A new nonviolent mass movement has swept through Pakistan in recent months, demanding an end to Pakistan military’s oppression and extrajudicial killings of minority ethnic Pashtuns. This grassroots movement has rattled Pakistan’s deep state, primarily the notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
For decades, Pakistan’s spy service has operated as a formidable U.S. adversary, albeit dressed as a friend, especially in Afghanistan. It has endlessly frustrated the Afghan war efforts since 2001 by playing Santa Claus to all manner of anti-Afghan militant groups, mainly the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. This support has morphed the Afghan conflict into a bloody contest of competing interests and influence, where ISI’s toxic influence is supreme. ISI’s role in managing several anti-India proxy networks is also unmistakable.
ISI is no ordinary intelligence agency. It operates under Pakistan’s military command and is highly secretive, politically influential, patient, alarmingly active and ruthless to anyone they see as opposition. Unlike what some reports suggest, ISI is not a rogue agency but rather a disciplined, non-factional, cohesive and bureaucratic enterprise, where reports of defections are rare. The institution is also well-off, with its active and retired personnel frequently profiting from numerous Pakistani military-owned charitable foundations and corporations. The agency’s nearly twenty-five thousand personnel is mostly ethnically homogeneous, hailing predominantly from the army ranks.
More troublingly, the organization operates under a philosophy that it needs enemies to remain relevant—and in control. This paranoia has allowed the service to manufacture pet militant groups and imaginary threats to drive its motives. To do so, the service allegedly maintains a roster of nearly one hundred thousand militant fighters at its discretion.
Inside Pakistan, ISI sits at the core of the Pakistani state. It has regularly challenged the country’s civilian rule and has hampered Pakistan’s democratic progress through systematic coercive campaigns against dissenting voices, including politicians, activists, academics and the media. It has forged alliances with extremist religious groups and fringe political parties meant to control the Pakistani people by keeping them subservient to the state. As such, ISI has used old tactics wedded to the new, including intimidation, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and assassinations. The service also frequently engages in sabotage activities, psychological operations and influence campaigns. More worryingly, ISI’s infatuation with jihadi groups has adversely affected the agency and has turned segments of the agency increasingly extremist.
In Afghanistan, ISI’s Afghan operations are undertaken by at least three units. The first is Directorate S, the principal covert action arm that directs and oversees the Afghan policy, including militant and terrorist outfits and their operations. The second unit is the Special Service Group (SSG), also known as the Pakistani SS, and are the army’s special forces element that was established in the 1950s as a hedge against the communists. Today, some SSG units effectively operate as ISI’s paramilitary wing and have fought alongside the Taliban until 2001. In other instances, SSG advisors have allegedly been embedded with Taliban fighters to provide tactical military advice, including on special operations, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In fact, encountering ISI operatives fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan has become a common occurrence that no longer surprise Afghan and American forces. The third ISI unit is the Afghan Logistics Cell, a transport network inside Pakistan facilitated by members of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps that provide logistical support to the Taliban and their families. This includes space, weapons, vehicles, protection, money, identity cards and safe passage.
Such ISI support networks have been designed to break Afghanistan into pieces and then remold it into a pliant state. The objective is to complicate Afghanistan’s security landscape and drive its political climate into an uncharted constitutional territory to create a vacuum, which inevitably places the Taliban in the driving seat. These support actions have visibly made the group more effective. However, the Pakistani mantra is that they maintain contacts with the Taliban but exercise no control over them.
Yet the ground realities suggest otherwise. The Taliban has recently become deadlier and adaptive. The old Taliban has, in effect, transformed into a new Taliban—decentralized and sated with recruits, including mid-level commanders, who come fresh out of the Pakistani madrassas eager to kill. This new decentralization has enabled the group’s young frontline commanders to exercise greater autonomy in the field, allowing ISI to leverage them for their needs. ISI reportedly manage their leadership succession, bypassing the Taliban’s chain of command.
The Taliban’s devolution of authority has also seemingly fractured the movement’s unity and cohesion and has resulted in multiple power centers within the movement. The group is increasingly taken over by the Haqqani Network, which controls at least 15 percent of the Taliban’s manpower and influences many smaller Taliban fronts. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and his principal deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, are allegedly on bad terms, which has also disturbed the movement’s unity. The new Taliban’s funding now streams not only from the Pakistani intelligence but also from drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion and kidnapping for ransom, where the Haqqanis play a seminal role.
Meanwhile, some Taliban groups have taken on to undertaking basic state-like functions, including levying taxes on local businesses, overseeing kangaroo courts, resolving local disputes, and operating organized schooling. The Taliban uses such state-like measures to create legitimacy for themselves among the local people. Unsurprisingly, this has formed a tacit social pact between helpless local Afghans and the Taliban—a bargain in which the group guarantee no harm to the local people in exchange for their compliance. However, this frail Taliban-civilian relationship exists because of the Taliban’s intimidation and killing campaign, rather than peoples’ compatibility with the group.
More vitally, the Taliban have adopted a robust resource-efficient operational strategy meant not only to fragment Afghan forces but also to capture more territory. This strategy has enabled the group to determine where and when to fight, in which they skillfully avoid the strongest elements of Afghan forces and instead target where they are weakest. The group frequently employs similar tactics in their operations such as ambushes, traps, surprise and simultaneous coordinated attacks and, increasingly, the use of snipers. At the same time, the group has advised their fighters not to give away information upon capture for up to forty-eight hours to allow Taliban leaders the time to render any reports useless. Pakistani intelligence has been in many respects in sync with this Taliban strategy. In contrast, Afghan forces are often blind on the battlefield.
Simply put, Pakistan’s ISI has turned terrorism into a school of thought, directed from the country’s governed spaces that remain undefeated. What can the United States do to unravel the Gordian knot of the Pakistani intelligence and its support to terrorist groups? Three things.
First, the United States should begin to treat the Pakistani spy agency similar to how it manages Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This would involve the U.S. Treasury Department adding Pakistan’s ISI and its affiliate, the Special Service Group—akin to Iran’s Quds Force—to the U.S.’ antiterrorism sanctions list. By doing so, the United States would impose targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, on active and retired Pakistani intelligence personnel with ties to terrorist networks. Meanwhile, Washington and Kabul should encourage defections within the Taliban ranks, meant to loosen ISI’s grip on the group. Washington can extend defected and corrigible Taliban members some sanctions relief, including relaxing travel restrictions, to help build confidence.
Second, bolster the Afghan intelligence apparatus to become relevant and in sync with the Taliban’s shifting strategy. This would require boosting Afghan intelligence capabilities to include a 360-degree collection effort to better understand the internal leadership dynamics and changing tactics of the Taliban and other groups. Similarly, the Afghan Defense Ministry should increase the number of its S2 intelligence and information officers in Afghan forces to handle tactical intelligence and security clearances at the unit level. These officers should also be trained to trace militants, track Taliban surveillance routes, manage interrogations and weed out infiltrators. Meanwhile, the Afghan government should deploy counterintelligence assets to its prisons to limit the communication of Taliban detainees with their leaders outside.
Third, the Trump administration should cease the cyclical pattern of its tempestuous relationship with Pakistan. Unfortunately, America’s Pakistan policy has followed a much too predictable pattern for over sixty years that incentivizes the Pakistani military for cooperation that in fact does not truly exist. This recurrent pattern of the U.S.
relationship with Pakistan is often tactical and reactive. In the first half of the cycle, for example, the relationship spins around convening strategic dialogues and state visits by Pakistani leaders followed by U.S. military assistance and other concessions. But in the cycle’s other half, the warm period abruptly comes to an end until an unexpected event prompts the next standard cycle in the bilateral relationship. Instead, the United States should adopt fewer carrots and more sticks policy and ensure that the stick is tough enough to change Pakistani state behavior meaningfully.
In short, Pakistani intelligence has mainstreamed terrorism and political violence in the region. In Afghanistan, ISI appears increasingly confident in its assertiveness and is seeking a maximalist outcome. It is operating from a position of strength, but no position is so strong that it is permanent. ISI still requires access to funds and defense supplies for its reach, internal stability, as well as legitimacy. The United States can deny or strictly condition that access to them. Meanwhile, Washington should voice its support to the peaceful Pashtun movement, an investment that could potentially pay off and serve the United States in the fight against extremism.
Javid Ahmad, a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his own..
The Sri Lanka attacks: New front, old wounds
By Mario Arulthas
The attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday for many brought back memories of the long ethnic war, which came to a bloody conclusion 10 years ago in May. Although the Sri Lankan authorities are yet to identify the perpetrators, it appears the attacks are of a different nature, one fuelled by global dynamics, rather than a response to local communal grievances. Despite this, the violence is bound to exacerbate already-deep ethnic and religious fault lines, increasing existing tensions and possibly fuelling further violence.
After 1948, newly independent Sri Lanka embedded a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the formation of the state. This ethos, in simple terms, holds that the entire island is home to Sinhala Theravada Buddhism and that minorities are invaders, who will be tolerated if they accept Sinhala hegemony. Any threats (perceived or real) to the Sinhala identity of the country are attacked resolutely.
This revealed itself in racially and linguistically discriminatory policies as constitutions were written, making non-Sinhala communities second-class citizens. To this day, Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, assigning the state the responsibility “to protect and foster” Buddhism.
The entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state manifests itself in its institutions, particularly those linked to security. For example, the military rank and file is almost entirely Sinhala Buddhist. Some of its units, like the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment, are named after ancient Sinhala kings, famed for defeating Tamil “invaders”.
Increasingly violent reprisals by the state against peaceful demands for autonomy and equal rights by Tamils from the 1950s to the 1970s eventually led the Tamil population to seek an independent homeland in the island’s northeast, home to the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations and the Tamil-speaking Muslim groups.
A low-level trench war escalated into a full-blown war in 1983, after the Black July pogroms, in which Sinhala mobs killed thousands of Tamils, looting and burning their properties in the Sinhala-majority south of the country.
During the war, the Sri Lankan military routinely targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil group that emerged most prominently and enjoyed widespread support, deployed suicide bombers in the south of the country with devastating effects.
Meanwhile, tensions between Tamils and the Muslim Tamil-speaking community, who, in many cases, do not identify as ethnic Tamils, increased, marked by violence and massacres by both the LTTE and Muslim paramilitaries. In 1990, the LTTE expelled some 100,000 Muslims from the Northern Province, furthering the divide between the communities.
Throughout the war the Sri Lankan military repeatedly bombed churches and Hindu temples sheltering Tamil civilians; in 1995 an air attack on a church in Jaffna killed around 147 people. While those attacks were not religiously motivated per se, they portrayed the state’s willingness to attack places of worship.
After three decades, during which the LTTE was able to establish a de facto state, the Sri Lankan military crushed the movement, in a brutal crescendo of violence. The United Nations says there could have been over 40,000 deaths during this last phase, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000.
To this day, impunity reigns for the crimes committed during the war, despite international pressure for an accountability mechanism and demands by the Tamil community for an international war crimes tribunal. Hundreds of family members of Tamils forcibly disappeared during and after the war by state forces have been protesting and demanding answers. UN officials have warned that impunity may further increase violence in Sri Lanka.
Since 2009, the attention of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists turned to the minority Muslim and Christian communities. While the security forces maintained an iron grip on the Tamil population, Sinhala Buddhist mobs started attacking Muslim and Christian populations repeatedly. In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians. A report by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said extremist elements were able to influence entire communities and lead violent attacks against places of worship and people. Only last week, a church was attacked during Palm Sunday mass.
Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka have responded with remarkable restraint to Sinhala nationalist violence in the past – also because they saw the potential repercussions to them in the brutality unleashed on Tamils by the state in response to their own resistance.
However, the attacks on Easter Sunday do not appear to be a response to past Sinhala Buddhist violence. The perpetrators did not target Sinhala Buddhist, but Christian institutions and tourism infrastructure.
While many Tamil Christians were supportive and sympathetic to the Tamil armed movement, as a whole, Christians as a religious community were not antagonistic to other communities. As such, to see this in the vein of an escalation of existing violence against the Christian community in Sri Lanka would be a mistake. These attacks are likely a hitherto unseen dimension to tensions, a new front of violence in Sri Lanka.
After the Sunday attacks, the tensions that already exist are likely to deepen. Already hate speech is circulating on Sinhala-language social media. There are also reports of reprisals against Muslims, as a number of Sri Lankan officials have said that a little known Muslim fighter group might be responsible for the attacks.
Relations between Tamils and Muslims are also likely to suffer. The choice to conduct an attack in Batticaloa, a Tamil-majority town on the east coast, far from Colombo, may not be a coincidence. The town, and the district it is located in, saw some of the worst Tamil-Muslim violence during the war years. The St Anthony church in Colombo is also one that is frequented by a large Tamil congregation. Consequently, there are serious concerns among Tamil and Muslim civil society in Batticaloa of a flare-up of violence.
While tensions are high in the aftermath of the attack, the propensity of the state to respond with repression must be prevented. The existing draconian counterterrorism legislation has been used to violently repress communities, while journalists and activists continue to face harassment and surveillance. On April 22, President MaithripalaSirisena also declared national emergency, which gives the military sweeping powers.
While those responsible must face justice, a similar crackdown and harassment of minority populations in response to the attacks must be avoided. Otherwise, Sri Lanka risks furthering existing divides and paving the path to renewed violence.
In order for sustainable peace to be established on the island, the underlying reasons for the discrimination against minority communities must be confronted by the majority. In the absence of that, a whole 10 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s future continues to look bleak and minority communities will continue to live on the edge.
Is Election Commission Toothless or Timid?
By Kalyani Shankar
It was left to the Supreme Court to prod the Election Commission to realise the extent of its powers recently.
After the court pulled up the commission for its inaction against political hate speeches, the commission told the court, “We found we have powers!”
After the court reprimand, the EC wielded its powers this week and enforced campaign bans as a punishment on four leaders in UP, including Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, union minister Maneka Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party for different periods, for the offensive remarks they made in the last few days.
For some time now, the role of the Election Commission has come under scanner. There is a debate on its perceived failure to check violations of the Model Code of Conduct and ensure a level playing field for the ruling and opposition parties.
It raises the question whether the EC has no teeth or is the EC being timid? It is significant to note that ahead of the ongoing LokSabha polls, 66 former bureaucrats, in a letter to the President on April 8, had expressed concern over the working of the Commission. They wrote that the EC’s independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today.
The evolution of the poll panel has been quite fascinating. While until 1989, it was a single-member commission, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made it into a multi -member one on October 16, 1989, as he was not quite happy with the then Chief Election Commissioner and wanted to clip his powers.
This had given the government enough space to put its own nominees but they had a very short tenure only till January 1, 1990.
Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao again made it into a three-member commission on October 1, 1993 and since then the multi-member panel has been in operation.
Looking back, it is clear that if the EC decides, it has adequate powers to curb the money power, muscle power and other irregularities as demonstrated by its tenth Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan. Pleading for electoral reforms, some of his successors like SY Quereshi and Linghdo have also demonstrated their determination to act.
Seshan proved to be the greatest ringmaster of the great Indian electoral circus in a country where nearly 90 crore voters will exercise their franchise this year. He made the EC powerful within the existing laws.
Appointed by Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, he served as a dreaded CEC from 1990 to 1996. Even today, Seshan is cited as a shining example of what a CEC should be.
Even the Supreme Court once told the Commission to aspire for the kind of credibility it enjoyed during Seshan’s days.
Why do people remember a CEC who was being described as a maverick? Seshan’s story is indeed fascinating.
An IAS topper of the 1955 batch, he had once told an interviewer. “I had never conducted an election. I went with two principles: zero delay and zero deficiency.”
He followed both throughout his tenure. He wielded the big stick and implemented the election manual in letter and spirit. Due to his strict policies he was even called “Al Seshan.”
Some of his major achievements include implementation of the election process and the Model Code of Conduct, introduction of voter ID cards, enforcing limits on poll expenses, and elimination of several malpractices like distribution of liquor, bribing voters, ban on wall writing, use of loud speakers, use of religion in election speeches etc.
He introduced election observers and also forced the candidates to keep accurate accounts of campaign expenses.
Seshan took many bold measures. For instance, under his strict watch, a serving Governor who campaigned for his son had to resign. The Chief Secretary of UP was taken to task for issuing an advertisement in a newspaper at the cost of public exchequer.
He recommended to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to sack two of his ministers – SitaramKesri and KalpanathRai – for allegedly influencing the voters, but Rao did not act. In 1992, the Left parties even called for his impeachment.
The question then that arises is – has the EC performed well in the past seven decades?
While the successes have not been consistent or uniform, the EC has conducted 16 general elections in a free and fair manner. However, it is clear that there is need for more electoral reforms and more transparency.
Even during this elections, political parties all across the country have been brazenly violating the poll code, whether it is using religion to seek votes, or Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh’s campaign to support the Prime Minister or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s describing the army as ‘Modijikesena.’ These seem to indicate the ineffectiveness of the EC to contain the political class.
While we have to wait for a full assessment of the EC’s role in 2019, as of now Supreme Court’s prodding might help the EC to wield its powers more frequently. Undoubtedly, the EC has an unenviable job of not only organising the massive exercise but also ensure that it is held in a free and fair manner.
Heritage of hex and curse
By Jawed Naqvi
Puting a curse on people and on ancient gods is a human heritage that straddled civilisations and underpinned their mythologies. This unreason has somehow survived in 21st-century India to be propagated by tantrics often with official patronage on TV — not very different from voodoo-practising witch doctors holding sway in swathes of Africa.
Saffron-robed Pragya Thakur says she killed HemantKarkare with her curse because the late policeman tortured her for alleged terrorism. There are two ways this could have come about. First, the official version of how the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorist squad was laid low on the fateful night of the terror attack on the city in 2008. AjmalKasab shot the heroic officer from close range for which he was hanged.
In other words, Thakur’s angry hex on Karkare induced the young terrorist to travel by sea and, like a heat-seeking missile colliding with its target, he was guided by a force beyond his knowledge to fulfil the mandate of a distant curse.
The other view, albeit discussed mostly in whispers, is the claim by the former inspector general of Maharashtra police S.M. Mushrif. He has questioned the official narrative in his book, Who Killed Karkare? Mushrif suggested instead that powerful enemies, led by fans of NathuramGodse, lured Karkare into an ambush since he was investigating their communally inspired acts of terror. They used the cover of the carnage and contrived a parallel plot to get rid of Karkare in the chaos.
In either case, Thakur’s curse would seem to have homed in on its target, promptly and accurately. It is another matter that the veracity of Thakur’s belief would not hold before India’s constitutional mandate, which nudges citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
Hindu mythology like other mythologies is replete with examples of curses by myriad gods and sages that transform humans into stones, and so on. Such stories appeared in all major civilisations, but their people now treat mythologies as mythologies, nothing less nothing more.
Celebrated documentary-maker AnandPatwardhan has created a riveting TV serial (available on YouTube) on the subject. It’s called Vivek or Reason, which focuses on the grim battle between obscurantism and rational reasoning in India. Pragya Thakur like Godse-hugging Hindutva colleagues in the documentary subscribes to one set of people while an amazing group of men and women have dedicated their lives to the eradication of superstition and blind faith from the Indian milieu.
It’s an old struggle though, one in which B.G. Tilak and M.G. Ranade, two feisty Brahmins, took opposite sides in the fight for reason. Tilak was the regressive icon, while Ranade was greatly respected by leading social reformer Ambedkar. Patwardhan has pegged his narrative to the cold-blooded murders of popular rationalists NarendraDabholkar, GovindPansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist GauriLankesh by revivalist groups not dissimilar to the ones Pragya Thakur may be identified with.
A most useful tool is this documentary to grasp the fraught consequences for Indian democracy should people like Thakur and far too many others of her flock win the elections for parliament currently under way.
NajmanBua told us with certainty decades ago that Diwali was an occasion when people practised black magic to get even with their rivals. (‘Wokalajadujagaawathain’.) A method was to float a paper lantern with chilly powder, to fly to the targeted person, who would suffer great harm when the lantern landed. Of course, this sounds improbable, which it surely is, but thumb through the works of John Campbell Oman, the British Indologist from early 20th century. Oman has been usefully cited in a collection of essays in historian David Hardiman’s Histories of the Subordinated.
Another book by Hardiman, Feeding the Baniya, has disappeared from bookstores as books critical of wily business practices tend to. The moneylender was one of the most ardent practitioners of black magic and the widely prevalent institution of the hex. That was how he believed he could keep the peasants in constant need of his favours and thus of his greedy attention.
A reason that Indira Gandhi had banned the sharing of met forecasts for monsoons was to discourage this exploitation. Among the many tricks quoted by Hardiman of ways the baniyas, the usurers, would strive to stop rain to keep the fields parched is the one from Rajasthan. “In an interview in southern Rajasthan, I was told that the baniyas could stop rain by pouring hot water onto a small image which they kept for the purpose in the Jain temple.”
Oman recounts other ploys used to drive away rain clouds, in Punjab, for example. “They sometimes made chapattis which they then mistreated in such a way as to offend the gods, the logic being that grain from which the chapattis [were] made came from the bounty of the gods who provided the rain; the angry gods would consequently withhold the rain.”
A hex that would probably make even Pragya Thakur sit up is the one from Punjab. Says Oman: “At another time I learned that a baniya had recourse to a still more effectual method of keeping off rain. He had a charkha, or spinning wheel made out of bones of dead men. Such an article could only be made very secretly and for a large sum of money, but its action was most potent. Whenever the clouds were gathering the baniya set his virgin daughter to work the charkha the reverse way, and by that means unwound or unwove the clouds, as it were, thus driving away the rain….”
It is not whether hexes and curses work, it is what a growing number of Indians expect them to do that should worry a country struggling with subs-Saharan human development indicators, including 37 per cent of the world’s illiteracy.