[This write-up is a prelude to a comprehensive research paper that I have recently written on a similar subject for a reputed journal in India. Some of the facts may be overlapping but the two pieces are entirely different. This write-up seeks to offer a broad over-view of wider implications and impact of the American move.]
US President Biden’s April 14 announcement of complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan, the perennial graveyard of great empires, leaving the so-called war on terror inconclusive, continues to dominate the global discourse on security and geopolitics. Amidst apprehensions of rising clout of terror groups in South Asia and beyond, many believe that such a move fulfils the Pakistani aspiration of beating America with the help of America itself in a covert war.
A write up in New York Times has referred to remarks by former DG Pak ISI, Hamid Gul- often described as the ‘Godfather of Jehad’ in Af-Pak region- way back in 2014 during a chat show named ‘Mazaq Raat’ at Dunya News of Pakistan. Gul had asserted that ‘when history would be written, ISI would be credited with vanquishing the Soviets in Afghanistan with the help of America, to eventually decimate the Americans themselves with their own help.’ Gul, known for undermining civilian governments to perpetuate de-facto military control of Pakistan and building an elaborate global infrastructure for radicalism, terror and organised-crime, had emerged as the most credible public face of Pakistani deep state.
He had stressed during this show that ISI was not a stick or watch in the hands of Pakistani rulers and had urged to people to respect it as an army of the “Qom” (Islamic race). There is another media clip of Gul hailing Osama Bin Laden as friend of Pakistan and boasting success of Pak Army in hiding the most wanted fugitive for nearly a decade, before the latter could be detected by the US intelligence.
In the larger context of events, it only suggests that Pakistani deep state had been confident from the beginning that they had succeeded in entrapping United States in Afghanistan. And there was no way for the most powerful nation on the earth to extricate itself without facing a severe blow in its face.
Pakistani deep state has increasingly adopted typical traditional ‘Mamluk’ strategy of war to successfully camouflage self-seeking agenda of a few in the name of religion. This is at the cost of security of the rest of the mankind, including its own people. Hence, treachery, deception, double-speak, and collateral damage have been justifiable instruments of an all out holy war. Identity driven holy war has always justified exploitation and loot of "others" (or “infidels”) and plundering their resources, including human beings, for luxury and the comfort of "few", or "believers". Audacity or ability to peddle brazen lies has always been an integral part of propaganda or psychological dimension of such a war. Hence, they have continued to peddle lies like discrimination against Muslims in India or Hindus and Sikhs being treacherous races or India being involved in cross-border terrorism in Pakistan.
They believe it was this strategy that helped relatively smaller groups of Mamluk-Mongol marauders vandalise the mighty, but fractured, original civilization of the Indian subcontinent. People who had continued to practice ideals of “Dharma-Yuddha” (rule-based war in defence of justice) could be defeated only through a combination of physical and psychological assault with lavish use of deception and tact. After humiliating debacle in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, Pakistani deep state has built a world wide infra-structure of organised crime, and tapped some of existing ones, to build and retain a global capacity for covert war against anyone and every one. From Far East, to South Asia, West Asia, parts of Africa and many parts of Europe - especially Portugal, Spain, Italy and UK- and going all the way to Columbia and Mexico, Pakistani nationals or elements of Pakistani deep state have been found involved in organised crime networks to varying extents. Similarly, in various drug and gun running networks in Indian ocean and Arabian Sea, Pakistani nationals have been routinely intercepted. The actual number of such incidents that have surfaced in media could simply be a small tip of a large iceberg. With organised crime assessed to be accounting for 15 percent of the global GDP, with the figure being excess of 30 to 33% in many regions, Pakistani deep state's clandestine clout can only be visualized.
US media has been awash with reports of the way Pak military, despite being formally allied with United States, had continued to covertly support Taliban in a war, where US and the allied European nations have lost over 3500 soldiers, with another 25, 000+ receiving serious injuries. Financial costs of the war has been estimated at US$ 2 trillion by a Brown University's 'Costs of the War project'. It is believed that US war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq derailed the economic and technological advancement of the most powerful democracy. The same project estimated that during 2001-2020, Afghanistan had suffered 43,000 civilian casualties, with corresponding figures for soldiers and policemen, who bore the brunt of Taliban attack, being estimated in excess of 70,000.
United States has also invested nearly US $ 700 billion in infrastructure for good governance, democracy, defence of human rights, education and employment. Significant focus remained on women empowerment. India too has contributed a few billions dollars in such initiatives and public infrastructure. But developments in this direction have failed to prevent well-oiled Taliban and allied radical machinery from intimidating large sections of local population, especially in rural areas, into submission. Consequently, Pakistani deep state has succeeded in protecting and preserving the most formidable sanctuary for terror, radicalism and narcotic cultivation that it has assiduously cultivated over four decades, exploiting emotions of religious identity.
As per UNODC report, Taliban has been annually generating US $ 1.5 billion through heroin and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. These cannot be processed and trafficked without support of multiple global networks managed and coordinated by Pak ISI. As per informed sources, this revenue is peanuts compared overall volume of money generated by larger world-wide operations of organised crime directly coordinated by Pak ISI.
But Afghanistan also provides a large pool of radicalised cadres both for guerrilla and terror operations as well as lower-end roles in the global organised crime networks. Simultaneously, incumbents of Pakistani deep state may also be eying proceeds from potential exploitation of vast metal and mineral resources in Afghanistan, estimated to be in excess of US$ 3 trillion, which China has been seeking to explore. The latter has signed a few deals without substantial progress so far.
Pakistani deep state has consistently demonstrated it utility for major powers. Its nexus with major terror groups and organised crime networks has been found extremely useful for a variety of purposes. Many established democracies have thanked Pakistan for tactical assistance in neutralising minor terror modules. Pakistanis have not hesitated in sacrificing some of their own smaller pawns or utilising their interface with larger crime networks to assist European or other nations on minor counter-terror issues, where its own larger interests were not involved. In many instances, its terror or organised crime linked human assets have been treated as sacrificial lambs for larger strategic or financial gains.
A closer analysis and observation suggests that the world of money-laundering, drug-trafficking, printing and circulation of fake currencies, betting, extortion, arms-trafficking, street crime, high-end cyber-crime, passports and visas forgery etc all are interlinked at one or the other level. Hence, many state actors, while resenting presence of such Pak linked networks on their own territory, have been tempted, or even compelled, to use Pakistani clout with entities in this realm for a variety of purposes.
Pakistani deep state is also believed to have exploited its expertise in a variety of sophisticated organised crime, to build symbiotic linkages with sections of political, bureaucratic, media and civil society groups. This is not only in relatively fragile states but also in some of the stable democracies. Nevertheless, such entities and groups have their own dynamics that breed differences and disputes. Hence, Pakistan has also faced, to a limited extent, a boomerang impact for supporting terror and crime, which it quietly and brazenly attributes to India, without realising that in absence of an elaborate infrastructure, it is impossible to peddle organised terror.
Major global powers have always been suspected of depending on indirect assistance from covert terror and crime infrastructure of Pakistan on certain issues. Powerful sections of the US establishment have often been charged with tacit encouragement to Pakistan’s early ventures towards building infrastructure for radicalism and organised crime. US ambivalence to Islamist terror during early years of Cold War or its subsequent backing of jehadi terror against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan lend credence to such perceptions. Today, China appears to perceive Pakistan’s terror infrastructure and its goodwill with organised global crime networks as a source of strength, worthy of exploitation for strategic goals.
In recent years, Turkish President Erdogan’s flirtations with both Al Qaeda and ISIS have been well documented. Several media reports have cited remnants of IS and Al Qaeda frequenting Istanbul and maintaining direct interface with Turkish intelligence. Erdogan has made veiled threats against France to use even Islamist terror, without being explicit about it. He probably derived confidence from his patronage to such groups or clout with them. His closer alliance with Pakistan, only enhances his covert influence manifold. Pakistan’s role as interlocutor between US and Taliban, and choice of Ankara as the venue for next round of talks between US and Taliban, only sum up the story in this direction.
Situation becomes particularly worrying with what appears a clear backing of China to emerging axis of Pakistan, Turkey and Iran. While, Xi Jin Ping regime would like major terror groups and their patrons to stay away from China’s own soft belly in Xinjiang, as well as Chinese projects in both Central Asia and Africa, an indirect engagement with such elements through Pakistan can help: a) safeguard these interests or establishments; and b) prevent emergence of any challenge or economic competition from actual or potential rivals. This can vitiate global ambience for commerce, free trade and enterprise.
China’s interests and stakes in Africa, Central Asia, Far -East and West Asia are well known. An indirect interface with such groups, backed by confidence of its own advanced destructive technological power, virtually offers it a tool to coerce states in these region to plunder their resources or impose its own designs on them.
Global Terror Index - 2020 observes increasing spread of terrorism in certain parts of the world, especially the sub-Saharan Africa. This is something which may not be of much concern to the most among the developed West. But it can potentially have a strong spill over impact well beyond this region in the post-Covid scenario.
There are several other indicators suggesting that Africa may emerge as new home for terror groups or an alternative sanctuary for controlled breeding of terror, alongside organised crime. Fragile states with a pool of volatile young population provide the most conducive infrastructure for terror. Besides Boko Haram and Al Shabab, several elements of Al Qaeda and IS have also managed to sneak into both Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa. Islamic State of Greater Sahara to a host of relatively smaller groups have made their presence felt in the region over the past few years.
Emotive appeal of identity driven propaganda is also manifest in a series of lone wolf terror attacks in Paris, London or even Washington DC. These have demonstrated that even a single motivated terrorist or a small groups of such terrorists, which being a family in a recent case in Indonesia, can wreak havoc on open societies. If such people are well trained, probably the damage can be far more serious. Hence, even in absence of large organised terror groups, open societies are likely to be troubled by stray incidents of radical terrorism. Oppressive societies can use their stronger surveillance capacities to impose a blanket curb, alongside stricter security counter measures, to deny space to even lone wolfs from inflicting damage to their elite or state institutions. Democracies may struggle in this direction.
India needs to be particularly careful as its overall vulnerability to terror remains fairly high. Since 2001, India has remained in the Global Terror Index’s list of 5 most vulnerable nations for nearly a decade. Even now, India has been ranked 8th after Pakistan and highly impacted nations including Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. Given congenital Pakistani hatred towards India, with its world-wide terror infrastructure intact, and Chinese backing to Pakistan, India has its task well cut out.
Challenges further magnify in the context of fragility of many of its own key institutions and malignancy in sections of its police establishments. What manifested during recent extortion cum crime network run by a policeman in Mumbai, in alleged collusion with a politician, could be smaller sample of a larger rot. Such phenomenon threatens to dent the advances made towards the development of formidable anti-terror and counter-terror capacities under dynamic leadership of few brilliant professional leaders. Given the overall adversities, amidst which India's counter-terror professionals operate, India's success in handling and thwarting Pak sponsored terror attacks, in recent years, has been commendable by all standards.
Simultaneously, in an increasingly interlinked world, terror sanctuary almost anywhere shall have some impact on India’s security interests. This is especially given its democratic character, large size and mixed population. But a Pak nurtured Islamist terror hub and global crime-terror network poses a direct threat to the world's largest democracy. The choice is certainly not a spectacular and expensive war on terror that can drain our national energies. It should rather be a series of smaller and less spectacular measures that deny space and opportunities for terror and organised crime to eventually snuff them out.
India needs to keep a particularly closer watch on subversive propaganda at home in the guise of democratic freedom. For larger credibility and efficacy of the approach, this must be done through a mechanism of rule of law instead of underhand coercion, which is likely to generate more problems than solutions in long run. Even counterreactions to Islamic radicalism on social media, beyond a point, shall help feed Islamist propaganda for terror and subversion. This is especially in absence of an agile and swift mechanism of rule of law. Amidst all this, terror groups in the region and beyond have been continuously mutating and transitioning, along with their counterparts in the world of organised crime, compounding the pressure on counter-terror professionals.
India needs an innovative approach, incorporating strategic and tactical, defensive and offensive as well as local and global dimensions, to build sustainable and effective capacities to deal with the threat, in all its dimensions, in its own unique context. American experience only demonstrates that a flawed approach, despite the best intent, can seriously impair long-term capacities and strengths of even the mightiest among states and civilizations.