The coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis

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And the battle for supremacy within the military-jihadi complex

Yesterday, it was Peshawar again. Not a day passes without a major terrorist attack in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these attacks are attributed to the “Taliban” as if it were a monolithic entity, clouding our understanding as to who might have carried out the attacks and why.

As The Acorn has previously argued, the radical Islamist faction within the Pakistani military establishment gained critical mass around April 2007. It has only strengthened since then. (See these posts)

It is inevitable that this should happen, given that both the officer corps and the rank-and-file of the post-Ziaul Haq Pakistan army have been raised on a diet of Islamic fundamentalism. Pressed by the United States after 9/11, Generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani could well remove some, sideline others from the radical faction, but given their numbers and the popularity of their cause, but couldn’t completely purge them from the army. Yet given the international environment, the radical faction—that we like to call Gul & Co—cannot take over.

Now, Kayani & Co who wield power at the GHQ are hardly the sort who will pull the shutters on the use of cross-border terrorism to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and India. But given the choice, they are unlikely to want to impose a Taliban-like regime over Pakistan. They depend on the US largesse, which is available to them only when they play along with Washington’s demands. They also must continue to demonstrate that they—and not any other political actor—are the United States’ ‘indispensable allies’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So, on the one hand, General Kayani has every reason to use his proxies in Afghanistan—the taliban of the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura—to destabilise that country until the United States hands Kabul over to them. It is this faction that is fighting the US-led international forces in Afghanistan. (Similarly, Kayani & Co use the Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry out attacks against India).

On the other hand Gul & Co—General Kayani’s doppelgänger—won’t stop attacks on the Pakistan army until the latter stops doing Washington’s bidding. This faction uses the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Punjabi jihadi groups to carry out attacks within Pakistan, and on the Pakistan army. Kayani & Co are retaliating against these attacks through Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan by selectively targeting the taliban belonging to the Hakeemullah Mehsud group. Like all operations against jihadis, the Pakistan army will find it impossible to sustain such operations for too long—eventually soldiers will begin to ask why they are fighting their ‘innocent’ co-religionists and compatriots.

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 longer Pakistan army proceeds on its current course—appeasing Washington without eliminating the jihadi element—the greater the chance that this will happen. Pakistan is no stranger to wars between sectarian-political militias. If the security situation continues to worsen—as it will unless the military establishment decides to co-operate with the civilian internal security machinery—Kayani & Co might well decide use their jihadi proxies to target their adversaries. Indeed, the popular agitation that ejected General Musharraf from power is still fresh in people’s minds, making the imposition of martial law (less a military coup) less likely. Thus, for Kayani & Co, the jihadi proxy becomes relatively more attractive as an option.

If the United States bails out of Afghanistan, it is possible that Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and other Gul & Co proxies will all make a play for power in Kabul. The power struggle there will have repercussions in Pakistan. Even in this case, Kayani & Co might have to employ their own proxies, in Pakistan, to fight for their interests.

In recent weeks, a sustained terrorist campaign has thrown Pakistan into turmoil and enveloped its citizens in an atmosphere of fear. The situation could get much worse if jihadi groups start targeting each other. Given its weakness, it is unlikely that civil society—as Pakistani optimists argue—will be able to forestall a fratricidal jihadi civil war.

Unless Kayani & Co eliminate both Gul & Co and their own jihadi proxies this is the way things will go. General Musharraf blew his chance in 2002 when he could have acted against Gul & Co and the jihadi groups when they were relatively weak in number. He chose not to. It’s much harder now. Just how does General Kayani demobilise several tens of thousands of functionally illiterate, combat-hardened, thoroughly radicalised men? That’s not all, these fighters are backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters and millions of sympathisers. This is one of the most important policy challenges for international security in the first half of this century.

Tailpiece: It is time to stop referring to the “Taliban” with a capital “t”. That term correctly refers to Mullah Omar’s regime, remnants of which are currently hosted by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex at Quetta. The groups that refer to themselves by that names are largely inspired clones and copycats. It is more informative to refer to them as jihadis or “taliban” (with a lower-case “t”) in general and cite the specific group they belong to. For instance: the Haqqani taliban, the Hakeemullah Mehsud taliban etc.

Some are martyrs, some are just killed

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter, as they don’t say these days

Those of us who first started reading Pakistani newspapers in the late 1990s—Jai Ho internet!—will remember that in ‘Held Kashmir’, ‘mujahids’ frequently used to ’embrace martyrdom’ or ‘shahadat’, often while carrying out ‘fidayeen’ attacks on the Indian army. So it is amusing to see the Pakistani English language newspapers employ contextual morality now that the mujahids are doing the fidayeen routine on Pakistani streets.

On his blog over at Dawn Asif Akhtar draws attention to this:

Silly media, you forget so easily, they were ‘mujahids’ just a decade ago, get with the programme! And to think General Pervez Musharraf did all this hard work to free up the media so that private opinions may thrive and democracy may flourish, and this is what you do with your freedom? Terrorists should be called ‘mujahids’ and their death should be referred to as ‘martyrdom,’ not the other way around where security jawans are the martyrs while militants just end up getting ‘killed’ or ‘slain.’ [Dawn]

If this makes you believe that the Pakistani mindset has changed, think again. Pakistan’s Urdu commentariat reveals that it is people like Dawn’s Mr Akhtar who are living in the alternate universe.

Iran gets hit by cross-border terrorism

Complicated, the matter is

One more country has joined the queue. “We have heard,” said Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, “that certain officials in Pakistan cooperate with main agents of these terrorist attacks in the eastern part of the country.”

The Iranian government summoned the Pakistani charge d’affaires in Teheran and protested against the use of Pakistani territory to launch the terrorist attack against Iran. The co-ordinated double strike at a Shia-Sunni reconciliation meeting in Sistan-Baluchestan province killed several tribal leaders and a number of senior military officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Jundollah, a Pakistan-based Baloch-Sunni rebel group, claimed responsibility. Mr Ahmedinejad accused the Pakistani military establishment of supporting Jundollah. Ali Larijani, an influential Iranian leader and speaker of parliament, went further and called the attack “an outcome of US measures”.

Both Pakistan and the United States have denied responsibility for the attack. There is very little in the public domain about Jundallah. It does not help that there is another Pakistani Sunni outfit—possibly a joint venture of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen—by the name and which has figured in attacks within Pakistan. Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett write that “many experienced observers of US intelligence activities in Central and South Asia believe that US intelligence agencies have their own ties to Jundallah.”

There are several explanations for the attack: first, it was an attack by the Balochi-Sunni extremists against the Persian-Shia state. Second, it was an attack on the Republican Guard by Iranians opposed to the Khamenei-Ahmedinejad faction. Third, the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) instigated it to destabilise Pakistan’s relations with Iran by precipitating a crisis. Fourth, it was carried out at the behest of the United States to keep Iran under pressure. Fifth, it could well have been instigated by Iran’s Middle Eastern Arab-Sunni rivals—with the Pakistani military establishment acting as the midwife. Many of these explanations overlap.

In any event, there will be new pressure on the Pakistani government to act against anti-Iranian groups in Pakistan. While there is likely to be less public outrage in Pakistan against Iranian accusations, a crackdown against anti-Iranian groups—to the extent that the Pakistani government launches one—will risk a sectarian backlash. The likes of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other Sunni jihadi groups would target Pakistan’s Shia minority, not least in Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan. Unless Iran is satisfied with mere promises of action, Iranian angle will add to Pakistan’s domestic woes.

It also complicates the relationship between the United States and Iran. Teheran will find itself in a dilemma: to counter what some see as a US campaign to destabilise the Iranian regime or to co-operate with US forces to tackle the Sunni jihadi threat emanating from Pakistan.

Delhi, its honest rulers and their foolish gambles

The strategic consequences of Manmohan Singh’s vulnerability

So he stood his ground, and didn’t make use of the lifelines that were created for him by the foreign ministry.

Whether he intended it or not, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made himself personally vulnerable. Whether he intended it or not, his Sharm-el-Sheikh lollipop is a gamble: if there is another Pakistan-originated terrorist attack during his tenure, Dr Singh will be thrown to the dogs by his own party; if there isn’t one, as the phrase goes, Singh is King. Since the only people who can prevent a Pakistan-originated terrorist attack are the powers that be in Pakistan—whether it is Asif Ali Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gilani or the military-jihadi complex—Dr Singh’s fate is effectively in the hands of his Pakistani adversaries. Another terrorist attack during the UPA government’s second innings will certainly hurt India; but it will (okay, okay, it might) end Dr Singh’s prime ministerial career.

And just what will Messrs Zardari, Gilani and Kayani do when they realise that they have Dr Singh by the, well, jugular? In addition to using the Balochistan reference to obfuscate their culpability in the Talibanisation of Pakistani society, first they’ll rub their hands in glee: they suddenly have more than just ‘mutual interdependency’ without even having to build a gas pipeline and then blackmail India over it.

Second, they can—with genuine or faux sincerity—suggest that unless India makes concessions over Jammu & Kashmir and a number of other bilateral issues, it will be very hard to rein in the jihadis. Dr Singh’s gamble leaves him ever more vulnerable to this old blackmail. It does not matter if Messrs Zardari & Gilani can or cannot actually do anything about the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and it does not matter if they do anything about it or not, they will still be able to ask India to make progress on the composite dialogue to keep the ‘peace process’ moving.

Third, should another terrorist attack occur, Messrs Zardari & Gilani can first deny, then offer to investigate, then admit that it originated in Pakistan. And anyway, what’s a little terrorism between dialogue partners? In New Delhi, like they sacked the incompetent Shivraj Patil after too much damage had already occurred, the Congress Party might be compelled to seek Dr Singh’s resignation.

The only way Singh can be King is when there is no major terrorist attack. Only major concessions by India might prevent those attacks from happening. Marammat muqaddar ki kar do Maula, mere Maula!

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”?

What’s a little terrorism between dialogue partners?

The sharam at Sharm-el-Sheikh

Dr Manmohan Singh met Yusuf Raza Gilani at the sidelines of the NAM summit in Egypt and among others, agreed that “dialogue is the only way forward. Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” They’ll continue playing dossiers-and-lawsuits.

If this was what India intended to do, it is baffling that the prime minister had to travel all the way to Egypt, meet Mr Gilani there, and declare that “dialogue is the only way forward.” At least, the Indian people could have been spared the shameful spectacle of the prime minister radiating forgiveness and sympathy in the full glare of the international media.

Let’s see how Dr Singh’s policy might be justified. It can be reasonably argued that the Zardari-Gilani disposition is really powerless and engaging them seriously will achieve several things simultaneously. The civilians putatively in power in Islamabad will be ‘strengthened’, India will be able to engage Pakistan where it makes sense and international (read US) pressure can be defused by pointing to a dialogue process.

It might even lead to diplomatic and perceptional benefits arising from Pakistan admitting that it is the source of international jihadi terrorism. So even if this approach doesn’t yield any advantages on containing anti-India terrorism, it will help lower political risk perceptions of international investors, and therefore, there’s no harm in taking this course. Perhaps it will even dissuade jihadis from attacking India, once they learn that their actions won’t amplify into an India-Pakistan standoff.

Maybe. But the problem with Dr Singh’s approach is that it is too reasonable. Every political actor in Pakistan will rest assured that it can inflict damage on India in order to gain an advantage in the domestic power play. The military-jihadi complex, for instance, will be vindicated in its belief that it is strategically inexpensive to stage an attack against India to fend-off US pressure to act against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Zardari-Gilani duo will be less inclined to face down the military-jihadi complex because India has let them off the hook. Sure, the Obama administration will applaud India’s restraint because it’ll clear the decks for the United States to go through with the Af-Pak strategy—but there is no guarantee that it will be sensitive to India’s interests in the region.

This is not to say that resuming the dialogue is a mistake. But Dr Singh gave away too much without getting anything substantial in return. There is a hint that there is some kind of a backroom deal with the Pakistani military establishment but let’s face it, such deals are easily repudiated, unenforceable and won’t last the next major terrorist attack. Arresting, trying and jailing leaders of jihadi groups will not stop Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorism against India. But India yielded before Pakistan delivered that minimum of minimums. The Indian prime minister has pulled Pakistan out of the international doghouse yet again without anything to show for it. Dr Singh, of all people, should know that this approach doesn’t work—the ‘joint anti-terrorism framework’ announced at the NAM summit at Havana came to a nought. (See After the Havana appeasement)

What a shame!

Let out of the purdah

Don’t take the charade too seriously

Now unless you think that dossiers-and-lawsuits is somehow an effective way for India to secure itself against attacks by Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, you should neither be surprised nor overly concerned over the Lahore High Court’s decision to release the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief from house arrest. Of course his release reveals Pakistan’s lack of seriousness in acting against the jihadi groups. As does the fact that there were no charges pressed against him—he was only under ‘preventive custody’. This going in and out of the purdah—to use Sumit Ganguly’s term—is an old routine. In fact, it shows a lack of seriousness on India’s part to expect the Pakistani legal system to somehow solve the problem pf cross-border terrorism. Dossiers-and-lawsuits simply cannot be the centre-piece of India’s strategic response. [See: Beyond the cosmetic crackdown and after the mea culpa]

Coming to Mr Saeed’s release, what might have been the motivations and the terms of the deal? The Pakistani army is engaged in a battle against the ‘Taliban’ in Malakand and Waziristan, it is likely to want to placate the jihadis in its heartland. Also, Mr Saeed’s case fits a pattern of judgements coming from the ‘restored’ judiciary which also freed A Q Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in recent months. Like the others, Mr Saeed’s freedom is likely to have come under the understanding that for the time being, he is permitted to indulge in rhetoric, but not the kind of mischief that would get the Pakistani government in more trouble. That’s not bad news.

There is a chance that Mr Saeed’s release is linked to the onset of the summer infiltration season in Jammu & Kashmir. But surely, the resourceful LeT chief is unlikely to have serious impediments in directing the operations while being under house arrest. That would even provide alibis, fig leafs and mitigation pleas to all those who might need them.

The Pakistan that can say No

Actually, the military establishment that can say No

“Pakistan,” Hamid Mir writes, “suffered a loss of more than US$34 billion and received only US$11 billion as aid in the last seven years for participating in the war against terror.” Ahmed Quraishi, another commentator, contends that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud is really a proxy of the CIA (thereby contradicting Graham Usher who gives credence to the allegation that Mr Mehsud is backed by India). And Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen are out to ‘malign the ISI and the Pakistan army’, which, presumably, were hitherto unmaligned. Pakistan, you see, is just an innocent victim of American foreign policy.

During the Holbrooke-Mullen visit, the issue of unpopular drone strikes was made the centrepiece of the “gap” that exists between the US and Pakistani governments [see Chidanand Rajghatta’s report].This allowed the Zardari-Gilani-Kayani government to score some points in the media and among the people. It won’t be long before some commentators will compare it, favourably, to General Musharraf’s famous post-9/11 U-turn when he quickly acceded to US demands.

But the real “gap” is the rather obvious fact that the US government has dropped the pretence of suggesting that the top leaders of the Pakistani army are well-meaning folks doing their best to stamp out the ‘renegade’ and ‘rogue elements’ of the military establishment. The US State Department, Mr Mir reveals, even played an intercepted audio conversation between General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani to journalist Mary Anne Weaver.

Soon after President Barack Obama’s announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this blog argued that the main issue “boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?” There is money, of course, but there is a limit to which the United States can avoid or delay disbursing the financial aid, as the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the collapse of the Pakistani state is imminent. In any case, to the extent that the civilian channeling, extra oversight and ‘benchmarks’ keep the military establishment’s hands out of the cookie jar, it is unlikely to be motivated by the moolah. Pakistan cannot afford to say No. But the military establishment can.

In coming days, expect the military-jihadi complex to ratchet up the tensions with India, in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere. Even the pretence of supporting a freedom struggle in Kashmir will be discarded in favour of justifying the escalation as indicated by ‘legitimate security concerns’ in the face of rising Indian influence in Afghanistan and mischief in Balochistan. The ground for this has already been prepared by the prominence (via Jengnameh, a noteworthy new blog) given to the opinions of Ahmed Rashid, Barnett Rubin and Shuja Nawaz by the Obama administration circles. It will only grow by mindless repetition. Indians should expect a tense summer.

So, regardless of how desperate President Zardari (or any civilian leader) is for foreign aid flows, General Kayani will say No. The good news is that we don’t have to suffer the pretence. The bad news is that because Mr Holbrooke drew those red lines so quickly, he’s trapped in a red circle of his own making. Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen would do well to to back to Washington and address the main issue. The solution does not involve giving Pakistan the drones with which to conduct the strikes. It involves doing something about the red lines.

General Pasha will not see you now

Did he snub or was he scared?

In another sign of new strains in the relationship, the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, refused to meet separately with Mr. Holbrooke and General Mullen, who had requested a meeting, according to Pakistani officials and an American official, who sought anonymity because he did not want to further damage relations.

General Pasha did attend a meeting with the two Americans and Pakistani military’s chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, according to a statement issued by the press arm of the Pakistani Army after Mr. Holbrooke and General Mullen left Islamabad for India on Tuesday night. [NYT]

Most news reports interpret General Pasha’s refusal to meet the two American big kahunas alone as a snub. That’s probably correct.

But could it be that General Pasha was not too keen to meet Messrs Holbrooke and Mullen without his boss around? It’s not as if they came all the way from Washington, DC to exchange pleasantries.

Snubbing may have been the less costly option. Who knows?

After the mea culpa

India shouldn’t expect that it can defeat Pakistani terrorism on the cheap

So little do people expect out of Pakistan that when it did admit that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai came from Pakistan, it was seen as major step in a good direction. That step, we are told, was due to pressure from the United States. It’s possibly true—but in the Islamabad scheme of things, it is still better to be seen as caving in to the United States (unpopularity rank #2) than to India (unpopularity rank #1). Just like July 1999, when it was President Clinton—no, not the Indian armed forces—who got Pakistan to climb down from Kargil.

India’s diplomatic success in getting Pakistan to concede its role in cross-border terrorism and take nominal action is in line with the logic of containment that C Raja Mohan wrote about: “using external pressure to secure internal change in Pakistan.” Beyond the game of diplomatic cut-and-thrust, what is the strategic score?

In the December 2008 issue of Pragati, I wrote: “India must not only seek to deliver exemplary punishment on the terrorist organisations and their Pakistani sponsors, but also make it prohibitively expensive for anyone to use terrorism as a political strategy.” While the Zardari government has moved against some mid-level jihadi leaders, the top leadership and infrastructure of the Lashkar-e-Taiba remains intact. Hafiz Mohammed Saeed has merely gone under the purdah, to use Sumit Ganguly’s apt description of the kind of “custody” that the Pakistani government places its surrogates under when there is too much heat on them. Can we expect Pakistan to really punish any of the alleged culprits? Going by its record, the answer is no. And as long as the military-jihadi complex remains intact, terrorism remains an affordable instrument for Pakistan.

In other words, the strategic score remains where it was on November 29th, 2008. In the absence of any strategic move by India, how can it not be?

That strategic move has been out there for some time now. We have argued that India’s “strategic response must be to engage the jihadi adversary in Afghanistan.” Richard Holbrooke’s statement in New Delhi today indicates that the United States is open to the idea. India should offer.

Related Links: We are all hawkish now, on Pragmatic Euphony