioactive material. There are a number of other possible motives: opportunism, signaling, publicity and probing.

In other words, it is possible that these targets were attacked because it was possible to attack them; they were attacked as a way of scaring Pakistanis and international donors; they were attacked because this would gain them a lot more publicity; or they were attacked to find out how well-secured the nuclear weapons complex is. Only the last is connected to nuclear terrorism, but it is still at the lower end of the scale at the other extreme of which lies an attack specifically intended to snatch or damage a nuclear weapons site. As one US official told a NYT blogger, these are large complexes (and therefore present easy targets) and an attack at the front gate cannot immediately be assumed to be the worst case scenario.

Indeed, the leadership of the military-jihadi complex might want you to believe the worst-case scenario, especially when that means you will open up your wallet to prevent it from happening. So while Prof Gregory is not wrong any analysis of terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites must not ignore the possibility of nuclear blackmail: the use of deliberate, calibrated insecurity to rustle up some no-strings-attached foreign aid.

Like many other analyses of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Prof Gregory neglects the opacity with respect to how the weapons are secured: do they use permissive-action links (PALs) or are they kept in a physically de-mated state? The two methods are likely to be mutually exclusive. As discussed in earlier posts, the answer to this question opens up a very little studied—at least in the public domain—area of risk. If there is an secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal then we should all be much more worried than we already are.

What about the Balochistan on the table?

India need not be defensive, apologetic or overly concerned about correcting Pakistan’s allegations of meddling

Yesterday’s post pointed out why the mention of Balochistan in the India-Pakistan joint statement at Sharm-el-Sheikh hurts India’s interests.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s giveaway enables Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex to distract attention from the Talibanisation of the Pakistani state, and unite the people against the old external enemy, India. It allows the military establishment to not only cite the India threat to avoid committing troops for fighting the Taliban. But also—now that the separatism in Jammu & Kashmir is petering out—use Balochistan as a pretext to provide fresh justification for long standing strategy of using terrorism to contain India.

In addition to this, it is quite likely that Pakistani officials and commentators will use Indian meddling to counter/mitigate charges of their country being a source of international terrorism. But the debating points and PR value apart, this won’t make a material difference: to the extent that Pakistani terrorists are a threat to the international community, and Baloch militants (whether supported by India or not) only threaten Pakistan, the rest of the world is unlikely to take too much notice.

It is also likely that Balochistan will figure on the bilateral diplomatic agenda—but it is unclear how Pakistan wishes to benefit from it (See M K Rasgotra’s piece). Because if Pakistan takes the position of “you stop hitting us in Balochistan and we’ll stop hitting you in Kashmir and elsewhere”, India could well say, “OK, that’s a deal.” Such a move is understandable only if the Pakistani authorities want to wind down the anti-India jihad and need a face-saving deal to sell to its own population. Since the chances of this happening are lower than that of snow in Chennai, it is unlikely that Pakistan will want to propose such a deal.

While the utility of bringing up Balochistan in the joint-statement is limited from this perspective, it is just what Pakistani government needs to tar Baloch nationalism in the eyes of the its public, and use it to carry on the ongoing, bloody repression of the Baloch population.

How should India deal with the outcome of Sharm-el-Sheikh insofar as it concerns Balochistan? First, there is no need for the Indian government to be defensive, apologetic or even too fastidious in trying to correct Pakistani allegations that it is carrying out covert operations in Balochistan. It should be fair game to respond to a proxy war by opening up another front and going on the offensive. If Pakistan protests too much, it can be told that its allegations are baseless, asked to submit evidence and made to do the very things it asks of India. If the ISI chief wants to engage with someone equivalent in India, he could be introduced to the national security advisor.

Second, since it was Mr Gilani who presented information on threats in Balochistan, it is only natural for the Indian government to begin to take official positions on the developments there. To the extent that the ferment in Balochistan is due to colonial exploitation, denial and violation of human rights, India should impress upon its dialogue partner the need to address the genuine grievances of the Baloch people. It is time for the Indian media to read up on Balochistan matters, for think-tanks to arrange workshops and seminars on the subject, and for civil society to take greater interest in what happens there. All this might sound sarcastic, but it is not. Surely, unless India does all this, how can it promote its own interests in “a stable, democratic Islamic Republic of Pakistan”?

Kayani wins this round

But it’s likely to go downhill for him from here

One of the primary tasks Ashfaq Pervez Kayani set for himself when he took over from Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s army chief was to restore the image of the Pakistani army at home and abroad. It was in November 2007 when the popularity of the Pakistani army had hit rock bottom. Now, in May 2009, it is clear that General Kayani has succeeded in that objective. After the ‘successful’ military offensive against the Mullah Fazlullah’s Taliban militia at Swat the army has regained a lot of the respect that it had lost in the final months of General Musharraf. The United States can’t be too unhappy either.

This has come due to, and at the cost of, the complete wrecking of the process of rapprochement with India—the attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai and its aftermath. But then, General Kayani never did say that good relations with India were part of his plans. Continue reading “Kayani wins this round”

But where’s the meat?

The United States’ Af-Pak strategy is silent on the most important challenge

The main issue in President Barack Obama’s just-announced strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?

As this blog has pointed out before, to win in Afghanistan the United States will need to get the Pakistani military to turn its guns on its own proxies, “strategic assets”, countrymen and co-religionists. This the Pakistani military leadership is reluctant, unwilling or unable to do, depending on how charitable a view you have of them. It was in anticipation of the Obama administration’s strategic review that the Pakistani leadership raked up tensions with India—hoping that a war-like situation on its eastern borders will provide it with a plausible alibi. India foiled that attempt by refusing to even mildly ratchet up military escalation.

That only left the Pakistanis to demand a vague reduction in tensions, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute and unconvincingly insinuate Indian involvement in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This did not go completely waste—for there are people in the Obama administration who are sympathetic to this line—but it is unlikely to provide the Pakistani military establishment with the way out of having to do what the United States wants it to do.

So, what does the United States do now? As many analysts point out—and Richard Holbrooke himself admitted—no one knows. Mr Holbrooke reiterated that US troops will not cross over into Pakistan *, while Bruce Riedel, the man behind the review only said that he hoped that “aggressive military operations on the Afghan side, and working energetically with the Pakistani government” will shut down these safe havens. Setting benchmarks and making financial assistance conditional on performance sounds like just what the management consultant would advise, but Washington is remarkably susceptible to the Pakistan-will-turn-into-a-nuclear-failed-state-unless… line. The Pakistanis know that and won’t shy from exploiting it.

Expect a train of high-level envoys to visit New Delhi in the coming weeks. Chief among their aims, we are informed, “will be to try to get Pakistani and Indian officials, in particular, to turn down the volume in their never-ending conflict, in the hopes that the Pakistani military can turn its attention to the fight against insurgents in border regions, and away from fighting India.” As patronising as that sounds, it will remain for the Indian government officials to explain to them that they can even have the “never-ending conflict” arises from the same problem that the US is trying to solve. Get the Pakistani government to dismantle the military-jihadi complex and the volume will not only be turned down, it can be turned off.

Mr Obama’s first strategic review skirts around the heart of the matter, perhaps due to its acceptance of red lines. We might have to wait for the next one before he gets it right.

Update: More analysis on this here on INI: on Pragmatic Euphony and Polaris.

Related Links: Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast has a good critique of those benchmarks. Filter Coffee remarks that the US has ignored Punjabi jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. And Spencer Ackerman has the money quote.

My op-ed in Mint: Who wants to be good Taliban?

US counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan army’s choices and implications for India

In today’s Mint. Sushant & I argue that General Kayani’s political decisions will depend on the course and outcomes of US negotiations with ‘moderate’ Taliban. We suggest that while moderate Taliban is an oxymoron it is also “a label of convenience, using moral connotations to render realpolitik-driven compromises acceptable” and will be applied to whoever the US negotiates with. Excerpts:

So who might end up as the ‘good’ Taliban in the coming months? Mid-level commanders of the militias fighting Western forces are one likely set of contenders—a combination of political accommodation, financial rewards and astute exploitation of inter-tribal rivalries might help distance them from their top leaders. Another set of contenders are the warlords (now called Taliban commanders) who might not share deep loyalties to the al-Qaeda leadership and the Pakistani establishment. How all this will fare is difficult to say, though the cards are heavily stacked against its success. Nevertheless, its course and outcome will determine General Kayani’s political moves in Pakistan.

If the United States decides to engage the type of individuals and groups that are backed by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, General Kayani is likely to want to quickly arrest Pakistan’s political unravelling. The army can then expand its own bargains with the Pakistan Taliban, and relieved of pressure, go back to being its usual self: wielding power, cornering economic opportunities and fighting India.

If, on the other hand, the designation of ‘good’ Taliban does not square with the interests of the military-jihadi complex, then General Kayani has every reason to wait and allow matters to worsen. For the ‘bad’ Taliban will continue to hurt US forces in Afghanistan until Washington folds or quits. Pakistan’s military leadership very likely believes that the United States cannot simultaneously accept the failure of a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the triumph of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

What does this mean for India? There is an urgent need for India to protect itself from the fallout of Pakistan’s Talibanisation. This involves, first, ensuring that the Omar Abdullah government succeeds in ending the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. The new central government will have to imaginatively wind down the visible security presence in Kashmiri towns and villages even as it strengthens vigilance along the LoC and within the state. Second, the internal security lessons of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai must be learnt. And finally, India simply cannot continue the unserious approach to political violence: there must be zero tolerance of vandals, rioters, “sainiks” of one form or another and terrorists.

On the external front, the only way to save Pakistan is to put it under international management. The United States, to paraphrase old Winston, can be trusted to do the right thing after it has exhausted all other options. It is in India’s interests to see that it exhausts them fast enough. [Mint]

Read the rest at LiveMint. (Thanks to Swami Iyer for asking the right question)

A pre-announced surprise drone attack

Quetta in the crosshairs

If you have a dim view of the US government, then you could conclude that allowing the New York Times to announce that the CIA intends to conduct drone strikes against Mullah Omar & Co at their sanctuaries in Quetta is the Obama administration’s very own Tora Bora (via The Washington Independent). How better to surprise the Taliban leadership than by letting it be known that they will be attacked next.

But if you think that the New York Times doesn’t leak such sensitive information without purpose, then you might conclude that this is a little warning to the folks holed out in Quetta, and their friends in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, that unless they quickly become ‘moderate’ Taliban then, well, the US might be compelled to destroy some real estate developments in and around Quetta. And what does ‘moderate’ mean? No, not those who award 10 lashes instead of 100 for women showing their ankles. Rather, those who are amenable to negotiate a cessation of hostilities with the United States.

Is the threat credible? Well, unless you belong to the dim view camp, the good folks in Washington probably think so. Or they think that just getting the Quetta Shura to scatter is a good day’s work.

Why lose sleep over a few thousand tribesmen

The Talibanisation of Pakistan does not necessarily need the Taliban to take over

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole argues that fears of the Taliban taking over Pakistan are overblown (via Chapati Mystery):

The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army. [Juan Cole]

Coming from a professor of history, no less, that is a shocking statement. A few thousand violent individuals can well take over a country if the general population is supine and the security apparatus sympathetic. So how many violent individuals did it take on October 12, 1999 when General Musharraf seized power? Next door in Iran, Wikipedia tells us, “the final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 (1979) when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.”

The political crisis triggered by the Supreme Court’s disqualification of the Sharif brothers does threaten to destabilise Pakistan further. Though unlikely at this point, it might even result in yet another military coup. This does not make the threat of a ‘Taliban takeover’ any less serious. That’s because ‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud or a similar character in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia. It won’t take long for the assorted jihadi groups in Pakistan’s cities and the countryside to start moral policing and dispense Taliban justice. The few thousand tribesmen are not alone—there are several tens of thousands of jihadis and jihadi sympathisers who can be mobilised for consolidating the revolution. Don’t forget their organisational capabilities were recognised to be superior to that of the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2005.

To be sure, it is possible that developments in recent weeks have caused excessive panic in Washington. As Matthew Yglesias points out “Pakistan’s been a troubled place for a long time and Americans shouldn’t confuse a rapid increase in our level of interest in Pakistan’s troubles with a rapid escalation in the scale of the troubles.” It is possible that the military-jihadi complex wants to signal by actions what Musharraf did with words (“after me, the Taliban”). Even so, it is undeniable that Pakistan has never quite rolled back the first creeping then marching fundamentalism that has affected the state and society…since 1947. This at once creates militants with an agenda to overturn the political order, and also legitimises their cause in the minds of the people. A revolution is not only possible, it can be swift. Wikipedia also says that the Iranian revolution was “unique for the surprise it created throughout the world.” There’s no excuse to be surprised another time.

No coup for now

General Kayani will let the crisis fester until Obama’s Af-Pak strategy is clear

Across India’s Western border rages a conflict that pits a multitude of radical Islamist militant organisations against the decrepit machinery of a tattered, incapacitated state. The Pakistani state is not only in retreat, but also in denial. It does not help that the Pakistani society is largely in denial too—choosing to see imperial projects and foreign mischief instead of the cancer that emanates from within its midst. The few Pakistanis who do see the reality for what it is are too weak to play any consequential role in challenging the radical Islamist onslaught. Worse, instead of consolidating last year’s democratic transition by hammering the necessary truces, Pakistan’s politicians are engaged in partisan combat even as Pakistan’s ship is going down.

The traditional Pakistani solution to the problem of bickering politicians is the military coup. While it remains within the domain of the possible, an overt military take-over is unlikely at this time for a number of reasons. First, the army has not fully recovered from the beating its image received in during the second half of General Musharraf’s rule. Second, the country is staring at economic collapse and is highly dependent on the kindness of its foreign friends. It would still have been possible for General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to set up a “caretaker government” like his Bangladeshi counterpart General Moeen U Ahamed did in January 2007. But unlike General Moeen who had only to face down warring politicians, General Kayani would also need to confront the Taliban. The evidence of the last year indicates that this is something that General Kayani is loath to do.

The Obama administration might have calculated that the current civilian crew is unlikely to be able to hold Pakistan together. It could ask General Kayani to support the Zardari government, but since he is also being asked to fight the Taliban, there’s only so much he could be asked to do, especially if the objectives end up contradicting each other.

This brings us to the General Moeen option—some kind of a national caretaker government. But General Kayani might not want this yet, pending the outcome of Barack Obama’s Af-Pak policy review. If Pakistan is happy with its recommendations, then General Kayani is likely to exercise the Moeen option soon. However if the recommendations are not to his liking, General Kayani is likely to let the bad Taliban to continue to hurt US forces in Afghanistan. The military-jihadi complex will carry out more attacks like those in Mumbai and Lahore to keep the region in crisis. Pushing Pakistan to the brink to extract concessions from the United States is, after all, an old trick.

Meanwhile the Talibanisation of Pakistan proceeds apace as these games are being played out. How much India can do to contain its spread is uncertain—right now, it is not even making serious attempts. But unless India puts in place domestic policy measures to insulate itself, the jihadis are bound to think Ab Dilli Door Nahi. (Thanks Rohit, for correcting the wrong Farsi phrase)

The reality of radical Islam

…is that it doesn’t accept compromises

It is one thing for the United States to attempt to recycle a strategy that worked in Iraq and consider applying it in Afghanistan. As Joshua Foust argued in the July 2008 issue of Pragati, that model is unlikely to yield comparable results in Afghanistan because of differences in socio-economic structure, historical paths and geo-political neighbourhoods. While we hope that it listens to good sense, you can’t deny the Obama administration a chance to learn by making big mistakes.

But it is entirely another thing to provide a kind of intellectual cover for what is essentially an exercise in wishful pragmatism by advancing an argument—as Fareed Zakaria has done—that the world should learn to live with radical Islam, because “not all (radical Islamists) advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world—in fact, most do not.” Actually, this argument is invalidated by his very next sentence—when Mr Zakaria argues that “no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack over the past 10 years—including 9/11.” It is breathtaking to see a person of Mr Zakaria’s intelligence engage in such poor sophistry: by his logic, even Osama bin Laden has not participated in any significant terrorist attack over the last decade either.

The fundamental mistake Mr Zakaria makes is to conflate Islam and radical Islam. He is right when he argues that emphasising “the variety of groups, movements and motives within (the Muslim) world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West.” But the sentence is illogical—for if there are a variety of groups, movements and motives then there can be a battle between the West and some of them. And there is. It exists regardless of whether the West wants it or not—because radical Islam defines itself by that battle. How then can the rest—and this includes moderate Muslim societies—learn to live with it?

Mr Zakaria points to the fact that radical Islamic parties are currently on the wane in Nigeria—one solitary example that is an exception to the norm—to build a case that this will invariably be the case elsewhere in the world. It’s hard to believe that radical Islamic parties (as opposed to moderate Islamic parties operating in institutional democracies) will relinquish power once they are voted out of office. To believe this would be to ignore the observed fact that radical Islamists define political success in being able to set-up a revolutionary state like Iran, the Mullah Omar-led Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Swat. It’s almost always a one-way street. What about Nigeria? Well, it isn’t over and time will tell.

That’s not all. Mr Zakaria suggests that the world can live with most radical Islamists as the latter do not pose an external threat to their neighbours and to the West. Well a case can be made that what radical Islamists do within their borders—in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sudan (a word missing from Mr Zakaria’s essay)—is itself a threat to international security. But it is hard to find a radical Islamist state that does not have an external agenda. So what caused Mullah Omar’s Taliban to host al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups? Why does Iran support Hizbollah? Why did Pashtuns and Pakistani Punjabis fight the jihad in India, Iraq and elsewhere?

Pick a radical Islamist organisation. It is likely to have one or both goals—territorial and religious-ideological. It is the mixing of the two that makes compromise impossible.

Mr Zakaria’s arguments are dangerous because they undermine the very internal opposition to radical Islam within the Muslim world that he claims the West should work with. Once the United States begins to negotiate with the ‘good’ Taliban, the moderate Afghans will be done for. So why is it that the surviving moderate Awami National Party (ANP) leaders can’t venture out of their homes in Swat? Because the Pakistani government struck a deal with the Taliban. Those who are opposed to the radical Islamist agenda should do the opposite. It is understandable why the Pakistani government won’t do the correct thing, but why should the United States bolster its strategic adversary?

The truth is that you can’t stop worrying and learn to live with radical Islam. It has to be countered and contained, and ultimately defeated. The tactical exigencies of the war in Af-Pak, important as they are, should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the big picture. While it is important to prove Mr bin Laden wrong when he “constantly argues that all these different groups are part of the same global movement”, it is important to do so without doing Mr bin Laden’s job for him.

Related Post: Why India must export its Islam