Early one summer morning in 2008, an aging Toyota car slowed down to turn at the corner next to the Indian Embassy complex in Kabul, transforming itself as it did so into a wall of searing, white light. Fifty-eight people were killed and 141 injured, their bodies torn apart by shock waves, fires, and shards of metal and glass. Inside hours, western intelligence services listened in to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers inside Pakistan congratulating the perpetrators. Furious, then National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan called for action. “Talk-talk is better than fight-fight,” he said, “but it hasn’t worked. I think we need to pay back in the same coin.”
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The tirades against the ‘foreign hand’ having reached a deafening crescendo, we wait for the next act to unfold. But there should be no pretense of suspense. It has been almost seven decades since the opening of the stage play called Pakistan, and every ‘conspiracy’ hatched against our holy guardians by the forces of darkness in India and Afghanistan always turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given our obsession with our neighbors, the lack of interest in the electoral exercises taking place in both countries boggles the mind.
Certainly there are run-of-the-mill geo-strategic analyses doing the rounds, focusing exclusively on the various ‘national security’ implications of projected electoral outcomes. But surely there’s value in trying to study elections in India and Afghanistan to understand the processes of change at work there? Or to establish more generally what the prognosis is for liberal democracy in the region? If nothing else, those who are tired of our ‘national security’ myopia should recognize the premium of introducing anecdotes about our neighboring countries’ complexity and internal contradictions to Pakistan’s public realm.
Let’s start with India: It is widely expected that the demagogic BJP leader from Gujrat, Narendra Modi, will become leader of the Lok Sabha when the votes are tallied later this month. The few Pakistanis who have concerned themselves with Indian politics in recent times tend to emphasize Modi’s fascist leanings, that his election is likely to be bad news for the country’s long-suffering Muslim population. None of this is to be disputed. Modi is a rabid and divisive right-winger of the worst kind, and he is undoubtedly going to usher in more political and cultural suffocation for all underprivileged identity groups in Indian society.
But Modi’s is not exclusively a cultural fascism. His expected election to prime ministership reflects the intensifying appeal of neoliberal economic policies in urban India. It should not be forgotten that the BJP was voted out of office almost a decade ago after its electoral slogan of ‘India Shining’ was rejected by poor and low-caste voters. It is coming back to power in a country that has become more urban, slightly richer, and more politically conservative.
Of course anti-incumbency is an important factor in any election, particularly in India. Like all parties that still derive political gains from their social-democratic legacy, the crisis of legitimacy in Congress has deepened over the past decade due to its accession to neoliberal policies. It is possible that it will rise again from the proverbial ashes in five years, but it is likely to position itself closer to India’s urban middle classes than the rural poor that have always constituted its major source of support.
The situation in Afghanistan is, needless to say, very different. First, the presidential system of government means distinct sociological and political implications of electoral outcomes. Second, the imperative of establishing a stable polity in the face of imperialist war and ethno-linguistic divisions overrides concerns that would otherwise predominate in bourgeois elections. Both candidates who will contest the run-off (which was called because no candidate secured the necessary 50pc of polled votes) represent different political and sociological trends; Abdullah Abdullah enjoys greater support in non-Pakhtun areas of the north and is considered the representative of the Northern Alliance; Ashraf Ghani is more acceptable to Pakhtun majorities in the south.
Perhaps more importantly, both have cultivated substantial links with Western governments, including Washington, the latter arguably still the major player in the post-2014 dispensation. To be sure, what unites the likely victors of elections in both countries is an unflinching commitment to global status quo. And therein lies the rub. Electoral majorities may be cultivated through a variety of ostensibly democratic means but it is increasingly debatable whether or not the mandate that these majorities acquire is meaningful in the face of a virtual dictatorship of global capital.
I do not wish to suggest that there is no value to the electoral exercise: it is of immense significance in both in India and Afghanistan, particularly for the politically weakest segments of society inasmuch as the ballot promises equality for all, at least in a formal sense. But there is a clear and ever-present danger that, to use the words of the Indian dissident Arundhati Roy, democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning. Contemporary Latin America confirms that the best chance of reclaiming democracy from the so-called ‘free market’ and geo-political winds is through the formation of regional blocs that promote the needs of the people rather than the imperative of profit and power. One can only hope it doesn’t take us another seven decades to learn this lesson.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily.
A Modi way of war?
India’s intelligence czar, though, never got the political clearance he hoped for. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remained committed to the dialogue process with Pakistan, believing that bomb-for-bomb strikes would increase terrorist violence. In early 2010, foreign service officer Shivshankar Menon replaced Mr. Narayanan, and the doves came to control policy-making.
“Keep your hands in your pockets,” a senior RAW official recalls Mr. Menon as telling Afghan desk officers in mid-2010 — and that was that.
Except, that might not quite have been that. Last week, prime ministerial front runner Narendra Modi made the first-ever public suggestion by any politician that he might authorize offensive covert operations against terrorists — one of the most fateful decisions facing India’s next government. Mr. Modi lashed out at Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s revelation of joint efforts by India and the United States to apprehend terrorism-linked ganglord Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar in Karachi. “Do these things happen through the medium of newspapers?” he asked. “Did the United States issue a press note before they killed Osama bin Laden?”
It’s hard to say whether Mr. Modi’s speech was driven by election-time testosterone, or reflects considered counsel from his inner circle of advisers. This much is clear, though: inside the intelligence community, there is a growing view that India must learn a new language of killing.
Ever since the 1999 Kargil war, India’s security calculus has been derived from the assumption that the U.S. would moderate sub-conventional warfare against India. Dr. Singh’s 10 years in office show that this belief was well-founded. The authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal database shows that violence in Jammu and Kashmir declined year-on-year from 2002 to 2013 — and though there’s substantial evidence to suggest that the ISI backed the 26/11 attacks, international pressure has forced it to rein in jihadists since.
In the past two years, though, the wheel has turned. The Pakistan Army’s war against jihadists is flailing and its control over one-time proxies among the jihadists has diminished. Political parties there have sought to appease the increasingly powerful jihadists. For their part, Pakistan’s Taliban has sought to wean away the ethnic-Punjabi constituency of state-backed organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Last year, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Wali-ur-Rahman warned that “the practical struggle for a sharia system that we are carrying out in Pakistan, the same way we will continue it in Kashmir, and the same way we will implement the sharia system in India too.” Indian Mujahideen are training with the Taliban; violence in Kashmir is up.
India’s secret wars
Little genius is needed to see what might emerge to the west of India’s borders: a nuclear-armed state with crumbling central authority, controlled for all practical purposes by rival Islamist militias. “The water,” Pakistan’s military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq instructed his spymaster, General Akhtar Malik, in December 1979, “must boil at the right temperature.” Now, the water seems dangerously close to boiling over.
Faced with not-dissimilar problems, Afghanistan’s NDS has made its choice. Last year, U.S. forces captured senior Pakistani Taliban commander Latif Mehsud from the custody of Afghanistan’s intelligence services — lending weight to claims that the NDS has been backing the jihadist group, in retaliation for the ISI’s support to the networks of Islamist warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the Afghan Taliban. In private, NDS officials admit they have staged bomb-for-bomb actions against attacks they attribute to the ISI, including one in March on Kabul’s prestigious Serena Hotel.
The question is simple: will India be able to deter Pakistani jihadists with similar tactics?
From the early 1980s, Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the ISI Directorate. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered retaliation. RAW set up two covert groups, known only as Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J, the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed in particular at Khalistani groups. Each Khalistan terror attack targeting India’s cities was met with retaliatory attacks in Lahore or Karachi. “The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab,” the former RAW officer B. Raman wrote in 2002, “by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known.”
India came to covert warfare late in its history. In 1947, imperial Britain stripped the assets of India’s covert arsenal as it left. The senior-most British Indian Police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan left for Pakistan with what few sensitive files departing British officials had neglected to destroy. The Intelligence Bureau, Lieutenant General L.P. Singh has recorded, was reduced to a “tragicomic state of helplessness,” possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards.” The Military Intelligence Directorate in New Delhi didn’t even have a map of Jammu and Kashmir to make sense of the first radio intercepts signaling the beginning of the war of 1947-1948.
For Pakistan, covert warfare was a tool of survival: faced with a larger and infinitely better-resourced neighbour, it knew it could not compete in conventional military terms. Mr. Khan’s doctrine posited that sub-conventional offensive warfare could provide it defence. From 1947, Pakistan engaged India in what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would later call “an informal war.”
India’s covert capabilities grew in the wake of the 1962 war. Helped by the U.S., the newly-founded RAW developed the capacities for deep-penetration espionage meant to target China. It used its new tools to target Pakistan in 1971. Establishment 22, operating under the command of Major General Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh. Establishment 22 personnel aided Sikkim’s accession to the Union of India; trained Tamil terrorists; and armed rebels operating against the pro-China regime in Myanmar.
Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, though, ended RAW’s offensive operations against Pakistan — and his predecessor, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, wound up its eastern operations. India continued to possess a superior conventional military, but as it became known in the late 1980s that Pakistan possessed a nuclear weapon, it became clear this sword would remain sheathed.
In 1999, soon after the Kargil war, intelligence officers attempted to persuade Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to authorize the development of offensive covert capabilities.
“He didn’t say a word,” one official present at the meeting told The Hindu, “not yes, not no.” Less than three years later, when terrorists attacked Parliament House, Mr. Vajpayee had no tools at his disposal to deter Pakistan — bar an expensive, and ultimately useless, threat of war.
Mr. Vajpayee’s silence, like that of his predecessors, wasn’t cowardice. The use of covert action inside Pakistan will, almost certainly, invite retaliation — ending, thus, in more violence, at least in the short run. It can cause large-scale civilian fatalities, with damaging international consequences. It can end in the arrest of Indian assets, damaging the country’s credibility. It can succeed in its aims, as Israel, the U.S. and the United Kingdom have sometimes proved — or, as those very countries have learned, just as easily fail.
There is no easy path to be taken, for each winds past the taking of human life. It is imperative, therefore, that India’s new security czars discuss their choices dispassionately, before a decision has to be made in rage.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India.