Where Pakistan’s Generals and the ISI Draw Their Lines

On December 7 security forces in Pakistan Kashmir (PK) closed a camp linked with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT), the Pakistan militant group India says was behind the killings in Mumbai. The government then banned its civilian “front” Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD), following its designation as a “terrorist group” by the United Nations: 100 offices were sealed and 50 leaders arrested.

Among those detained were LT commanders Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and  Zarrar Shah and LT founder and JD “emir” Hafiz Saeed. India says the first two orchestrated the Mumbai carnage. It says Saeed gave the gunmen a “motivational” speech in a LT camp in PK before they set out for Mumbai.

The United States welcomed the moves, as did the European Union. India kept silent. Understandably.

Before his arrest Saeed denied all charges as “Indian propaganda”, vowing to take his case to the Pakistan High court. But he called for neither protests nor violence. “We don’t want confrontation,” said a JD source. “We understand the government needs good relations with India”.

Sure enough, the sweep against LT and JD has so far met barely a bump.  The signs are it will be no more serious than its 2002 preamble. Then LT and other Pakistan militant groups were banned and 2,000 arrested on Indian charges that they had attacked the Indian parliament. Most were released within the year. Pakistan’s powerful military establishment – which determines policy on “banned” groups rather than the civilian  government – may think this time too the squall will pass.

It probably won’t. Since Mumbai, India and the US have choreographed a policy of coercive diplomacy against Islamabad. America is the good cop, saying there is “no evidence” linking the Pakistan state to Mumbai. Delhi is the bad: “there is not a modicum of doubt about the complicity of elements of Pakistan, including the ISI” (Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency), says an Indian official.

But both are cops and determined to break whatever links remain between the ISI and groups like LT. The fall out from Mumbai will depend on how the army responds.

Proxy Wars in Kashmir

LT was set up in 1989 to fight Pakistan’s “deniable” proxy wars in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir (IK), the Himalayan territory claimed by both states since partition and cause of two of their three wars. LT’s goal is the establishment of a “pure Islamic state” throughout South Asia, including India. The ISI’s goal was to use proxies to “bleed” India into submission in IK.

In the 1990s, the liaison was overt. LT recruited fighters throughout Pakistan, but particularly the southern Punjab (whence most the Mumbai gunmen allegedly derive). In 1999 they fought with Pakistan soldiers in Kargil in IK: the last time the two armies tried to force a resolution of the conflict.

But change came with the attack on the Indian parliament – apparently. Guided by the US, Pakistan and India moved from near war to a ceasefire to, in 2004, a peace process. What began as a ban, appeared to become policy.

The ISI demobilized 12,000 fighters in PK. Six divisions of the army were moved from the eastern border with India to the western border with Afghanistan, where Pakistan was battling an indigenous insurgency by the Pakistan Taliban. Infiltration into IK fell.

But “war by proxy” wasn’t abandoned altogether, particularly for pro-Pakistan groups like LT. Their camps were moved inland or, on frontiers like PK, camouflaged as JD “centers”: their guerillas did sterling work as rescuers during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. When presented with this as evidence that the “jihadis” had not been de- mobbed but “re-jobbed” a Pakistani General was unapologetic. “We won’t disband them. If we did, Kashmir would go cold and India will bury it forever”.

Kashmir has warmed since. This year has seen increased militant penetration across the Line of Control separating Pakistan from Indian Kashmir, triggering skirmishes. In southern Punjab LT-JD “recruiters” have reappeared, proselytizing for jihad. At a funeral in Bahawalpur in the summer a JD preacher eulogized “60 martyrs” from that area alone, most killed in Kashmir.

The new line must have been driven by the ISI: it emerged during in the hiatus between the end of General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime and Pakistan’s new civilian government, elected in February 2008. But it doesn’t seem to have been a response to the mass demonstrations for independence that rocked IK this summer. These were caused by  indigenous Muslim alienation to Indian rule rather than any “mischief” by Pakistan, cede Indian analysts.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan …

The reason the ISI relaxed its hold on LT was probably Afghanistan.

For the last two years the army has been fighting Islamic militants on its Afghan border. More than 1000 soldiers have been killed. The insurgency’s epicenter is the Pashtun tribal areas that straddle the so-called Durrand Line: drawn by the British in the 19th century and accepted as Pakistan’s western border at the time of partition, no Afghan government has ever recognized it. Defeat in the tribal areas would mean the emergence of an “independent” Pashtun Islamic “state”, says a Pakistani officer.

Pakistan’s counterinsurgency is not uniform. In Bajaur tribal area punitive aerial bombardments are coupled with ground offensives to wrest back territory captured by the “enemy”. In North and South Waziristan ceasefires are cut with pro-Taliban tribesmen, often mediated by Afghan Taliban commanders Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani.  The army says it lacks the capacity to “deal with all the Taliban groups at once. If you go for all out confrontation, you lose whatever control you have”.

But there’s another reason for the difference. In Bajaur the army believes it’s fighting an anti-Pakistan insurgency led by the Pakistan Taliban and elements of al Qaeda but fueled by “agencies” from India and Afghanistan. In the Waziristans the tribes support the Afghan Taliban but are not anti-Pakistani per se. Unlike the militants in Bajaur they are not deemed hostile by the army. “They are our people,” says an officer.

India denies any hand in the tribal areas. “In Afghanistan we build roads”, says an Indian diplomat. That’s so. India, with Iran, is laying a road network that once complete will circumvent landlocked Afghanistan’s need to use Pakistan’s ports to the Gulf, outlets Islamabad deems vital to its economic future. India also helps train the Afghan army. Its aid to Afghanistan is $2.1 billion – quite a bit for a country that’s 99 percent Muslim and with which Delhi has no border.

And Delhi exerts undue influence over American policy in Afghanistan, says army officials. Two examples are cited. One is Washington’s endorsement  of India’s claim that the ISI was “involved” in the July bombing of its embassy in Kabul, where 50 were killed. Since then, the CIA has refused to share intelligence with the ISI, including in the tribal areas. “It fears we will pass it on to the Afghan Taliban,” says an officer.

The other was President Bush’s order in July that US Special Forces in Afghanistan could enter Pakistani territory in pursuit of al Qaeda and Taliban “targets” without the approval of the Pakistani government. There has been one US ground assault and 22 aerial missile strikes since, overwhelmingly in the Waziristans. These, says the CIA, are “safe havens” for the Taliban and al Qaeda: the source of the greatest seepage of fighters into Afghanistan and where the “next 9/11” is probably being plotted. They’re also one of the few sites of peace between the army and the Taliban.

Washington says there is a “tacit” agreement about the strikes with Pakistan. The government denies this. The army says they are violations of Pakistani sovereignty and “counterproductive” to its attempts to move the tribes against the militants. It also sees Indian fingerprints all over them. “The Americans want India to be the regional power,” says a security source. Many of “these militants in the tribal areas are being financed by India and Afghanistan”.

To what end? Two scenarios are sketched by the military. The mildest is to create such ferment in the tribal areas that the CIA, NATO and Afghan army will enter them, wresting back Pashtun lands long claimed by Kabul. The worst is to dismember Pakistan as the world’s only Muslim nuclear state. “India thinks a fragmented Pakistan would reduce the threat level,” says another source.

“The more I talk to the (military) establishment, the more I’m convinced fear and hatred of India is growing,” says a Pakistani analyst, who refused to be attributed. “And now it’s India with America”.

Does this mean the ISI was involved in the Mumbai or Kabul attacks? Not necessarily: it simply underscores the recklessness of having proxies or covert alliances over which Islamabad actually has no control.

None but the most conspiratorial can believe Pakistan’s regional aims are furthered by the atrocities in Mumbai and Kabul. Yet they may square with the goals of those (like the Taliban and al Qaeda) that want “independence of activity” in the tribal areas or (like LT) a “clash of civilizations” between Hindu and Muslim in South Asia. These are the fissures in which all three groups thrive.

This is the reason Pakistan’s current suppression of LT-JD should be real rather than virtual. But “coercive diplomacy” won’t induce it. Nor is it much use for Washington or London to conspire with Pakistan’s hapless civilian government to wrest national security policy from the hands of the army and ISI. Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons have been their policy preserve for 30 years. With the western border aflame and the eastern simmering they are not going to be given up now.

The only way the army will loosen its hold on these policies – and abandon proxies – is if its regional concerns are addressed. With Afghanistan this means recognition by its government and US that the Durrand Line is Pakistan’s legitimate border and that all counterinsurgency operations on the Pakistani side are the exclusive right of the army. With India it means resolution of Kashmir. The two are interlinked, says an analyst.

“The army’s recent experience with India is very bitter. After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 percent. And India’s response was not to talk about Kashmir and say the issue was solved. The army thinks it would be the same in Afghanistan if it abandoned the Afghan Taliban”.

Prior to Mumbai it wasn’t only analysts who made that connection. Last year US president-elect Barack Obama wrote: “if Pakistan can look towards the east with confidence, it will be less likely to believe its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban”. He later said peace between India and Pakistan could be the fulcrum for a greater regional engagement in America’s losing war in Afghanistan.

Of all Mumbai’s casualties the end of that link may be the deadliest.

GRAHAM USHER is a writer and journalist in Islamabad and author of Dispatches From Palestine: The Rise and Fall of the
Oslo Peace Process
, Pluto, London, 1998.

This article appears in the January edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.