The Crucible

Journalist, filmmaker and author Adrian Levy who has written extensively on the subcontinent, decodes for us, the feverishly complex networks of terror, bureaucracy, state, military and clan combinations in the region. Finally, with the announcement of the Islamic caliphate by radical Sunni militants, stretching from eastern Iraq to the Syrian city of Aleppo, what does it portend for the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia? An Interview by Pritha Kejriwal.

First of all, could you explain this extremely complex network of terror that operates in Pakistan and in its entire neighbouring belt as in there is Taliban and there are the Uzbeks, there are the Chinese as well, so in what frameworks do they operate and what kind of relation do they have with the Pakistan government and its military?

If you are going to be binary about this – and normally we resist all things binary, as they are a construct of lazy media views and news graphics that cry out for simplification in an increasingly complex world – then you could say it’s [a] state vs. non-state jig. And by state we mean the Jihad Factory, the legacy of Ziaul Haq and the plethora of forces that were unleashed by him back in 1979. A coda here, as some of these forces which were resuscitated or galvanized by Zia, of course, are much older and stem from the 19th century when they were mobilized against colonialism and the British – is Deobandis and others. But what Zia did was to give them succour – financial, military and political support – and they were deployed throughout the 1980s for several reasons. As we all know, they assisted, broadly, in the war in Afghanistan and aided Pakistan’s strategic need to push back the Russians from their hot AfPak border. This happened to coalesce with America’s strategic needs to create a buffer against communism, a beautiful relationship that flooded Pakistan with hard cash and material.

Zia also created the Jihad factory for internal reasons: to unleash terror on the Shia business class, attempting to tether the Shia economic might, the Shia land owning class, but also to drive a wedge between the Shia and the Sunnis, weakening both, so as to make the military appear more cohesive. It worked.

So, right from the beginning there were these two goals – internal repression, and Jihad – as the tools of foreign policy. It’s really no different today, other than that neither group is under anyone’s control – leading to the sloughing of blood and entropy.

Jihad mitosis has taken place, the sub dividing of groups into hundreds of others, many of which have become radicalized and antagonistic to the State that babied them, plus there is the foreign legions conundrum. This refers to the lending out of camps in Pakistan for the training of the vast diaspora of dispossessed and angry factions fighting repressive governments/authorities in Central Asia, China and the Middle East – and of course Europe.

What does this mean in the day-to-day reality of Pakistan? More bloodshed internally and more terror engendered externally, with crucial strategic partnerships undermined too – something much more structural which might stunt even further Pakistan’s ability to outgrow the shitty hand it was dealt in 1947.

In China, the authorities in Xinjiang are experiencing the legacy of Pakistan training camps for example, with the low-tech mass knifings, and the more hi-tech bombings, carried out by combatants who have hot footed it from Waziristan, videos for which have only recently been released by Beijing. China has let it be known in no uncertain terms that it will not stand by and let Pakistan do nothing. China, perhaps Pakistan’s most faithful ally, that facilitated nuclear Pakistan, the modernization of its armed forces and could overhaul its civil energy sector, is stamping its foot. Does this threat also lie behind the Waziristan campaign? Perhaps it hangs over it.

Then you have the state jihad, like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), nurtured to do Pakistan’s bidding, in making India bleed in Kashmir and elsewhere, as well as acting as Pakistan’s shock troops in contested areas like Afghanistan. Once this relationship was secretive. Today it is still. However, while a core element remains state trained and fed, other strands have bitten the hand that feed them and turned away, becoming more akin to Al-Qaeda, in seeking global gains, a Caliphate for example, desiring to broaden out from destabilizing India to tackling the West and the Zionism/Jews.

A Pakistani Hindu devotee walks on the surface of a mud volcano to perform a ritual offering of coconuts before visiting Shri Hinglaj Mata Temple located in Balochistan province

Presently you see Lashkar-e-Taiba fighting once more in Kashmir, and it is also fighting in Afghanistan – both of these firmly State enterprises. But other elements of the LeT have turned their back on the Hafiz Saeed leadership and gone global, sowing seeds in Europe and further afield, looking to reassert themselves, cadres that see themselves as opposed to the Pakistan state –although we will return to this shortly.

Still in play are the sectarians, like Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Sipahe-e-Sahabaetc (although under new names), facilitating anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-Christian, anti-Ahmedi, anti-Hadithi, anti-everything-but-Deoband, pogroms, elements of these groups having coalesced with the Pakistan Taliban, and Al-Qaeda,lending much more fluidity to the terror-scape.

The fluidity is aqueous for other reasons. One is that Pakistan Taliban has itself imploded and subdivided, due to Drone assassinations of key charismatic leadership figures, and through the wooing away of other key figures by of the deep state, not to mention military action presently under way. The TTP also appointed a leader who rules from exile in Kunar province and whose credentials stretch back to the days when he was a ski lift operator – hardly the war-war talk needed to hold such a rag-tag army together.

And then we come to an explanation of entropy – for which we have to turn to Lal Masjid, the so-called Red Mosque raid, conducted by Musharraf in 2007. After news of this spread across Pakistan and the Gulf – that crack troops and paramilitaries had raided a mosque and killed an unknown number of devotees and acolytes (a mosque that had been previously sponsored, favoured and bolstered by the ISI and military) – the Jihad Factory split again. The sectarian forces pitted by the state against non-Sunni sects and religions, turned on the State too – and Musharraf. The LeT split into State mercenaries and those who now preferred the world view of Al Qaeda. The TTP was formed too as a manifestation of the anti-state Jihad that began raising funds by kidnapping and extortion in Karachi and elsewhere – with today perhaps 40 per cent of that great city under its sway.

What is playing out now, the tens of thousands of dead and injured, is a consequence of this post Lal Masjid world. If there has been a war on terror anywhere in the world, and the terminology is plainly a foolish Bush-ism –and perhaps we should talk about a war of terror – then it is Pakistan that has been the propagator and victim, suffering the equivalent ( in terms of fatalities and casualties) of three or four 9/11s last year alone.

But it won’t stop here. The question that is most pertinent now – apart from watching whether the state can regroup and gather up the forces it cherished and unleashed – is what impact will Syria and Iraq have on Pakistan?

When you mention the military-industrial complex in Pakistan, which you refer to as “the State”, what remains the role, rather the relevance of democracy in Pakistan?

I use the term state purposefully. The reason being that there is the state – which comprises the military and its subordinates, and there is the thin veneer of democracy – the moss on the oak. One could argue that democracy is gaining traction and courage. One could point to the fact the people power (and legal activism) overthrew Musharraf, and Bhutto’s assassination gave wings to the ambitions of the PPP, leading to their landslide in 2008. The passing on the mantel in this election to the PML (N) also supports the case that democracy is finding its feet.

But if you look very closely, nothing could be further from the truth.

The PPP was a democratically elected government with no control over the key portfolios a cabinet wields: foreign, internal security and military. All of these were retained by the military.

Look what happened to PML (N) as soon as it entered the fray. Nawaz Sharif is despised by some sections of the military, thanks to his running to the US in 1999, asking, according to one first hand account given to us, for refugee status for him and his entire family, denouncing Kargil, and then seeming to try and facilitate the exile of Musharraf (or his death in plane running on empty, which was refused permission to land).

This trust deficit (read: hatred) means that from his first days in office, the usual panoply emerged to destabilize him: the LoC became a hot border once more, his choices for key appointments in the foreign service were mostly vetoed by the military and still are being held up. Karachi became ungovernable, and deals done with warlords in Waziristan unraveled so that a new terror could flourish, making civilians look week.

Militant Islamist fighter waving a flag, cheers as he takes part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province

And the result of all this is that Nawaz Sharif has an extremely limited platform and is struggling to advance the policies of his administration. It’s a stark contrast to India, where Modi has been making massive, behind the scenes efforts to shake up the strategic and foreign policy environment in which India operates. Now we are all discussing “What will Modi’s foreign policy be?”, “What will the Modi world-view be?”, “How will he form a strategic view?”, “Will his Japan-Israel axis bring real, exciting change?” In Pakistan we can’t say the same for Sharif.

There are other indicators, too, of the shallowness of democracy – the hot/cold war between the press and the spooks. Geo/Jang vs.  ISI. Hamid Mir vs. Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Iislam. For a while, telling the truth, or spreading white lies has become a deadly game. Many reporters have been killed, shot at, abducted, beaten, arrested, forced into exile, or taken the dollar not to write or broadcast anything. The toll is that a burgeoning media world – perhaps the most prolific and vociferous in South Asia, one that has been at times far more creative and adventurous than the one in India, has been holed. The deflating of the media barrage is another corollary of state vs. non- state. A government is in power with no key portfolios, the Fourth Estate is cowed. The First Estate are the Clergy and in hoc to the Army, who are, in this reading, the Second Estate (the nobility), which leaves just the commoners – the disenfranchised voters, the elected but powerless officials and the frustrated middle classes (many of who now have active plans in place to up sticks and move to Malaysia where easy visas and property rights has encouraged a vast migration over from Pak).

So is there something that underpins the geopolitics of the area? Is it Huntington’s ‘Clash of the civilizations’ playing itself out here?

No, I don’t believe in clash of civilizations at all! What a load of hokum. Pakistan is not a victim in any way – or in a death grip. But it is at the mercy of history and geography. A state cut against the bias, to use a tailoring analogy, was formed to be geographically, economically and militarily weak. As a cross roads into Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia, it then became a witting and unwitting pawn on the Risk board, of the wider games of Capitalism vs Communism, broadly Washington vs. Moscow.

There is one argument that goes: 1979 was the catalyst. I subscribe to this. From that year Pakistan was set on a path from which it has never fully recovered. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by Zia, facilitating his own rise and the downfall of the PPP (although ZAB did not help matters by becoming tyrannical himself). In 1979, old orders fell in Iran, and Afghanistan, the Saudi Royals were under threat in Mecca, and covert wars began wholesale to try and right this. The rise of a powerful Shia revolution in Iran, and the perceived threat of Communism would trigger the key events that followed.

And interestingly, the same has happened in the last decade, the unwitting bolstering of the Shia state by the feckless US toppling of Saddam, and the belated Sunni response coming from Ba’athists, the remnants of the Saddam Army, the sleepers of the Naqshbandi and rampant Islamists like the shock troops of ISIS (among others). One consequence of this has to be the redrawing, globally, of established strategic partnerships.

The House of Saud tentatively gave support to the US over Al Qaeda, in that Osama’s outfit threatened the monarchy in Saudi Arabia too. But now the Saudis are natural bedfellows for ISIS, old style Saddamists and their kind, as they try and limit the Shia, and create a corridor through to Syria and beyond.

Iran, lost to the West in 1979 via Khomeini, will emerge as an ally of convenience – witness the hasty British reopening of an Embassy there, and the US wooing of Tehran, which also places an interesting perspective on Hezbollah/Assad, which in this redrawing of forces, come out as allies of convenience on the US side.

One can’t help but look at this mess and wonder what Cheney et al are thinking now. They will tell you that the reason we are here, is that Obama pulled out too soon. I heard Paull Brennera claim this on British radio. It’s being called the rhythm method defense. But the cold stark truth is that an old agenda, dusted off in 2003, to play for oil and lose Saddam in the process sowed the seeds for the bloodshed and anarchy of today (and a decline in Western interests, investment and influence in the region).

What foul times! How will all of this impact on Pakistan? Here might be some good news.

Al-Qaida tried to throttle its bastard child ISIS. Instead, core Al Qaeda has been beaten down in Pakistan (apart from those elements that are well hidden by the ISI and their [Al Qaeda’s] tribal hosts) and the ISIS it spurned, having merged with the Saddamists et al, are rising, and yet without influence in theatres of conflict like South Asia.

Could the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot map of the Middle East buy space for Pakistan? I would suggest strongly that it might. What used to be called Al Qaeda, or core Al Qaeda, i.e., the forces aligned under uncharismatic al Zawahiri, have been marginalized by the ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), and so, in a sense, Jihad has sublimated from Pakistan to the Levant.

Will there be some kind of blow back? What will be the ramifications? For now, a greater chance of peace, when combined with a military campaign in Waziristan by the Pak military. But afterwards, the potential for chaos will return as mercenaries of this war come back to Pakistan (and Europe), looking to keep the flame burning, sowing further unrest.

And what is the role of China if there is any? What are the Chinese militants doing in Pakistan?

What is the role of China and what the Chinese militants are doing – are naturally two separate things as one wants to gobble up the other. The Chinese militants from Xinjiang etc. are fighting for survival after a Tibet style campaign against them of repression, detention etc, by the Communist Party. The manner in which the Uyghur people have been brutally put down, the violence that was dispensed, the attempts at eugenics, to breed the areas with non Muslims, has led to a massive radicalization of a community which was previously not militant. Some of their leaders have been trained in camps on the Pak- Afghan Border and have adopted the methods, broadly speaking, of Al-Qaeda and TTP. The result is, what we are beginning to see there, and it has taken ten years to happen. The mass stabbings in China, for example, the bomb attacks, the grenades thrown… the drive-by crushing of crowds. These are quite simple, but savage assaults which are a corollary of the self-immolation campaign run by Tibetans where the savage violence is meted out on themselves.

What’s interesting to see is what’s going on in Pakistan’s Military campaign that they have launched in North Waziristan. They are using some very careful language. Nawaz Sharif is saying (having stalled action by refusing to support the military campaign for many months – fearing blowback in Bahalwalpur) that its point is to end the Uzbek influence. Evidence has been supplied too. They claim that the recent Karachi attacks on the airport etc. are the manifestation of an Uzbeki infestation. I don’t think anyone who has any knowledge on the ground, believes this to be true. But what it does demonstrate once more is the state vs. non state axis, as the barrage begins in Waziristan, sheltered from it are the Haqqani network, and Gul Bahadur, the South Waziri ‘good Talibans’ and in the sights are the so-called bad Talibs.

It is not a global, committed, military offensive, but a very targeted, specific counter-terrorism campaign, which is trying to wrest back control over the prickly hedge and the Jihad Factory.

Will Nawaz Sharif survive it? It’s unclear at the moment. He is hanging in by his finger nails. There are moves to dethrone him, or at least create the ground conditions. We are certainly entering a very dangerous period for democracy.

Where is the voice of the general population of Pakistan in all of this? There seems to have emerged a popular nationalistic sort of support for the military offensive in Waziristan.

I am not sure about this. Pakistanis think by tribe, clan, and province before the nation. So when you say a groundswell of popular support, is that the case? What is your metric? English speaking media? There are plenty of people sickened by the grueling meat grinder of violence. Certainly there are the vocal middle classes who are desperately worried about the destabilization of the big cities and the obliteration of the Jinnah legacy. But in Karachi, Sindhis are fighting to keep that city from falling apart. In Baluchistan, repression and Indian foreign policy has stirred the pot to create bloodshed. Rawalpindi is reeling from TTP attacks and there, there is a loud voice for action against them. But then, in metropolitan Lahore, while the middle classes call for pushing back the TTP, the government funds the LeT. The Punjab State government included in its budget for 2013-14, funding of 61.35 million Pakistani for Jamaat-ud-Dawah, the LeT’s political and welfare wing, undoubtedly involved in the planning of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

For those who do see hope in the Waziristan campaign, is it perhaps an attempt to buy space? To call a moratorium on the general air of rising intolerance and uber-radicalization, both of which are exceedingly worrying in Pakistan, where blasphemy laws etc. are being used, repeatedly, as a tool of repression and extortion?.

What one can say is that the war in Waziristan goes a tiny way to ameliorating the difficulty the progressive sector of society has in vocalizing its views. But does not empower them.

So, what you are saying is extremely scary because the progressives in India want to believe that there is this huge progressive force in Pakistan;  – the writers seem to be in the news quite a lot ; a lot of music coming out of there and there is a lot of counter culture which seems to have quite a vibrant and resilient vitality of its own… But are they ultimately ineffective in the larger scheme of things?

I think, Pakistan is a cultural volcano, in one sense, because there are so many poets, writers, musicians, broadcasters and filmmakers who are stoking the cultural life of the country, wonderfully… You only have to look at the success of the book fairs that are happening in Karachi and Lahore and see the prolific nature of the Pakistani commentariat… there is no doubt that in one sense, the cultural life of the country is robust. But a lot of this is being grown outside Pakistan, as repression is growing equally virulently.

So how do you see the near future and also the effect of India and its new Modi-government?

Everyone is watching out for the Modi effect. It might be significant, as of course the BJP did very well (in the short term) in 1999 – on Kashmir and many other issues. What we have been told is that Modi has been planning, even before the elections, to create a new strategic axis for India, which will focus away from America and look much more at its regional position. You are going to see a massive building of the relationship with Japan. India-Japan is going to be very significant with Japanese contribution to Indian infrastructure, Indian engineering, and military exchange as well. India-Israel relations are becoming ever more important, the sharing of the intelligence and hardware. Take a good look at the launching of a prohibitively expensive Israeli synthetic aperture radar surveillance satellite by India in 2008 – one that can see in the dark (over Pak, Kashmir, China and Iran). I would point to those as the key planks to where Modi is heading. Modi in Pakistan will be similarly determined and decisive in a way that Manmohan Singh was not. You will see a huge number of backroom meetings taking place, which will explore a lot of common interests in the light of the rejigging of power of Jihad.

So just to end it and to sum it up, how does one fight this dominant narrative of stereotyping of the Muslim world, of the entire Middle East, this whole ‘Orientalizing’ factor – the way the west looks at the entire region… what fundamental narrative could negate this?

Many of the traditional narratives are defunct and others are the same. The Al Qaeda narrative – as packaged by America – one that was always cartoonish and chauvinist –  is all bent out of shape. Al Qaeda, a secret society that was the nemesis of the West, capable of bringing about its ruin. However, looking back Al Qaeda was broadly not this at all. It was, in its own words, ‘Jihad sans frontier’, Jihad without jurisprudence, an inclusive Jihad to establish a Sunni caliphate – Osama’s so-called long war, a corrective in a region propped by corrupt monarchies and post colonial puppet rulers. However, the dominant narrative within ISIS is a sectarian one, of rising Sunni chauvinist power to suppress the heretical Shia by slaughtering as many as possible. It’s a narrative which is proving to be explosive in terms of Iraq’s near neighbours that are already a patch-work of sectarianisms –  – Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Lebanon to name but a few.

As a result of this, we are seeing some massive dynamic shifts and upheavals – instability and its bed-fellow of repression. We might also see the end of ISIS – as it is forced to attempt to build a state because ISIS now has, for the first time, a duty to a vast swathe of people. Will the strain of nation building see it cannibalized by others more capable of this function – the Saddamists and their ilk, for example? Has ISIS been used as shock troops by other, older Sunni power brokers that have underwritten Iraqi society for decades and been awaiting, quietly, for their chance ever since the US hastily declared victory in 2003? The claim to victory in Iraq by Washington has never looked so hollow.

The repercussions on the Syrian stalemate will be fascinating and horrendous, too, and not easy for an uncreative, inflexible Obama to navigate around. Does he return to the old mantra of good rebels and bad rebels in Syria and try to arm the former, while denying the latter – which plainly cannot work given that ISIS liberated an army’s worth of American weapons from bases abandoned by the Iraqi army. And there is the issue of identification: do the good anti-Assad rebels wear lapel badges that say as much in a conflict where there is organized crime as much as anything else, seems to run the night. Or, de-facto, is America once against Assad’s de facto – friend, and by default an ally of Hezbollah and Tehran? They’ll have to tell this story carefully on J Street and in Jerusalem.

Within a short space of time, not only has the US lost influence, and strategic partners in the region – through vacillating, flip-flopping, and forging unjust wars with enemies who were not – but it has, much more importantly, lost its moral authority. Down with the military in Egypt and up with the velvet revolutions and democracy. Out with the elected Muslim Brotherhood, and in with the tyrannical Egyptian military, that jails journalists, and massacres its Islamic opposition. Up with Maliki and a government of all people in Iraq that discriminated against most Sunnis that will now take their bloody revenge, just like the Pashtuns will in Afghanistan, where US influence has receded to Kabul-garden-city.



Pritha Kejriwal is the founder and editor of Kindle Magazine. Under her leadership the magazine has established itself as one of the leading torch-bearers of alternative journalism in the country, having won several awards, including the United Nations supported Laadli Award for gender sensitivity and the Aasra Award for excellence in media. She is also a poet, whose works have been published in various national and international journals. She is currently working on two collections of poetry, soon to be published.

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