Spy’s eye: Changing contours of ‘war on terror’

President Donald Trump’s fleeting visit to Iraq — his first as US President to a conflict zone involving American forces- became the occasion for an important policy announcement of great strategic import. In keeping with his earlier hints about his reservations on America bearing the burden for others, Trump declared that the United States 'cannot continue to be the policeman of the world'. He confirmed that he had decided to withdraw troops from Syria and expressed unhappiness over the state of affairs in Afghanistan where he thought the peace process was tardy. President Trump has been saying it for a while that the American engagement across the world must adequately serve the US interests- his support to Brexit, refusal to look at Russian President Putin with the Cold War tint and the reprimand delivered upfront to the heads of some 50 Islamic countries at Riyadh in May 2017 for not playing their part in the 'war on terror' — are all evidence of a consistency of his approach to issues of global economy and security. 

The convergence that exists between Trump Presidency and the Modi regime in matters of international security had enabled India to isolate Pakistan in the world community on the issue of cross border terrorism and exposed that country as the breeder of Islamic terrorism of radicals like Al Qaeda and Taliban as well as extremists like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaishe Mohammad. Trump unlike his predecessors has an intrinsic dislike of extremism in the name of Islam and sees that religion as the source of motivation behind the growing radicalisation in West Asia or the Pak-Afghan belt. His pulling up Pakistan for befooling the US all these years and siphoning off billions of dollars without delivering on the 'war on terror’ in Afghanistan, has driven Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to let the cat out of the bag by admitting that Pakistan had no business fighting the ‘American war’. It is the Pentagon that had all along followed the tradition of being soft towards Pak Generals and it seems the resignation of Defence Secretary Gen. Mattis on the issue of  how much longer should the US troops stay in Afghanistan may also have something to do with his line that ‘Pakistan should be given another chance’.

Trump said in Iraq ‘he had told his Generals a year and a half ago-let’s go, take more time but finally I had to say it’s time for others to take over’. The meeting of Pak Army Chief Gen. Bajwa with Gen. Austin Scott Miller Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan held meanwhile at Islamabad on Dec 27 once again talked of political resolution of Afghan based on an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned inclusive process. Gen. Bajwa maintained for the consumption of the world that Pakistan was committed to efforts for peace but obviously stuck to the strategy of bringing in Taliban to maintain his country's sway in Afghanistan. Left to themselves Pak army and Taliban had no problem with each other. The developments in Afghanistan are crucial for India and our security and diplomatic establishment have to work on  President Trump even more to convince him that Pakistan’s hold in Afghanistan would damage the interests of US in particular and the democratic world in general. Trump’s coarse act recently, of belittling India in public for not doing enough in Afghanistan could be a reflection of his frustration over things not working out his way on many fronts. Indo- Afghan consultations should bring in other stake holders including the US and Russia — who were firmly opposed to Islamic militancy to evolve an Afghan-led democratic regime. Afghan security forces should be built up for taking on extremists on their own soil.

What has sustained the determination of the Islamic radicals to continue advocating Jehad against their ‘adversaries’- US-led West, Shiites and the idolatrous people in that order — is the deliberate silence of the Muslim world over this call of Jehad that was at the root of the new global terror of our times. ‘War on terror’ did not achieve the desired success because the forces of ‘revivalism’ that the radicals represented were not combated at the level of idea from within the community. This did not happen simply due to the fact that both Ulema and the elite politically leading the Muslims could not overcome the pull of faith to disown the violence of Mujahideen. In the process the world is being pushed towards a future of ‘civilisational’ conflicts propelled by faith.

The ‘war on terror’ produced a terrible spin off for India as it prompted Pakistan to step up its proxy war against the former using cross border terror as its weapon and exploiting its leverage with the US as its 'front line' ally in the American fight against the radicals. Years later it is coming out that the Pak army was merely hoodwinking the US about fighting the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine which led President Donald Trump to suspend financial aid to Pakistan and put an end to his predecessor's policy of making a distinction between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists’ - that had caused great distress to India. The Pak ISI has since become blatant about using the cover of ISIS to create new sleeper cells of terrorists affiliated to Jaishe Mohammad besides Lashkar-e-Toiba and manipulating the Pak-based Al Qaeda for South Asia (AQSA) for a similar purpose. The point is that while the US can afford to distance itself from Syria and Afghanistan, India is emerging as a main target of Islamic terror sponsored and abetted by Pakistan. We have to deal with this threat on a long-term basis.

All of this is being proven right by the successful busting of a 10-member terror module by NIA after a prolonged tracking of the suspects operating out of Delhi, Amroha and Meerut. A huge recovery of mobile phones, SIM cards, remote control devices, pistols, even a country made rocket launcher, 150 rounds of ammunition and nearly 25 kgs of explosive material such as potassium & ammonium nitrate besides a large amount of cash speaks of the large ambit of recruitment, indoctrination and training that the Pak ISI has been able to achieve in pursuing its covert offensive against this country. The module was being handled from the Pak-Afghan region through an encrypted chat application. Many educated youth are among the arrested and this confirms the trend that radicalisation in the name of Islam was impacting the young literates of the Muslim minority. The NIA is adopting the right approach of keeping the families of the young offenders on its side while pursuing action. A pro- active de-radicalisation policy needs to be worked out taking those sections of the community into confidence who did not want their youth to fall into the enemy’s trap.

The US is free to take its own geo- political view of what is happening in Syria and Afghanistan- it has a certain comfort of distance- but the fact is that the 'war on terror' set off by the then US President following 9/11 has failed to achieve the twin objective of getting the 'moderates' in the Muslim world to fight the radicals at home and pushing forth the cause of Democracy in that world. President Trump would do well to realise that Pakistan more than any other Muslim country is the fulcrum of faith- based terror- that finds validation in the name of Jehad. India's concern is that the stalemate in West Asia and Afghanistan gives Pakistan a leeway for carrying on with its India- specific plans of cross border terrorism. Apart from Kashmir the Pak ISI is working on reviving militancy in Punjab with the help of Khalistani elements under its control. But what is worse, the regime of Imran Khan is blatantly trying to meddle into India's domestic politics by siding with the opposition forces here who are -in the run up to the next general election - raising a campaign against prime minister Modi on how minorities were not feeling safe in his regime. India's security policy will have to remain focused on Pakistan and the pro-Pak elements operating within the country.

(The writer is the former director of Intelligence Bureau)

DC Pathak