India, Islam, ISI and Imran

Terrorism – India a victim

The Pulwama massacre is yet another reminder of the fact that terrorism is the biggest threat to the Indian subcontinent after climate change. The same conclusion can also be comfortably extended to the world at large. The global terrorism index (published annually by the Institute of Economics and Peace) reports that 18,814 people lost their lives in 2017 alone to this scourge. The report also estimates that the world economy suffered a loss of $52 billion to this menace. It goes on to caution its readership that the true economic impact could be much larger than the estimated figures. The silver lining in this dark cloud though is the fact that deaths as a result of terror acts worldwide have seen a gradual decline over the last 3 years. A contributory factor might be the weakening and subsequent cleanse of the ISIL (or ISIS) from most parts of its envisaged caliphate (Syria and Iraq). The lull in hostilities in response to the looming prospect of a rapprochement with the Taliban which could potentially see a complete troop pullout by the United States (and allies) from Afghanistan could also result in a net reduction in fatalities going forward.

A positive trend line for sure and encouraging signs overall from a global standpoint but little consolation for India which has been the victim of cross border terror emanating from Pakistan for decades now with the last couple of years being the bloodiest in peacetime history. The audacious and sensational attacks deep into the Indian military establishment in Uri, Pathankot and now Pulwama are sobering reminders of the existential threat terrorism and especially the state-sponsored kind presents for India’s growth and stability.

Pakistan, Fundamentalism and Terrorism – A ‘napak’ Alliance

I deliberately used the phrase ‘state-sponsored’ as this is the central premise of my piece. A little bit of historical stage-setting would be useful here. It is well-chronicled that the Pakistani military establishment led by its intelligence apparatus, the Inter Services Intelligence (infamous by its acronym the ISI) during the tenure of the dictator Muhammad Zia-Ul-Haq launched Operation Tupac (named after the Andean revolutionary leader Tupac Amaru II who fought the Spanish invaders in Peru). This operation aimed to wage a proxy war against India by funding, training, arming, providing logistical support and sheltering the separatist and extremist movements in Kashmir (Pro-Pakistani groups mainly) to wage a low intensity, guerrilla, ‘bleed India by a thousand cuts’ type campaign. General Zia was killed in 1988 shortly after the launch of this operation but the military establishment who have been the de-facto rulers of Pakistan for most of its independent history continued this nefarious policy and even escalated it thereafter. The result of this unholy campaign was the creation of six major terror outfits including the one we know today as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Over the decades, this operation has successfully fomented rabid anti-India fervor in Indian controlled Kashmir as well as inside Pakistan (the use of textbooks for anti-India propaganda is particularly despicable). It also sucked into its deadly vortex a lot of disenfranchised and indoctrinated Kashmiri youth who are now blind with rage and hate and ready to take an axe to the branch they are perched on. This operation has been singularly responsible for the loss of thousands of lives (both civilian and military) and the decimation of the tourism centric economy in the once ‘paradise on earth’.

Another aspect of this operation which isn’t as well known or understood but is extremely critical and worrisome is the growth of the ultra-hardline and fundamentalist Wahhabi mosques known as the ‘Ahle Hadith’ which have doubled in number over the last decade and a half in the Kashmir valley. The popularity of these mosques has eclipsed and replaced the appeal of traditional Sufi shrines amongst the youth. These mosques according to Indian intelligence agencies are hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-India propaganda and are financed by the Gulf states chiefly Saudi Arabia (the seat of Wahhabism) with the ISI acting as the conduit. This is yet another play straight out of the Zia-ul-Haq+ISI playbook of creating a Molotov cocktail of religion and politics (The ‘Shariazation’ of Pakistan) with which one could burn down any and all opposition. Zia blurred the lines between ‘Qaum’ (Nation) and ‘Deen’ (Religion) thereby helping reshape the definition of ‘Jihad’. History shall not look back kindly on him for the disservice this man has done to Pakistan, the Indian sub-continent and the world.

Let us though not forget the impact of all of this on Pakistan. It is often said that if you start a fire the chances are you will burn your fingers. You might even burn your house down if you were trying to start one from inside yours! This seems to have come true in the case of the Pakistanis. The Frankenstein monster (the radicalized and highly-trained terrorist militias) they fabricated went from waging war against India to engaging in sectarian violence (Shia pogrom) and the slaughter of Pakistanis who were opposed to their inflexible and regressive interpretation of Islam. The chickens did come home to roost! There was a point when they even felt emboldened to challenge the primacy of their very maker i.e. the Pakistani Military, as evidenced during the siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. These terror outfits have evolved over the years and taken a cue from their masters and have used religion very successfully to not only create a perennial recruitment pipeline of foot soldiers but also to secure funding and public support for their campaigns. In doing so, they have also entered the political mainstream and it is a frightening prospect that they will one day shape policy in Pakistan!

Is there hope yet for Pakistan?

As alluded to before, the Pakistani military has called all the shots ever since they became an independent nation. Civilian governments have come and gone (some leaders dethroned and some ‘decommissioned’) and coups have been more the norm than exception. Those governments that did last for a respectable period of time did so under the aegis of the military and were doing its bidding for the most part. 2018 saw the ascension of the cricketing great Imran Khan and his party the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to the halls of power buoyed by a groundswell of public support. The Pakistanis rallied behind his clarion call and stated vision of building a ‘Naya Pakistan’. That said, despite all the euphoria of this popular mandate, it is an open secret that Imran and the PTI struck a Faustian bargain with the devils at the GHQ in Rawalpindi.

If we were to put the checkered past of Pakistan and its rulers aside for a moment and then the relationship of the two nuclear armed states is examined through a dispassionate lens we will find that the only viable and potentially lasting solution to this seven decade old problem is the transformation of Pakistan. A Pakistan which has a thriving economy (free from the clutches of the crony capitalism and corruption) , a progressive society (emancipated from the fetters of illiteracy, religious dogma, sexual discrimination and feudalism) and a civilian government no longer beholden to the military (by extension shunning the sponsorship of terrorism). Of course, this is easier said than done.

But I reckon if any one person can do it then it has got to be Imran Khan. The Pathan’s supreme confidence in self, his unwavering conviction and resolve and his ability to rally people around him for a common cause are legendary. He has probably accomplished everything that he set his mind to in his life starting from playing for Pakistan, captaining the team, beating the English in their backyard, winning the World Cup, almost single handedly building a cancer hospital (in memory of his mother who succumbed to the disease), founding and nurturing a political party to mainstream relevance and last but not least carrying that party to power and in the process elevating himself to the pedestal of leadership of his nation. That is some list! Most would agree, some grudgingly, that this Pathan was born to lead. So the question then is, can Imran the charismatic leader yet again lead a team (corral the entire nation in this case) to align with his reformist and development based agenda and deliver on his grandest promise?. Or will this be ‘inning’ prove to be his Waterloo?.

Let us assume that Pulwama was yet another installment of terror unleashed by the military-terrorist nexus in Pakistan and one that was flagged-off without the knowledge and approval of the civilian government in Islamabad. Let us also assume that this was probably the military establishments way of asserting its dominion over the civilian dispensation. The end game for the ISI here is to sabotage the fledgling government and show it its place. The Pulwama attack was probably its opening gambit in a quest to torpedo this government out of power.

With all the benefit of the doubt given to the civilian government in Pakistan notwithstanding, you would agree Imran has his work cut out. It is imperative that he use everything at his disposal (including his blossoming bromance with Saudi scion MBS) to convince his rogue military establishment to not embark on yet another misadventure which will surely beget a full scale war with India. Should that happen, everything else will be a non-starter and the result ruinous. He also has the immediate task of resuscitating the economy which is on life support and sinking fast. He has most recently been able to secure loans from ally Saudi Arabia and another loan from the International Monetary Fund is on the horizon. This perhaps will give him some breathing room for now. That said, he must make haste and press forward with his agenda as the patience of his own people (restive areas within Pakistan) as well as his neighbors (India and Afghanistan) is running very thin. He will have to put his shiniest shoe forward to convince the rest of the world to tango with (invest in) Pakistan with an aim to creating avenues of employment that the youth are craving. With the youth gainfully employed he can then embark on the social restructuring that Pakistani society is in dire need of.

But most importantly, he must bring incentives attractive enough (Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed, cessation of all hostilities and sponsorship of terror) to pull India back to the table of dialogue. That might just be the hardest trick to execute for this all-rounder.

All-rounders in cricket might I remind you lend balance to a team. And when your leading all-rounder also happens to be the captain then you expect him to perform the balancing act as well as lead from the front. Let’s hope for all our sakes he does exactly that.

P.S. There is a lot to do on the Indian side as well but we shall cover it in another piece.

Graphic Source: Institute of Economics and Peace

4 thoughts on “India, Islam, ISI and Imran”

  1. This was long but finished it in a single breath. Very nicely articulated and lots of interesting insights.

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