In a wide-ranging interview with IBNS Consulting Editor Ramananda Sengupta, Dr Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, who holds a PhD in Intelligence Studies from the University of Leicester, looks at Pakistan’s deep state, the implications for India post the Taliban’s return to Kabul, and why China is blocking the UN certification of known Pakistani terrorists. Excerpts:
When we refer to the Pakistani deep state, are we talking mainly about GHQ Rawalpindi and the ISI, or are there other actors involved?
The term deep state finds its origins from Turkey, which implies either a ‘state within a state’ or a ‘state above a state’. It generally comprises networks of power that operate independently of the official political leadership. In most countries, the theory of a deep state criss-crosses narratives that are sometimes factual, but in most cases conspiratorial. In Pakistan, it is long known, at least to South Asian observers, that the GHQ Rawalpindi, along with the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, largely constitutes the Pakistani deep state. This is because the elected governments in Islamabad have by and large been denied policymaking autonomy in matters of foreign policy, national security, and to an extent, economic policies too.
However, what is lacking in terms of developing a holistic understanding of the Pakistani deep state is the perception that it is only the military and the ISI, with some connections with terror groups, that constitutes the deep state. This is wrong. It is a network that encompasses the military, Islamist political parties and militant groups, an abetting judiciary, criminal syndicates, and also complicit intellectuals.
Since Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion, the nexus between the ISI, terror groups, and criminal syndicates has been fairly well recorded. However, less attention has been paid to the complicity of the judiciary and intellectuals (both at home and abroad) to fulfil the agenda of the deep state. The latter, especially, has played a critical role in pushing forward the deep state’s narrative in Western academia and think tanks, almost at the expense of Western taxpayers.
How would you classify the relationship between the deep state in Pakistan and the Taliban government in Afghanistan?
The relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is built on the twin logic of providing Pakistan a strategic depth against India as well as positioning Pakistan as an economic corridor linking Central Asia and China. In order to achieve this, it was the Pakistani deep state’s calculation that a Taliban led government would be favourable – also given the fact that the Taliban government is seeded with a few members from the Haqqani network that is controlled by the ISI.
However, things haven’t been a smooth sail for Pakistan. The Taliban government has been assertive on matters of sovereignty, released hundreds of cadres of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), refused to sanction the road infrastructure project proposed by Pakistan across the Wakhan Corridor to gain access to Central Asia, and so on.
The question of TTP is particularly contentious. Despite the efforts made by Afghanistan’s Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also happens to be the ISI’s asset, to broker peace between the TTP and GHQ, matters haven’t improved. There have been reports of Pakistani air strikes carried out across the Afghan borders causing significant civilian casualties and leading to heated exchanges between the two countries. Therefore, much to the deep state’s chagrin, their hopes of a favourable ally in the Taliban might actually be less rewarding.
Post the Taliban takeover, does Pakistan really have the ‘strategic depth’ it seeks in Afghanistan and /or the plausible deniability it seeks when it comes to the export of terror? How many of the Kashmir focused outfits (Jaish, LeT, etc) have a presence in Afghanistan?
This is one area where the relationship between the Pakistani deep state and Afghan Taliban has positively paid off. There is no question of plausible deniability here. The whole world is aware of Pakistan’s relationship with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. In May, it was the report of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that highlighted the expansion of 11 LeT and JeM camps since the Taliban took over. So, this is not simply an Indian allegation. Of the eight JeM training camps that are located on the bordering provinces of Afghanistan and Pakistan, three are under the direct control of Taliban. Thus, the relationship between these groups and the Taliban goes two ways. There is a sharing of finances, training expertise, and ideological motivation.
Should Indian politicians be sensitised about making public assertions about issues like ‘Akhand Bharat,’ which strengthens the Pakistani deep state’s assertion that the only thing that can protect Pakistan from being overrun by India is a powerful military?
There are two important points here. Firstly, the Pakistani military narrative that India wishes to undo partition has existed for far too long – predating the arrival of the Hindu right-wing to power (1998 and 2014). S0, this perception that the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’ is what threatens the existence of Pakistan is simply ludicrous. Secondly, on several occasions, members of the ruling BJP and the RSS have made it clear that reunification of the subcontinent is not a project that they are pursuing with any seriousness. In fact, there is also a vocal constituency within the Hindu right that is vehemently opposed to the idea of bringing back the Muslim majority Pakistan into the Indian fold. So, there is no concrete evidence to say either that ‘Akhand Bharat’ is a real aspiration for Indians or that it should cement the Pakistani deep state’s position as the real protectors of Pakistan. That said, Indian political discourses have been a real challenge to India’s national security.
Our politicians do need to be sensitised about using the right language and narratives in public discourses. However, having observed Indian counterterrorism policies for a few years now, I feel that this is a pipe dream. For over two decades, when India was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamists in cahoots with the ISI, what really challenged the Indian intelligence and security forces was the lack of political consensus.
Bigoted and divisive narratives aimed at building vote banks had a daunting effect on the morale and capabilities of our agencies, which gave an upper hand to criminals and terrorists. Similarly, even today, political discourses are geared less towards solving national security issues, and more towards buying votes and winning primetime television debates.
What does China gain by blocking the designation of certified scum like the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Abdul Rehman Makki and Jaish leader Abdul Rauf Azhar as terrorists by the UNSC?
It is just straight forward geopolitics. China has always encouraged Pak-sponsored terrorism in India since it is a low-cost venture to keep India limited to the South Asian region. Now, given China’s antagonism with both the US and India, which it sees as a US ally, it is unsurprising that a Washington-New Delhi sponsored resolution at the UNSC would be stalled by Beijing. In addition, there have also been reports that Chinese infrastructure and workers in Pakistan are under the protection of the deep state’s assets such as the Jaish from attacks by other terror groups. So, there are more reasons than one for China to protect these terrorist figures.
Apart from constantly drawing international attention to Pakistani perfidy, what can India do to check the antics of the Pakistani deep state?
There is very little India can achieve by way of trying to expose Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism. Our diplomats have exhausted all their strengths and ensured that Pakistan is completely exposed of its perfidy. However, the logic behind India’s efforts at exposing Pakistan is driven by a sense of morality and adherence to global norms, which nations tend to only use as political rhetoric. In reality, what matters is national interests.
There are several examples one can cite to show how nations have prioritised their own national interests over the lives of other citizens. We can revisit the cases of the Americans negotiating with Hassan Salameh – a terrorist wanted by Israel, or the French negotiating with Imad Mugniyeh – then Hezbollah commander wanted by the Americans and Israelis.
These are western countries with significant cultural, historic and political ties with one another that are ‘playing dirty games’ with each other. Now, imagine what would be the state of a civilisational state like India that has no natural friends anywhere in the world! We might get an odd intelligence input from the Americans, but overall it can be observed that counterterrorism is an area of cooperation for the Americans and Pakistanis rather than an area of confrontation.
For example, Washington threatens Pakistan with releasing Headley’s confessions to buy Islamabad’s good behaviour while Pakistan hands over a few terrorists, latest (probably) being the tip-off regarding the whereabouts of former al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, in exchange for improvement in diplomatic ties. Therefore, whatever exposure ensues by way of Indian diplomatic efforts is always bound to have limited impact.
This is why overt actions such as exposing Pakistan must be made a part of a larger covert action programme. These must include eliminating key terrorist targets, supporting groups opposed to the Pakistani military, maintaining a network of influential voices to counter the fake narratives produced by the Paksitani deep state in national and international media and public discourses. Increasingly, counterintelligence agencies in Western countries have woken up to the threat posed by the Pakistani diaspora. Developing liaison arrangements with these organisations can also be helpful.
Does India have a) the capability and b) the political will to take out terrorist leaders or camps on Pakistani soil?
Frankly, depending on who this question is posed to, the answer is likely to be different. Capabilities for the conduct of covert operations aimed at decapitation of terrorist leaders is very time specific – capabilities acquired today might be redundant tomorrow. In addition, there are likely to be other moral questions such as collaterals that need to be taken into consideration. It is for this reason that despite the desperate need to eliminate Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah leader, the Americans had to go through several rounds of planning and rehearsal that lasted for months. Finally, the bomb blast on 12 February 2008, caused limited damages to property and eliminated only Mugniyeh. Similar caution was exercised in the recent killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Therefore, it is not just about capability, it is also about opportunity, and most importantly, the reason for such operations. We must ask ourselves what is the purpose of eliminating a certain target. What are the likely effects on the group’s organisational structure, operational efficacy, likely impact on the overall strategies of the organisation, and so on? Only when these questions are answered correctly should we move on to undertake such missions. Hitherto, India has lacked the political will to undertake such operations, barring tactical cross border operations, with the exception of the Balakot strike. With no national consensus on the utility of covert operations in counterterrorism, the question of capabilities is a moot one.
Can India really check the Pakistani deep state’s operations in India without impacting its own secular and democratic credentials?
In my opinion, India’s democratic and secular credentials have never really been so weak as to warrant severe criticisms. While there may be idealists who complain about flaws in Indian democracy, there are also realists who understand the mammoth task of running a country like India. To the latter, India has performed better than anyone could have expected in the early years of independence. The truth, however, lies somewhere in between. There are several instances to highlight India’s weak law and order mechanisms where victims have been minorities. But there have also been instances where governments have gone overboard in the name of secularism and minority protection, much to the detriment of national security. The recent decision to host the Rohingyas in Delhi or the long practice of granting government identification cards to Bangladeshi illegals are just a few examples.
The point really is that India finds itself in a precarious position – its demographic majority is actually a global minority whereas some of its religious minorities are in fact global majorities. In the age of social media, this equation is bound to present unprecedented challenges. This will certainly provide actors like the Pakistani deep state an opportunity to exploit. Our security agencies must, therefore, brace themselves for the challenges posed by this new reality.
But this must not compel us to focus excessively on ideas of secularism and allow such thoughts to come in the way of our dealing with the Pakistani deep state. India is a complex, multicultural state that is in a search for its identity in a completely new and dynamic environment, amidst technological changes supported by a vocal youth demographic. This will carry its own set of challenges, which at times will bear opportunities for hostile forces to exploit.