Excerpt: My Enemy’s Enemy by Avinash Paliwal
Baloch and Pashtun cards
Somewhere between Islamabad’s vehement allegations of India’s role in fomenting separatism and violence in Pakistan (especially via Afghanistan), and New Delhi and Kabul’s stony denials, lies the truth. Bereft of evidence, Pakistan’s allegations of an omnipresent Indian hand behind its domestic troubles (in Balochistan, FATA, and Karachi) are treated, often correctly, as neuralgia of an insecure state marred by confused and conflicting nationalisms. But that does not absolve India politically, even if it has a strong legal defence to make. The buzz of India’s covert successes in Balochistan is anything but subtle in Indian strategic circles, and the demand for such action is generally high. None other than Narayanan voiced such sentiments (of paying back Pakistan in the same coin) after the 2008 embassy bombing, and allegedly reached out to Saleh to seek Afghan help to target LeT assets. Then foreign secretary, Menon, met with Karzai soon after the bombing and both agreed that ‘the terrorist menace’ should be ‘rooted out from the region [read Pakistan] by targeting bases, recruitment places, and financial links’, and agreed with Narayanan to counter Pakistan using force. Islamabad’s use of militants against both these countries inculcated a healthy appetite to make Pakistan pay. So why has this not happened if one is to believe the Indian narrative (Narayanan denies that India undertook such offensive covert action against Pakistan)? Before we proceed with examining these issues, the reader should be forewarned that this section does not necessarily offer the ‘truth’ or even a comprehensive overview of the complex geopolitical dynamics along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions and India’s covert activities therein. Despite interviews with a host of Indian and Afghan security officials, systematic analysis of various US diplomatic cables, and a plethora of reports by credible media, this section provides an Indian reading of the situation, that is what Indian policymakers thought and planned for. What really happened remains a state secret and shall continue to remain so for decades to come.
For Indian security analysts the fact that former Indian PMs Narasimha Rao, I K Gujral, and Morarji Desai depleted R&AW’s offensive capabilities inside Pakistan, is one reason why India never credibly threatened Pakistan using indirect means. Such proclamations of India’s incapability because some PMs decades ago wrapped up its covert offensive capabilities does not match the rhetoric of Indian agencies’ prowess in Balochistan. Moreover, depleting covert assets (which take years to develop) against ostensible enemies, by a conservative state and politically weak leaders is highly unlikely. That such strategic lethargy would continue even after the glaring failure of Operation Parakram to meet its objectives is even more inconceivable. This is reflected in Menon’s candid assessments of India’s covert infrastructure in the region. When quizzed whether India kept its promise of countering Pakistan after the 2008 embassy attacks, Menon answered: ‘what goes on covertly between India and Pakistan has gone on for a long time. There is a mythology that India gave up everything during Gujral’s time [but] that has never happened, and that goes on’.
The differences within India’s bureaucracy in its covert war with Pakistan have been ‘tactical’ in nature, that is who, when, and how to target, and the scale of the covert strike. There have hardly ever been fundamental differences on whether India should or not fight Pakistan because, as Menon explains, ‘you are in a war. It might be a covert war or whatever, but it’s there … it’s a fact of life with which we have lived for many years’. Afghanistan has been adjunct to this rivalry in differing capacities across time. But just like the blowhot-blow-cold nature of India-Pakistan bilateral relations, it has not always been used as a launchpad for anti-Pakistan operations. Former deputy NSA Vijay Nambiar (2005–06) similarly asserts that while there is a natural convergence of interests between Afghanistan and India on the Pashtunistan and Balochistan issues, there was ‘no active collaboration in any major way’ other than broad political support during his tenure. Though New Delhi is comfortable with using its close relationship with Kabul and the presence of its four consulates as a tool of psychological warfare against Islamabad, it allegedly practiced considerable restraint in using Afghan soil for such activities (despite Pakistan’s suspicions). This is because (a) evidence of Indian covert activities from Afghanistan will hurt Afghans more than India, which in turn, would undermine India’s strategic aim of supporting Afghanistan in the first place, and (b) such a covert war may get difficult for India to handle without support by powers such as the US, and within the region, Iran.
Though Manmohan Singh’s conciliatory regional approach restrained the scale of India’s covert actions after 2004, Pakistan’s concerns of Indian involvement in exacerbating its domestic fault-lines, to little or large extents, cannot be discarded despite lack of evidence. Detailing the precise nature or scale of India’s covert operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the post-9/11 era, or a comprehensive history of the Baloch conflict, is beyond the scope of this book. But highlighting aspects of India’s covert approach towards the region is critical for the study of India’s Afghanistan policy. Having proactively supported the UF in its anti-Taliban endeavours with Russian and Iranian support in the 1990s, it was unlikely that India would abandon effective partisanship under US pressure. Opening its embassy in Kabul in November 2001, against the wishes of US officials, was a small but potent way to demonstrate India’s determination to reengage with Afghanistan along partisan lines. Spymaster Sood admits of a growing sense in India that stronger relations with Afghanistan’s Pashtun leaders were critical not just to increase India’s presence inside Afghanistan but also with Baloch separatists.
Soon after 2002 India began developing its covert infrastructure to develop what Indian officials called their ‘Baloch’ and ‘Pashtun’ cards. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), then under Mohammad Arif Sarwari, who had an excellent rapport with India since the civil war years, was a strong ally. With Karzai’s permission, Arif began dispatching NDS officers for training to India, unlocking new and heightened levels of intelligence cooperation. Arif ’s successor, Amrullah Saleh, also had a close relationship with Narayanan. Though various (serving and retired) Indian intelligence officers acknowledge this relationship, Khare, who knew its nuts-and-bolts, is categorical that India remains ‘very close to the NDS’. Though he denies that such links translate into joint offensive operations against Pakistan, the latter’s allegation of a R&AW-NDS ‘nexus’, more broadly if not on specific operations, is accurate.
In 2004, a full-blown insurrection broke out in Balochistan with the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF, formerly known as the Baloch People’s Liberation Front or the BPLF), the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), and the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) undertaking attacks against the Pakistan army’s installations. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, with support of his grandson Brahamdagh Bugti (among others), and Mir Balach Marri led the insurrection, and Musharraf openly blamed India and Afghanistan for fanning the insurgency. Apart from harassing Pakistan, Indian motivations for the same were seen as linked to its geopolitical rivalry with China that began developing the Gwadar port in Balochistan. Promising to undermine India’s naval and economic dominance and strengthening the China-Pakistan axis further, Gwadar’s development is viewed with reservation in New Delhi. Furthermore, China’s policy of sending its nationals to build the port increased Baloch anxieties of becoming an exploited minority on their own land. These are powerful reasons for both India and the Baloch separatists to collaborate against China and Pakistan, if that ever happened.
There were nearly 500 Chinese nationals working at Gwadar in 2004 when the attacks on the Chinese and the Pakistan army began. On 3 May 2004, the BLA killed three Chinese engineers working on the port, and attacked the Gwadar airport on 21 May. Two Chinese engineers were kidnapped in October 2004 from South Waziristan, one of whom was later killed. By December 2005 the violence had reached alarmingly high levels inviting official criticism by the MEA of Pakistan’s heavy-handed counter-terrorism operations in Balochistan (eliciting angry ripostes from Islamabad). Nambiar, in a meeting with the US ambassador to India in January 2006, assessed Islamabad’s woes in Balochistan as a ‘taste of their own medicine’ similar to what India had been facing in Kashmir. Whether this implied that India had adopted a similar strategy (to that of Pakistan in Kashmir) of supporting Baloch rebels covertly was left unsaid. Either way, in July 2006, Pakistan banned the BLA. Pakistan’s allegations of India training Baloch insurgents in Afghanistan with Karzai’s help, and the subsequent attack on Indian assets in Afghanistan, came in this context. The Zaranj-Delaram highway cut right through the Baloch-dominated Nimroz province from where Kutty had been kidnapped in 2005. The presence of Indian security personnel in that sector was a highly sensitive issue for Pakistan. Rumours about India supplying ‘commandos’ or ‘secret police’ in Afghanistan that may undertake hot-pursuit of militants were rife (though incorrect). India had also set up a consulate in Zahedan in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province (with nearly two million Baloch population) to monitor the construction of the Zaranj-Delaram highway and the Chahbahar port; all of which were seen as indications by the Pakistani military of an Indian hand in the insurgency.
On 26 August 2006, when Akbar Khan Bugti was mysteriously killed in a ground operation, the MEA came out with an official statement criticising the ‘unfortunate killing of the veteran Baloch leader’ and calling it a ‘tragic loss to the people of Balochistan and Pakistan’. With former foreign secretary Shyam Saran advocating a harder line on Balochistan as a pressure point against Pakistan, India also asked its high commissioner in Islamabad to visit Gilgit-Baltistan (but nothing happened given the divisions over the question within the government). Pakistan sharply retorted asking India to mind its ‘own business’, and not interfere in the affairs of Balochistan.
On 17 January 2007, an angry Musharraf told visiting US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, Richard Boucher, that Akbar Khan Bugti’s grandson, Brahamdagh (as well as Balaach Marri) was living in Afghanistan and traveled frequently between Kabul and Kandahar planning operations against Pakistani security forces with Indian support. When Boucher tried reassuring Musharraf that the US would not allow any antiPakistan activities from Afghan soil, the general sharply replied: ‘that’s bullshit’. Three days later in Kabul, Boucher challenged Karzai on the issue of Brahamdagh Bugti. The Afghan president, in a candid response, admitted that Brahamdagh was operating from Afghanistan. Maintaining that he did not consider the Baloch separatists as terrorists, Karzai asserted that Afghanistan was not supporting Brahamdagh militarily, as that would mean ‘too much trouble’ for Afghanistan, and that neither was India involved in such activities. Yet, ‘turn[ing] over’ Brahamdagh to Pakistan, Karzai underlined, would create tremendous ‘disgust’ among Afghans for Washington and Karzai. While Boucher’s shuttle diplomacy yielded no visible results, in September 2008 the Pakistan army and the Baloch separatists declared a ceasefire. If there ever was an India-Afghanistan axis on Balochistan, it was likely to be in full play during this time. That the NDS chief Saleh was closely engaged with the Baloch rebels as well as Narayanan was amply clear. Even if Indian intelligence agencies did not directly support the Baloch insurgents, it is unlikely that they remained aloof from the unfolding dynamic.
Khare, who followed these events on a regular and intimate basis, confirms that India had contacts with the Baloch separatists. India had given (limited) protection to the sons and grandsons of most Baloch leaders, and Akbar Bugti was well known in variety of Indian circles. But still, India did not support the insurrection when the Pakistan army launched heavy counter-attacks. ‘We allowed them to do that [kill Bugti] … and didn’t say much’, Khare argues. Despite the partisans’ willingness to build pressure on Pakistan, Manmohan Singh was keen on preserving the peace process with Islamabad. Musharraf was a promising bet on that count. As Singh told the US in October 2008, ‘we want our activities in Afghanistan to be an open book’. No evidence emerged of India’s direct, or indirect (via Afghanistan) support to the insurgency. But in January 2009, the insurgency was reignited after the three Baloch groups called-off the ceasefire. Brahmdagh threatened retaliation if Islamabad did not stop army operations in Balochistan, release political prisoners, account for alleged missing persons, and give autonomy to the province. The breakdown of the ceasefire just two months after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks convinced Pakistan that Brahmdagh had India’s support. Not just Pakistan, but even the UK was convinced that supporting proxies in Balochistan would be the ‘minimum’ India would do in response, and targeting LeT training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was the ‘maximum’ (the US did not share British concerns).
On 27 April 2009, Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik openly blamed India, Afghanistan, and Russia for supporting the BLA. A sharp increase in the number of rocket attacks and bombings against Pakistan’s Frontier Corps pushed Islamabad to blame Indian consulates in Afghanistan for trying to dismember Pakistan. To make things worse, the Marri group sought Indian (and US) support for the movement in a televised interview soon after Malik’s testimony. In addition to violent attacks, a ‘Long March’ across Balochistan had been organised to rally support against Islamabad. The situation reached such a crescendo that soon after Malik’s allegations, US senator Berman bluntly asked Narayanan what his men in Afghanistan were up to. Taken aback, Narayanan reassured the US delegation that Islamabad’s worry that a handful of Indian personnel at the consulates would ‘dismember’ Pakistan was paranoid. After fifty years in the intelligence business he could assure them that his spies were ‘not that good’. If anything, those who thought about strategic threats were focused on China and not Pakistan, a country about which people in India ‘don’t think much’.
In July 2009, at a meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to assess the possibility of resuming dialogue. India had offered a dossier of evidence showing how the 26/11 attacks were planned and executed from Pakistan’s soil and its lone survivor, Ajmal Kasab, was a Pakistani national. In return, Gilani allegedly told Singh that Pakistan had three Ajmal Kasab’s to show in Balochistan and had a dossier on the same, and thus, it would be prudent for India to address Pakistan’s concerns about Balochistan. Gilani had been cautious and limited in his allegations, but the salvo worked. Singh agreed to discuss Balochistan and the associated role of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and issued a joint statement to that effect. The move backfired domestically with the BJP, the CPM, and government allies such as the Samajwadi Party coupled with members of the Congress terming it a sell out. Blaming Singh for budging under US pressure to ‘allay Pakistan’s anxieties in Balochistan’, the opposition argued that the government had unnecessarily legitimised Pakistan’s allegations.
In retrospect, opposition parties failed Manmohan Singh in July 2009. The logic of ‘why should we talk about Balochistan when we have nothing to do with it?’ was misplaced from a historical standpoint, and went against the grain of conciliatory diplomacy. If anything, it reinforced the notion that Indian agencies were involved in Balochistan. Indian politicians had incorrectly assessed Singh’s statement that India had ‘nothing to hide’ in Balochistan as an admission of guilt. The reality was far from it. Indian intelligence had snooped onto the secret dossiers that Pakistan had prepared about India’s involvement in Balochistan prior to the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting. Khare, who analysed the dossiers (and sent his analysis to Narayanan, Menon, and Singh), was appalled by the ‘low quality job’ Pakistan had done. Khare notes: ‘They said India is involved in Balochistan, and I remember reading ISI alerts, and they were desperately trying to fudge intelligence to prove it. And they could not do even that, because it was so difficult’. Had that dossier been made public in 2009 or afterwards (it never was), it would have further cornered Pakistan and exonerated India from allegations of fomenting insurgency in Balochistan. Narayanan and Singh knew this before accepting Pakistan’s challenge in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Not following up on the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement actually deprived India of a strategic victory on the negotiations table with Pakistan. When asked about Pakistan’s allegations of India using its consulates in Afghanistan to foment the Baloch insurgency, Menon crisply responded: ‘we don’t have to do that. As I keep saying, if somebody [Pakistan] is committing suicide, you don’t have to murder him’.
The BJP, which considered the Sharm-el-Sheikh a ‘shameful act’, turned the tables along partisan lines giving credence to Pakistan’s allegations of an Afghan-Indian nexus in Balochistan. Sometime in 2009, the Hindu nationalist fringe group called the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, led by RSN Singh and Tejender Singh, provided shelter to Balaach Pardili in New Delhi. A Baloch from Afghanistan, Pardili represented the BLO and was linked to the Hyrbyair Marri group. His presence in India was exposed by The Hindu newspaper on 8 October 2015. The MEA, while confirming Pardili’s presence on Indian soil, categorically denied that it supported a policy of hosting Baloch separatists in India. Pardili’s presence in India had caught even the R&AW off-guard, with its Afghanistan-Pakistan desk/field officers wondering how and when this happened and how far the BJP government would take this issue. Pushing the agenda of ending Pakistan’s ‘illegal occupation’ of the part of Kashmir it administered, which curiously coincided with protests in Muzzafarabad, Gilgit, and Kotli, seeking ‘freedom’ from Pakistan, the Modi government had geared India’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy along partisan lines.
India’s ‘Baloch card’, regardless of its Afghan connection, was supplemented by what Indian security officials call their ‘Pashtun card’. As previous chapters show, whether it was Daoud, Najibullah, or Karzai, there has always been a partisan desire in India to cultivate Afghan leaders of Pashtun background, who could challenge Pakistan. Whether the top Indian political leadership chooses to exercise these capacities against Pakistan is a separate matter. After 2002, despite India’s links with former UF leaders, Karzai and his network was the lynchpin of India’s Pashtun card. The rise of the TTP under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud made operationalising such an enterprise horrifically real. However, given India’s close links with the NDS and heavy financial aid investments in Afghanistan, R&AW had no need to dip its hands in the TTP. The TTP, as scholars have argued, was a ‘parochial insurgency’ with weak central processes but powerful local processes. Unlike the Baloch insurgency where a small population spread over a large geographical mass was fighting a battle-hardened army (and needed external help), the TTP could sustain itself with little financial and moral support from outside, making it dangerous and difficult to contain. The TTP could, however, benefit from external tactical support, that is, providing safe havens and some funds. The NDS, in unknown capacities and at different points in time, did just that.
Pakistan’s allegations of Indian and Afghan agencies funding the TTP, especially its leader Mullah Fazlullah, who was responsible for the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, emerges from this perceived NDS-R&AW nexus. India denies such allegations more strongly than those of supporting the Baloch insurgency. But Afghan intelligence services have not been secretive about this project. In October 2013 the US arrested Latif Mehsud, a senior TTP commander, in the middle of a sensitive NDS operation to recruit Mehsud and potentially use him against Pakistan. The incident vindicated Pakistan’s allegations that Karzai was supporting the TTP, and left Kabul both embarrassed and red-faced. That the NDS worked closely with India and received financial support from New Delhi led Islamabad to conclude of an Indian hand in the ploy, albeit indirectly. UAE intelligence officials, interestingly, were equally convinced of India’s financial support to the TTP. Being a fund-raising hub for the Taliban, AQ and the Haqqanis, the UAE had been proactive in tracing money-laundering networks in Dubai and regularly shared intelligence with their Western counterparts. Based on this author’s interviews on the ground in Afghanistan as well as in India, whose details cannot be divulged, it seems clear that more than one faction of the TTP reached out to India for financial and material support at different points in time. While it is possible that such interactions took place in Dubai, many of them also happened at Indian consulates across Afghanistan. Whether this led to any direct or indirect support from India to the TTP remains unknown (though not implausible).
Indian security officials were not averse to offering such support in principle. Reasons for their reticence lay elsewhere. Were these alleged TTP members genuine, or were they ISI agents planted to frame India? What if the US and British intelligence agencies, who were proactive in Afghanistan, found out about such covert dealings? India would lose its credibility as a responsible regional power if it became directly linked with the TTP. More than the Americans, India worried about British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, for London had taken the baton of facilitating a dialogue between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government on one hand, and Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other. ‘The SIS would not let [India] breathe easy’ if it found out that India was using Afghan territory for ops against Pakistan, says Khare. Mistrust between the UK and India about each other’s role in Afghanistan persists till today. Hence, more than its own will, the presence of international troops tempered India’s covert activities in Afghanistan. But the NDS, some of whose officials were trained in India (as well as the US and other Western countries) and were keen on sending a tough message to the ISI, did not shy away.
Another unverified (and perhaps unverifiable) dimension of India’s covert actions against Pakistan was its association with the robust Afghan immigrant community in New Delhi (and the various Afghans who visit Indian hospitals such as Max and Apollo for medical treatment). Mostly settled in south Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, Jung Pura, and Saket areas, these Afghan exiles, according to various interviewees speaking on condition of strict anonymity, provided a pool of recruits for Indian intelligence agencies. Trained in spy-craft, sabotage, and other lethal skills, these recruits, or their networks on the ground in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, were utilised to gather intelligence and even undertake targeted killings of anti-India militants based in Pakistan. While there is no easy way to authenticate this aspect of India’s covert actions, confidential assertions of the very existence of such programmes highlight how New Delhi may have engaged with Afghan diaspora settled in India. T, for instance, confirms that the R&AW was making ‘efficient use’ of the Afghan students in India for intelligence gathering purposes. Though unaware of offensive covert operations undertaken by India as alleged by Pakistan, he does not reject all Pakistani allegations (even if he would temper down some such allegations).
Pakistan’s uncontrolled spiral into violence elicited curious responses from Indian security officials. If the conciliators worried about the deteriorating situation, it was schadenfreude for the partisans. Similar to the early and mid-1990s’ discourse of turning Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Vietnam, the partisans viewed the TTP and its NDS links as an effective tool to bog down the Pakistan military. As Sahgal put it, ‘the assessment we had was that Pakistan would require close to about 32 Brigades, which means about 10 Divisions plus for counter-insurgency operations. We were also trying to look at what kinds of operations were going on over there, which in turn created a void on the east [LoC]. So the perception was that if push came to shove, can we utilise that void for [strikes in Pakistan], because of post-Mumbai options?’Indeed, on 15 June 2014, Pakistan launched Operation Zarb-eAzb in North Waziristan. While India never conducted any strikes against Pakistan after 26/11, its security planners had, quite unsurprisingly, thought of different possible scenarios of containing Pakistan’s military and use that as a tool to set the terms of talks with Pakistan on Kashmir and other bilateral issues.
Read more: The emerging blocs in the Afghan Great Game
As for Afghanistan, India was confident that it would not slip back to the 1990s where one (or more) Pakistan-supported group(s) would dominate in Afghanistan’s political space. True, Afghanistan may not be safe, and often stable, but it will not be under Pakistan’s influence either. If it were to happen that any specific Afghan Taliban faction began to dominate the battle then it ‘should not be a Pashtun [versus] non-Pashtun front line. It should be Pashtuns fighting reactionary Pashtuns backed by radicalism and Pakistan with the support of the rest’, says Mukhopadhaya. By supporting Karzai, talking to his domestic opponents to accept his authority, cautiously opening channels with the Afghan Taliban and Hekmatyar, accepting an Afghan-led reconciliation in 2011, and silently influencing its contours by facilitating meetings between Afghan COIN specialists with their Indian counterparts, India was trying to obviate the possibility of a Taliban takeover on one hand, and keeping its presence robust in Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated regions on the other.