India Burning

Update: 5/7/2001 — In the years since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I have thought as to whether I should delete this post or amend it.  I have decided is it better to own up to my glaring mistake, to amend the post, and maintain its original text struck out.

In hindsight, I can see that I was incorrect in my assessment that Indian-based Muslims conducted the Mumbai attacks.  My opinion was shaped by the recent attacks by the Indian Mujahideen, which appeared to be a purely local outfit.

In reality, Pakistan-based terrorists attacked Indian civilians and others on that day.  Much of what I had originally written about India’s internal challenges is true. But it is equally, if not more applicable to Pakistan, which is corroding from within due to militancy and terrorism.

My apologies for any offense caused.

Mumbai is a war zone. Dozens of innocents have been butchered by cold, depraved young men.

But rather than blaming Pakistan, India must look at itself.

Earlier in the week, Indians boasted of the alleged sinking of a pirate vessel by their navy.   An Indian columnist proclaimed that the Indian navy had come of age.

Days later, U.S. officials revealed that the Indians sunk the pirated vessel — not the pirates’.

And last night, terrorists stormed the seaside Taj Hotel, coming into Mumbai via boats.

Clearly the Indian navy has not come of age.

Presumptuousness has plagued India. ‘India shining’ belied the plight of its darkened masses. Nine hundred million there live on less than $2 a day.


Incompetence has also plagued India. After failing to prevent this sophisticated attack and bungling the subsequent operations, New Delhi has magically found out the origin of the terrorists’ vessel and even their hometown!

In blaming Pakistan, Indian officials are masking their own incompetence. India’s security establishment has, much like Pakistan’s, failed to protect its citizenry. States are reluctant to acknowledge that non-state threats are purely that; it is humiliating.


The 800 pound gorilla in the room is the rising threat of homegrown Muslim militancy in India. Muslims are an underclass in India and increasingly plagued by a Hindu chauvinism that has come from the periphery to India’s center. Yesterday’s events are the natural outgrowth of Hindu fascism, which belies the spirit of Hinduism in burning Muslims alive and raping Christian nuns.

India must confront its inner demons. But it is clearly proving resistant to do so, given that elections are not too far.

Terrorism is politics of the most morally decrepit sort. It can involve religion, but only by removing its ethical constraints. It is also imprecise. As I write, a family friend and his father — both Muslim — are holed up in the Taj, uncertain of their fate.

Toward the Iraqization of Pakistan?


Earlier this month, David Ignatius revealed that Islamabad and Washington have a “secret deal” that permits the latter to freely take out previously off-limit insurgent leaders inside Pakistan.  The list related to Ignatius by an anonymous Pakistani source, likely Ambassador Husain Haqqani, was big stuff.  Islamabad had consented to the liquidation of its major ‘assets’ in the tribal areas and nearby: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mullah Muhammad Omar. Presumably Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir (militants favorable to Islamabad, opposed to the U.S., and hostile to Baitullah Mehsud) were also on the list, as they have since threatened Islamabad after U.S. drone attacks in their vicinity.  Also on the list were figures who, unlike the aforementioned, have declared war on the Pakistani state: various al-Qaeda leaders and operatives as well as Mehsud.

Strangely, the report received scant coverage in the boisterous Pakistani media.  A week and a half later, a Washington Post news report reasserted the claims made in Ignatius’ column, albeit without mentioning specific approved targets.  This piece received immediate attention in Pakistan and even more days later when U.S. drones hit ‘mainland’ Pakistan for the first time.  The Peoples Party-led government played according to script; it and the Foreign Office condemned the attacks and denied the existence of a deal.

Conspicuous was the relative silence of the Pakistan Army.  In September, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani promptly and vigorously denied claims that he agreed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to U.S. ground operations inside Pakistan.  He vowed to defend Pakistan’s sovereignty “at all costs.”

In contrast, this month his press office did not respond to the Ignatius piece (Kayani was out of the country at the time).  Inter-Services Public Relations spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas did speak with the media to deny claims made in the subsequent Post news article.  But there was no strongly worded press release or reaction from Kayani himself.

The reality is that none of the latest U.S. drone attacks could have occurred without the provision of intelligence by Pakistan’s military.  This is why the targeting seems to be more precise — in clear contrast to the Angor Ada raid that yielded no high value targets and killed mainly innocent Pakistani civilians.  In fact, most of the good U.S. intelligence on the tribal areas and al-Qaeda comes from the ISI.  And this is why Nazir and Gul Bahadur smell change in the air.


What occurred in between now and September that would alter the perspective of the Pakistan Army leadership?  A change of heart?  No.  Too quick.  Most likely: a change in ground realities.

One, Pakistan’s economy has deteriorated. Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and possibly even aid packages have been held back to induce cooperative behavior from Islamabad.  In October, Pakistan’s outgoing Defense Secretary Kamran Rasool told a Senate committee that the country was nearing bankruptcy and could not afford a confrontation with the United States.

Two, if the above was not the single factor, then there has to have been something operational.  Perhaps the Pakistani army is coming to recognize its limitations, at least in the short term.  Presently, it is operating in Bajaur, Swat, and more recently, Mohmand. There has been some success in Bajaur and Swat, but the militants are proving to be formidable.  Only until recently have U.S. forces complemented operations in neighboring Kunar (on the flip side, Pakistani peace agreements in FATA increased attacks on the other side of the border).  Prior to that, insurgents were pouring into Pakistan from Afghanistan.  An additional American brigade will be heading to Regional Command East in January.  But it will get worse before it gets better.  South Waziristan is a long time away for the Pakistan Army.  It will host the mother of all battles in this brutal counterinsurgency.

Three, though Kayani is difficult to decipher — poker face and all — he seems to have developed a healthy, working relationship with senior U.S. and NATO commanders.  The Tripartite Commission now meets regularly and Kayani recently went to Brussels to attend a NATO summit.  Whether or not his colleagues on the other side have fully embraced his major recommendations is unclear.  But Kayani is smiling a lot more than he did in September.

It is possible that the Pakistan Army will remain extremely reluctant to share intelligence on its major ‘assets’ (e.g. Mullah Omar).  There is also the possibility that the Army has a different understanding/terms of the agreement than the civilian government.  Or, Ignatius’ list could be partially inaccurate.  After all, is it really possible to take out Mullah Omar with a missile strike or even a helicopter/ground raid in the middle of Quetta (if that’s where he is)?

Recent comments from the Pakistani civilian and military leadership seem to suggest that they are hoping for a new deal with the incoming Obama administration.  That could just be for public consumption.  Anyway, Gen. David Petraeus is said to have told them during his latest visit that the next government will not change policy toward the region.


The expansion of the U.S. military role inside Pakistan and other parallel changes (ongoing Pakistan Army operations) have the potential to vastly change dynamics on the ground.

The Good

Eliminating or neutralizing al-Qaeda, if it is possible, has its obvious advantages for all state actors.  Rooting it out from Pakistan’s Pashtun belt is somewhat like taking gum out of one’s hair.  Peanut butter is better than a scissor.  If you have to cut, leave as much hair as possible.

The Bad

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), currently between 100,000 and 150,000 will likely grow in the coming year.  Pakistani officials have indicated the IDPs will remain in camps for at least a year.  Within that time period, they could be joined by Pakistanis from other tribal (or even settled) areas, which would double or triple the number.

The IDPs have left their property at home, which, more likely than not is destroyed.  Having lost family members who remained behind or died in transit, they are likely bitter and conflicted.

There is no reason to believe that Islamabad and others vested in its counterinsurgency have and will adequately address the issue of IDPs.  The anger of these displaced persons, particularly the youth, will fester, replacing, to some degree, the militants being killed back in Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand.

The IDP camps do provide an opportunity to engage tribals in an environment less threatening than their home areas.  Providing IDPs with basic services, respectable amenities, literacy and job training, as well as primary and secondary education can give Islamabad a head start on the last leg of a clear, hold, build strategy for FATA.

The Ugly

Putting all of the militants in the same box, as the Ignatius article claims is being done, could result in the consolidation of militant entities.  Presently, Pakistan is being targeted by the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda-like freelancers, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and other outfits.

Now, if the Ignatius column is correct, add to the above: Mullah Omar-led Taliban, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami Afghanistan, the Haqqani group, Maulvi Nazir, and Hafiz Gul Bahadur.  Note that Nazir and his fellow Wazirs are a natural rival to Mehsud.  Gul Bahadur split from the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan.  Haqqani provides Pakistani intelligence with information on Mehsud & Co.  And he is well rooted in the tribal structure in North Waziristan and neighboring areas of Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Army, in adopting the adversaries of coalition forces in Afghanistan, gains new enemies and loses old assets. Playing the militants off of one another has been a key part of of Islamabad’s strategy toward the militants.  It has not been perfect, but U.S. officials seem to have endorsed a similar approach in Afghanistan.  If the militants in Pakistan bridge their differences, induced by a one-two punch from Islamabad and Washington, then Pakistan could face a brunt of urban violence the likes of which it has never seen before.

Not only will militants pressed in the tribal areas will push deeper into the North-West Frontier Province’s settled areas, but they will also hit Pakistan’s urban centers — most important of which is Karachi, whose port brings in a majority of U.S. and NATO supplies in Afghanistan.  The potential number of civilian casualties, on venues such as M.A. Jinnah Road, which runs from the Karachi Port through the heart of Karachi to a Peshawar/Torkham-bound national highway.  Terrorists could, for example, attack oil tankers crossing through the city.  Or they could spread things out and lay IEDs anywhere along the stretch of highways N5 (Karachi-Torkham) and N25 (Karachi-Chaman).

In expanding the war theater, militants could ignite ethnic tensions, the seeds of which are already rooted in Pakistan’s soil. Altaf Hussain, the London-based head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party that represents a segment of Pakistanis who migranted from India and their descendants, has once again called for young men in his city to acquire arms and training to use them.  He has repeatedly warned of Talibanization in the city.  Combating a violent non-state actor with another non-state actor provides a recipe for uncontrolable urban warfare.  And while Karachi is a likely terrorist target, many fear Altaf is conflating the militant infiltration with the inflow of Pashtun migrants from war afflicted areas of Pakistan.  Altaf has called for new entrants into Karachi to register themselves, precipitating a harsh denunciation from the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP).  The ANP and MQM have had a difficult relationship over the years.  The latter’s hold on Karachi is challenged by the growth in the Pashtun population.

In recent weeks, the Pakhtunistan bogeyman has also reappeared.  Somehow posters in Pashto calling for the creation of an independent Pashtun state appeared in the NWFP.  Combine that with the opposition of the two major Muslim League factions to renaming NWFP Pakhtunkhwa (Hazaras, non-Pashtuns in the NWFP who oppose the renaming, vote for the two parties), and the current national dynamic (PPP & the rest vs. PML-N, i.e. urban Punjab) and you have a strong potential for balkanization.  [Add to that sectarian violence that has been rising in Dera Ismail Khan and continues to plague the Kurram Agency.]

Mission creep on the part of the United States could break open the levies.  Consider the recent comments of former CIA Islamabad station chief, Robert Grenier:

“… as we work out with [the Pakistanis] a rough division of labor, the U.S., I believe, ought to be taking the lead in addressing the issues in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

The excerpt is from an otherwise very reasonable set of comments.  Grenier’s proposal would further dilute whatever waning influence Pakistan has in the region.  Local actors would either become loyal to the new power broker in the area, the United States, or to a third party, rendering the Pakistani state irrelevant or an enemy.

The logic seems to be that if Islamabad has no writ in territory X, it has effectively lost sovereignty, giving a free hand to other parties to take action in the area.  That, however, serves to reify or exacerbate Islamabad’s distance from the region.  And the authority vacuum, a source of instability, can only truly be filled by Islamabad.

The loss of local assets, the weakening (at least) of the malik system, and the alienation of locals (via drone attacks), makes that impossible. FATA, in fact, could fall permanently out of the hands of Islamabad.

That, combined for the spread of violence into Pakistan’s cities (particularly Karachi) could accelerate the breakdown of the Pakistani state.  Indeed, there is the potential for a 1,001 separate wars to go on simultaneously (given the ethnic and tribal differences, the proliferation of criminal networks,  and the role of badal, or revenge, in Pashtunwali).  Like Iraq, Pakistan would witness the flight of capital abroad (Amman certainly benefited from Iraqi expats); the departure of the haves (doctors, bankers, and other professionals) to safer shores, such as Dubai, London, and Canada; and leaving the country to the have nots.  Middle class and poorer Karachiites would be left to fend off militants and criminal gangs (not entirely different from today!).  Karachi, I fear, would burn incessantly.

There is no alternative to strengthening the Pakistani state.  Pakistan must be the predominant agent on the ground; a big part of that is the requisite training and equipment (e.g. nightvision goggles, jammers, and secure radio systems).  Establishing the rule of civil law, from Karachi to Khyber, is also essential.  The use of drones should be limited.  Consider that the cost of a Hellfire missile shot from Predator/Reaper drones is roughly the same as that of building a school in a Pakistani village.  Given the danger posed to Westerners, development aid might be better routed through more expressly Pakistani entities/persons.

Finally, the fundamental contradictions in the U.S.-Pakistan partnership must be ironed out.  This requires the Pakistan Army to redouble efforts to root out al-Qaeda and other transnational takfiri terrorists.  It also requires the United States to come to terms with the fact that a great number of important Pashtun actors quite simply oppose its presence in their lands.  Washington should let them know it is ready, in a phased and conditionalized fashion, to say goodbye.


Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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