UPDATE: Pakistan’s drift toward extremist control has accelerated in recent days, raising anxiety among its neighbours, and drawing words of alarm from Washington. The government in Islamabad is “basically abdicating to the Taliban,” Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, said during an appearance before a congressional committee. Clinton was referring to a series of events in the country suggesting the Islamist radicals are operating with impunity through ever greater tracts of Pakistan’s northern territories. Of particular concern is an agreement authorized by President Asif Ali Zardari last week allowing the Taliban to impose sharia law in the Swat Valley, located just 140 km west of the capital. The parties reached the deal after the Pakistani military tried and failed to root Taliban fighters out of the area.
The situation in the Swat Valley underlines the gravity of the situation—for the region and the rest of the international community. In the eight months since its former military dictator Pervez Musharraf gave way to a democratically elected government, Pakistan has gone from grudging partner to the NATO mission in Afghanistan to potential victim of the Islamist radicals in its own right. Its weakness was made plain this week when Taliban forces occupied a district located 100 km from the capital, before withdrawing voluntarily. The stakes behind these developments could not be higher: the Taliban now represent what Clinton called an “existential threat” to a government that—she hardly needed to mention—possesses nuclear capability. Atomic weapons in the hands of the Taliban is a worst-case scenario for India, and by extension, its western allies. This week, it seems dangerously close to coming true.
Few things are more disturbing than a spy giving you the once over. It’s that look in his eyes that makes you feel slightly less than human—more like a locked box he’s carefully assessing with the intent of cracking open—and the cold, cruel precision of it all. This particular spy, the one who enters a house in a nondescript part of central Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Taliban-plagued North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, really looks nothing like a spy. But that’s the thing about spooks: a good one never fits the bill, which is why James Bond would make such a terrible spy in the real world. “The trick is to disappear,” says the portly middle-aged man (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call him Farouk), a mid-level agent in Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “Whether you’re walking around in a market, or undercover inside a militant group, you have to look like everyone else. Otherwise you’re a dead man.”
In Pakistan, spies take their jobs very seriously, but that’s the nature of the espionage business in these unruly parts. It is a game of life and death, much like it was in the old days of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. That era is long gone, but another cold war, between archrivals India and Pakistan, rages on, with potentially dangerous consequences to the world that have been largely ignored. Like the U.S. and the Soviets, both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed nations; one is secular and the other religious, an echo of the capitalist-Communist divide that was at the heart of the Cold War. But while the U.S. and the Soviets never went to war, Pakistan and India have fought three, and very nearly a fourth.
Shortly after that standoff in 1999, Pakistan’s dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf admitted that he would not hesitate to use the nuclear arsenal at his disposal if Pakistan’s defeat was imminent. Since then, the potential for chaos has grown as parts of Pakistan have steadily devolved into anarchy, while the country’s economy has been reduced to a beggar’s state. India, meanwhile, has rocketed to near developed-world status. “Pakistan defines itself in opposition to India,” says John Pike, founder of globalsecurity.org, a leading online source for security and intelligence information and a long-time observer of the Pakistani and Indian intelligence communities, “and over time India’s advantages just keep getting greater, so Pakistan is playing a losing hand.”
Against that backdrop, Pakistani intelligence agents are convinced that Indian spies are hard at work to destabilize their country. “There are tens of thousands of RAW agents in Pakistan,” claims Farouk, referring to the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s spy service. “But you’ll never see them. The guys that get caught are two or three steps removed from the agency men. They don’t even know who the agency men are. That’s the way things are done.”
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, Pakistani officials take a somewhat more measured and diplomatic approach—but still maintain that the threat is real. “We do see foreign hands at work in Pakistan,” says Abdul Basit, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, using the accepted euphemism for Indian intelligence. “We have been raising the issue with our friends in Washington. We do have information regarding these activities, but such things are not shared publicly. Whatever is shared is shared through the proper channels.” Basit concedes that a “cold war mentality” is doing damage to Indo-Pakistani relations, but predictably deflects the blame onto India, saying that it’s the Indians who want to “ratchet up” the tensions on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan to take attention away from Kashmir.
That issue, of course, lies at the heart of Indo-Pakistani animosity. Since Barack Obama took over the U.S. presidency on Jan. 20, Pakistan has been hoping that the Kashmir question would get the attention it feels it deserves. Indeed, in the early days of the Obama administration, word was that the U.S. would aggressively seek a resolution to the six-decades-long quarrel over the disputed territory. In recent weeks, however, under pressure from New Delhi, U.S. administration officials have back-pedalled. During an April 8 meeting with Indian officials, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to the region, said that the Americans would not involve themselves in any Indo-Pakistani disputes.
The change of heart only fuels speculation in Pakistan that India has some pull in shaping U.S. policy in Pakistan and also Afghanistan, where New Delhi is friendly with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. “Why is the U.S. listening to India more in Afghanistan?” says Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistani army. “Frequent events do suggest a rise in foreign activities inside both [Pakistan and Afghanistan]. The ISI is working to counter these activities, but the U.S. can do more to remove those irritants by listening more to us.” Abbas, like others in Pakistani political and military circles, is worried by Washington’s growing ties with India and the visits over the past two months to New Delhi by officials from the CIA and FBI, among others, to discuss Afghan and Pakistani policy.
Ultimately, according to Farouk and others, India’s endgame is nothing less than the breakup of Pakistan. And the RAW is no novice in that area. In the 1960s, it was actively involved in supporting separatists in Bangladesh, at the time East Pakistan. The eventual victory of Bangladeshi nationalism in 1971 was in large part credited to the support the RAW gave the secessionists. Pakistanis haven’t forgotten that traumatic loss of territory. Similarly, the Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka, now on the verge of defeat after a bloody and controversial all-out offensive by the Sri Lankan army, were ostensibly supported by Indian intelligence in the 1970s. (When the group overstepped its bounds and began spreading its agenda to the Tamil-majority south of India, the RAW withdrew its support.)
Pakistanis claim India is now back to its old tricks. Indian consulates scattered in Afghanistan, two near the Pakistani-Afghan border, all hastily set up within a year of the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, fan the flames of Pakistani suspicion. “Why does India need a consulate in Kandahar?” demands Farouk, referring to the capital of Afghanistan’s south, where Canadian troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban. That region borders Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where a violent separatist movement has been raging for years, supported, Pakistanis claim, by India. “We’ve found Baluch separatists with Indian-made arms; we’ve traced their funding back to a black hole situated at the Indian consulate,” Farouk adds.
Some analysts see a broader, international agenda to break Pakistan into smaller, more manageable statelets. Michel Chossudovsky, a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa and director of the Centre for Research on Globalization, suggests that strategic and economic agendas guide the CIA in its Pakistan policy. In a December 2007 article, he pointed out that as recently as 2005, a report published jointly by the U.S. National Intelligence Council and the CIA predicted the dissolution of Pakistan by 2015. “The U.S. course consists in fomenting social, ethnic and factional divisions and political fragmentation,” he writes, “including the territorial breakup of Pakistan.”
In Baluchistan, the issue is largely political and economic: the region’s massive gas and oil reserves are of strategic interest to the U.S. and India. A gas pipeline slated to be built from Iran to India, two countries that already enjoy close ties, would run through Baluchistan. The Baluch separatist movement, which is also active in Iran, offers an ideal proxy for both the U.S. and India to ensure their interests are met, Chossudovsky argues. “In the current geopolitical context,” he says, “the separatist movement is in the process of being hijacked by foreign powers.”
But some experts doubt that the RAW’s ultimate goal is Pakistan’s disintegration. “I can understand the anxiety of some Pakistanis that their country might fragment into a handful of states,” says Pike, the globalsecurity.org founder. “But the consequences would be like herding kittens.” Instead, RAW’s ultimate goal, Pike argues, is to keep Pakistan weak.
Questions remain as to whether the RAW, on its own, is really capable of carrying out any serious covert operations. The department within the organization dedicated to subversive activities was shut down in 1997, which reportedly ended direct covert operations inside Pakistan, although not necessarily intelligence-gathering. Even those activities, however, have come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2007, weeks before Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the RAW’s chief, Ashok Chaturvedi, advised the Indian prime minister that Pakistan was stable and not in any way on the brink of martial law. He was spectacularly wrong.
But since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which India blames on militants based in Pakistan and supported by the ISI, pressure has been mounting on Indian intelligence to step up covert activities inside Pakistan. Troubled by the failure of the county’s security services to predict the attack, B. Raman, a former RAW insider, wrote recently on his blog: “At this critical time in the nation’s history, RAW has no covert action specialists at the top of its pyramid. Get a suitable officer from the Intelligence Bureau or the Army. If necessary, make him the head of the organization.” Going one step further, another former RAW insider, Vikram Sood, wrote in a January 2009 article in India’s Businessworld magazine that covert war is India’s best defence against terrorism emanating from Pakistan. “Covert action can be of various kinds,” he pointed out. “One is the paramilitary option, which is what the Pakistanis have been using against us. The second is the psychological war option, which is a very potent and unseen force.”
Part of that strategy may be keeping the idea of fragmentation alive, if not directly working toward it. Like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, it involves not only the seedy underworld of intelligence and counter-intelligence, but also agents provocoteurs and media propaganda. Playing on the psychology of the people, creating a threat that may or may not be real, is essential to winning this kind of war. During the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, it was the “Red” menace. In Pakistan the enemy is saffron.
And after 60 years of facing this enemy, Pakistanis don’t need much encouragement. As militant attacks spread into the country’s heartland, average people are wracked with doubts and questions. Who could have done it, they ask of violent attacks on targets that appear to have no relation to a militant Islamic agenda. Faced with the bombing of a mosque during Friday prayers, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, they fall back on that most trusted of adversaries: India. How it will all end? Looking back on history, Basit, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, gives a chilling answer: “How did the U.S.-Soviet Cold War end?” he asks. “One country collapsed.”