Global Terror and the Taliban’s Return


A full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely deliver a rebirth of global terror

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

NEW DELHI – One of the most crucial early tests for US President Joe Biden concerns Afghanistan. An emboldened Taliban have escalated their campaign of assassinations and terrorist attacks since reaching a deal with Donald Trump’s administration that called for power sharing in Kabul and a full US military withdrawal by May 1. Biden’s policy course will not only determine Afghanistan’s fate but also affect regional security, the global war on terror, and America’s international standing at a time when its relative decline has become unmistakable.

The United States came full circle in February 2020, when Trump, seeking to cut and run from Afghanistan, signed a “peace” agreement with the same terrorist militia that the US had removed from power by invading the country in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Trump’s Faustian bargain, struck behind the back of the elected Afghan government, bestowed legitimacy on the Taliban. The surge in terrorist violence since then shows how little Afghanistan gained from the US-Taliban deal.

It makes sense for America to exit a long and futile war that has cost more than $800 billion and the lives of 2,218 US service members. (The US and NATO combat role in Afghanistan actually ended before Trump took office, with Afghan government forces assuming full security responsibility on January 1, 2015.) What doesn’t make sense is what Trump’s one-time national security adviser H.R. McMaster called America’s “Munich-like appeasement” of “some of the most horrible people on earth.”

In effect, Trump set out to abandon Afghanistan to terrorists and their sponsors in Pakistan, whose all-powerful military created the Taliban group, still harbors its leadership, and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Pakistan’s military would be the real winner from a deal that threatens to turn Afghanistan into a weak, pliable neighbor that Pakistan can influence at will.

Yet, after taking office, Biden was quick to embrace Trump’s deal, and retained Zalmay Khalilzad as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. The Afghanistan-born Khalilzad has forged close ties with the Taliban but struggled to establish common ground with the Afghan government. The Biden administration’s recently leaked draft peace proposal highlighted its frantic effort to force an Afghan settlement in order to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline.

The proposal seeks to replace Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a new transitional government in which the Taliban hold half of all positions. In a letter to Ghani, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed him to develop “a roadmap to a new, inclusive government” and a new constitution, adding that he was asking Turkey’s Islamist government to host a meeting between Afghan government and Taliban representatives “to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter’s peremptory tone prompted Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh to say that Afghanistan will “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.”

Biden’s administration must answer a central question: How can a terrorist group be part of government when it remains committed to military victory and the reimposition of brutal theocratic rule? The Taliban want to secure absolute power over Afghanistan by waiting out the Americans, which explains their foot-dragging in the power-sharing talks with the Afghan government.

With the US strategy threatening to unravel, Biden now says “it’s going to be hard to meet” the May 1 deadline, but he “can’t picture” American troops being in Afghanistan next year. If Biden withdraws all US troops before 2022, a terrorist takeover of Afghanistan on his watch is highly probable. The Taliban, in fact, will take Biden’s statement as confirmation that they need only to bide their time for a few more months before laying siege to Kabul.

The debate in the US over whether al-Qaeda could rebuild a base in Afghanistan following an American exit, or whether the Islamic State (ISIS) could enlarge its footprint there, ignores the fact that Islamist terrorism is a self-organizing ideological movement that unites diverse jihadist groups, without the need to coordinate action. The Taliban militia may not have a global mission, but it is a critical link in an international jihadist movement that whips hostility toward non-Sunni Muslims into violent rage against modernity.

By forcing the Americans to leave and seizing Kabul, the Taliban would inspire jihadist groups elsewhere to escalate their terror campaigns. The perception that jihadists vanquished the world’s most powerful military would nurture the belief that American power is in irreversible decline. Simply put, the Taliban wielding absolute power in Afghanistan would pose a greater jihadist threat to the free world than any other group, including al-Qaeda or ISIS remnants.

To avoid this outcome, the US must keep residual forces in Afghanistan to continue providing reassurance and air support to Afghan forces, as well as logistics aid to about 7,000 NATO and allied troops. The US now has just 2,500 troops in the country, compared to some 100,000 at the height of the war. America’s financial costs and casualties have fallen dramatically since its combat role ended, with no US fatality in the past 14 months.

Biden must choose between a complete US withdrawal, which could well unleash chaos and undermine the Afghan state, and maintaining a small residual force to avert civil war and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist hub. The first option, far from offering America a face-saving exit from a 20-year war, would make it an accomplice of the Taliban, whose control of Afghanistan would cause lasting damage to the interests of the US and its friends.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

The Message of Islamist Beheadings


In a world wracked by violence, Islamist beheadings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses should not be underestimated, and the lessons it suggests about prosecuting the “war on terror” must not be ignored.

Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Last month, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant stalked, stabbed, and decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb near the middle school where Paty worked. Soon after, a Quran-carrying Tunisian man beheaded a woman and fatally stabbed two other people in a church in Nice. In the same month, two British-born Islamic State (ISIS) militants were brought to the United States to face trial for their participation in a brutal abduction scheme in Syria that ended with American and other hostages beheaded on camera.

In a world wracked by violence, such killings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses to fundamental principles of modern civilization should not be underestimated.

The ancient Greeks and Romans instituted beheading as a mode of capital punishment. Today, radical Islamists commonly employ it in extrajudicial executions, which have been reported in a wide range of countries, including Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. In Mozambique, up to 50 people, including women and children, have reportedly been murdered – and, in many cases, decapitated – by ISIS-linked fighters this month alone.

Such savagery casts a long shadow – especially because perpetrators so often share images of their actions. Ever since the 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, terrorist organizations have taken to posting videos of beheadings online. After murdering Paty, the perpetrator tweeted a photo of the severed head.

For Islamists, beheadings are a potent weapon of asymmetric warfare. The gruesome spectacle inspires jihadi sympathizers around the world, while fomenting fear in local communities, to the point that the Islamists are often able to impose their will – including medieval codes of conduct – on the societies in which they operate.

Jihadis represent a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims. But, by making clear their willingness to behave inhumanely, they have ensured that few dare defy them. Just this month, a Bangladeshi cricket star was forced, under threat of Islamist retaliation, to apologize publicly for briefly attending a Hindu ceremony in India. Through such tactics, Islamists are gradually snuffing out more liberal, diverse Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries.

Although beheadings have a particularly visceral impact, they are far from the only way the jihadists incite fear. Earlier this month, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s Kabul University, killing at least 35 – mainly students – and wounding dozens more. In Vienna, another Islamist, who had previously been jailed for trying to join ISIS, killed four people and wounded 22 in a shooting rampage.

The persistent scourge of Islamist violence is a clear signal that the global “war on terror,” launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, has faltered. Even within Western countries, meaningful government action against Islamist extremism has often been stymied by concerns about discrimination. But, far from protecting Muslims, those crying “Islamophobia” often are making Muslim communities less secure, by allowing extremism to grow unchecked.

The truth is that there is only one country in the world today that is truly cracking down on Islam, rather than on radical Islamism: China. In the last few years, China has incarcerated more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the authorities are carrying out a methodical, large-scale erasure of Islamic identities.

And yet the international community – including Muslim countries – have remained largely silent about China’s actions. Last year, Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, explained why: “China is a very powerful nation.”

By contrast, after the Nice attack, Mahathir tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The incendiary tweet has since been removed for “glorifying violence,” though Mahathir’s account wasn’t suspended – a missed opportunity to push back against incitement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has called for a boycott of French goods, because French President Emmanuel Macron pledged after Paty’s murder to defend secularism against radical Islam. It is clearly far easier to attack a democracy than to stand up to a ruthless dictatorship.

But none of this will protect Muslim communities, let alone end Islamist terrorism. For that, governments must adopt a new approach, based on a better understanding of the enemy they are fighting.

Islamist extremism is not an organization or an army; it is an ideological movement. As recent attacks show, the existence of a clear doctrine of violence obviates the need to coordinate action. That is why eliminating high-level figures in ISIS or al-Qaeda does so little to stop the bloodshed, and why military action alone will always fall short.

Instead, counterterrorism efforts should target the fount of jihadist terrorism: the militaristic Wahhabi theology, which justifies and commands the use of violence against “infidels.” This means, first and foremost, discrediting that “evil ideology,” as former British Prime Minister Theresa May put it, by attacking its core tenets, starting with the claim (unsupported by the Quran) that 72 virgins await every martyr in heaven.

It also means taming the clerics and other preachers of violent jihad. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew explained, we must target the “queen bees” (the preachers of violence) who inspire the “worker bees” (suicide attackers), not the worker bees themselves. Otherwise, the war on terror will continue to rage, and violent Islamism will become more deeply entrenched in societies.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

The Taliban loves China’s money, but can it forget its Muslim gulags?


Beijing has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

On the day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan’s then-ruling Taliban, in the latter’s capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.

Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.

The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China’s efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump’s administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.

Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country,” has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban’s honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.

In order to win the Taliban’s cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.

Here’s the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China’s concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.

Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban — created and armed by Pakistani intelligence — to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.

Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.

China’s latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.

America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan’s active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.

Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing’s call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.

Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord’s terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.

Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.

Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China’s regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban — some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently — and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.

In this conservative region, China’s Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

© The Nikkei Asian Review, 2020.

Don’t disregard the long-term threat from Tablighi Jamaat

Wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its political mission. Authorities in multiple countries view its missionary training as providing members a stepping stone to later join terrorist groups. 


Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, chief of the Tablighi Jamaat (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The greatest global health catastrophe of our time has helped shine a spotlight on the role of religious evangelists and other fundamentalists in spreading the China-originating COVID-19 disease. In a number of countries, from the United States and Israel to Iran and Indonesia, religious zealots — whether Christian, Jew, Shia or Sunni — have resisted adhering to government stay-at-home orders.

In some cases, their disobedience has led to spiralling COVID-19 infection rates. In Israel, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews account for 12% of the country’s total population but make as much as 60% of its COVID-19 cases in major hospitals, compelling the government to start policing ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in order to protect the wider population.

But no group has played a greater role in spreading the deadly coronavirus far and wide than the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), a transnational missionary movement of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam that boasts more than 80 million members across the world, including in Europe and North America. It was founded in 1927 near New Delhi in Mewat, Haryana, by a prominent Deobandi cleric, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi. Some commentators, not familiar with its ideology or larger goals, have presented in benign light the puritanical Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers.

In truth, the Tablighi Jamaat represents a fusion of religious obscurantism, missionary zeal and an enduring commitment to global jihad — a toxic cocktail that holds long-term implications for international security and for modern democracies. Basically, the Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on earth.

Its revivalist and regressive ideology is espoused by radical preachers and Islamist televangelists, such as Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jamil, both Pakistanis. The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical, but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.

To be clear, the Tablighi Jamaat itself is not a hotbed of terrorism, despite some individual acts of terror by its associates. However, the ideological indoctrination it imparts to the largely illiterate and semiliterate youths it enlists helps to create recruits for militant and terrorist outfits. In fact, it has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to two of its spinoffs — the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. The Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami has proved a security challenge for India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in states like Gujarat where it has taken over mosques from moderate Muslims and installed radical clerics.

A bigger challenge has been posed by the other offshoot, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, an internationally designated terrorist organization. Founded by the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan branch, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, as the United Nations has put it, “was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian airliner on December 24, 1999, which resulted in the release of Masood Azhar”. Azhar was not the only terrorist released from Indian jails to meet the demands of the hijackers of the IC-814 flight.

In an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern history, then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh flew to Taliban-held Kandahar to hand-deliver Azhar and two other terrorists: Omar Sheikh, a purported financier of 9/11, whose subsequent conviction for journalist Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder was recently overturned by a Pakistani court; and Mushtaq Zargar, who went on to form the Al-Umar terror group. Azhar, for his part, established the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a front organization of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Just the way India’s terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayed swap in 1989 aided Pakistan’s “politico-military decision”, as Benazir Bhutto put it, “to start low-intensity operations” in J&K, the Kandahar cave-in led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism.

The Tablighi Jamaat came under intense scrutiny in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003. “And we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”

Alex Alexiev, the late American counterterrorism expert of Bulgarian origin, described the Tablighi Jamaat in an essay as “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The hardcore jihadists the Tablighi Jamaat spawns in its ranks are later recruited by terrorist organizations as replacements for slain warriors. From Morocco and France to Indonesia and the Philippines, intelligence agencies and prosecutors have viewed the Tablighi Jamaat training as a stepping stone to membership in terrorist outfits. French intelligence officers, for example, called the Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber” of violent extremism, according to a 2002 report in Le Monde.

The current pandemic, for its part, has shown how the Tablighi Jamaat’s religious obscurantism, fanaticism, blinkered delusions of divine protection and open disdain for science can endanger public health and the larger social good. A prominent Tablighi Jamaat leader in Pakistan, Mufti Taqi Usmani, who is also a leading expert in sharia finance, claimed on national television that the Prophet, by coming in the dream of a Tablighi Jamaat activist, revealed “the cure for the coronavirus”, which was the recitation of certain Quranic verses.

Amid the raging pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat held ijtemas (or congregations) in several different countries even after Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah pilgrimage, Iran shut the holiest Shia sites, and multiple Islamic nations closed mosques, including Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, after closing off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners, has asked the more than one million Muslims planning to perform the hajj from late July to indefinitely delay their trips, raising the possibility that the pilgrimage could be cancelled for the first time in more than 200 years.

For the Tablighi Jamaat, however, the fast-spreading coronavirus was no deterrent to staging ijtemas in several countries. Calling off any ijtema — which is an annual three-day Tablighi Jamaat congregation to help instil a sense of brotherhood and a commitment to jihad among its members — would have amounted to repudiating Allah’s directive, according to Tablighi Jamaat clerics.

In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat’s New Delhi-based chief, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, pushed innocent Tablighis into the jaws of the new disease by talking about the “healing power” of the “markaz” — the mosque-cum-dormitory complex that serves as the organization’s headquarters. Saad, the great-grandson of the Tablighi Jamaat’s founder, told his followers that, in any event, the “best death” for any devout Muslim was in the markaz.

Saad’s sermons that “Allah will protect us” were redolent of how Shia clerics earlier turned the holy city of Qom into Iran’s COVID-19 epicentre. Indeed, Iran’s outbreak of the disease began in Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom openly discounted the coronavirus risks. Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s ijtemas amid the pandemic unleashed the largest known viral vector in the Sunni world, spreading the disease in communities stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa. The February 27-March 1 ijtema of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur helped spread the disease to six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Nearly two-thirds of coronavirus cases in Malaysia last month were linked to that ijtema.

The Kuala Lumpur gathering was followed by a much larger international ijtema at the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind, in suburban Lahore. A quarter of a million participants congregated in Raiwind on March 11-12 before authorities privately persuaded the organizers to end the ijtema and disperse. But hundreds of participants contracted COVID-19. Within days, they spread the disease far and wide, not just within Pakistan, but also elsewhere — from Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria.

After Raiwind came the New Delhi ijtema from March 13, although the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) had already declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited all large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theatres. While a large throng packed New Delhi’s Markaz Nizamuddin, Indonesia — in a last-minute decision — banned an ijtema in South Sulawesi just as it was about to begin on March 18 with nearly 8,800 participants. The Tablighi Jamaat initially resisted the Indonesian order but then complied by asking its activists to leave.

Despite knowing all this, including how the Kuala Lumpur ijtema helped spread COVID-19 across Southeast Asia, Indian federal and state authorities allowed the New Delhi ijtema to proceed. Maharashtra state, by contrast, acted wisely by cancelling permission for an ijtema in Vasai. The New Delhi congregation stretched for 18 days until the final 2,346 holdouts were evacuated from Markaz Nizamuddin on April 1.

Permitting this congregation has proved costly for India, including undermining the nationwide lockdown that has been in force since March 22 to combat COVID-19. Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Many contracted the coronavirus at the congregation, which they then spread to families and communities across India after returning home. Such has been the adverse fallout from the ijtema that the national lockdown is likely to be extended beyond April 14.

The fact that many participants from other Islamic countries at the New Delhi ijtema misused tourist visas for missionary activity has also cast an unflattering light on Indian security agencies. Initial investigations suggest that some of the foreign attendees, including preachers from Indonesia and Malaysia, brought the coronavirus to the gathering.

Today, with prayer failing to keep the disease away, Markaz Nizamuddin — which Saad portrays as the most sacred place after Mecca and Medina — has been shut after being disinfected by authorities. Saad, for his part, initially went into hiding to escape police investigations.

Looking ahead, the Tablighi Jamaat will not find it easy to repair the damage to its reputation. Long after the current pandemic is over, it will be remembered for the deaths and suffering that its ijtemas caused in many communities in the Sunni world. The ijtemas became rapid multipliers of the coronavirus.

The rancour over the Tablighi Jamaat’s pandemic-related role could, in fact, exacerbate the factional infighting that has increasingly racked the organization in recent years. The infighting largely centres on the leadership issue, with the more radical Tablighi Jamaat factions in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Britain challenging Saad’s headship. The infighting has triggered even violent clashes between rival groups, resulting in multiple deaths.

Such violence has been recurrent in Bangladesh, which hosts the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation), supposedly the second-largest annual gathering of Sunni Muslims after hajj. Bishwa Ijtema is held usually in January along River Turag in Tongi, just outside Dhaka. The Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh, however, has split into two groups, with the more militant, anti-Saad faction supported by radical clerics and the hardline Islamist outfit Hefazat-e-Islam.

This faction, by staging a violent demonstration, forced Saad last year to return to New Delhi without joining the Bishwa Ijtema. At present, Saad’s followers are not allowed into the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bangladesh headquarters — the Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka.

In Pakistan, the longstanding military-mullah alliance, which has facilitated the military generals’ use of terrorist proxies against India and Afghanistan, looks askance at the Tablighi Jamaat’s global headquarters in New Delhi. Control over Islamist and terror groups is central to the generals’ power at home and their regional strategy.

Not surprisingly, the generals have encouraged the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan to be independent of the New Delhi group. In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan maintains close ties with the generals, at whose behest it allows state-sponsored terrorist groups to enlist some of its best students for military training. Such transfer of students usually takes place at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Raiwind, where the organization’s star recruits receive four months of special missionary training.

The generals’ backing, however, has not protected the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan from attacks by jihadist groups that are outside the control of the military establishment. Several prominent Deobandi/Tablighi Jamaat clerics have been assassinated, including by the Pakistani Taliban — the Pakistan military’s nemesis.

Maintaining state control over clerics is also the reason why Saudi Arabia does not allow the Tablighi Jamaat to operate in the kingdom. A transnational Islamist movement headquartered in a non-Muslim country runs counter to the Saudi policy of keeping the religious establishment on a tight leash and using it to bankroll fundamentalist groups elsewhere.

Against this background, India’s indulgent act in letting the Tablighi Jamaat hold its ijtema in New Delhi, despite pandemic-related state curbs, has stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s widely publicized meeting with Saad in the early hours of March 29 to get the holdouts in Markaz Nizamuddin to leave could weaken Saad’s hand in the factional infighting.

More fundamentally, it is past time for India to recognize the threat from the Tablighi Jamaat’s regressive ideology. That ideology is antithetical to secularism and democracy, including religious tolerance and separation of church and state. The Tablighi Jamaat, by not recognizing national borders, also challenges the nation-state system.

Indeed, no counterterrorism strategy can ignore the intersection between religious fundamentalism and violent extremism that this movement symbolizes. Terrorist groups draw sustenance from the Tablighi Jamaat’s ideology of Islamic revivalism. These groups also enlist some of those that the Tablighi Jamaat trains. In a limited number of cases, Tablighi Jamaat associates have directly committed acts of terrorism, including convicted Westerners such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris.

The manner the Tablighi Jamaat’s obscurantism and obduracy contributed to the spread of COVID-19 is just the latest reminder of the group’s threat to national and international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War : Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Open magazine, 2020.

A turning point signalling new resolve

It speaks for itself that there has been no major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack since India’s Balakot airstrike, which punched a hole through Pakistan’s nuclear shield for terror.


Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Exactly a year ago, India carried out a daring airstrike at Balakot to signal that Pakistan’s terrorism export would no longer be cost-free. Internationally, this marked the first-ever conventional military attack by a nuclear-armed nation on the undeniably sovereign territory of another nuclear-weapons state. The fact that Indian warplanes, unchallenged, struck a deep target in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province led an apprehensive Pakistan to close its airspace to all international overflights for months thereafter.

According to the “theory of nuclear revolution”, nuclear weapons offer a powerful deterrent against a major attack. Attacking another nuclear-armed state, according to this theory, is dangerous because it could invite a nuclear reprisal. Pakistan’s nuclear shield, however, did not prevent India from retaliating against a Pakistan-aided terrorist attack on a security convoy in Pulwama, in Indian Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

The Pakistani nuclear shield failed to deter the Indian strike largely because Pakistan’s actions have long militated against the dominant theory of nuclear revolution. The theory posits that, by guaranteeing a country’s security, nuclear weapons make nations less inclined to engage in aggression or belligerent acts.

Instead of viewing nuclear weapons essentially as tools of deterrence, a scofflaw Pakistan — with China’s protection — has been emboldened to engage in roguish actions. By valuing nuclear weapons as political tools for belligerent goals, including seeking to blunt its widening power asymmetry with India through a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, Pakistan has sought to validate the rival “theory of nuclear opportunism”.

Balakot, however, showed that, when Pakistan’s nuclear bluff was called, its situation paralleled Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale about the emperor with “invisible” clothing who was indeed naked. By leaving a gaping hole in the nuclear shield behind which Pakistan has pursued its terrorist agenda, Balakot sent a chilling message to the all-powerful Pakistani generals, including about the vulnerability of their military and intelligence headquarters. And, as if to underline that power respects power, the strike drew no international criticism, but prompted a chorus of calls to Pakistan to root out the terrorist entities it harbours.

Tellingly, no major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack has occurred in India in the last 12 months, underscoring Balakot’s game-changing potential. As the late senior minister, Arun Jaitley, declared, “The security doctrine of India has changed. We now attack the point of origin of terror”. Balakot indeed created the strategic space for India to carry out the constitutional reorganization of its part of J&K.

Pakistan’s generals know that, with its threshold-breaching Balakot strike, India turned the page on its failed policy of strategic restraint. Indian Air Force chief Rakesh Bhadauria has pointed to a paradigm “shift” in India’s posture, with a new political resolve to “punish perpetrators of terrorism”. Given that India’s new chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and its new Army chief, General Mukund Naravane, have both spoken about liberating Pakistan-held J&K, Pakistan’s generals are currently loath to provoke a conflict with India, especially when their cash-strapped country is relying on international dole-outs.

The Balokot attack, like India’s 2016 ground-launched surgical strike, targeted the enemy’s non-uniformed soldiers — terrorist proxies. Indeed, India went out of its way to say it hit a “non-military target” at Balakot, although the terrorist group whose camp was struck is a known front organization of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces and employs them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. This explains why, just 30 hours after the Balakot strike, Pakistan tried to bomb military sites in Indian J&K in a daring aerial blitz.

In repulsing the Pakistani aerial attack, India not only lost a MiG-21, with its pilot captured by Pakistan, but also mistakenly shot down its own Mi17 chopper — a horrific incident in which six Air Force officers and a civilian were killed. Pakistan’s attack opened an opportunity for India to wreak massive punishment. But, averse to triggering a spiral of escalation at a time when national elections were looming, India let go of that opportunity.

Against this background, if Pakistan’s risk-seeking behaviour, territorial revisionism and terrorist agenda persist, the risks of a major military confrontation with India cannot be discounted. India seems no longer willing to put up with Pakistan’s terrorism-driven asymmetric warfare, which cumulatively has proved costlier for India in financial, human and internal-security terms than even the historic 1971 War that gave birth to Bangladesh.

Deterrence works if the punitive response to aggression is prompt and effective. Pakistan’s generals are uncertain about the extent or severity of an Indian military response if they stage another major cross-border terrorist attack.

To compel a fundamental change in Pakistan’s conduct, India appears ready to impose greater costs. The next Indian reprisal attack could seek to target the terror masters, not their surrogates. Unless the puppeteers — not their puppets, who essentially serve as cannon fodder — begin bearing escalating costs, hoping that Pakistan would reform and be at peace with itself would be equivalent to expecting to straighten a dog’s tail.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

Toward an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies


Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

In his second term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to initiate a new practice on New Year’s Day: To discuss a shared vision of peace and prosperity in India’s subregion, Modi on Jan. 1 telephoned leaders of all neighboring nations other than his country’s two adversaries, China and Pakistan.

Modi’s exclusion of India’s two closely aligned neighbors that routinely flout international norms was intended to underscore the threat to regional peace from their growing axis. China, for example, kicked off the new year (and the new decade) by launching a major combat exercise along the Himalayan border with India, deploying its lightweight Type 15 tank, a new 155-mm howitzer, and other weapons from the Tibetan capital of “Lhasa to border defense frontlines.”

China’s challenge to norms and rules, of course, extends across the Indo-Pacific region.

For example, China’s recent aggressive move in the waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands that Beijing claims are its “traditional fishing grounds,” as well as the ongoing Chinese coercion against Vietnamese hydrocarbon exploration within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, exemplify China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. That sea constitutes a critical missing link in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

How can the Indo-Pacific region be free and open if its most-important sea corridor, which links the Indian and Pacific oceans, is neither free nor open? China continues to incrementally extend its control in this critical corridor.

The Trump administration’s FOIP policy held great promise when it was unveiled by the president in a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November 2017 in the Vietnamese beach resort of Danang. The FOIP policy was seen as a much-needed successor to the U.S. Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which failed to take concrete shape.

The broadening of the U.S. policy focus to a wider region — the Indo-Pacific — was a response to the expanding ambitions of China, which, after building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, has started focusing on the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced by India and the United States. India has been including the “free and open” phrase in joint statements with strategic partners.

For example, India, the world’s second-largest peninsula, and Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, last year identified a shared vision for “a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong put it, “India as a nation has invested in a free and open order.”

Today, it has become imperative to build a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order, free of coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Establishing such an order is the goal of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad.” The Quad’s future, however, is linked to the U.S.-led FOIP strategy.

The Trump administration has still to provide strategic heft to its FOIP policy. It has defined the policy’s objectives but is still searching for the effective means to achieve the ends. Indeed, like Tokyo, Washington no longer refers to its FOIP vision as a “strategy.” Without strategic content, the U.S.-led FOIP policy is unlikely to yield meaningful results.

In this light, there is a real risk that Trump’s FOIP policy, like Obama’s pivot to Asia, could fail to gain traction.

Indeed, as highlighted by Trump’s escalation of America’s conflict with Iran by taking out the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. risks getting further mired in the Islamic world.

Soleimani, considered the most important person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, was the first major foreign military leader the U.S. has killed since 1943, when it eliminated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the supposed architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Trump may have won the first round against Iran, which retaliated weakly to the Soleimani assassination. But make no mistake: A second round seems inevitable.

In this light, developments in the Middle East could distract American policymakers and result in Trump’s FOIP policy — like Obama’s pivot to Asia — remaining more rhetorical than real. In fact, the pivot got lost somewhere in the arc stretching from the Middle East to Ukraine.

To be sure, Trump’s lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that will outlast his presidency as it enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.

According to the philanthropist George Soros, “The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China.”

The Trump administration has sought to primarily employ economic levers to rein in China, including through a gradual decoupling of the American and Chinese economies in key strategic sectors. However, it must also employ strategic levers, or else China’s territorial and maritime revisionism will remain untamed. Beijing has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs.

U.S. leadership and resolve are essential to build a credible counter to Chinese expansionism. But the roles of the other major democracies are also important.

In this context, Abe’s postponement of his India visit due to unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam could only have pleased Beijing. A Modi-Abe summit in the Assamese capital of Guwahati, followed by the two leaders’ visit to a new peace museum in Manipur state that commemorates the Battle of Imphal between the Imperial Japanese Army and Allied forces during World War II, would have highlighted northeast India’s role as the bridge to the rest of Asia.

The Assam violence, although short-lived, will make already-wary Japanese companies more reluctant to invest in India’s remote northeast — to the delight of China, which doesn’t want any foreign investment or even multilateral lending going there. China actually claims an entire northeastern Indian state — Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times larger than Taiwan.

With private Japanese investors averse to taking risks, Japan must provide greater Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans in order to finance socioeconomic projects in India’s northeast. India, however, is already Japan’s largest ODA recipient. Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast, as well as in that country’s strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Against this background, an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies isn’t on the horizon. But if democratic powers leverage their bilateral and trilateral partnerships to generate progress toward such a concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable in the years ahead.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaneyis a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Japan Times, 2019.

China, India, Pakistan: Who’s really pulling the strings in Jammu and Kashmir?

The threat of a nuclear conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi might have made global headlines, but Beijing is right at the heart of the territorial dispute in the Himalayan region, Brahma Chellaney writes.


Brahma ChellaneySouth China Morning Post

The media spotlight on India-Pakistan tensions over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has helped obscure the role of a key third party, China, which occupies one-fifth of this Himalayan region. Kashmir is only a small slice of J&K, whose control is split among China, India and Pakistan.

Sino-Indian border tensions were exemplified by a reported September 11-12 clash between troops from the two countries in the eastern section of J&K, where Beijing’s territorial revisionism has persisted for more than six decades.

Meanwhile, ever since India revoked the statehood and autonomy of its part of J&K in August, Pakistan has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric, with military-backed Prime Minister Imran Khan vowing to “teach India a lesson” and promising a “fight until the end”. Khan has even raised the threat of nuclear war with India.

The power behind Pakistan, however, is China. As Pakistan has sought to grab more J&K territory from India, China has escalated military pressure along the region’s eastern flank with India.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, like Pakistan, it strongly protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

J&K is such a volatile tinderbox that the United Nations Security Council has not held a formal or open meeting on the dispute since 1971, when East Pakistan, with Indian military assistance, seceded as Bangladesh.

China in August engineered an informal, closed-door Security Council meeting to discuss India’s J&K action. However, in the face of opposition from the United States, France and several other members at the meeting, China failed to get the lowest level of Security Council action – a joint statement to the media.

Still, the political fallout from China’s machinations resulted in India asking Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to cancel his September 9-10 scheduled visit to New Delhi.

J&K indeed has helped cement a deepening Sino-Pakistan nexus. China and Pakistan have little in common other than a shared interest in containing India. In keeping with the axiom that “my enemy’s enemy is my dear friend”, the two have forged one of the most enduring partnerships in international diplomacy. Wang earlier declared that China and Pakistan were “as close as lips and teeth”. The China-Pakistan axis presents India with the prospect of a two-front war, if India were to enter into conflict with either country.

This alliance was actually founded on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan ceded a sizeable slice of its own J&K to Beijing in March 1963, just months after China humiliated India in a surprise military attack across the Himalayas and captured territory in J&K’s traditionally Buddhist Ladakh region.

Pakistan’s transfer of territory (comprising mainly the Shaksgam Valley) helped foster China’s strategic nexus with what it now calls an “irreplaceable all-weather friend”.

Beijing, meanwhile, is exerting direct military pressure on India in the J&K region, including seeking to nibble at Indian border areas in Ladakh. Chinese military forays into Ladakh have become more persistent and frequent, leading to face-offs or scuffles with Indian troops.

Politically, China has sought to question India’s sovereignty over Indian-administered J&K. In 2010, it began issuing visas on a separate leaf to Indian citizens from there. It also officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir.

More importantly, to help tie down India, China has extended major help to Pakistan – from well-documented nuclear and missile assistance to security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the UN. Such support allows Pakistan – home to 22 UN-designated terrorist entities – to use state-nurtured terrorists as a force multiplier against India.

Pakistan, in fact, has sought to replicate against India its strategy in Afghanistan, where its brutal proxies – the Taliban and the Haqqani network – have forced the US to seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit. Pakistan’s success against India, however, has been limited to J&K’s Kashmir Valley, which it has helped turn into a terrorist hotbed, forcing the deployment of a large Indian counter-insurgency force.

The predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley makes up just 15 per cent of the area of Indian-administered J&K but is home to more than 50 per cent of its population. The armed jihadists in the Kashmir Valley reject democracy and seek to establish an Islamic emirate. In one of the modern world’s most successful and swiftest ethnic-cleansing operations, the jihadists in 1990 expelled virtually the entire native Hindu community from the valley, but not before abducting and killing nearly 1,000 and gang-raping women.

It was Pakistan’s destabilising role in the Kashmir Valley that spurred India’s recent J&K action. Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the postcolonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis said in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow a caliphate in Kashmir because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Brahma Chellaney is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and the author of nine books. 

© South China Morning Post, 2019.

How America’s Af-Pak policy has imposed enduring security costs on India


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

When US President Donald Trump joins Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 50,000-strong public rally in Houston, it will showcase the strength of the US-India relationship. But the powerful symbolism of the event should not blind us to the divergent US and Indian interests in India’s neighbourhood, especially the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region. Indeed, before the rally, Trump will likely get the India trade deal that he has sought.

The spectacular collapse of the deal the chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, concluded with the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to compel the United States to adopt a long-term approach to the Af-Pak region so that it ceases to be the global hotbed of terrorism. Even if Trump had signed off on the deal, it would not have brought peace to war-ravaged Afghanistan. Indeed, it would have only triggered a new war between Afghan nationalists and Pakistan’s proxies.

Successive US presidents’ short-range approach to the Af-Pak region has fostered Afghanistan’s destabilization and cemented the Pakistan military’s grip on decisive power within the country. It has also meant enduring security costs for India.

How the Af-Pak situation directly impinges on Indian security has been apparent since the 1980s, when US President Ronald Reagan’s administration used Islam as an ideological tool to spur jihad against the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. Portions of the US Central Intelligence Agency’s multibillion-dollar military aid to the anti-Soviet guerrillas (out of whom Al Qaeda evolved) were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to ignite an Islamist insurrection in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The Islamists demographically transformed the Kashmir Valley by expelling virtually all Kashmiri Pandits but not before kidnapping and murdering hundreds of them, including gouging out their victims’ eyes and gang-raping women.

Simply put, it was America’s Af-Pak policy — centred on rewards to Pakistan — that helped bring terrorism to India, including a vicious jihad culture to the Kashmir Valley, shattering the peace there irrevocably. To undermine India’s internal security, the ISI just copied the CIA’s playbook against the Soviets in Afghanistan. America’s relationship with the Pakistan army and ISI, despite the ups and down over the years, remains cosy, emboldening their death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against India. Against this background, nothing can be more galling for New Delhi than the perverse equivalence Trump draws between India and Pakistan.

The now-scuttled US deal with the Taliban was proof that America not only negotiates with terrorists but also is willing to get in bed with the killers of US soldiers. Trump’s plan to host Taliban thugs and felicitate them as “peace makers” at Camp David — a mountain getaway that is considered the crown jewel of the American presidency — was redolent of a 1985 White House ceremony where Reagan gestured towards several Afghan mujahedeen in attendance and declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers”.

Like their procreator, Pakistan, the Taliban use terrorism as their main leverage, carrying out the world’s deadliest attacks. Pakistan’s investment in terrorism has been paying rich dividends to it and its proxies. The Taliban have forced the Americans to seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. The dividends are also apparent from the renewed US courtship of Pakistan.

The US, meanwhile, has increasingly turned its global war on terrorism — launched in 2001 — into a geopolitical tool. The result is greater jihadism and terrorism.

Last week, to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US added more individuals and groups to its terrorism lists, including Noor Wali, the new head of the Pakistani Taliban. This outfit is the nemesis of the Pakistan military but poses no threat to the Afghanistan-based US forces, whose battlefield foe is the Afghan Taliban. Yet conspicuously missing from the US terrorism lists is the Afghan Taliban or any ISI or other Pakistani military official. By contrast, the US has imposed terrorism sanctions on Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and individuals with ties to it.

Three successive Pakistani Taliban chiefs have been assassinated in US strikes, with each wanton killing designed to win Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan. But America, despite all its talk of counterterrorism cooperation with India, will not kill any of the India-wanted, Pakistan-based terrorists that are also on the US terrorism lists. The $10 million US bounty on Hafiz Saeed since 2012, for example, is all for show.

In Afghanistan, a war-weary US is justifiably seeking to cut its losses. Ending the longest war in US history is integral to rolling back America’s “imperial overstretch” — a Trump goal. But to prevent the Taliban from recapturing power in Kabul, the US will have to keep a residual force. It can draw down its forces without making concessions to the Taliban and their master, Pakistan. Its endless search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban is engendering growing bloodshed in Afghanistan and imposing ever greater costs on Af-Pak’s neighbours.

For too long, India has taken a cautious and reactive approach to regional security issues. If it is not to be weighed down by the Af-Pak region, it must take a long-term view and become proactive. It should capitalize on the remarkable goodwill it enjoys in Afghanistan, where it is the favourite of the patriots in their fight against Pakistan’s proxies. Without putting boots on the ground, India must play a much bigger role in Afghanistan, including to safeguard the multibillion-dollar assistance it has provided that country and to checkmate Pakistan. Afghanistan is critical to India’s vital interests.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Myths of Kashmir

India is wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that routinely defy fundamental international rules and norms. Until China and Pakistan stop trying to undermine its territorial sovereignty in Jammu and Kashmir, India will have little choice but to take steps to protect itself.



The Indian government’s recent decision to revoke Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status has raised fears of yet another conflict with Pakistan over the disputed territory. But in order to understand the implications of the events unfolding in Kashmir – a heavily militarized geopolitical tinderbox situated at the crossroads of central Asia – it is essential to dispel the many myths and misunderstandings surrounding it.

The first myth relates to the name itself. While news reports focus on the “Kashmir region,” they often fail to note that Kashmir is only a small slice of the affected territory, called Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which also includes the sprawling areas of Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Moreover, calling J&K a “Muslim-majority” region fails to reflect just how ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse it is. Indeed, while Kashmir is majority Muslim, Jammu is majority Hindu; and the vast, sparsely populated Ladakh is traditionally Buddhist. Gilgit-Baltistan is also predominantly Muslim – Shia Muslim, to be precise (though Pakistan’s government has for decades been encouraging Sunni Muslims to relocate there and gradually form a majority).

J&K residents who speak the Kashmiri language (Koshur) are concentrated mainly in the Indian-administered, densely populated, predominantly Sunni-Muslim Kashmir Valley, which has become a hotbed of Pakistan-backed jihadists fighting to establish an Islamic emirate. In early 1990, the jihadists launched a rapid and bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing, which drove virtually the entire native Hindu community out of the territory. Since then, the Islamists have been systematically replacing the Valley’s syncretic traditions with Wahhabi/Salafi culture.

Yet another common misunderstanding is that India and Pakistan are the only actors vying for control in J&K. In reality, the region is split among India (which holds 45%), Pakistan (which controls 35%), and China (which occupies 20%).

Only India claims the entire region, as well it should: the princely state of J&K lawfully merged with the country under the 1947 Indian Independence Act, which partitioned British India into independent India and Pakistan. (Thus, the notion that in revoking Kashmir’s special status, India has effectively “annexed” the territory is just another myth.) The Pakistani- and Chinese-held portions of J&K are essentially the spoils of separate wars of aggression waged by Pakistan and China against India in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.

Yet Pakistan and China, both revanchist states, are not only committed to retaining control over the territories they already grabbed; they want to seize even more. Pakistan’s terrorism-driven asymmetric warfare is aimed at securing the Kashmir Valley. (The military conflicts Pakistan initiated against India in 1965 and 1999 failed to deliver territorial gains.) China, for its part, advances its claims to several Indian-administered areas of Ladakh through furtive, incremental, and increasingly frequent territorial incursions.

As the J&K issue has undermined both countries’ relations with India, it has cemented their longstanding  with each other. In 1963, Pakistan ceded a segment of its own territory in the J&K region to China, which had earlier occupied Ladakh’s Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin Plateau. It is the only case of one country giving another a sizable chunk of the territory that it captured in a war with a third country (India, in 1948).

Today, China has thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in the Pakistani-held part of J&K. So, beyond controlling its own section of J&K, which serves as a vital link between Xinjiang and Tibet, China benefits from an “economic corridor” through Pakistani-held J&K territory to Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port. The corridor connects the overland and maritime routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China and Pakistan have hypocritically protested India’s revocation of J&K’s special status, even though neither country has granted any autonomy to its portion of the region. And, in fact, it was Pakistan’s relentless support for terrorism in the region that drove India to make the change, which will enable its federal government to take greater responsibility for J&K’s security.

J&K’s new structure – with Jammu and Kashmir as a union territory with an elected legislature, and Ladakh as a territory ruled directly by India’s central government – aims specifically to compartmentalize the region’s territorial disputes, and could support India’s ability to counter aggression from China or Pakistan. The change was approved overwhelmingly by India’s parliament.

Overseas critics, however, have condemned the move, including India’s efforts to ensure security during the potentially tumultuous transition. But it is worth noting that India allows media free access to its J&K territory, whereas Pakistan requires foreign journalists to obtain a military-approved “no-objection certificate.” China has never allowed international media into its portion of J&K.

To be sure, it is a difficult time for local people: telecommunications and Internet service have been disrupted, a virtual curfew has been imposed in some areas, and thousands of troops have descended on the region. But these measures are a response to the presence of large numbers of Pakistan-backed terrorists. If Pakistan halts its destabilizing activities, India will have no need to exert such forceful control over J&K.

The fact is that India is wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that routinely defy fundamental international rules and norms, including respect for existing frontiers and territorial sovereignty. Until China, the world’s most powerful autocracy, and Pakistan, a  of jihadist terrorism, change their ways, India will have little choice but to take all necessary steps to protect itself.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

On Jammu and Kashmir, India must bear short-term pain for long-term gain

Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is a core issue of national security and secular identity for India. Its changed constitutional status marks a watershed for India. To advance J&K’s greater integration and development, India must bear short-term pain to secure long-term gain.


While the people of Hong Kong are fighting for democracy, the armed jihadists in India’s Kashmir Valley reject democracy and wish to establish a caliphate. They have been replacing the Kashmir Valley’s syncretic traditions with a Wahhabi/Salafi culture.

Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

Control of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is divided among India, Pakistan and China, but only India was maintaining special powers and privileges for its portion, which makes up 45% of the erstwhile kingdom. Take Pakistan, which seeks to redraw borders in blood by grabbing the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley from India: Far from granting autonomy or special status to the parts of J&K it holds (the sprawling Gilgit-Baltistan and the so-called Azad Kashmir), Pakistan has treated them as its colonies, exercising arbitrary control over them, recklessly exploiting their natural resources, and changing their demographic profiles. In fact, Pakistan unlawfully ceded a strategically important slice of the increasingly restive Gilgit-Baltistan to China in 1963.

Today, China occupies 20% of the original state of J&K, including the areas it surreptitiously encroached upon in the 1950s or seized during its 1962 invasion of India as well as the trans-Karakoram tract (comprising mainly the Shaksgam Valley) that Pakistan ceded to it under the 1963 Sino-Pakistani Frontier Agreement. That transfer of territory was a unique case in modern history of one nation gifting another with a sizable slice of the land that it had gained control of earlier in a war with a third country (India).

The action of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in revoking the statehood and special constitutional status of India’s J&K caught most by surprise, although the Bharatiya Janata Party had long espoused such a move. If anything, the Modi government’s legacy-shaping constitutional change in relation to J&K was long in coming. The reason was that the Modi government, in its first term, did not have majority support in the Rajya Sabha.

No sooner had the government cobbled together Rajya Sabha majority support than it acted on J&K to level the field by giving the people there the same rights and responsibilities as all other Indian citizens. Revoking J&K’s special status, carving out Ladakh as a separate union territory, and repealing the misogynist Article 35A (which permitted women to be stripped of their rights in J&K if they married outsiders) were bold moves, executed in one fell swoop. The fact that both houses of Parliament ratified the moves with two-third majorities, with several opposition parties lending support, reflects their popularity across the country.

The timing of the government’s steps was driven not just by domestic factors but also by international considerations. Indeed, U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan might have precipitated Modi’s action in stripping J&K of its special status. “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator”, Trump said on July 22 while hosting Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister, Imran Khan, at the Oval Office. Trump of late has been re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and drawing a perverse equivalence between the two countries. This is in keeping with his administration’s new courtship of Pakistan, which has been given a key role in the current U.S. plan to exit the war in Afghanistan.

In fact, the timing of Modi’s action was also influenced by Trump’s looming Faustian bargain with the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban. A resurgent Pakistan-Taliban duo controlling Afghanistan would spell greater trouble for India’s J&K, including through increased cross-border entry of armed jihadists. Trump is desperate to end U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan and pull out the majority of American troops before seeking re-election next year. With Imran Khan by his side, Trump begged Pakistan to “extricate us” from Afghanistan.

The irony is that the U.S. is stuck in the longest war in its history because of Pakistan, which, by harbouring the Taliban’s command-and-control base, has effectively undercut the American military mission in Afghanistan. As the top US military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven”.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that the U.S. got into the Afghanistan military quagmire because of its reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s sanctuaries and leadership in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror against India also explains why the Kashmir Valley remains a terrorist hotbed.

For years, instead of taking out the Taliban’s cross-border bases, the U.S. actively sought “reconciliation”, allowing the militia to gain strength. The protracted search for a bargain with the Taliban also explains why that terrorist militia was never added to the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The American approach counterproductively has not only led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control, but also has emboldened the terrorism-exporting Pakistani military.

Just last year, Trump tweeted that, though Pakistan received more than $33 billion in American aid since 2002, it has returned “nothing but lies and deceit,” including providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan”. But today, the U.S. in coming full circle on both the Taliban and Pakistan.

After suffering its worst ever terrorist attack, the U.S. turned against the Taliban and drove it from power in Kabul in 2001. Now, in search of a face-saving exit from the Afghanistan war, America has embraced the Taliban in high-level deal-making, which risks handing over Afghanistan to the same thuggish group that the U.S. ousted from power. And seeking to appease Pakistan, Washington recently facilitated a $6 billion International Monetary Fund bailout for Pakistan and relaxed its suspension of military aid by clearing $125 million in assistance for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet.

Pakistan — through its brutal proxies, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network — has compelled the U.S. to negotiate the terms of its surrender in Afghanistan and seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit. This explains why the U.S., while sidelining the elected Afghan government in its deal-making with the Taliban, has openly signalled its readiness to accept Pakistan’s primacy in Afghanistan.

Yet another factor behind the Modi government’s rejigging of J&K’s constitutional status was China, including its strengthening axis with Pakistan. China has increasingly played the J&K card against India in the past decade. In fact, China, which fomented the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, taught its “all weather” client Pakistan how to wage proxy war against India. China still fans flames in India’s northeast. For example, Paresh Barua, the long-time fugitive commander-in-chief of ULFA, has been traced to Ruili, in China’s Yunnan province. Some other Indian insurgent leaders have been ensconced in Myanmar’s Yunnan-bordering region controlled by the China-backed Kachin Independence Army.

In 2010, Beijing honed the J&K card against New Delhi by aggressively adopting a stapled-visa policy for Indian citizens from J&K. To mount pressure, Beijing has tacitly questioned India’s sovereignty over the portion of J&K under Indian control and officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometre line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K.

No surprise then that China took the lead earlier this month to internationalize the J&K issue by successfully calling for a special but informal United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on the dispute, but only in relation to “the India-Pakistan question”. By brazenly cloaking its own role in the dispute, including unlawful occupation of parts of J&K, China has presented J&K as just an India-Pakistan issue.

The fact is that China’s occupation, which started in the mid-1950s, has effectively gutted the 1948 UNSC resolution, which came after Pakistan seized more than 35% of J&K. The mandated first step in implementing that resolution was Pakistan’s vacation of its occupation. But after China’s change of the J&K territorial map, the first step would mean vacation of both Pakistani- and Chinese-held areas of J&K. That seems impossible, given that Beijing has formally annexed parts of J&K (including Aksai Chin), built the strategic Karakoram Highway to Pakistan through the internationally recognized disputed region, and is now implementing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in a similar manner.

The UNSC’s China-engineered J&K discussion on August 16 may seem inconsequential because an informal, closed-door meeting like this normally has no resolution for consideration. China, despite support from a Britain still hooked to imperial fantasies, failed to get even a joint statement adopted. A joint statement to the press constitutes the lowest level of action by the Security Council.

Undeterred, however, the Chinese ambassador to the UN sought to spin the discussions while briefing the international media. Claiming to present a “summary” of the discussions, the envoy of the world’s largest, strongest and longest-lasting autocracy — which has incarcerated more than a million Muslims and reengineered the demography of all its minority homelands by settling Han Chinese in large numbers — spoke about the “human rights situation” in Indian J&K.

Still, it would be a mistake to believe that China’s UNSC machinations yielded nothing. The fact is that these machinations are only emboldening Pakistan and its terrorist proxies. Pakistan currently hosts 22 UN-listed terrorist entities and at least 133 of the UN-designated global terrorists. China’s scheming also aids separatists in Indian J&K.

In fact, China’s diplomatic success in convening the UNSC meeting — even if it resulted in only talk, no action — sent a jarring signal to India, bringing its J&K policy under international spotlight. The closed-door huddle at the UN headquarters represented the first official UNSC meeting on Kashmir since 1971, when Indian military intervention helped create Bangladesh. Indeed, the Chinese machinations have served as a reminder to India that China’s J&K interference will only increase. This is partly due to the CPEC projects in Pakistan-held J&K, where Chinese military presence is growing, including near Pakistan’s line of control with India.

Make no mistake: China’s strategy is to attack India’s weak points and stymie its rise to the extent possible. Beijing views the Indian portion of J&K as India’s Achilles heel.

Against this background, the J&K constitutional change can help India to more ably counter the Sino-Pakistan nexus centred on Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. For starters, India has separated its J&K-related territorial disputes with Pakistan and China by carving out Ladakh as a new federally administered territory and turning the rest of its J&K from a state into a union territory with a legislature.

Separating Ladakh from J&K was long overdue. In defiance of the grassroots demand for Ladakh to be made a separate entity, this vast frontier region critical to India’s national security was kept for decades under the administrative control of a J&K leadership which was from the Kashmir Valley and often secretly sympathetic to secessionists. The result was that Ladakh — the bulwark against the Chinese military’s march to the southern foothills of the Himalayas — remained neglected and economically backward.

Today, with jihadists increasingly calling the shots in parts of the Kashmir Valley, the constitutional change empowers the central government with greater authority in dealing with the J&K security situation. Three decades of a Pakistan-sponsored Islamist insurrection in the Valley made continuation of the status quo indefensible and unsustainable. After years of bloodshed — a period in which Pakistan sought to exploit the Indian J&K’s special status — a change became imperative.

In fact, Article 370, although designed to reassure J&K’s Muslim-majority population by granting substantial autonomy to the state, came to be seen by Pakistan as Indian acceptance that J&K is a disputed territory. That only encouraged the Pakistani establishment to up the ante. Article 370, by allowing only permanent residents to own land, also encouraged Islamists in the Valley to change, by force, the demography and property holdings by expelling Kashmiri Pandits. This expulsion constituted one of the most successful and swiftest ethnic-cleansing operations in modern world history.

With its diverse ethnic and religious communities, J&K was a microcosm of pluralistic India, before its syncretic culture and traditions came under a sustained Islamist onslaught. Since 1989, with successive governments in New Delhi helpless to arrest the trend, the pluralistic traditions of Kashmir have largely given way to a Wahhabi/Salafi culture. The defanging of Article 370 may not stem the Arabization of the Valley’s Islam but it will certainly help to lift the ambiguity on J&K’s status by integrating it fully with the Indian Union.

India has managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action. But India now must brace up to its internal-security and regional challenges. The militant stronghold of the Kashmir Valley makes up just 15% of the area of the J&K state, to be dissolved on October 31. But it is home to 55% of the state’s population. The current government restrictions on movement and communications directly impinge on constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Yet, given the high risk of a deterioration of the security situation, these restrictions can be eased only in a graduated manner.

Let’s be clear: While the people of Hong Kong are fighting for democracy, the armed jihadists in the Kashmir Valley reject democracy and wish to establish a caliphate. Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as the first Islamic state of the post-colonial era, only to emerge as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism. India can never allow an Islamic emirate in Kashmir.

In this current situation, authorities must lift or re-impose restrictions in the Valley’s troubled districts as part of a decentralized, calibrated strategy that seeks to build peace at the local level in each borough through reward and punishment.

India’s bigger challenge relates to the deepening Sino-Pakistan nexus. This nexus increasingly keeps the Indian armed forces and police on their mettle. India is the world’s only country wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy even basic international rules and norms.

With China’s protection, Pakistan will continue to use armed jihadists as a force multiplier against India. China provides Pakistan security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the UN. Covert nuclear and missile assistance from Beijing also continues. So, Pakistan cannot afford to stop being China’s loyal client, especially since that relationship — however lopsided — aims to tie down India.

India needs to tackle head on Pakistan’s protracted proxy war by seeking to impose costs on the Pakistani military generals (the terror masters), rather than on their expendable terrorist proxies. India’s 2016 ground-launched surgical strike after the Uri terrorist attack and the more recent Balakot raid in February targeted only the terrorist surrogates, leaving the generals unscathed to continue their death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against India.

The power behind Pakistan, however, is China, against which India is reluctant to even speak up. In fact, Beijing is using the profits from its spiralling trade surplus with India to expand its military capability and advance its aggressive ambitions without firing a shot. India is effectively funding its own containment. China already dominates India’s telecom sector but New Delhi, instead of banning Huawei from its 5G trials, is still searching for a middle ground.

No surprise then that Indian policy is emboldening Beijing to up the ante through both Pakistan and direct border provocations. China has also been engaged in other diplomatic needling, including calling the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh “southern Tibet” since 2006. Although J&K is split among three countries (with only India claiming the whole of it), New Delhi, by refusing to speak up, has allowed Beijing to cleverly present itself at the UN and elsewhere as a sort of a neutral party interested in lowering tensions between two of its “friends”, India and Pakistan.

The Wuhan spirit did not survive even a week after the April 2018 Wuhan summit. Yet, despite China’s latest provocations, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in India in October for a second Wuhan-like informal summit, which could be held in Varanasi.

Before that summit, China intends to take India round and round the mulberry bush in yet another round of border talks. The fruitless border negotiations are being held ad infinitum since 1981, when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister, with Beijing dangling a new carrot every few years but refusing to abandon its revanchist claims on Indian-governed territories. Beijing’s newest carrot has been meretriciously labelled “early harvest” proposal by a gullible Indian media, although the proposal remains completely shrouded in mystery. The proposal will likely turn out to be little more than another ride for India on the Chinese merry-go-round.

New Delhi, instead of lending a helping hand to Beijing’s strategy of engagement as a façade for containing India, must start imposing economic and diplomatic costs on China in a calibrated manner, including by taking a leaf out of Trump’s trade-war playbook. China’s predatory trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off.

Economically, the least New Delhi can do is to erect roadblocks on China’s inroads into key Indian sectors. Politically, India needs to strengthen its hand by exercising countervailing leverage. If India continues to ignore China’s provocations, including the recent UNSC machinations, it will be negotiating from a position of weakness when Modi hosts Xi in October or when next month National Security Adviser Ajit Doval meets his Chinese counterpart in the border talks.

More fundamentally, J&K is a core issue of secular identity and national security for India. While India’s J&K is open to foreign media, the Pakistani- and Chinese-controlled portions are not. To report from Gilgit-Baltistan or “Azad” Kashmir, Pakistan requires foreign journalists to seek military permission in the form of a No-Objection Certificate (NOC). The open access India grants to international media, however, has resulted in biased coverage by journalists focusing only on security measures, stone-pelting rowdies and hospitalized rioters. The negative coverage carries wider implications. For example, an adverse report on J&K released by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in June 2018 relied mainly on such distorted media coverage.

The changed constitutional status of J&K is a watershed for India. In the short run, the security situation in the Kashmir Valley could worsen, resulting in India coming under greater pressure from domestic and foreign critics and human-rights groups. But over the longer term, J&K’s greater integration and development are likely to contribute to the normalization of the situation in the Valley. India must stay the course unflinchingly, bearing short-term pain to secure long-term gain.

© Open, 2019.