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Control the narrative

GoI must arrest this trend of  surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals.

Someone once said that al-Qaeda was now essentially a media propaganda machine, with a terror wing.  The same argument could also be made of the Naxalites in India.  As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, has done a remarkable job in news content and propaganda delivery over the Internet — from the indiscretions of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, to disseminating audio and video propaganda from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to regional network stations.

The battle for the “hearts and minds” is a critical aspect of successful COIN campaigns and it is here that controlling the narrative becomes critical.  Propaganda campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab serve as morale boosters to followers and as effective recruitment tools, far beyond the epicenter of the insurgency.  They are also effective in turning public opinion against COIN forces — both in the “besieged” countries as well as in those leading the COIN effort.  U.S. and Western allies have found it significantly difficult to counter this unrelenting propaganda in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Although the differences between the Af-Pak and Naxal insurgencies are plenty, there are lessons for India to draw from the American experience.  Indeed, even in the Indian context, one of the many aspects that makes the Naxal insurgency different from either Kashmir or Punjab is that the government has been so far unable to control the narrative of the conflict.  The leadership structure of the Naxals — which includes among its ranks, suave, highly educated and very eloquent men and women very adept at information dissemination — plays a significant role in denying the government of India monopoly over the Naxal narrative.  Hence the demands ad nauseum from “root cause” advocates and deliberate attempts to obfuscate differences between the treacherous objectives of the Naxals and the legitimate demands of the tribals.

This counter-narrative has also been adopted by some for political expediency, by self-styled “activists” and human rights groups, further diluting the central government’s version on the issue.  Controlling the narrative is important in any unconventional war — more so in one being conducted in remotest and poorest corners of the hinterland.  Public perception during  such operations is important.  But the nature and area of the Naxal conflict has contributed to public sentiment largely indifferent on the issue.  Dantewada, after all, is not Mumbai.

The Indian government has thus far not been capable of countering this insidious propaganda war, and has been religated to fighting on the backfoot. Campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab and the Naxals aim to achieve one simple objective — demonstrate that the enemy (the U.S. and its allies, and India, respectively) is not morally infallible.  India has involuntarily assisted in partly achieving this objective, through instances of excessive use of police force on the tribals and through ill-conceived ventures such as the Salwa Judum.

To be sure, India’s success in defeating the Naxals depends on a number of factors, including availability and reliability of local intelligence, quality and capabilities of COIN forces, development and rehabilitation of tribals, better local governance, and a government (central and state) willing to see the operations through.  But the government will remain weak, and its objectives, discombobulated and confused, so long as public perception remains apathetic or cluttered.

The  full extent of the state’s resources must therefore be used to both counter existing propaganda and launch counter-offensives to regain control of the narrative.  No doubt, the Indian government will not be able to end the insurgency merely  though the use of media guile, but further losses of life and territory are almost assured if it is unable to arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals and their sympathizers.

http://pragmatic.nationalinterest.in/2010/05/12/confusing-considerations/
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We Are Also Victims of Terror

“We’re also victims of terror”.  This phrase has come to be used quite liberally by Pakistani leaders (civilian and military), usually in response to an incident on foreign soil that invariably involves their citizens.  It has always surprised me that our leaders and media have never called them out on this bogus statement.  At best, the statement is an unintentional gaffe.  At worst, it’s a calculated oversimplification, regurgitated with the intention to mislead.

Terrorism is a very broad term, and one that has been made popular by the Bush Administration to almost always mean Islamic terrorism, perpetrated against the West or Western targets.  Therefore, the 9/11 and 7/7 attackers in New York City and London were “terrorists”, while those that attacked Mumbai last month, were merely “gunmen” or “militants”.  Theoneste Bagosora’s people, who butchered 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in the worst genocide the world has seen in decades, were Hutu “militia”.

“The Mumbai attacks were directed not only at India but also at Pakistan’s new democratic government and the peace process with India that we have initiated. Supporters of authoritarianism in Pakistan and non-state actors with a vested interest in perpetuating conflict do not want change in Pakistan to take root.”

— Asif Ali Zardari, “The Terrorists Want to Destroy Pakistan, Too“, New York Times (12/8/2008)

Even the term “Islamic terrorism” is a very broad generalization.  It is precisely the obscurity of this term that allows Pakistan the convenience of hiding their incompetence and/or connivance with the ruse that they are victimized by the same groups.  This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.  In terms of pan-Islamic interests, Al Qaeda is the most significant organization that Pakistan today battles in NWFP.  Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were trained and equipped by the CIA and the ISI to fight against the “Godless” Soviets.  When the Soviets withdrew, they turned around and bit the hands that fed, as it were.  Pakistan today fights the Taleban and Al Qaeda, not because they have ideological differences with them, but because they were forcefully dragged into the “War on Terror”.    It is interesting though that in the many tapes that he has released to Al Jazeera, bin Laden has rarely ever mentioned Kashmir or India.  This isn’t because he doesn’t have anything against India (he clearly does) , but because his immediate priorities are different.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Bacha Khan, aka Frontier Gandhi

Khan Abdul Ghaffar "Bacha" Khan, aka "Frontier Gandhi"

In Baluchistan, FATA, and NWFP, a region that boasts of colonial-era heroes such as Bacha Khan (“Frontier Gandhi”), the theater of violence is limited in scope to the aspirations of the tribes and ethnicities in the region. They do not think of themselves in being part of a pan-Islamic struggle against the “infidels”, but as good Waziris and Baluchis fighting for autonomy to preserve their way of life.   For them, the tribe is more important than the concept of the nation, which they dismiss as a western concoction.  Therefore, those suspected of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (e.g., Baitullah Mehsud) were motivated by a perceived threat to their way of life by a liberal, decidedly pro-western politician.  Despite the gradual radical Islamization of these regions, there is no direct threat to India emanating from the various tribes and groups.

However, there are two types of terror groups in heartland Pakistan — those who seek to act in Pakistan, and those who seek to use Pakistan as a base to act elsewhere. The fight to act in the heartland is along inter-ethnic (Shias vs. Sunnis, Pashtuns vs. Sindhis, Sindhis vs. Mohajirs, etc.) and anti-government lines, and includes terror organizations such as Lashkar-e-Omar and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.  The Mariott bombings in Islamabad in September 2008, were, by many accounts, perpetrated by terrorists opposed to the political process of Pakistan.  Other radical actors, such as the Ghazi brothers who held out in the Lal Masjid in 2007, fought for a more fundamental implementation of Islam in Pakistan, and were against Parvez Musharraf’s quasi-western “enlightened moderation” policies.  Although JeM’s Maulana Masood Azhar is said to have delivered speeches at the Lal Masjid, the interests of Pakistan’s new adversaries in the heartland, again, are confined to the politics of Pakistan.

Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are different.  That they enjoy the protection of the ISI and elements of the Pakistani army highlights the impotence of the country’s civilian leadership.  JeM’s objectives include the liberation of Kashmir and its subsequent incorporation into the dominion of Pakistan.  Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was languishing in an Indian jail before he was set free by India in exchange for the lives of Indian civilians aboard Indian Airlines flight 814, which was hijacked to Kandahar by JeM in 1999.  To show gratitude for his release, Azhar sent his thugs around in 2001 to attack the Indian Parliament.  Similarly, LeT’s objectives are clear — the liberation of Kashmir (a goal closely aligned to Pakistan’s own objectives), and the Islamization of South Asia (i.e., wiping out Hinduism).  Indeed, the group’s founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, appears to have no quarrels with the State of Pakistan, and considers himself a patriotic Pakistani — a very different view indeed from the other terror groups that denounce political division as a western idea, and see themselves as warriors of the Muslim brotherhood.

In summary, yes, Pakistan, you are a victim of terror, but, no, it isn’t the same kind of terror, and it isn’t being perpetrated by the same terrorists. Seven years ago, you called the people who attacked India “freedom fighters”.  You offered them “diplomatic” and “moral” support.  So let’s be clear: the people that attacked Mumbai, attacked Mumbai — not Karachi.  They attacked India, not Pakistan.  And while Asif Ali Zardari paints his nation as a victim on the international stage, Lashkar’s aiders and abettors, citizens of his country, under the protection of the very agencies that he supposedly oversees,  are busy plotting their next big bloody assault on India.

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