Saturday, January 17, 2015

US, India and the geopolitics of terrorism: delusion, deception and aid

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the western Indian state of Gujarat on 11 January for a business summit and Islamabad on 12 January to lead a strategic dialogue with the Pakistani government and military. Kerry’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s visit to India scheduled for 24 January. Ahead of these summits, Kerry announced that Pakistan had curtailed and “[taken] action against” terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). This certification is necessary for the disbursement of civilian aid under the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, more often referred to as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, and came just before Kerry’s departure for the subcontinent. However, recent events and their aftermath in Pakistan indicate that state support for terror organisations has not ceased. On the contrary, the specific groups mentioned by Kerry appear to have become more active in recent weeks. In response to concerns from the Indian government, the US has temporarily withheld aid to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar Bill ($250 million out of the $532 million promised this year) but it is widely believed that the funds will eventually be cleared after the negotiations and summits currently underway. In this article, I explore how recent events in Pakistan belie Pakistani and US claims that terror groups have been curtailed.

Terror attacks, blame games and the power of delusion

The 16 December 2014 Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attack at a school in Peshawar that resulted in the deaths of 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren – the deadliest terrorist attack ever in Pakistan – generated immense grief and outrage in the country. Politicians, from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the chief ministers of the provinces and opposition figures like Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Imran Khan, roundly condemned the attack and promised a ‘changed’ Pakistan. Media commentators opined that of all the gruesome atrocities that the nation had witnessed, this was the most gruesome of all, and it was absolutely inconceivable that nothing should change after this horrific event.

Amidst this outpouring of collective anger and demands for substantive change, it was disappointing to note how quickly public discourse took a turn for the worse through manipulation by vested interests and how familiar narratives demonising Pakistan’s eternal adversaries were once again opportunistically resuscitated and given undue air time.

Former President Pervez Musharraf and leader of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawah (LeT/JuD) Hafeez Saeed, mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, reached common ground when both decided to blame India for the Peshawar massacre. Figures like Hafeez Saeed, controversial Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz (who has now been issued an arrest warrant for threatening people who criticised his refusal to condemn the Peshawar attack) and former intelligence chief Hamid Gul got on television and “managed to muddle the issue with references to the Indian hand and the eternal enemies of Pakistan (Afghanistan, Jews, America, that sort of thing),” tells us US-based commentator Omar Ali. Anchors on ARY, the most ardently pro-army news channel amongst others in its cohort, fanned the flames of ‘enemy’-bashing by angrily demanding the banning of Indian overflights to Afghanistan. Top military propagandists Ahmed Qureshi and Zaid Hamid declaimed that India would be made to pay for this latest atrocity. Analyst Tufail Ahmad shows in a review of Pakistani media that while the Peshawar attack resulted in “an upsurge of mass sentiment against jihadists in Pakistan” in the liberal, English-language press, the more powerful Urdu press “[presented] a contrary picture with much of the blame heaped on India”.

It would appear that the timeless narratives evincing hatred of India fostered by both military and extremist forces in Pakistan once again came to dominate public understandings of a major atrocity. Thus, going by the virulence of recent propaganda, it would be hard to argue, as Kerry does, that groups like LeT/JuD have been curtailed by the state.

The good, the bad and the ugly

What do propaganda narratives tell us about state support for terrorism? Narratives that shift responsibility onto perceived foreign enemies have played a foundational role in maintaining military power and hegemony in Pakistan. Scholars have long conceded that the Pakistani military’s not-so-clandestine aim of waging ‘perpetual war’ with India, and the decades of seemingly inexorable machinations that have sustained this aim, always was and continues to be a cornerstone of Pakistan’s security state (or the “deep state”, as Omar Ali calls it).

Since the onset of the War on Terror, and in the aftermath of the implosion of the Cold War programme of state-sponsored terrorism managed by the US and Pakistan through the 1980s and 90s, the military-intelligence edifice in Pakistan has propounded pernicious new understandings of terrorism based on a distinction between ‘bad’ jehadis (those based primarily along the Afghan front who target US and Pakistani forces) and ‘good’ jehadis (those whose base is West Punjab and primary target is India), that have obfuscated political debate at all levels of society, from schools and universities to the national media, with the end result that the incalculable social cost that never-ending violence has exacted is hardly ever properly confronted. The outrage generated by each successive atrocity is deflected and subsumed by cynical propaganda, and the potential of a charged public consciousness to act as a catalyst for change is tragically undermined.

The extent of the manipulation of public opinion in media affiliated with the deep state’s strategic interests can be gauged from the manner in which even major events are completely distorted. For instance, many in Pakistan continue to believe that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, in which 168 people were killed, were the handiwork of a crazed Hindu (Indian) colonel, and not a carefully-orchestrated campaign planned by the LeT/JuD in Pakistan (allegedly with state intelligence support) and executed by 10 of its foot-soldiers who reached the shores of Mumbai on 26 November 2008. Leaders of LeT/JuD such as Zaki-ur Lakhvi and Hafeez Saeed, who, due to international pressure, were either jailed (Zaki-ur Lakhvi) or were facing trial (Saeed and his deputy Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki) have now been bailed and/or released from the ignominy of a perfunctory, stationary and toothless judicial process in which state prosecutors refused to get involved and those who did were killed by terrorists. Saeed (who has a USD 10 million bounty on his head) has been allowed to hold public rallies and continues to incite hostility against India. His spurious declarations on national television have only served to legitimise and add ballast to his agenda. Indian intelligence reports suggest that Saeed and the LeT are currently planning for multiple attacks in New Delhi and Agra. 

Ultimately, the most pertinent question here is this: what implications does this habitual displacement of responsibility onto perennially demonised enemies have for the future of counter-terrorism efforts? 

Contradictions of US aid to Pakistan

It is not an easy question to answer. But one of its most serious ramifications stands before us in the matter of US civilian and military aid to Pakistan. Other than the Kerry-Lugar Bill, a new defense authorisation bill was passed by the American Congress and signed into law by President Obama at the end of December 2014. The bill, known formally as S.1847 or the Carl Levin and Howard P 'Buck' McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, provides for $1 billion in aid to Pakistan in 2015, conditional on Islamabad’s ‘demonstrated commitment’ to the dismantling of the Haqqani Network, al-Qaida and Tehrik-i-Taliban (i.e., the ‘bad terrorists’). The Punjab-based LeT/JuD and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) (which has been responsible for atrocities against Pakistani Shias) find no mention in the bill. Moreover, Kerry’s certification that Pakistan has indeed ceased support to terror groups like LeT and JeM (for the disbursement of civilian aid under the Kerry-Lugar Bill), in the face of glaring contradictory evidence, further complicate this anomaly. Going by these acts of omission and falsification, it would appear that the US is willing to countenance Pakistan’s selective approach to tackling terrorism.

It is not as if the ‘bad’ outfits (the TTP and al-Qaida) are solely focused on terrorising America and Pakistan. (In fact, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in September 2014 that India would be its next target and theatre of action.) Instead, what is remarkable is that even in the face of continuing brutality and irrefutable proof that the policy of fighting one group of terrorists while simultaneously sponsoring others is simply self-destructive, there is no sign that the Pakistani military is ready to abandon its duplicitous strategy. The delusory narratives blaming India for the Taliban’s crimes are merely the latest symptom of a much larger malaise. The US would be better served if it confronted the problem squarely and brought some transparency to its military and civilian aid policy in Pakistan.

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