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Briefly Noted: The Triple Agent

Last month, a Taliban member came with a message from the Quetta shura to meet Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who was leading the peace council. The Taliban member — Mullah Esmatullah — had bought two audio messages from the shura and one of them was for Mr. Rabbani. The messenger was treated with respect and bought into Rabbani’s room where he exploded, taking a few lives with him.

In 2009, in Khost, Afghanistan, a similar event happened. A Jordanian agent who had provided spectacular reports on Al-Qaeda members was invited to Camp Chapman for a debriefing. To show that he was trusted, CIA officials in Khost who had never met him decided to let him inside without a search. As soon as he saw the line of CIA officers and their Blackwater guards he started chanting something and only his Jordanian handler knew what was going to happen.

According to a NY Times report

The attack at the C.I.A. base dealt a devastating blow to the spy agency’s operations against militants in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, eliminating an elite team using an informant with strong jihadi credentials. The attack further delayed hope of penetrating Al Qaeda’s upper ranks, and also seemed potent evidence of militants’ ability to strike back against their American pursuers.[Attacker in Afghanistan Was a Double Agent]

The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who infiltrated the CIA by Joby Warrick tells the story of what happened in Khost by following the lives of the bomber Humam al-Balawi, his Jordanian handler Sharif Ali bin Zeid, the station chief Jennifer Matthews, the analyst Elizabeth Hanson and even their guards. It starts with the arrest of al-Balwai who was a doctor who moonlighted as an online Islamic warrior. He was arrested by Jordianian Intelligence, but then bin Zeid decided to make him a double agent. He was to infiltrate al-Qaeda in Pakistan and report back. The doctor who had never been to Pakistan before vanished into the tribal regions and very soon started giving inside information like they had never seen before. No one in Jordan or Langley realized that it was a setup. The al-Qaeda folks turned out to be smarter than the ones who flew the drones.

The book compiles decisions made the various actors and how they all added up to a disastrous end. Excited by the possibility that they could get al-Zawahiri, the CIA let their guard down. The blame is finally attributed to the station chief Jennifer Matthews who made the decision to let the bomber in without a search. The book is less than 300 pages, but reads a Frederick Forsyth novel.

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Saving History from Terrorists

Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has only hatred and disdain for the golden relics of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, the first of the urban civilizations built on syncretic ideas which are anathema to the Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban. Imagine the damage caused in any attack on sites which have only in recent years started yielding pointers to the journey our modern society has traversed. Visualize the Taliban plundering the ancient site of Taxila, a few hours north of Islamabad, not far from where the Pakistan army is now fighting them. The worries aren’t mine alone. Many young men, who make a living by acting as guides to tourists told me during a visit to Taxila two years ago that they are already being frowned upon for talking about Buddhism and Buddhist history. [We need to save history from terrorists too!]

Ranjan Roy writes about terrorism against history in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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A Chanakyan Lesson for Obama

In 2007, speaking at the London School of Economics, Benazir Bhutto declared that nurturing Taliban was a mistake ; in the 90s it looked like a wise move. In 90s Afghanistan was in disarray: the Americans had left, various Mujaheddin warlords controlled the supply route from Pakistan to Central Asia, and there was no central leadership. Aided by Pakistan, Afghan refugees who attended Islamic schools took over Afghanistan and according to the view at that time – brought stability.

While handing over Afghanistan to Taliban looked like a bad idea after 9/11, we are now back to early 90s thought process again. The American plan calls for negotiating with “moderate” Taliban, through a combination of “political accommodation, financial rewards and astute exploitation of inter-tribal rivalries.” Thus the same entities against which a war was fought and is still being fought, by a simple switch, are going to be rewarded with power.

In Mudrarakshasa, Vishakhadutta’s 4th century novel about the battle of wits between Chanakya and the deposed minister Amatya Rakshasa, a question arises about reinstating people who were thrown out.

In Act III, there is a heated conversation between Chakakya and Chandragupta Maurya on why certain people switched allegiance to the enemy camp. Among them there are, Bhadrabahata, the superintendent of elephants and Purushadatta, the superintendent of horse. Chanakya explains that these two superintendents were given over to women, drinking and hunting. They neglected their duties and hence were removed from their posts.

Chanakya explains that two kinds of action can be taken against subjects who have grievances; they can be rewarded or they can be punished. In the case of Bhadrabahata or Purushadatta rewarding them would mean giving them their jobs back. To reinstate people who have been dismissed for incompetence, Chanakya explains, would be to strike at the very foundation of government.

The question in Mudrarakshasa is domestic politics while it is international terrorism in Afghanistan and the Taliban were removed from power, not exactly for incompetence. One point is moot though: you do not forget why they were dismissed in the first place; you do not give them an opportunity to commit the same crimes again.

Later in Mudrarakshasa, one of the characters Bhagurayana laments about politics.

Turning friend into foe, foe into friend
on grounds of practical advantages
Politics takes a man while he still lives
Into another birth where earlier memories are lo
st

Bhagurayana’s lament is true about geo-politics as well. There is no excuse, if a decade later, we look back at 2009 and repent like the 2007 Benazir.

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Advice for Peace Missions to Pakistan

After the Mumbai massacre, 13 Indians went to Pakistan to promote peace and friendship.

The delegation includes eminent Indian personalities like former Indian diplomat and journalist Kuldip Nayar, renowned filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, social activist Swami Agnivesh, historian and academician Prof KN Panikar, former diplomat Salman Haider, human rights activist Prof Kamal Mitra Chenoy, journalist Seema Mustafa, Sandeep social activist Pandey, social scientist Kamla Bhasin, etc. [Indian delegation in Pakistan to promote peace ]

The same set of people, in various permutations and combination, have been holding candles at Wagah for peace since India was a floating landmass in Pangea. Sometimes they forgot the candles, but people forgave them; there are not many stand up comics in India.

These peace missions tell us that Pakistanis too are mango men (aam aadmi) like us, thirsting for peace. These peace missions also tell us that we need more P2P (people to people) contact. But if such P2P contacts happen a lot, it would violate the first law of P2P which states that the total amount of Peace in the universe must be constant. To maintain equilibrium, alternate P2P events like the Mumbai Massacre and Kupwara happen.

Besides increasing entropy, there is another problem with P2P missions. The candle holders on this side meet candle holders on the other side. Over a platter of Kabab and Rooh Afza, they agree on everything, except on whether they should use scented candles or not.

What they should do instead is visit some mango men from Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab’s village. Then chat about a few things: weather, water issues, candles, and maybe, if time permits, on what they think of terrorist training camps.

Mohammad Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’ could have been inspired by the high regard shown to him by the people in his village.

Police sources have indicated that when Ajmal returned home from his training camp, he saw that he had risen in stature in the eyes of his fellow villagers and that they respected him.

So, when a group of trained cadre was allegedly presented the option of becoming fidayeen, seven youths raised their hands; Ajmal was among them. These seven, joined by three others who had already been part of combative action, came to Mumbai on November 26, 2008. [What motivated Ajmal ]

Looks like that Rooh Afza is not always sweet.

(Hat tip: Ranjith)

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The Carrots can Wait

On February 12th, more than two months after 26/11, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik acknowledged that some part of the planning for the Mumbai attacks were done in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have also said that they obtained confessions from members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and are interrogating one of the Lashkar leaders, Zarrar Shah, believed to be the conduit between ISI and Lashkar.

Is this action — Pakistan publicly admitting terrorists from it soil launching attacks — such a great step forward that India should offer some carrots in return.? Some say, it is time to go soft on Pakistan; some, want to overlook loopholes in Pakistan’s investigation into the incident ; others want to make the right moves in the diplomatic tango.

For the right reaction, uninfluenced by a Ghajini like amnesia, we need to look at the events of the past two months.

POST 26/11

Following the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan, along with other countries, expressed solidarity with India and President Zardari agreed to co-operate to find the masterminds. Soon Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar stated that Pakistan played no role in the attacks. It was then announced that Pakistan would send the ISI chief, Shuja Pasha, to visit New Delhi. Soon they reneged.

President Zardari blamed non-state actors and accused that India did not provide any evidence that Muhammad Ajmal Kasab, the surviving terrorist, was a Pakistani. In January, when Pakistan’s national security advisor, Mahmud Ali Durrani confirmed that Muhammad Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani, he was fired for “irresponsible behavior.”

The visiting Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi denied that the terrorists traveled by boat from Karachi to Bombay and asked reporters if they had seen the boat? He told Indians that Pakistan too was a victim of terrorism and what was needed was a joint anti-terror mechanism.

When the dossier, which contained previously undisclosed transcripts of telephone conversations and evidence from the trawler used by the terrorists, was sent to Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh upped the ante verbally, Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s information minister said that scoring points like this would not help solve the issue of regional and global terror. Also Pakistan found a Bangladeshi connection by the involvement of a banned militant organisation, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and announced that the plot was hatched in Dubai by an “international network of Muslim fundamentalists”.

Thus in response to the terrorist attack of 26/11, Pakistan mocked facts, trivialized Indian demands and displayed evasive behavior. From such a position what caused Pakistan to admit involvement in 26/11.? Was it the strength of our dossier or the guilt we created by arguing ourselves out of surgical strikes or those warnings against “neighboring countries.”?

The admissions came on Feb 12th, but even on the Monday before that Pakistan was busy denying involvement. So what changed abruptly.? Richard Holbrooke, President Obama‘s special envoy to the troubled regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan raised the issue with Pakistan according to New York Times. At the same time President Obama  made a call to the Pakistan President. As soon as Mr. Holbrooke left Pakistan for Afghanistan, Rehman Malik of the Interior Ministry made the admission.

Besides this there has been CIA brokered back channel activity as well which allowed India and Pakistan to exchange sensitive information. According to this news, which was revealed by Washington Post, “the unparalleled cooperation was a factor in Pakistan’s decision to bring criminal charges against nine Pakistanis accused of involvement in the attack.”

Pakistan Foreign Minister insisted that Holbrooke’s visit had nothing to do with the change of plans, but it hard to believe. With sufficient pressure Pakistan has produced rabbits out of a hat: Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who  was considered third, in command in Taliban was arrested immediately after Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit ; in 2005, President Bush telephoned President Musharraf and after the 25 minute conversation, President Musharraf expelled all foreigners from Pakistani madrassas.

A COERCED CONFESSION

While Pakistan admitting to terrorism originating from its soil is definitely welcome, it is not sufficient to display irrational exuberance.

First, in their admission, Pakistan singled out two suspects who are connected to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which apparently is a group banned by Pakistan. The goal of this group is to  wrest control of not just a small part of India, but “All of India, including Kashmir, Hyderabad, Assam, Nepal, Burma, Bihar and Junagadh.” The fact that such a group is operating, just by changing the name to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, with impunity in Pakistan even now should make it clear that the Augean stable is not clean.

Second, to believe how effective the arrests of these suspects are, one has to look at what Omar Saeed was able to do from jail . In death row for the murder of Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed was able to call Gen Pervez Musharraf on his personal cell phone and issue a death threat. On investigation, the authorities found that he was running a terror network from the jail. Rashid Rauf, the suspect in the plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic, escaped from custody in a plot which the late film maker Manmohan Desai would have found unbelievable.

Third, this concession came due to American coercion. Pakistan and United States have a strange relation. As a front line ally in the war on terror Pakistan gets financial aid and weapons; as the epicenter in the war on terror Pakistan gets bombed by unmanned Predators. This gives America leverage, not India. This admission by Pakistan, after American pressure, could also be a temporary gesture to gain concessions. So let us not build a rope ladder from dental floss.

Finally, this admission came from the civilian government. There is an opinion that India should strengthen the civilian government of Pakistan and see them as partners and not  as adversaries. Those who suggest this seem to be ignorant of what happened in Kargil just a few months after Prime Minister Vajpayee and the civilian leader Nawaz Sharif recited poetry at the border. So it is hard to believe that by supporting the civilian administration, there will be a miraculous act of appropriation by which the other players in Pakistan — the actual power centers — will allow the terror infrastructure to be dismantled or stop such events from happening again.

All the Pakistani drama before the admission states a harsh truth: it will be hard for India alone make any progress. Next.? The crucial question is this: Will President Obama have to get involved — like President Clinton during Kargil war — to force Pakistan make the next positive step.? Will we see justice served or more meaningless statements like “we are determined to get to the bottom of this attacks.”?

So far pattern of the cross border rhetoric and action has been along predictable lines and we have seen this movie before. Unless we see more sincere gestures to match the words, lets hold off on the carrots.

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