The Kabul blast of July 7, which targeted India's embassy and took a heavy toll of human lives, may trigger yet another secret South Asian war.
As noted in these columns (Blasts That Shake South Asia, July 12, 2008), the attack elicited a far-from-routine official Indian reaction. India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan did not stop with blaming Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the blast. He went on to issue an ill-veiled warning: "We should pay them back in their own coin."
The outrageously irresponsible observation has gone almost unnoticed, but a significant indication of what it may signal has been forthcoming. The espionage agency of Pakistan has never enjoyed a saintly image. But it is not as if India's own secret warriors haven't used the coin of terrorism that all too often reveals two sides. And the coin may become their currency again, to go by non-official national security advisers who know the business of blasts.
Before coming to all that, a word about the ISI. It was set up in 1948, just a year after Pakistan's birth. The ISI remained just one of the country's many intelligence agencies until its time arrived with the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The ISI rose to the peak of its power in Pakistan during the military rule of Zia ul-Haq (1977-88), which covered the larger part of the lacerating war (1978-89) with long-term consequences for the region.
The war of the eighties witnessed a dramatic enhancement of ISI covert-action capabilities by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Young men from the ISI went west to the US for training in covert techniques and the CIA loaned cloak-and-dagger experts for assistance to its friends in the killing fields of Pakistan's tribal frontier. The ISI became a conduit for the CIA's financial aid for the Pashtun warlords on the anti-Soviet side and found this a profitable position.
Initially, the ISI was given mainly internal tasks - to snoop on the small, Sindh-based Communist Party and monitor political parties, especially the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After the war, the ISI returned to domestic politics, trying to prevent Benazir Bhutto's re-election as prime minister.
Former BBC correspondent Owen Bennett Jones, in his book, "Pakistan: Eye of the Storm," writes: "A former director-general of the ISI, Lt.-Gen. (Retired) Azad Durrani, has recorded in a Supreme Court affidavit that he was instructed by Zia's successor as chief of army staff, Gen. Aslam Beg, to provide logistic support to disbursement of funds to Benazir Bhutto's opponents.... According to Durrani, the ISI opened cover bank accounts in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Quetta and deposited money into them. The sums were not small. One account in Karachi was credited with over $2 million and smaller amounts were then transferred to other accounts ... "
Jones goes on to say that a sum of $58,000 went to a politician later associated with Pakistan's nuclear bomb, and a fortune of $83,000 went to a fundamentalist party, and so on. We will keep that story for another day, but the point here is that the ISI was always flush with funds for its activities, even when these were extended to operations of much greater importance to the military and the militarists.
Especially important, for evident reasons, were the operations in and against India. The ISI is known to have been involved in the eighties in the separatist movement in the Indian State of Punjab (which was not without local causes and catalysts as well). In fact, in the late sixties, the agency reportedly assisted a London-based Sikh Home Rule Movement, which was to be transformed into the secessionist Khalistan campaign.
The ISI has been even more deeply involved in the insurgency in the India-administered State of Jammu and Kashmir (again with its local causes and catalysts as well). Jones recalls: "On 31 July 1988, Srinagar (capital of Jammu and Kashmir) rocked to a series of explosions. They were claimed by the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) ... The JKLF, it was true, had laid the bombs but the materials had been provided by the Pakistani state, more precisely the ISI."
He adds: "In 1987, the ISI and the JKLF had, with General Zia's approval, struck a deal. The JKLF agreed to recruit would-be militants in India-held Kashmir, bring them across the Line of Control and deliver them to ISI trainers. The ISI, in turn, agreed to provide the JKLF fighters with weapons and military instruction. The young men were then sent back across the line so that they could mount attacks."
The ISI has been blamed for several bomb blasts in other parts of India as well, though New Delhi has not always shared evidence with the nation. The most notable instance, perhaps, was the series of 13 blasts in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on March 12, 1993, that took a toll of over 300 lives. The other major examples include the Mumbai serial train blasts of July 11, 2006, and the Jaipur explosions of May 13, 2008.
The Indian counterpart of the ISI, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), may figure less in the Western media, but is equally infamous in this part of the world. Unlike the Pakistani apparatus, the RAW is only an external intelligence agency, but the similarities between the two on other counts is striking.
Set up in 1968, mainly as the result of a years-long security review following India's military fiasco of 1962 against China, the RAW had the US and the CIA presiding over its birth. Organizationally modeled on the CIA, the RAW has worked closely with the superpower's snoopers, especially on subjects of common interest such as China and Pakistan-related nuclear issues.
Officially, the RAW functions on an annual budget of around $150 million, but all one knows really is that funds have posed it no problem. Constitutionally a "wing" of the Cabinet Secretariat, it suffers from no agency-like accountability to India's parliament, and its activities lie outside the ambit of the country's recently acquired Right to Information Act.
In public pronouncements, the RAW claims to be particularly proud of its role in the creation of Bangladesh after an India-Pakistan war. Its former officials and fervent admirers, however, shower more fulsome praise on its past exploits in Pakistan. Many of them believe that its return to the days of anti-Pakistan blasts, again in the eighties, as not just something to be devoutly desired. To them, it is the demand of the hour.
Narayanan, obviously, had the RAW in mind, when he talked of paying back the ISI in its own coin. What even a hawk like Narayanan could not spell out has found explicit expression subsequently.
An op-ed article in a respected national daily with a particular reputation for sobriety (Fighting Pakistan's "informal war," July 15, The Hindu), speaking for the RAW and "advocates of retaliation," elaborates on Narayanan's enigmatic statement. It says: "If a Pakistan-based terrorist group carries out strikes against civilians in Mumbai, the argument (of the Narayanans of India) goes, India must be able to assassinate its leaders and their financiers."
The crusaders for a covert offensive or counteroffensive, quoted in the article, derive confidence from a specific past operation aimed at striking dread in the enemy camp. "In the mid-1980s," it is recalled, "the RAW unleashed two covert groups, CIT-X and CIT-J (Covert Intelligence Teams given alphabetical identities), the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed at Khalistani groups. A low-grade but steady campaign of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore, followed." The blast series of the eighties included the Bohri Bazaar tragedy in Karachi, still etched in the memory of a large number of survivors. Both these groups are said to have used the services of cross-border traffickers to ferry weapons and funds.
The series came in for special praise in 2002 from former RAW official B. Raman, who said: "The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI's interference in Punjab by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known and understood." The "advocates of retaliation" are quoting him repeatedly now.
This is not the first time the demand for revival of the days of "retaliation" through civilian-targeting detonations has been raised. Nostalgia for the RAW's heroic age was voiced even during the period of Pervez Musharraf as a military ruler. Some blasts, it was suggested then, would give a fitting answer to his frequent charge of India's involvement in Balochistan combined with a continuation of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. The threat of blasts, meanwhile, sounds tame, compared to crueler punishment envisaged in the same article for Pakistan. It says: "Pakistan has long feared a nightmarish future where a hostile India dams its water resources in Jammu and Kashmir and throws its weight behind irredentist forces. Each terror bombing against Indians, paradoxically, is bringing that nightmare one step closer to realization."
The waters can be a matter of life and death for Pakistan. Under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, India has rights over the waters of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas rivers, while Pakistan has rights over the waters of the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum. All the rivers flow from India to Pakistan.
In May 2005, the World Bank appointed a neutral arbitrator in the dispute after Pakistan made a demand for an adjudicator. The next month, Pakistan told India to suspend work on a dam on the Chenab. On December 6, 2006, Pakistan put on record its fears that the dam could be used to choke off water supplies at times of crisis. The issue is supposed to be under discussion as part of the India-Pakistan peace process.
The "advocates of retaliation" are also arguing for efforts to set up a common front with Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the Riyasat-e-Amniyat-Milli (RAM). The CIA, as they see it, cannot but side with such a front.
If they have their way, South Asia may soon witness a stepped-up secret war, which will spell more blasts and deaths in bazaars and metros. They should not be allowed to have their way.