Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

Heavy Weather Ahead

By shifting the theatres of violence from J&K to elsewhere, Pakistan looks for greater 'deniability', while furthering the communal divide, but it not a radical departure or even as a nuanced reorientation of the ISI/jihadi agenda

Heavy Weather Ahead
| AP Photo/Gurinder Osan
Heavy Weather Ahead

Meeting Pakistan Prime Minister on the sidelines of the 15th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on August 2, 2008, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh reportedly conveyed the country’s concerns over the increasing involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, in anti-India activities. 

Dr. Singh is believed to have specifically conveyed concerns over ISI involvement in the July 7 suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, with a message that the incident, along with cease-fire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) and increasing infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), had created "difficulties" in the relationship between the two countries.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, on his part, assured his Indian counterpart that Islamabad would independently investigate the embassy attack which killed 60 people, including four Indians.

The cease-fire violations coincide with the terrorist attacks on Indian targets at home and abroad. There have been serial bombings in India – in the western commercial hub of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, on July 26, and in the southern IT/BPO centre of Bangalore, capital of Karnataka, on July 25, which left a cumulative total of approximately 56 people killed and 150 wounded. Earlier, the suicide bombing in Kabul on July 7 killed at least 60 people, including diplomat V. Venkateswara Rao and the military attaché Brigadier Ravi Datt Mehta. 

With the security agencies currently investigating the bombings in Bangalore and Ahmedabad and the antecedents of the shadowy Indian Mujahideen (which claimed responsibility for the mayhem in Ahmedabad), definitive evidence is still elusive regarding the ISI’s possible role. There is, however, no such uncertainty over the ISI's involvement in the suicide bombing at the Indian Embassy in Kabul. 

New Delhi stated, further, that the peace process was "under stress" after the Kabul Embassy bombing. India’s National Security Adviser, M. K. Narayanan, stated on July 12, "We not only suspect but we have a fair amount of intelligence (on the involvement of Pakistan)… We have no doubt that the ISI is behind this..." 

In fact, increasing evidence reportedly indicates that Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) cadre Hamza Shakoor, a 22-year-old who hailed from Gujranwala in Pakistan’s Punjab province, drove the vehicle used to bomb the Embassy. Afghanistan has unequivocally blamed the attack on the ISI.  To Pakistan’s acute embarrassment, reports indicate further that the ISI’s involvement has been substantially confirmed by USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), based on communication intercepts. 

According to The New York Times (NYT), American intelligence agencies have concluded that the ISI helped plan the suicide bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul based on "intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, the officials [of US] said, providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region." 

Subsequent forensic investigations by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have also reportedly established that the explosives used bore markings of the Pakistan Army Ordnance Factory. Further, NYT reported that "American officials also said there was new information showing that members of the Pakistani intelligence service were increasingly providing militants with details about the American campaign against them, in some cases allowing militants to avoid American missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas… The information linking the ISI to the bombing of the Indian Embassy was described in interviews by several American officials with knowledge of the intelligence. Some of the officials expressed anger that elements of Pakistan’s government seemed to be directly aiding violence in Afghanistan that had included attacks on American troops." 

US intelligence believes that the embassy attack was probably orchestrated by militants loyal to Jalaluddin Haqqani. 

Pakistan’s response to all this, of course, has been a blank denial. As proof of innocence, Prime Minister Gilani declared, "we have condemned this incident in the strongest terms," adding further, "against this background, the Indian statement (regarding Pakistani involvement) is not only surprising but shocking too."

It is useful to note that a Pakistani role has long been documented in virtually every major act of Islamist terrorism on Indian soil, as well as in an overwhelming majority of incidents of Islamist terrorism across the globe.

On July 29, flagging 19 ceasefire violations on the LoC by Pakistan in 2008, India, asked Islamabad to honour the November 2003 cease-fire agreement and not to vitiate the atmosphere and disturb the bilateral peace process. The incident in Kupwara sector on July 28, in which one Indian soldier, was killed was described by the Army as the first direct incursion by the Pakistan Army across the LoC after the 1999 Kargil War. Unconfirmed reports said that four Pakistani soldiers were killed with one body found on the Indian side of the LoC. 

Most of the 19 violations occurred in the Poonch and Rajouri areas of Jammu. Infringements have also been reported in the Uri, Kupwara, Tanghdar, Machail and Gurez sectors. Army sources stated that most of these violations were in June and July 2008. While Pakistani troops are given to resort to covering fire for infiltration attempts, the recent LoC truce violations are being seen as part of a broader escalation strategy. Praveen Swami notes: 

Islamabad hopes a crisis on the LoC will give it the pretext it needs to pull troops out of the North-West Frontier Province, a senior military official told The Hindu. It believes a crisis would compel the United States of America to pressure India to make concessions on Jammu and Kashmir, he said. According to the official, India’s decision not to use punitive force along the LoC was intended to avoid this outcome. Pakistan had thinned out its forces along its northern borders with India soon after the 2001-2002 military crisis, in support of United States of America-led anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan. However, Army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani is believed to have decided to slash force commitments for the anti-Taliban campaign, and return troops to their traditional locations facing Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.

And for the record, the jihad infrastructure in Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir is well in tact. However, commanders of the LeT are more cautious in their campaign of subversion – covert propaganda, hidden recruitment, training and exfiltration continue through a changed modus operandi, which has become sufficiently clandestine not to attract excessive media attention and affords Pakistan the option of denying the state’s involvement in fostering terrorist activities. 

The interrogation of Jameel Ahmed Awan aka Abu Zargam aka Dheeraj, a resident of Abottabad in Pakistan, who was arrested earlier in 2008, has revealed that the ideologues of the Ahl-e-Hadith sect continue to make provocative speeches laced with exhortation for jihad, particularly in areas where there is insignificant presence of security forces (SFs). Care is taken to switch off the microphone if such speeches are made in mosques and speeches made in city areas are far more temperate. 

Sources indicate that, since April 2008, the leadership of the LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and Al-Badr Mujahideen have met at least twice in the garrison city of Rawalpindi to discuss the jihad in J&K and in Afghanistan.

And on the ground in J&K, there has been a renewed offensive by the militants, backed by increased infiltration. While July has been the most violent month in 2008 with some 82 fatalities, April and May accounted for almost 90 infiltration attempts. In fact, April, May and June accounted for 161 infiltration attempts, with most of these reported from the Uri, Machail and Keran sectors, Army sources disclosed. Based on radio intercepts of militants, sources said most of the infiltrators were from the LeT and JeM, with instructions to force a poll boycott in J&K. Militants have stepped up their attacks in more recent times. In July alone, the major incidents include: 

July 24: Five people of the same family, including four children, were killed and 18 persons were injured when militants lobbed a grenade at the crowded Batmaloo bus stand in the capital, Srinagar.

In the Doda district, HM cadres shot dead four members of the family of a surrendered militant.

July 19: Ten soldiers were killed and 18 were wounded when HM militants destroyed a SF bus in an IED blast at Narbal Crossing on the outskirts of Srinagar.

July 4: Five soldiers were killed in an ambush by militants in the Kupwara district.

Intelligence sources indicate, moreover, that militants are planning to escalate violence ahead of the J&K Assembly polls in October-November 2008. Khadim Hussein, a HM ‘commander’ arrested in the Doda district sometime in April 2008 revealed that, "We have been told to remain low till the elections are near and then target leaders." 

Sources indicate that the Gilani regime backs the ISI plan to disrupt the forthcoming elections in J&K. It was with the support of the new government that LeT has recently opened two new training camps in Rawlakot and Kotli in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The outfit has reportedly created "an army of 200-250 militants" who are specially trained in carrying out attacks on political rallies, candidates and election booths. In addition to their own cadre, "the LeT was also ready to help some militants of Hizbul and Jaish to infiltrate under their banner to J&K to sabotage the elections". 

These specially trained LeT cadres reportedly hail from Multan and Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province and Rawlakot, Kotli and Bhimber in PoK, and have been selected after a long drawn process of trials.

While the primary target of the ISI-backed armies of mujahideen has been J&K, the post 9/11 era has gradually induced a parallel shift in strategy, with increasing terrorist incidents in various metropolitan areas in India. The intent and objectives of the ISI are increasingly apparent in a wide range of activities intended to provoke communal violence, engineer terrorist incidents, and recruit militants for a pan-Islamist jihad across India. 

A shift in the pattern of violence from J&K to other centres "would offer Pakistan greater ‘deniability’, and enable it to argue that Indian Muslims have been pushed to a point of no return by the government’s ‘atrocities’. However, such a shift in strategies should not be perceived as a radical departure or even as a nuanced reorientation of the ISI/jihadi agenda. It lies entirely within the paradigm that has been sustained since the Zia-ul-Haq regime, and has progressively translated itself into the Islamist fundamentalist and terrorist movement in the region."

It is now clear that, whatever tactical restraint exercised by Pakistan for some time, has obviously disappeared. India, on the other hand, continues to exercise "adequate restraint" to prevent any runaway escalation of tensions, though Defence Minister A.K. Antony asserted that India is fully prepared to deal with any such instances "firmly". 

During his visit to the US between July 27 and 30, 2008, Prime Minister Gilani was forced to defend the ISI in the wake of rising allegations of sustained wrongdoing by the agency. While allegations of supporting terrorist networks are not new to the ISI, it is the cumulative impact of the recent Western and (for much longer) Indian and Afghan reports that is causing concern for the Agency. While its network and strategy of promoting militancy in J&K, and of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, are well-known in this part of the globe, the West has, for a host of reasons, refused to recognize the nature and intent of the Agency. However, the West is now finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the footprints of ISI terror across the world. 

According to a London Times report, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to Islamabad in July 2008, had privately warned that Washington would take unilateral military action if Pakistan did not move more aggressively to stop infiltration of militants across the border into Afghanistan. On July 12, 2008, Stephen R. Kappes, the CIA Deputy Director, reportedly traveled to Pakistan to confront Islamabad with "new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas."

Any faint hopes that Pakistan's civilian political leadership would rein in the ISI were abruptly dashed. On July 27, the government reversed its decision, announced the previous night, to place the ISI under the administrative, financial and operational control of the Interior Division. The Press Information Department had issued a memorandum late on July 26 stating that the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau had been placed under the Interior Division’s control. The Pakistan People’s Party-led government later ‘clarified’ the earlier notification, saying the ISI would continue to operate at the Prime Minister’s ‘discretion’: "The said notification only re-emphasises more co-ordination between the Ministry of Interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security." For the record, it may be noted that "the ISI is supposed to be under the Prime Minister’s control but with a mainly military set-up, is known to function as an arm of the Pakistan military. A serving Lieutenant-General heads the organisation, and a lot of its manpower is drawn from the military."

It is not the first time that the ISI has come in for global censure. A report commissioned by Britain's ministry of defense in September 2006 concluded that the ISI "has been supporting terrorism and extremism, whether in London… or in Afghanistan or Iraq… The [Pakistani] Army’s dual role in combating terrorism and at the same time promoting the MMA [Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of Islamist parties], and so indirectly supporting the Taliban through the ISI, is coming under closer and closer international scrutiny."  

The British Defence Academy report recommended that it was necessary to dismantle the ISI if the problem of Pakistan’s support to Islamist terrorism was to be resolved. 

The Pakistani military establishment will oppose any move that could potentially reduce its powers, or the powers of the ISI. Given the architecture of Pakistan’s domestic politics and in the absence of sustained global pressure, a diminution of the ISI’s extraordinary powers and network cannot be expected in the proximate future. The shadowy ‘state within a state’, and its mandate of subversion and terror, will consequently continue to be a cause for serious global concern. 

Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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