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Stepping up on Afghanistan

India must use its good offices to ensure that the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a bilateral security agreement.

If the world was in need of a preview of things to come in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it got one on Friday.  A Taliban attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul claimed 21 lives. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s chief for Afghanistan, a senior political official at the UN and a British candidate in the upcoming elections for the European parliament.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of many of its citizens as well as those of NATO’s security forces.  But as the New York Times notes, attacks against foreign soft targets have been relatively less frequent.  The Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental was attacked in 2011; U.S. and Indian embassies have been hit in Kabul and in other parts of Afghanistan.  The more recent attacks have involved operations with the use of suicide bombers to breach perimeter security followed by commando-style assaults with the use of RPGs and assault rifles.

The Taliban have historically relied on suicide attacks against Western military targets, but the use of commando-style assaults in and around Kabul may point to a collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, loosely referred to as the “Kabul Attack Network.”

The goal, ultimately, is to weaken the will of the West to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  The U.S. and NATO winding down operations in Afghanistan will undoubtedly create a perilous security situation in that country.  Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to enter into a status of forces agreement with the U.S., even as the Afghan National Army remains ill-equipped to deal with a raging insurgency coupled with terrorist assaults on the capital.

Mr. Karzai is throwing caution to the wind by tying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to the U.S. facilitating “peace talks” with the Taliban.  He may get neither.  The U.S.’s ability to facilitate a negotiation with the Taliban remains in question, particularly when the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan have been working towards the goal of ensuring a total exit of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan all along.  Mr. Karzai, whose presidency ends in April 2014, may have little to lose, but the burdens of his action or inaction will be borne by Afghanistan’s future governments.

Meanwhile, anyone in New Delhi still under the delusion that events in Afghanistan have no bearing on the security of India would do well to reach for their history books.  It is precisely the sort of Pakistan-supported, Taliban-operated environment that could prevail in a post-2014 Afghanistan that allowed for India’s surrender of Maulana Masood Azhar (who was languishing in an Indian jail) in Kandahar in exchange for passengers hijacked onboard IC-814 in 1999.

As a result of our capitulation, Azhar returned to Pakistan to regroup members of the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2000.  A year later, JeM attacked the Indian parliament, killing 12 civilians.  Our members of parliament, rather miraculously, escaped unharmed.

A similar situation may present itself when the U.S. departs Afghanistan.  Although many of us have called for India to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, or at least play a more active role in training and supplying weapons to Afghan security forces, New Delhi has chosen to only limit its involvement to economy and institution-building.  Laudable endeavors undoubtedly, but insufficient to ensure the security of India and her interests in that country.

India has already rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for weaponry during his December 2013 visit.  But if India is disinclined to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, it must, at the very least, ensure that a U.S. security presence remains in the country to prevent it from being engulfed in yet another civil war that could render twelve years of development and progress to naught.

Indeed, India is most uniquely positioned — as a friend to both the U.S. and Afghanistan — to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both Afghanistan and the U.S. is signed.  Almost every other country is viewed with suspicion by either DC or Kabul.  Last week, U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan visited India to discuss the furture of Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence officials also met an Indian delegation led by Joint Intelligence Chief Ajit Lal to urge India’s influence with Mr. Karzai to conclude the BSA.

There is no doubt that India is in the midst of domestic political upheaval.  The economy is sagging and political stewardship is found wanting in almost every aspect of governance.  However, facilitating a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. must become a national security priority for India.

A U.S.-Afghanistan BSA cannot prevent attacks such as the one this past Friday, but it may stave off a total collapse of the state to the Taliban.  Ultimately, it is simply not in India’s interests to see Afghanistan relapse into the laboratory of terrorism that it once was under Pakistan’s influence. (And on a separate note, New Delhi’s assistance in facilitating a BSA could also demonstrate that both India and the U.S. are committed to putting the very unseemly squabble over Devyani Khobragade behind them).

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The field narrows, the noose tightens

Recent arrests point to welcome progress in the evolution of India’s counter-terror capabilities.

The capture of Yasin Bhatkal by Indian intelligence officials on Wednesday represents an important milestone in India’s counter-terrorism efforts. Yasin Bhatkal played a pivotal role in the Bangalore, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and other bomb blasts in India and is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Indian citizens.  This article in the Indian Express summarizes the extent of his crimes against the country:

Yasin Bhatkal is wanted in at least eight cases in Maharashtra, of which four involve blasts or terror conspiracies. He is named as a wanted accused in the Mumbai blasts of July 13, 2011, as the bomb-planter in the 2010 blast at Pune’s German Bakery, where he was seen in CCTV footage, and as an accused in an aborted attempt (by Qateel Siddiqui, since dead) at planting a bomb at a temple in Pune. In August 2012, the state ATS named Yasin a wanted accused for a conspiracy to carry out blasts across the state.

He is also wanted in connection with a fake SIM card racket, the theft of two motorbikes for the 13/7 blasts, and will also be booked for the theft of cars from Navi Mumbai that were used to plant bombs in Ahmedabad and Surat.

[Himayat] Baig and Yasin allegedly carried the explosives to Pune in a series of  vehicles. “Yasin planted the bomb in a haversack at the bakery around 5 pm and triggered it with the help of a mobile triggering device at 6.50 pm,” the chargesheet says. Baig has been sentenced to death and has appealed in High Court.

Yasin Bhatkal was allegedly involved in the twin bomb blasts at Dilsukhnagar on February 21 this year, and those at Gokul Chat Bhandar and Lumbini Park in 2007. The AP anti-terror agency Octopus had filed three chargesheets in May and June 2009, named Yasin and the Bhatkal brothers. The NIA, which is investigating the 2013 blasts, is believed to have procured CCTV footage showing a man resembling Yasin carrying a bag in which the explosives may have been. [Indian Express]

Further interrogation of Yasin Bhatkal will provide law enforcement agencies in India with valuable insight into the Indian Mujahideen’s organization and structure, domestic and international support structures (including ties with SIMI, LeT and the ISI), training and sources of funding and inspiration.  These may in turn equip us to better combat terrorism in the country.

It is needless to say here that the threat of terrorism in India will not diminish merely as a result of Bhatkal’s arrest.  First, as far as we can tell, the IM, unlike the LeT for example, is a largely loosely-knit collection of disgruntled domestic actors with no real central command and control, supported though they may be from outside India.  Other IM key operatives Abdus Subhan and brothers Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal remain elusive.  These actors will continue to plan attacks against India and its interests.  Indian citizens continue to be recruited, both at home and abroad, to carry out attacks in India.

Second, the jihadi ideologues who nurture and sponsor the IM continue to operate with impunity from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Until their ability to instruct and fund terrorism in India is significantly disrupted, the potential for attacks in India will not diminish.  It isn’t likely that this is about to happen; in fact, there is every indication that the military-jihadi complex in Pakistan intends to refocus its efforts on India once the U.S. winds down operations in Afghanistan.

Third, India’s intelligence and state and central law enforcement agencies continue to suffer from a lack of resources (technical as well as human), funding and coordination.  These are structural challenges that need to be addressed to counter current and future threats to the country.

The good news for India is that Yasin Bhatkal’s arrest, as well as those of Abdul Karim TundaAbdul Sattar and Abu Hamza, tells us that India’s much-maligned intelligence and law enforcement agencies are slowly making progress in developing capacities to counter terrorism directed at India.  These arrests, taken together, point to a process now being in place, with the cooperation and assistance of foreign governments, to track and extradite individuals involved in terrorism in India. Thus, the immunity that terrorists once enjoyed merely by taking a flight out of India no longer appears to be guaranteed.  And this progress in the evolution of India’s counter-terrorism capabilities is welcome.

That some of these foreign governments that we now appear to have an understanding with would not want to be named works to the advantage of both the foreign governments and India.  Indeed, the lack of public acknowledgement of cooperating with India allows these foreign governments to protect sensitive relations with countries in our neighborhood. For India, the lack of full public disclosure also enables our intelligence agencies to protect sources and methods, allowing us to track and extradite other terrorist operatives absconding from India.  The field narrows, the noose tightens.

 

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Where is the Difa-e-Pakistan Council?

Why the silence?

It’s been over half a year since we’ve heard from that wonderful consortium of crazy people, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).  There haven’t been any news reports of large rallies of the sort held by the DPC last year.  Even when tensions with India mounted in January this year as a result of the killing of Indian troops along the LoC, there was no agitation of the sort one had come to expect from the DPC.

There are some reports that the DPC continues to be active and operating in stealth mode.  We are told that the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olsen met with DPC’s leader Sami ul-Haq this past month and requested his assistance in DC’s ongoing attempts to negotiate with the Taliban.  The DPC may be working behind the scenes, but the drive to mobilize public sentiment in favor of hardline causes seems to have fizzled out.

Mujahid Hussain’s piece in the Viewpoint potentially offers some clues as to why:

According to well placed reports, it has been decided at a high-level meeting that the Defence of Pakistan Council [Difa-e-Pakistan Council] would not be allowed to hold rallies in major cities of Pakistan as the leaders of the Defence of Pakistan Council are adding to the country’s external problems.

This meeting was held at the Presidency. A high-ranking military representative was also present. However, the military representative remained non-committal during the meeting.Jamat-ud-Dawa, responsible for arranging all the rallies and meetings of the Defence of Pakistan Council, and Jamat’s head, Hafiz Saeed, are known for their extremist views. Given this background, Pakistan is facing disturbing situation at the external front.

However, the powers that be do not want to render the Defence of Pakistan Council ineffective even if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already warned that the Defence of Pakistan Council is harming Pakistan’s interests at external front.

Most likely, a terrified civil government will beg the GHQ and request the military leadership to help rein in the Defence of Pakistan Council. [The Viewpoint]

The DPC’s members themselves have been anything but inconspicuous in the media.  Gen. Hamid Gul lauded Pakistan’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden for almost a decade, Hafiz Saeed, who carries a bounty on his head, used ill-conceived statements by Satish Verma to claim innocence on 26/11 and Maulana Muhammad Ludhianvi is spearheading a pogrom against Pakistan’s minorities

But it appears that the burner has has been reduced from hot to simmer.  The utility of the groups that constitute the DPC hasn’t been forgotten by the powers-that-be in Rawalpindi; yet there appears to be some sort of attempt to check the hitherto unbridled freedom with which the DPC operated.  It is an old game that the generals at GHQ think they have mastered.  The operative word there being “think.”

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On Pakistan’s Osama bin Laden report

Nolnah’s Razor: Ascribing incompetence to that which can be adequately explained by malice.

The report of the Abbottabad Commission, which was set up to investigate the May 2011 raid by U.S. special forces that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and his couriers, was “obtained” and published online by al-Jazeera today.  News reports tell us that the 337-page report makes “scathing reading.”

It attributes “culpable negligence and incompetence at almost all levels of government” in Pakistan’s apparent inability to identify that bin Laden was living in a villa located less than a mile away from the Kakul military academy for at least five years and its inability to detect the special forces contingent that traveled from Jalalabad, Afghanistan to Abbottabad to execute the mission to kill or capture bin Laden.

There are a few ways to look at the content and timing of the “leaked” report.  First, the report may be scathing in its criticism of government incompetence, but it barely entertains the possibility that official connivance played a role in bin Laden’s ability to evade U.S. pursuit for ten years.  Official denials don’t really mean much under the circumstances.  For years, Pakistani leaders claimed that bin Laden wasn’t in their country.  Gen. Musharraf claimed bin Laden was dead in 2002.

Pakistan has also, for years, denied that Mullah Omar was living in Pakistan.  Yet, multiple reports suggest that he is living in Quetta and under the protection of the ISI.  The truth will most likely be revealed once the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan in 2014, following which Mullah Omar will emerge triumphantly from parts unknown.

Of course, most people in India are accustomed to hearing how persons of interest to them — Dawood Ibrahim, for example — are most certainly not living in Pakistan.  For those of us on this side of the barbed-wire fence, the incompetence defense stretches credulity.

There are other interesting parts to the report.  On page 337, it concludes (emphasis added):

But finally, no honest assessment of the situation can escape the conclusion that those individuals who wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making bear the primary responsibility for creating the national circumstances and environment in which the May 2, 2011 incident occurred.  It is unnecessary to specifically name them because it is obvious who they are.  It may be politically unrealistic to suggest “punishments” from them.  But as honourable men, they ought to do honourable thing, including submitting a formal apology to the nation for their dereliction of duty.  It will be for the people of Pakistan in the forthcoming elections to pass collective political judgement on them. [al-Jazeera]

The last sentence of the concluding paragraph of the report is curious.  It apportions blame to those who “wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making,” but concludes by saying that it was for the people of Pakistan to pass a collective judgement on them in the elections.  Great, but Pakistanis don’t get to vote for their COAS or DG-ISI.  But they do cast votes on their civilian leadership.  From where this blogger is standing, the blame being apportioned here almost certainly targets Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP, rather than the Pakistani military establishment.

The other items for consideration pertaining to the release of the report are the timing and source of the alleged leak.  The leak occurs at a time when the U.S. is trying to negotiate an honorable exit from Afghanistan with the Pakistan-backed Taliban in Qatar. That the report was leaked by al-Jazeera, a news agency fully owned by the al-Thani family, which, as it happens, also rules Qatar may not be a coincidence.

This “leak” could effectively mean two things.  If the U.S. is sufficiently encouraged by the momentum and direction of the talks, it may be well-disposed towards bailing out the Pakistani military establishment from the embarrassment it has had to endure since 2011.  The discrete leak of a document via a news agency owned by a U.S. ally, which blames incompetence rather than connivance (the lesser of  two evils) while also criticizing a now mostly-irrelevant and ousted political party works well under such circumstances.

If, on the other hand, things aren’t going so well in Doha, the release of a classified report may have been viewed as necessary by some to coax Pakistan into action.  It will, of course, embarrass and anger the Pakistani military establishment.  More importantly, it will also most certainly complicate relations between Pakistan and Qatar.

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