Several weeks ago, the Pakistani armed forces accused India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, of fomenting terrorism.
A statement issued by the military’s media wing after a Corps Commanders conference on May 5 minced no words. “The Conference…took serious notice of RAW’s involvement in whipping up terrorism in Pakistan.”
Accusing Indian spies of subversive and nefarious activities in Pakistan is an age-old practice. Such charges afford Pakistani officials a means of shielding themselves from blame for their country’s ills. They also convey a reassuring Muslims-cannot-be-responsible-for violence message that plays well among the general population. Yet, these accusations go well beyond terrorism. Pakistanis have constantly conjured up conspiracies that deposit blame for all manner of misfortune — from floods to fraud scandals — on India’s doorstep.
Accusations often obliquely refer to a foreign hand. However, it is relatively unusual for the Pakistani military to make such serious allegations about Indian support for terrorism in Pakistan so publicly, and in such a direct manner. Additionally, the accusation comes amid a flurry of Pakistani allegations against RAW. On April 30, a senior police officer thought to be close to the military held an extraordinary news conference. The officer, Rao Anwar, accused RAW of colluding with members of the MQM, the dominant political party in the Pakistani megacity of Karachi. “RAW has been training MQM workers for carrying out terrorist activities in Karachi,” Anwar announced.
More recently, the home minister of Baluchistan province implicated RAW in a deadly May 29 bus attack in the town of Mastung. “RAW is involved in the incident because India is against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” declared Sarfaraz Bugti, referring to Beijing’s plan to undertake infrastructure projects in western Pakistan as it builds a new trade corridor linking China to the Middle East.
The frequency and directness of these latest allegations are striking, but this should not obscure a fundamental reality: Pakistan’s motivations for leveling these latest accusations are ultimately rooted in factors that go back many months and years.
Rallying Around The Anti-RAW Flag
Consider, for example, one possible explanation for the recent allegations against RAW: the Pakistani military’s wish to deflect attention from negative publicity. Some of this bad publicity was generated in recent weeks by the insinuations of some Pakistanis that the country’s intelligence agency was behind the April 24 killing of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist revered by the country’s elite.
In fact, however, while recent public opinion polls show that the military remains deeply popular, it has actually suffered blows to its image for a number of years. One was the discovery that Osama Bin Laden lived in Pakistan, and near a major military academy. Another was a startlingly blunt Pakistani government report about Bin Laden that was leaked to Al Jazeera in 2013. The report called the military leadership incompetent and irresponsible for failing to prevent the U.S. raid on Bin Laden’s compound, and described this failure as Pakistan’s greatest humiliation since losing a war to India in 1971. Other blows to the military’s reputation include multiple militant attacks on its facilities (including one on its headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009), and widely circulated video clips of extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, for a number of years, anti-state Pakistani militants have routinely spouted propaganda accusing the military of apostasy.
Little surprise, then, that the military would now resort to the India bogey, and particularly in a direct and public way. It’s a sure-fire way to generate rally-around-the-military sentiment in a country where even the most liberal commentators ascribe malign motives to India.
An Emboldened and Empowered Military
Another possible reason why the Pakistani military is so boldly accusing RAW of terror is pure bravado: it wants to showcase its strength, and demonstrate that it is fully in control.
To understand just how in control the military is these days, consider the recent bellicose words of Pakistan’s civilian leaders. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif declared that RAW was formed “to wipe Pakistan off the map of the world.” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan insisted that India wants to destabilize Pakistan and “use any means” to keep it “backward and underdeveloped.” Prime Minister Sharif — who sought improved ties with New Delhi after his election victory in May 2013 and invited his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, to his swearing-in ceremony — warned India that Pakistan will “take all necessary measures to control any anti-Pakistan acts.” The government has seemingly morphed into a mouthpiece for the military and its confrontational-to-the-core India policy.
And yet this latest manifestation of Pakistan’s long-standing civil-military imbalance was actually set in motion nearly a year ago. Last summer, an anti-government protest movement weakened the civilian government and stifled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempts to assert more civilian control over national security and foreign affairs. Consequently, Pakistan’s military was catapulted back into the driver’s seat of India policy.
In effect, despite those aforementioned hits to its image, the military is flying high today, thanks to the aftermath of last summer’s anti-government movement. Not only is it firmly in control of foreign affairs, but it has once again become a key player in efforts to launch peace talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, thanks to a modest (albeit perhaps short-lived) thaw in relations with Kabul and to the decision of Islamabad’s close ally in Beijing to take a leading role in pursuing reconciliation. Additionally, in April, the U.S. State Department approved a $950 million arms sale to Pakistan. This latest case of American largesse comes even though there is no indication whatsoever that the Pakistani security establishment has cracked down on so-called “good militants” — jihadist groups such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba that do not target the Pakistani state, but do target Americans. Given all this, it makes perfect sense that the military, emboldened and empowered, would make such a public and dramatic accusation against India.
Just Stating the Facts?
Of course, the Pakistani military — and many if not most Pakistanis — would offer a simpler reason why it is leveling allegations about RAW-sponsored terrorism: The allegations represent the truth, and the truth must be known.
Islamabad points to recent statements made by Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, who said last month that “terrorists have to be neutralized only through terrorists,” as proof of India’s sponsorship of terrorism in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis also point to inflammatory statements made back in 2014 by Ajit Doval, when the current Indian national security adviser hinted at potential Indian support for anti-state elements in Pakistan. If there is another Mumbai-style attack in India, Doval warned, India “should immediately move to help the secessionists in Baluchistan.”
Parrikar’s vague comments — which sound more like bluster than statements of fact — do not exactly constitute a smoking gun. And Doval’s statements, while provocative, were purely hypothetical. Pakistan may have slightly more success winning over skeptics by highlighting reports in the Indian media. These include a 2013 Hindustan Times story alleging that after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, India established a Technical Support Division. This was a special unit operating within RAW and charged with carrying out covert operations in Pakistan. “Our main task was to combat the rising trend of state-sponsored terrorism” by Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, according to an unnamed former Technical Support Division officer quoted in the article. This unit, however, is no longer active.
Pakistan’s terror accusations against RAW tend to revolve around the contention that India aids, through violence, the separatist insurgency in Baluchistan (Pakistanis will not soon forget that India supported the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971). Back in 2009, according to Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s foreign secretary told his Indian counterpart that Pakistan could produce “at least three Indian Ajmal Kasabs” involved in terrorism in Baluchistan, and could “easily establish” that India’s consulate in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was “a control room of terrorist activities” managed by violent Baluch separatists. Ajmal Kasab was a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant who participated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Given the enmity between the two countries, and given the legacy of ISI-sponsored hijinks in India, one should not altogether dismiss the possibility of some type of Indian connection to Baluchistan’s insurgency. Still, there is no clear evidence that RAW is currently fomenting terror in Baluchistan or anywhere else in the country. However, Pakistan, undeterred, repeatedly vows to present proof — including, according to Pakistani press reports, to U.S. officials during the visit of Pakistan’s foreign secretary to Washington last week.
Making Accusations to Strengthen Legitimacy
At the end of the day, so far as Pakistan’s military is concerned, it doesn’t matter if its accusations are true or not. What matters is that they are articulated, and that the Pakistani public hears them — because the allegations are ultimately intended to strengthen the military’s legitimacy. This is arguably the chief reason why the army has so publicly and directly hit out at RAW.
After all, by accusing India of carrying out terrorism in Pakistan, Pakistan’s military buttresses its oft-stated contention that India remains a prime, even existential, threat to Pakistan. It is not a difficult argument to make to the Pakistani public, given the facts: India is seven times more populous and four times larger, and with a military twice as big. Additionally, now is a useful time for Pakistan to ramp up its peddling of the India-as-threat narrative, given the presence of a Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi that has been critical of Muslims.
In essence, the Pakistani military invokes the threat of India, and the specter of RAW-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan, to underscore the armed forces’ self-proclaimed role as the nation’s sole protector. In so doing, the armed forces seek to provide more justification for their outsize role in the Pakistani state.
Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.
Photo credit: Giridhar Appaji Nag Y