Sunday 27 December 2020

PLA ally GHQ Rawalpindi's terror toolkit makes deadly progress ( Sunday Guardian)

A cauldron is brewing in parts of Pakistan, Taliban-controlled segments of Afghanistan, radical enclaves in Libya and Syria. This is the intensified and covert training by “retired” or “on leave” officers of the Pakistan Army, who are training youths in the kind of warfare that is carried out by extremist fighters across the world. While India is the primary (some would say, the only) target for GHQ Rawalpindi, some in other countries active in the campaign to spread Wahhabi extremism have other priorities. Theirs are Europe and the United States. The objective is to train and infiltrate (or send back) fighters to these locations as would prepare themselves for strikes either when ordered to do so by the higher commands of extremist groups or when an opportunity arises to carry out a successful strike. The risk in imparting such radicalization and training is that more than a few of those who get through the process may no longer be amenable to direction even from the trainers or their associates, and may veer off into directions that cause severe consequences. Pakistan itself is witnessing such a situation, with several groups making their own country the principal target. GHQ (Rawalpindi) seeking to pin the blame for their own folly on India is an excuse that few find plausible.

What is becoming a worrying development is the Nelson’s Eye that the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has turned towards the asymmetric warfare activities of GHQ Rawalpindi, its “iron brother”. Open support has been given to internationally identified terrorists by the Chinese delegation in the UN Security Council, stepping back only when such backing isolated the PRC within the UNSC. That GHQ(R) is fully aware and indeed complicit in the activities of trainers and handlers of extremist fighter groups in multiple theatres has now become evident even to those inclined to accept such arguments as that A.Q. Khan was a Lone Wolf rather than the public face of a systems-operated nuclear smuggling cabal. Now the spotlight has moved to the PLA, in the light of its increasing involvement even in tactical moves by GHQ(R) against common targets, principally India, but also operations involving both diplomats as well as agents of influence in countries such as the US. In this country, the diplomatic footprint of Pakistan is better tolerated than that of the PRC since the intensification of Cold War 2.0 in 2017. How much does the CMC know about the operations of the terror associates nurtured by elements in the Pakistan Army? What is the extent of logistical and other support given to such covert and irregular warfare activities by the PLA, which has long been aware of the nature of the terror training, facilitation and operations conducted by GHQ(Rawalpindi) in Afghanistan and India, and in recent times, Sri Lanka and Nepal? Assisting the conventional forces of Pakistan is a less than friendly action in a context where India has, from the foundation of that country in 1947, been the primary target of hostile activities. Facilitation of such activities of GHQ(R) by the PLA would cross a red line in terms of the Sino-Indian relationship. On an even broader scale, any knowledge and tacit acceptance of the training operations undertaken by retired and “on leave” elements of the Pakistan Army in locations other than in South Asia would pose a security challenge to countries in the EU as also the US, given that these are the principal focus of attention of several such groups. A situation is developing in which the diplomatic and other costs of the complete backing given by the PLA to GHQ(R) may become apparent even to those in the CCP who for long have looked away from the reality of the nature of the Pakistan military. In the pursuit of tactical gains, strategic objectives may get sacrificed by Beijing’s policy of backing for the entire gamut of operations of the military in Pakistan and the facilitation of such operations. The blame would fall on both the trainers as well as those who knew about such activities but did nothing to stop them, and indeed in several instances facilitated them. Such blame would fall even in the case of terror attacks outside of those directed by the Pakistan trainers and their principals. As mentioned, in several of the theatres where such training is taking place, it is not India that is the eventual target, but the EU and the US.


Quarters hostile to US interests may wish to teach the Biden administration a lesson and may turn to terror groups as a low cost, deniable option to secure such an outcome. Groups that are being trained and equipped on the pretext of fighting “good” wars could be secretly mobilised to cause a series of terror strikes within the US or on US targets overseas that would bring into disrepute the ability of the White House to control a monster that had for several years been in check. Backing the Haqqani network is an example of such policies, as this network has caused the killing and maiming of US soldiers on a substantial scale. Deniability is becoming difficult. When the A.Q. Khan network was discovered, it was apparently accepted in several chancelleries that the scientist was a solo operator running a vast network of nuclear smuggling and espionage without the backing and indeed the knowledge of GHQ Rawalpindi. In contrast, should the main players be identified in the ongoing effort to recruit and train clusters of extremist fighters to operate in locations such as SE Asia, India and the US, it will be difficult to argue that they operated without the knowledge of those in charge of a subcontinental military that has made little secret of its reliance on extremist terror as an acceptable tactic of war. Or the military partner that has emerged as its key provider of weapons and support across different levels and areas of operation, the PLA. The problem that has now to be confronted so far as the major democracies are concerned is that GHQ Rawalpindi has an all-weather (all-tactic) partnership with a powerful military, the PLA, that is itself allied to the armed forces of the Russian Federation. The vast country led by President V.V. Putin remains among the top military powers of the world. Will the use of terror strikes as a tactic continue to be accepted as kosher, or will such an inhumane option be rejected by the partners of GHQ Rawalpindi? That retired or “on leave” officials cannot but leave a trail sufficient for monitoring by several agencies is as obvious as the fact that A.Q. Khan was only the face of a network that was operating in connivance with the military establishment of Pakistan. The ever closer strategic and tactical relationship between the PLA and GHQ Rawalpindi in the context of Cold War 2.0 has yet to have several of its dimensions explored by the countries affected. This is a lapse that may have consequences as severe during the period in the White House of Joseph R. Biden Jr as it was early into the George W. Bush administration. The use of asymmetric warfare to weaken a foe openly or covertly is not a skill that can be used exclusively in operations against India. Extremist fighters being trained across parts of Asia and North Africa could perform the task of teaching a painful lesson and damaging the image and credibility of an incoming administration that—to the surprise of those who believe Joe Biden to be a weak leader—may take vigorous steps to ensure that US primacy is not surrendered in the coming period to a challenger much stronger than was the Soviet Union in its prime, the People’s Republic of China. The extent of contact at different levels between the PLA and GHQ Rawalpindi, especially given the track record of the latter, needs more attention, especially if a policy of active defence rather than the passive retreat seen during the Clinton and at least six of the Obama years gets carried out by the Pentagon against threats to US and allied interests.


The Chinese Communist Party leadership core has long been aware that at some stage in the future, there will almost certainly be kinetic contact between the PLA and the US military. This may escalate to a scale significant enough to alter the geopolitical destiny of the losing nation. During the 1930s, it was clear to Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary J.V. Stalin that war with Germany was inevitable. What he sought to do was to postpone it until the then NSDAP-ruled state became weakened by wars in its west, while the USSR grew in military strength. Production of weapons and munitions multiplied significantly, rising rather than falling after the non-aggression pact between the two countries was signed on 23 August 1939 by the foreign ministers of both sides. The treaty specified a period of ten years during which neither side would wage war against the other, a time limit that exposed the flimsy underpinning of the pact. Earlier, Hitler had bowled a googly to Stalin, planting a fake dossier that purported to show that the higher echelons of the Red Army were infested with agents of the Nazi regime. Stalin fell for the trap and executed more than 30,000 officers, including 86 generals. The best military minds in the country were killed from 1936 onwards not by the German armed forces but by the government to which the soldiers who were executed had been loyal. Fake dossiers manufactured within the Abwehr (German military secret service) continued to be sent to Stalin pinpointing army officers that the Wehrmacht (German army) knew were fluent in tactics and courageous in spirit. Stalin killed them until the close of 1942, by which time Alan Turing broke the German code machines so that every secret intercept between German forces was accessible to the British scientists at Bletchley Park. Communist sympathisers within the pool of those with access to the intercepts were able to convey almost as much of them as was provided by the British side to the US. The flow of information conveyed through official channels by London to Moscow was far below what was sent to Washington, but Stalin made up most of the gap through his spies. Only then did the Soviet dictator understand how he had been duped into decapitating his own military. From then onwards, he became more respectful of the generals, a list that included marshals of the calibre of Rokossovsky, Zhukov and Chuikov, who used the information given to them by the code-breakers at Bletchley to escape German traps and design more of their own such that the tide of war turned by the initial months of 1943. Fast forward to the present, where in countries regarded as hostile or potentially hostile by China and its ally the Russian Federation, fake dossiers have been sought to be planted about those in policymaking circles that the Sino-Russian alliance would like to get out of the way. In these dossiers, such individuals are presented as dupes or agents of the alliance rather than what they are in reality, its deadly foes. In countries where counter-espionage processes are weak or where corruption is rife even within sections of the intelligence community, such operations have met with some success, although far from the scale witnessed in the Soviet Union that began in 1936 and tapered off only in 1942, after the secrets of Enigma were revealed to the Kremlin and efforts at spreading disinformation by the German side became largely ineffective.

The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, and has no ambition of replacing the US as the primary power of the world in the manner that the USSR had until the declining years of CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. These began in 1975. From then onwards, the USSR played defense rather than offense with the US-led alliance, until even that was replaced by retreat by Mikhail Gorbachev in his effort to make the Soviet Union a hybrid mix of communism and social democracy with assistance expected from the very powers committed to its destruction, the major members of NATO. The adoption of the Gandhian creed of ahimsa by Gorbachev led to the speedy dissolution of the Soviet bloc and soon afterwards, that of the USSR itself. Thereafter, US President Bill Clinton sought to convert Russia into a third class power, working to drain it of scientific and technological capability, while Germany and France ensured that Russia would never have the gate to the European federal experiment opened to it, lest Moscow overshadow Berlin and Paris by its size and potential, not to mention the immense latent capability of the Russian people. Once Vladimir Putin ensured a lengthy rather than a truncated stint in power, efforts by major NATO powers at boxing in Russia expanded in scope, with the consequence that an alliance with Beijing was the only option available to Moscow for its continued salience as a Great Power. Aware that it was only a matter of time before tensions with the US intensified as a consequence of the expansion of PRC capability and influence, by 2004 the Russia-PRC border was settled on terms favourable to Moscow, a factor that has contributed to the strengthening of the alliance between the former superpower and the present superpower. Had the PRC leadership not agreed to the concessions made to secure the agreement, the Sino-Russian alliance would not have been the factor that it now is. At least so long as President Putin and General Secretary Xi are in charge of their respective countries, the Sino-Russian alliance will endure. Indeed, it may reach a level such that even a leadership change may have little effect on this significant partnership that challenges the primacy of the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific and later the Atlantic. This is a fact not clear to more than a few policymakers in Delhi’s Lutyens Zone, as also to their counterparts in the Washington Beltway. The Biden team in particular has several elements wedded to a view of the world that became obsolete before the close of the previous century.


The problem facing India in the context of its relationship with Russia is the reality of GHQ Rawalpindi being an apparently indispensable accompaniment to many activities involving the PLA. Although the fact was not apparent at the time, the effort under Leonid Brezhnev to make Afghanistan a country firmly tethered to the Soviet bloc ultimately resulted in much grief to the USSR. Such a disaster did not begin with the invasion and attempted occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 but more than a decade earlier, with varying degrees of support being provided by the Kremlin to selected Afghan leaders in an effort to make that country a “reliable” partner. In much the same way, the constantly expanding linkages between Pakistan and the PRC are almost certainly going to entail a substantial cost to Beijing, and not just in terms of the money spent. As long as the Pakistan military together with an alternating handful of prominent families ran the governance structure in that inherently unstable country, the involvement of Beijing in the internal workings of its all weather and iron friend could be kept within safe limits. As the power of the military fades and opposition to the men in khaki increases, and as a multiplicity of significant players emerge from within the cauldron of policy and politics in Pakistan, the CCP will need to deal with an expanding number of players. Such contact will need to be of a level of involvement as would generate counter-forces, which would in turn necessitate additional effort in ensuring an authority matrix that safeguards the rising level of interests in the country of the world’s other superpower. The US got out of Pakistan in time, although its stint there has done great damage to itself and to other countries, including several friends. Entering a zone of rising geopolitical risk without an exit strategy may in course of time be accepted within the CCP leadership as the mistake it is. Included in the collateral damage caused by the expansion and depth of PRC involvement in Pakistan, much of it caused by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is the relationship of China with India. Since the 3 May intrusions and the 15 June clash at Galwan, the disaggregation between action on the border and commercial linkages between the two most populous countries of the world has ended. The trajectory of such relations will go the same way as the situation on the border, which is unlikely to improve in a situation where the expertise on India (including its military) comes substantially from an entity that focuses entirely on its own interests, GHQ Rawalpindi. In the past, the Pakistani “tail” wagged the US dog, more recently in Afghanistan after 9/11, when reliance on suggestions from the Pakistan Army finally resulted in the kowtow to the Taliban by the White House at Doha not long ago. Had wiser counsel been adopted, that entity would have been as inconsequential a force as the alliance between the US and the Northern Alliance made it in four short months in 2001 that ended with the suicidal concession made by Bush and Cheney at Kunduz in November that enabled both the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda to survive and fight another day when the US-Northern Alliance had the leadership of both groups at their mercy. Although the players are different, this may be compared to Hitler’s decision to call off Heinz Guderian, when the general and his tanks closed in on Dunkirk, thereby enabling the British military to survive the fiasco in France rather than become PoWs and to the network of alliances.


The CCP has no illusions about the reality of the PRC being in a conflict with the US over global primacy, although it would prefer that this remain non-kinetic. A thousand cuts (the ultimate Imperial Chinese punishment) on that country from a miscellany of forces could weaken at least the resolve of Washington to challenge Beijing much more assertively than was the case during the Obama administration in the South China sea, where Beijing got what it wanted and the US got some high-octane optics of ships plying the waters but nothing more. In substance, this is what has been taking place even during the “assertive” term in office of Donald J. Trump. The militarisation of the South China Sea proceeds without any let-up, and the effort by the PRC is to get ASEAN to agree to a Code of Conduct that would legitimize its sway over the waters. Apart from Taiwan, the Himalayan massif is another strategic target of the PLA, and it remains to be seen whether the CCP leadership core will understand the damage done to PRC interests by permitting the PLA to so unreservedly sign on to GHQ Rawalpindi’s action plan against India. It had been thought in Beijing that Moscow would succeed in keeping Delhi apart from Washington in a military sense, and the S-400 purchase by the Government of India (with its consequences for the partnership with the US) has helped keep that expectation of distance between Delhi and Washington alive. What is tilting the balance in favour of the US-India military alliance that the Sino-Russian alliance seeks to abort is the way in which the PLA has bought into GHQ Rawalpindi’s playbook and is acting as a force multiplier for the latter in such plans. This is certainly the case with India. Will it be the case with the US as well? Beijing has established partnerships with Venezuela, Iran, Turkey and powers other than Pakistan, each of which has the capability of causing damage to US and allied interests. Some of the trainers from Pakistan are active in camps that have been established by Turkey’s policy of assisting a particular side in the Libyan tribal war and in Syria, and both countries worked closely together in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The humiliation of an Orthodox Christian country by an ally of Turkey backed by Pakistan had a significant impact on the credibility of Moscow as a security partner. It is clear that it was the unseen hand of its superpower ally that prevented Moscow from giving assistance to Yerevan in ways and on the scale that would be needed to push back the forces entering Nagorno-Karabakh. The manner in which Russia accepted the counsel to remain practically uninvolved in a conflict that was going disastrously for a treaty partner such as Armenia shows the limits to which assistance can be expected from Moscow in the event of another kinetic faceoff between the Indian military and the various wings of the PLA. Rather than stop buying oil from Iran and going forward with the purchase of S-400 systems, the oil should have been bought and the Russian system abandoned in a signal to Washington that India has the potential to be a reliable partner. It needs to be remembered that the lobbies of those allied against the US and its partners are on overdrive in Washington blackening the image of India so that unwary policymakers after the Biden takeover may balk at continuing with the Obama-Trump policy of close ties with India especially in security and defence. The less than accurate comments made on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm laws by influential US lawmakers may be an early warning of the information and outreach battles to come that will be needed to establish a strong foundation for a US-India partnership during the Biden administration that continues with the policies of his three immediate predecessors.


A policy of looking the other way at some of the toxic tactics of GHQ Rawalpindi would go against longer term PRC interests, but at present, “all the way with GHQ Rawalpindi” seems to be the line taken by the Central Military Commission of the PRC. The CPEC in particular is becoming a tar baby that is locking Beijing in an embrace with GHQ Rawalpindi that could be as fateful to the PRC as the move into Afghanistan was for the USSR. The consequences of such a policy are becoming apparent. The Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan has acted against elements from the PRC who are indulging in copycat actions in that country similar to those conducted by GHQ Rawalpindi and its proxies. Those apprehended have assisted groups that have a record of working not just against India but against US forces in Afghanistan. This is a disquieting development that brings into focus the extent to which the PLA has bought into the bag of tactics long in use by GHQ Rawalpindi. A bag that has in its sights targets other than India, which is why there needs to be attention paid into efforts at reviving extremist violence through increasing the number of recruits to camps created for the purpose. Errors made in Afghanistan and elsewhere by successive US administrations facilitated 9/11. Policy missteps that have taken place since may cause a second such security disaster not just in India but in the EU and the US. The democracies and other powers that are slowly but steadily allying against common threats may have more than Covid-19 to worry about during the term of the next US administration.

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