Erroneously, the jihadist bloodshed in Pakistan is being seen by Indian analysts as Pakistan’s problem. After the November 2 bombing at Wagah, an Indian official described it as “a fallout of schisms within the Pakistani apparatus”, planned to cause a rift between Islamabad and Delhi. In an editorial, a leading newspaper dubbed it as “an existential threat to Pakistan” and a “warning for Pakistan”. A blogger bought into the argument that the attack was a revenge for the Pakistani army’s Zarb-e-Azb operation in North Waziristan. Contrary to this, the jihadist bloodshed wreaking Pakistan is no longer Pakistan’s problem. It is an Indian problem—and this is what the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wants to achieve.
There are historical templates. One, over the past few years, protests in Kashmir Valley were presented in the media as Kashmiris’ struggle against human rights violations by the Indian army. However, there is a clue in the nature of the protests: these were based on the template of the Palestinian intifada, borrowed and executed by Pakistan. Two, in the late-1980s when the Afghan jihad was at its peak and the Soviets were set to quit, the ISI conceived its next jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. It led to over two decades of violence that the Indian army had to fight, contain and curtail at costs to its professional image. Three, after the 9/11 attacks delegitimised the Kashmir jihad, the ISI created the Indian Mujahideen to take the fight to the heart of India. This, too, has been mostly contained by Indian intelligence agencies.
Four, a few years ago, when the US announced to the jihadis that it would quit Afghanistan by 2014-end, the ISI began executing its next jihad, whose symptoms are becoming visible. In early September, Asmatullah Muawiya, the chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, declared ceasefire against Pakistan. The fact: the ISI convinced him to focus on Afghanistan. Muawiya’s ceasefire was followed by reports that he would work with the Haqqani Network of the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. That the ISI nurtures jihadists became evident when Pakistan army allowed militant commanders to move to Kurram Agency before launching the Zarb-e-Azb operation.
Compliant Taliban commanders like Khan Saeed Sajna stayed in North Waziristan during the operation. Leading Taliban commander Adnan Rasheed, who was captured in neighbouring South Waziristan, was quickly released by the ISI. If you are wondering why, know also this: the ISI shifted him from Rawalpindi prison to Bannu jail and got him freed in an attack orchestrated through the Taliban in 2012. These commanders, including Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, are working under Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is protected by the ISI, which protected Osama bin Laden. Also, the Zarb-e-Azb operation was organised to have the US release blocked funds to Pakistani army.
In September, as part of its post-2014 plan, the ISI got Al-Zawahiri to announce the establishment of Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS). Al-Qaeda is a branch of the Pakistani military, a duality perplexing to young readers of Pakistan. Though led by Arab militants, Al-Qaeda was created and nurtured in Pakistan, spread to the Middle East from Pakistan and its central leadership remains protected by Pakistan. The AQIS is advancing the ISI’s post-2014 strategy. It has declared its objective to establish an Islamic caliphate from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and beyond by erasing international borders created by the British. So, the Wagah border has become a new jihadist target.
It is a template borrowed from Pakistani intellectual traditions. From their early days through the 1980s, Pakistani leaders thought of establishing a sphere of Islamic influence from Pakistan through Afghanistan to Central Asia. The ISI is implanting this template eastward. The Wagah attack connects with Burdwan, where young Muslim women and men were being given arms training till October 2 when accidental blasts exposed everything. Bangla-language Al-Qaeda literature found in Burdwan advocated setting up of an Islamic caliphate covering Bangladesh and bordering districts of West Bengal.
For now, India faces no threat from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of a magnitude it can’t deal with, argued national security adviser Ajit Doval on October 21. Indeed, India must not wait for the problem to reach any magnitude. But officials in West Bengal did wait for the problem to acquire a magnitude. Much like during the pre-9/11 years when Britain tolerated the existence of today’s jihadist forces in the name of anti-colonial politics, Bangladeshi jihadists found a liberal, secular and hospitable environment in West Bengal to hide, plan and grow. Such a tolerating environment, unavailable in Bangladesh, was easily available in India. Both the Burdwan developments and the Wagah attack originate from the ISI’s post-2014 strategy. The Taliban, the AQIS and Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh are parts of this strategy. Doval also remarked: “There is nothing (like a) big or small threat. It is not on the basis of geography, but on the basis of the groups.” Just keep in mind: in the jihadists’ imagination, geography and hijrah (migration) do matter a lot. Hijrah denotes Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Madina to establish the first Islamic state. It’s a vital reason why Indian Muslims went to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in recent years.
Here is how the ISI hides its own role in jihad and insulates Pakistan’s army. After the Wagah attack, it got the Khorasani-led Taliban to say it was a revenge for Zarb-e-Azb operation. After each turbulence in India-Pakistan ties, Pakistani journalists parrot this line: the army chief does not want to get involved in it. To insulate Pakistan’s army from global criticism after the Wagah attack, the ISI got a Christian couple burnt alive, successfully diverting public opinion. In recent years, Pakistan was globally criticised for its role in the 26/11 attacks. The message from Burdwan: have Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s assassination executed from Indian soil—fundamentally an ISI plan—so that India stops blaming Pakistan for the 26/11 attacks.
The author is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.