What’s R&AW doing in the United States?

India must expand its intelligence capacity in Western countries

Until US authorities arrested David Coleman Headley/Dawood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana no public account of India’s investigations into the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai even mentioned the Chicago connection. It is highly likely that Indian investigators had no clue as to Headley and Rana’s existence, leave alone the extent of their possible involvement in terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The manner in which Rana and a woman believed to be his wife were issued a visa—bypassing standard procedures relating to visa applicants of Pakistani background—suggests that India’s external intelligence machinery was not tracking them.

That raises the big question: why was Indian intelligence unaware of the Chicago jihadi cell?

One explanation is that the R&AW staff in the United States were either incompetent or were outsmarted by Headley and Rana. The other explanation is that R&AW personnel in the United States didn’t even have the job of smelling out potential jihadis in their job scope.

Now, the R&AW doesn’t have the kind of resources to finance a huge intelligence gathering network across the United States. But if you are an intelligence agency with some resources the first thing you would do is develop some assets within the ethnic communities that are of interest to you. For instance, Indian intelligence agencies did have some assets within the North American Sikh community. The Headley-Rana case suggests that R&AW didn’t have a finger on the pulse of the Pakistani diaspora communities in the United States. It should.

Given that both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani jihadi groups are using operatives with passports issued by Western countries, it is incumbent on India to upgrade its capability to gather intelligence among the ‘South Asian’ communities in North America and Europe. This is the baseline requirement.

At a time when the intelligence apparatus failed to even spot Headley & Rana, it would be tall order to argue that India should invest in covert action capacity that can be used to target the likes of the Chicago jihadsters. The US government is more sensitive to the jihadi threat to India now as compared to a decade ago, and there is some co-operation between the two governments in tackling international terrorism, but India must have some independent options. It is possible that marginal jihadis would be deterred from placing that international call to Individual A or Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A if they knew that they might get in the way of a Chicago gangster’s truck…or bullet.

Return of the Taliban’s cheerleader

The Obama administration is demonstrating poor judgement in appointing Robin Raphel to a sensitive position

“Despite nearly universal misgivings about the Taliban movement,” said the senior US state department official, “it must be acknowledged as a significant factor in the Afghan equation and one that will not simply disappear anytime soon.

The Taliban control more than two-thirds of the country; they are Afghan, they are indigenous and, they have demonstrated staying power. The reasons they have succeeded so far have little to do with military prowess or outside military assistance. Indeed, when they have engaged in truly serious fighting, the Taliban have not fared so well.

The real source of their success has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade the unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions.” [US Embassy in Israel]

And towards the end of her speech, came the memorable line: “If we wish them to moderate their policies, we should engage with them.”

That was Robin Raphel speaking at the United Nations in November 1996. In a chapter in Fundamentalism Reborn, journalist Richard MacKenzie writes:

In a recent Newsweek report, Steve LeVine writes that until Kabul fell, the US administration seemed ‘unconcerned about the Taliban’s growth’. He added, ‘Some midlevel State Department officials applauded the movement’s campaign for law and order, despite the mullahs’ knuckle-dragging views on women’s rights’. Certainly what one staunch critic (in an interview with the author) called a ‘cabal’ at the State Department was not as enlightened as their brothers and sisters at the CIA. Assistant Secretary Robin Raphel and two of her staff gave good impressions of being at least occasional cheer leaders for the Taliban.”

Mr MacKenzie concludes that paragraph on Ms Raphel’s department with this: “In one encounter a few months before the Taliban entered Kabul, a mid-level bureaucrat at the State Department claimed to this writer that ‘You get to know them and you find they really have a great sense of humour’, apparently believing the words he was uttering.” [Fundamentalism Reborn]

“The entire chain of command in Afghanistan”, from Ms Raphel down to the Afghan desk officer, “all retired or were reassigned in the summer of 1997” after Madeleine Albright replaced Warren Christopher as Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration. By 1999, the US acknowledged that the “Taliban are the wrong horse to ride for bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

You would have thought that the United States would have learnt its lessons—not least after the Taliban’s guests conducted some unannounced modifications to the urban landscape in Manhattan and Washington, DC in the autumn of 2001. Almost eight years after 9/11, it turns out that the Obama administration intends to ride the wrong horse again. The idea of engaging with the ‘moderate Taliban’ is back in vogue again.

The potential appointment of Ms Raphel as the special envoy’s special envoy to Af-Pak is ostensibly to monitor US financial assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar plan. While it is sensible to assign the job to a Pakistanphile, the prudence of appointing a former lobbyist on Islamabad’s payroll, with a dubious attitude towards the Taliban, to a position that involves fiduciary responsibilities is, to put it mildly, questionable. American taxpayers and their elected representatives in the Senate must scrutinise this appointment. More so because her unstated portfolio might well be to, yet again, engage with the ‘moderate’ Taliban.

Ms Raphel’s anti-India positions (via Raman’s Strategic Analysis)on Jammu & Kashmir in the early 1990s has not endeared her to India. As long as Richard Holbrooke keeps her as far away from India as possible, her appointment need not directly concern New Delhi. If, on the other hand, the Obama administration decides to place her in any role involving relations with India, then it must be treated as an unfriendly move.

Manmohan Singh’s costly lollipop giveway

Reinforcing the Denial in Pakistani society is setback for India

Mirror-imaging is not uncommon in popular conceptions that Indians and Pakistanis have of each other. You hear it from Indian lofty-softies when they declare that Pakistanis are “people like us”. But while Indian mirror-imaging generally stops with an innocent notion of the nature of Pakistani society, Pakistani mirror-imaging extends to the nature of the state and its organs.

Nowhere is this most manifested than in the belief that India’s intelligence agencies play the same role their Pakistani counterparts. Accusing India’s RAW of involvement in any number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan—however illogical it might be—need not concern the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s propaganda/psychological operations units anymore: for it is part of the Pakistani nation’s denial mechanism. It is far easier to believe that those devious Hindu-Bania-Indians did it rather than to go through the emotionally draining process of uncovering just why are jihadis killing their compatriots and co-religionists.

Even so reading the editorial in today’s Dawn should bring the coffee onto your clothes. On the matter of the dossier on RAW’s covert operations in Pakistan that Yusuf Raza Gilani supposedly handed over to Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh, it notes that “if they are rogue elements within RAW who are acting independently, they must be taken to task forthwith.” The good people on the editorial board of Dawn are generously—possibly sincerely—providing the Indian prime minister with the same escape route that US officials often provide the Pakistani government.

During a week when it was Pakistan which submitted a dossier of Indian misdeeds, and the Indian foreign ministry used the word “baseless”, Dawn’s editorial just completes the picture. As Coomi Kapoor puts it, India went to the “NAM summit as the (victim) of terror and came back with a document which seems to suggest that both countries are on a level playing field when it comes to sponsoring terror in the other’s backyard.”

Allowing Pakistan to insert the words that it “has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas” in a joint statement has reinforced popular Pakistani perceptions that Indian intelligence agencies are responsible for high-profile acts of terrorism like that attack on the police academy and the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. To the extent that these attacks had galvanised people against the Taliban, the “badly drafted” joint statement damaged the developing resolve against jihadi culture in Pakistani civil society.

The real implication of agreeing to the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is its impact on Pakistani politics and society, and in turn, the effect this will have on India’s security. (And not so much the handle it gives Islamabad in bilateral negotiations, or indeed, casting itself as a victim of Indian covert operations. More on this in another post, here).

One man—and only one man—is responsible for this setback: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blaming the foreign secretary and other underlings for the “bad drafting” is pointless. No one but the prime minister himself could have agreed to that reference. He should be held personally accountable for this decision.

Handing Mr Gilani (not even Asif Ali Zardari, and there’s a difference) this lollipop has already had perverse effects: in addition to damaging the prospects of Pakistani society turning against its Talibanisation, it has increased Mr Gilani’s stature vis-à-vis President Zardari. If at all a lollipop had to be given, it should have been to Mr Zardari who had been sounding conciliatory, and not to Mr Gilani who is trying to mask his insignificance as a popular leader by taking hardline positions against India. The decision to reward Mr Gilani and punish Mr Zardari is astonishing: it is either an act of strategic wisdom that ordinary mortals cannot fathom or a clearly discernible act of folly.

The acid test is the next Pakistan-originated terrorist attack: if there is one, Dr Singh must resign. If there isn’t one, or a major attack is averted with the assistance of the Pakistani government, then he deserves our praise.

Update: In his op-ed on July 31st, Pratap Bhanu Mehta echoes these arguments (in greater detail and style)

From India, with no love

India’s outrage over David Miliband’s gross insensitivity and atrocious behaviour was near universal. After a scathing critique of Mr Miliband’s words and antics, a Mint editorial held that "Miliband’s misadventure in India is unlikely to have any lasting impact on relations between India and his country; it will, however, leave a bad taste for some time to come."

As far as the sophisticated world of diplomacy goes, the Indian government has delivered the necessary rebuke. After official rebuffs and leaks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has supposedly written to his British counterpart and "conveyed India’s disappointment on his behaviour and comments." And it appears that verbal expressions of displeasure will continue for a while longer.

But that’s clearly not enough. While Mr Miliband might well be faulted for the manner in which he delivered the message, he was articulating the British government’s position. Now, if the British government believes that it need not necessarily fight the jihadis who attack Indian citizens, then it behooves India to reciprocate. Suspending intelligence and security co-operation is in order. Will this hurt Britain? It’s hard to say. But let Britain work that out.

A case of exploding myths

So what if Pakistan is misunderstood?

Commenting on Mohammed Hanif’s attempt to dispel ten myths about Pakistan, Dhruva Jaishankar writes (in an email):

Mohammed Hanif is clearly very smart, and his prose both entertaining and readable, but his attempt at overturning Indian myths of Pakistan also exposes some of the myths that Pakistanis—particularly upper-class, educated Pakistanis—have about their own country (for the record, I’m not suggesting that middle-class Indians aren’t sometimes similarly deluded).

It is absurd to think, as Hanif suggests, that the Pakistani establishment (I like your formulation—the “military-intelligence complex”) does not use terrorism, just because it is indeed fighting other terrorists on its northwestern frontier. That’s clearly a fallacious argument. Also, it’s not just Indian journalists that have reported terrorist training in major urban centres in Pakistan, as he claims (see Pearl, Daniel; Henry-Levi, Bernard; Coll, Steve). He also appears to admit, despite stating that it’s a myth, that Zardari doesn’t have the kind of control that Musharraf has. And while he’s right about India still being a poor country, that’s not the so-called myth that’s propagated—there are clearly marked differences between the natures of the two economies and consequently their overall healths during the global financial crisis. Finally, he cleverly equates R&AW with ISI, institutions that are clearly not analogous in terms of the power they hold in their respective countries and the resources to which they have access. All that said, he is right about Pakistan being a diverse country—something that is frequently overlooked—and the question of loose nukes, a threat which is often over-exaggerated in India, the United States and elsewhere. [TOI]

Dhruva is right on the ball. If Mr Hanif’s argument is that the Pakistani people are victims of a grand misunderstanding perpetrated by the media, then one wonders how he would explain public opinion rallying behind the military-jihadi complex at the drop of a hat—bringing the four year old ‘peace process’ down like a house of cards. Or is that a myth too?

That people in one part of the world nurture myths and stereotypes of other parts of the world is one of those facts of life. It need not become an international problem. What good people like Mr Hanif need to do is ask themselves, if not explain in op-ed columns, why a large number of their countrymen are so willing to condone, connive or be a party to a proxy war fought by their military-jihadi complex using terrorism for aggression and a nuclear arsenal for defence?

Silencing a dead whistleblower

Pakistan’s military lies exposed

The report that Omar Saeed was planning terrorist operations from his death row should not surprise anyone who follows Pakistani news.[See this post from July 2005] That he could do it at all shows how seriously one should take Pakistan’s claims of arresting leaders of terrorist organisations. So was his audacity that he personally threatened to kill General Musharraf and disturbed the latter enough to cause him to book a ticket to London. (Who knew that calling current and former Pakistani presidents was this easy?) Shocking as it may be to the sensibilities of gentle people around the world, even this should not be really surprising: just how does the military establishment keep its former chief under control?

No, Amir Mir’s scoop about the busting of Saeed’s plan to kill General Musharraf was not about the assassination plot at all. It was part of a character assassination plot—because it alleges that Omar Saeed call records show that he was in touch with Major-General Faisal Alavi, a former chief of the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG), who was assassinated on November 19th. After British writer revealed in London’s Sunday Times, that General Alavi was likely to have been silenced by the Pakistani Army—for threatening to reveal its deals with the Taliban in the tribal areas—it became necessary to discredit the dead man. The use of Omar Saeed for this was a nice touch, his being a familiar name in Britain.

Dead men tell no tales. But live men certainly tell tales about the dead.

Update: Ayesha Siddiqa has more on the matter

China and Hamid Gul’s chestnuts

Why did it pull them out?

The Christian Science Monitor reports that:

India also sought to have the UN committee include on the list Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani Army general who headed the country’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, in the late 1980s. However, China, a close ally of Pakistan that has veto power on the Security Council, apparently blocked Mr. Gul’s inclusion. [CSM]

So China could no longer afford to continue stonewalling on sanctions against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, a position that can only be understood as part of its strategy of containing India. But saving General Hamid Gul’s skin…now, that’s interesting.

Weekday Squib: Spy pigeons on our staff

We can see you

As if destroying the fabric of US democracy was not enough, it now emerges that we are spying on Iran as well…using pigeons and squirrels. MountainRunner has details of Project ACORN—Autonomous Coordinated Organic Reconnaissance Network. The only reason the Iranians managed to capture our agents was because of a malfunction in their (i.e., the pigeons’) digestive system which caused unscheduled jettisoning of semisolid bioprocessed payloads in the target zone.

In any case, know the power of this blog, dear readers. And be awed.

Praveen Swami’s book on the secret jihad in Kashmir

The Indian edition of a must-read book

Praveen Swami’s 2006 book India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad: The covert war in Kashmir, 1947-2004 is a book that you must read. Now, for reasons best known to the marketing department of its publishers, the international edition was priced out of reach of most people. Yet it is ‘most people’ who should read it, and not only scholars, academics and deep-pocketed specialists. That’s why the largely unheralded release of the Indian edition should be welcome. Here’s the introduction to the book:

This book explores the history of Jihadist groups in Jammu and Kashmir, documenting the course of their activities and their changing character from 1947 to 2004. Drawing on new material, including classified Indian intelligence dossiers and records, Praveen Swami shows that Jihadist violence was not, as is widely assumed, a phenomenon that manifested itself in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir only after 1988. Rather, a welter of jihadist groups waged a sustained campaign against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir from the outset, after the Partition of India. This book first analyses the ideology and practice of Islamist terrorism as it changed and evolved from 1947-1948 onwards. It subsequently discusses the impact of the secret jihad on Indian policy making on Jammu and Kashmir, as well as its influence on political life within the state. Finally, looking at some of the reasons why the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir acquired such intensity in 1990, the author suggests that the answers lie in the transfiguration of the strategic environment in South Asia by the nuclear weapons programme of India and Pakistan. As such, the book argues, the violent conflict which exploded in these two regions after 1990 was not a historical discontinuity: it was, instead, an escalated form of what was by then a five-decade old secret war.[Cambridge University Press/Foundation Books]

It’s available in bookstores as well as from the publisher’s website. The other book you should read is Chandrashekar Dasgupta’s War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48. While Mr Dasgupta’s book is focussed on the political milieu of that period, Mr Swami’s book documents Pakistan’s uninterrupted covert war since then. Both are slim, highly readable volumes and if you’ve not already read them, you ought to do it soon.

(And if you’ve got additional suggestions, share it with the others in the comments section)

The ISI in the dock

Two many Musharrafs…and too much noise

The gloves have come off. The US government has let it become known that not only was the ISI responsible for the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, but also cut the kerry that went by the name of “rogue elements” (who used to do things like passing information to the Taliban or fly C-130s to North Korea). This is a historic day in the history of US-Pakistan relations—and an unfortunate one in the career of Yusuf Raza Gilani. Not because the US government offered proof to the Pakistani government that the ISI has been up to some very naughty things. But rather, because the US government told the rest of the world about it, albeit through the New York Times.

So what happens next? Well, it’s hard to say. In the good old days, the army chief would issue orders to the commander of the X Corps in Rawalpindi, who would, in turn, task the commander of the 111 Brigade to hop over across the bridge and take control of the government. That is tough these days. Because taking control of the government is not a predicament that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani will wish onto himself. Forget those uppity lawyers and just-won’t-retire judges, who wants to go to the White House, and pleasantries and photographs done, to answer questions like “Who is in control of the ISI?”.

Asif Ali Zardari might well have found a whipping boy in Prime Minister Gilani, but these are ultimately his problems. To be sure, reforming the ISI is a solution—for the United States and for India, and most importantly, for Pakistan itself. But to execute it will be a political task of the toughest kind. It will require popular and elite support, it will require determination and will, and it will require great tact. Other than some popular support, Mr Zardari lacks the rest. If last weekend’s fiasco over the ISI is any indication, Mr Zardari looks like he is way out of his depth.

For the time being, as Bruce Riedel put it, every meal the US troops eat, and every bullet they shoot arrives in Afghanistan courtesy of the Pakistani military. The US government might authorise more missile hits from unmanned aerial vehicles, but this is limited by the counter-productive effects caused by the collateral damage. Unless the US is ready to explore alternative ways—a rapprochement with Iran comes to mind—this is about as much the US can do.

What does all this mean for India? Well, the good news is that the Pakistani government has almost no wiggle room left on ending its support for the Taliban enterprise. The bad news is that the Pakistani ‘government’ is nowhere near being in charge of the Taliban enterprise. Where once there were two players India had to engage—those who control its jihadis and those who control its nukes—it now has to engage them through those who make the speeches. C Raja Mohan argues that “India needs several simultaneous policies towards Pakistan”, ranging from shaping Pakistan’s internal politics, to direct talks between the two armies, to signaling that India is ready to impose a two-front war on Pakistan. The Pakistani army is unlikely to be warm up to the first two, but a two-front war? They’ll probably have to game that before making up their mind, not least because the US Congress is said to be linking aid to developmental goals.