Editor’s Note: This piece, published in
, is an excerpt from a
that was part of a briefing book produced by the Brookings India Initiative entitled
The Second Modi-Obama Summit: Building the India-U.S. Partnership
. The briefing book features 16 memos written by Brookings experts analyzing key issues in the India-U.S. relationship and offers recommendations on building up the India-U.S. partnership.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India, an unprecedented second trip in one Presidency, comes as the terrorist threat environment in the subcontinent is in transition and turmoil. Multiple massacres in Pakistan and the transition in Afghanistan are challenging the counter terrorist infrastructures built over the last couple of decades. It is a fluid situation that Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi need to compare notes on and develop strategies.
Sponsor and victim
Pakistan has long been both a sponsor of terrorism and a victim of terrorism but the balance seems to be shifting toward victimhood. Pakistan still sponsors the most dangerous terror group in South Asia, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which last May tried to disrupt Mr. Modi’s inauguration by attacking the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, just hours before his swearing-in ceremony. The Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, continues to provide support to LeT and its leader Hafiz Mohammad Saeed lives freely in Lahore, Pakistan, with the ISI’s protection. The ISI also remains the primary patron of the Afghan Taliban in its war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
But Pakistan has been shaken profoundly by a series of mass casualty terror attacks on its own citizens. On November 2, 2014, a suicide bomber killed sixty Pakistanis at the Wagah border crossing with India close to the border ceremony site. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility and said it was retaliation for the army’s Zarb-e-Azb counter terrorist operation.
On December 16, 2014, seven members of the Pakistan Taliban attacked an army-run school in Peshawar and killed 145 people including 132 schoolchildren. The attack prompted an unprecedented public outcry for the government and army to take concerted action to defeat the Taliban and to stop all terror attacks in the country. Not since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 has there been so much public outcry against terrorism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif promised collective action to destroy the Taliban and the army said it would no longer differentiate good Taliban from bad Taliban.
Even al-Qaeda’s new franchise in the Indian subcontinent distanced itself from the school massacre, saying “our hearts are bursting with pain,” and urging its Taliban allies to target soldiers in the future. Hafiz Saeed took the tack of blaming India for the attack, claiming it was a conspiracy orchestrated by Modi and vowing revenge on India. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf also blamed India and Afghanistan for supporting the Pakistan Taliban.
It remains to be seen whether the Peshawar massacre and other atrocities will actually change the army’s behaviour toward terrorism. It is more likely than not that the ISI and COAS will remain patrons of some terror groups for the foreseeable future even as they fight others. The civilian politicians may be more determined to end Pakistan’s double policy but they have consistently failed to do so in the last decade.
The ISI is particularly determined to see if its Afghan proxies, the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, can exploit the end of NATO’s combat presence in Afghanistan to gain control of significant parts of the country. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader based in Karachi, has shown no interest in a political settlement and seems determined to try to resurrect his Islamic Emirate.
Two new players in the terror game emerged in 2014. First is the al-Qaeda franchise for the Indian subcontinent. Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced its formation which was immediately followed by an attempt to hijack a Pakistani frigate with the intention of using it to attack U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. The plot included an unknown number of Pakistani naval officers recruited to help al-Qaeda. Zawahiri remains hidden somewhere in Pakistan and continues to give lengthy audio messages to his followers. Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen claims Zawahiri ordered the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo this month, what it called the “blessed battle of Paris.”
The other newcomer is the Islamic State, the heir to al-Qaeda in Iraq that proclaimed the creation of a caliphate this summer. Led by Abu Bakr al-Quraishi al-Hashemi al-Baghdadi, also known as Caliph Ibrahim, the Islamic State has attracted fighters from across the Islamic world to come and join it in Iraq and Syria. Several Indian Muslims have joined the IS and pro-IS propaganda has been distributed in India and Pakistan. Parts of the Pakistan Taliban have voiced support for Baghdadi. An Islamic State cell has been captured in Bangladesh. Al-Qaeda has denounced the caliphate as illegitimate and renounced any connection to Baghdadi and his group. Zawahiri and Baghdadi are rivals for leadership of the global jihad and competing for the loyalty of jihadists around the world including in south Asia.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi should reaffirm their commitment to close counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation. Much has improved since 2008 when the U.S. and the U.K. had intelligence on the Mumbai plot but failed to share it with India and failed to analyse it properly themselves. LeT is now a priority for both Washington and London. Mr. Obama should send his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director to New Delhi to further improve cooperation.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi should also upgrade efforts to stabilise Afghanistan after the withdrawal of most NATO forces. India should consider sending military field hospitals and personnel to help the Afghan Army as it did in the Korean War in the 1950s to support the United Nations forces. It should also help train and equip the Afghan Air Force, an area that NATO has been remiss in addressing robustly. Mr. Obama should rescind his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces by 2017 and commit to long term advisory role.
No tolerance policy
Pakistan remains the heart of the issue. Late last year the U.S. hosted a visit by Gen. Raheel Sharif and Indians will be interested in hearing American impressions of him. Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi should compare notes on Pakistan’s support for terrorism. They should also address the blow back in Pakistan to the Peshawar massacre. They should encourage a no-tolerance policy by Prime Minister Sharif while recognising his limitations. They should look for opportunity to encourage Pakistan to take action against all groups, especially LeT.
But they should also plan for the worst. Another LeT attack on India is probably only a matter of time. Washington and New Delhi should have some idea of what the potential consequences of such an attack might be. This is not a matter of ganging up on Pakistan or trying to pressure it in advance, rather it is prudent crisis planning and coordination. It might be wise to involve others like the United Kingdom in such discussions. If all this seems too sensitive for public officials, then it can be put in the hands of think tanks and former officials to study with a mandate to report to their governments.