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Meteoric rise of Islamic State
The recent elections in Afghanistan may have been historic, but electoral fraud may have eclipsed the success of the process. Democracy has never been easy in Afghanistan, but it now faces twin challenges - that of surviving the vicious propaganda of the Taliban as well as the unscrupulousess of the country's own polity. The recent elections were rife with incidents of electoral fraud, especially in insurgency-affected parts of southern Afghanistan. Calling the elections an unmitigated success or failing to investigate these incidents of fraud would be a dire injustice to the Afghan people.
Raja Karthikeya was an international observer for the elections in AfghanistanTo start with, the pre-election period was marked by intimidation of both voters and candidates. While the Taliban threatened voters with bodily harm if they cast their ballot, candidates bribed voters without hesitation with clothes, sacks of wheat and other incentives. In fact, while focusing on the Taliban threat to the elections, the international community is paying inadequate attention to the element of candidate corruption which was rampant in these elections.
Several instances of malpractice have come to light. In one southern district, one candidate's supporters hosted a large rally for women, where they distributed clothes to all the attendees and then collected the voter identity cards of the women for proxy voting. There have been several instances in which tribal leaders collected voter ID cards of their tribe members and sold the cards' numbers to candidates. On polling day, these voter ID numbers were used to fill voter registers at polling stations, while ballot boxes were stuffed in favor of some candidates. The voter ID cards themselves have been controversial since there were at least two versions of the cards and some voters have more than one card. Women's voter ID cards, given the conservative nature of Afghan society, did not carry photographs making identification difficult and were suspected to be a medium for electoral fraud even before polling day. There were significant complaints of harassment and intimidation of opposition candidates' supporters and campaigners by police and security agencies. Police officials in some districts allegedly took ballot boxes home on polling day in the guise of "protection" and returned them stuffed with ballots favoring certain candidates. Strictly speaking, the fraud was bipartisan in nature if not in effect. While the majority of fraud seemed to favor one candidate, there were reports of fraud by a challenger as well.
Voter turnout is being taken by much of the international media and observers, as the barometer of success of the elections. But in reality, voter turnout varied widely across the country. In the north, despite violence by the Taliban in some provinces such as Kunduz, the turnout was rather high, touching 50 percent in some towns. This was in part due to the improved security situation in that part of the country, and in part due to the desire of ethnic minorities to make their presence felt in the next government.
Paul Rogers's weekly column on openDemocracy has tracked conflict in Afghanistan since September 2001.
Among the recent articles:
"Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)
"Afghanistan in an amorphous war" (19 June 2008)
"Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)
"Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (28 August 2008)
"Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk" (9 October 2008)
"Iraq's gift to Afghanistan" (20 November 2008)
"Afghanistan's twisting path" (9 July 2009)
"Afghanistan's lost decade" (16 July 2009)But the strategically vital region in the elections was always going to be the south. Two major reasons contributed to this. Firstly, The leading opposition candidates who hailed from ethnic minorities like Tajiks and Hazaras had their largest support base in the north while Karzai's main constituency lay in the Pashtun-dominated south. Secondly, Pashtuns at large feel victimized by both sides of the ongoing war. Pashtuns, especially the nationalists, feel that the former Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul has been unrepresentative and unresponsive to them, with Karzai as a mere figurehead. Naturally, the elections in the South, which is dominated by Pashtuns, were expected to be a close affair. In the run-up to the polls, most of the leading candidates tried to identify themselves with voters in the South through tribal or other ties of kinship. But come polling day, almost the entire region was besieged by the Taliban. The Kandahar-Helmand road was blocked, one district head was assassinated and several candidates were threatened. In Helmand, Zabul and Farah provinces, it was nearly impossible for a voter to walk to the polling station. In the strategically vital Kandahar province - the birthplace of both President Karzai and the Taliban's Mullah Omar and the hometown by association of Abdullah Abdullah - polling was possible only in a few district headquarters and Kandahar city itself. Given this situation, voter turnout in the region was less than 10 percent. To some extent, the electoral fraud seems to have even been perpetrated almost in response to the low voter turnout. It would be surprising therefore, if the elections were considered a nationwide success .
The elections were necessary to give legitimacy to the Karzai government and its political and military actions to fight the insurgency. Fraud in these elections has thus created a Catch-22 situation for the international community. Questioning the credibility of the elections would feed into the Taliban's propaganda and tantamount to a strategic loss for the Coalition. Yet, declaring the elections a success would fuel the growing sense of injustice among Afghans, creating recruits for the Taliban and feed conspiracy theories about the election being stage-managed by the West. While this dilemma is not easy to resolve, the latter tactic of declaring the elections a complete success would prove far more costly to the international community than admitting the faults and investigating them.
Fundamental to such dilemmas of Afghanistan are questions about the wisdom of having a democratic system itself in Afghanistan. As one influential tribal leader in southern Afghanistan summed up for me, "Why is democracy being imposed on us? Under the tribal system, people obeyed us leaders. They came to us for resolution of disputes and we protected them". The leader's contention was that the West was asking Afghanistan to achieve democracy in a span of years, a task that the West itself took centuries to accomplish. Voting for a candidate was still largely along tribal lines in Afghanistan. Tribal voters considered voting as a method of buying the patronage and protection (even from the law) of a powerful candidate. The argument therefore is that Democracy as we outsiders understand it is unsustainable if not unsuitable for Afghanistan.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Neither such tribal leaders nor international thinkers have bothered to ask average Afghans what they want. Afghans across the country, especially the youth, strongly desire democracy. Much as they have respect for the jirga system, they do not want to see it become the de jure system of national governance in the country. Nor do Afghans, even in the Pashtun areas, desire the return of the Taliban. For Afghans any triumph of the Taliban itself would amount to a betrayal once again of the Afghan people by the West. When Afghans hear of efforts to negotiate with "moderates" across social strata that I spoke to say that surrendered Taliban rarely pull their weight with their former cadre. They may act as interlocutors but seldom can they get former comrades to give up arms. Kabul should first build credibility with the people through reforming its governance before it reaches out to the Taliban.
Therefore, the value of elections to the Afghan people should not be underestimated. Voter cynicism, which is a product of mis-governance in the country as well as the result of conspiracy theories, should not be mistaken for voter apathy. As one young Afghan said, "We'd like to go out and vote. Provided that the winner hasn't already been decided for us".
As the preliminary results have started to come in, the IEC has reportedly thrown out some 200,000 votes from 447 polling stations on account of fraud. The UN-backed adjudicator of the elections, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), has ordered a recount in some polling stations. But more needs to be done. For instance, the ECC has received about 720 complaints. But in several instances, complainants did not lodge formal complaints, being wary of going to meet local officials. While all complaints may not be credible, it behoves the ECC to send out investigation teams to provinces and districts from where reports of fraud have come in, to meet all candidates' agents and do a thorough investigation. In other words, the ECC should be willing to go beyond the book and the complaints on file to investigate and adjudicate the results. Justice will not otherwise be done to Afghan aspirations for democracy.
The Mumbai attacks have brought renewed focus on Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had hitherto been seen as merely a Kashmiri separatist group. Indian investigators suspect the outfit to be involved in last week's run-and-gun rampage that left nearly two hundred people dead in Mumbai. A serious look at Lashkar's background and tactics suggest that it is unlike any terrorist group that has operated in India or indeed in the international arena.
Lashkar-e-Taiba ("Army of the Righteous") originated in the mid 1990s as the militant arm of Markaz Dawatul Irshad, an Islamist organization founded in the late 1980s by Hafiz Mohamed Saeed, a professor of theology at Punjab Engineering College. Lashkar's grew in prominence after Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence decided in the early 1990s to stop supporting groups that sought an independent Kashmir (e.g. Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) to groups that supported Kashmir's annexation by Pakistan. Raja Karthikeya Gundu is a Junior Fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy
From the beginning, Lashkar was unique from the other Kashmiri separatist groups. Its members were not ethnic Kashmiris, but were predominantly Pakistanis, from Punjab province. (This in fact, places it at odds in strict ideological terms, with the dogma of Maulana Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamat-e-Islami and thence of political Islam in Pakistan. According to Maududi, it is un-Islamic "for the citizens of a country to stage jihad against another country if the two countries have diplomatic relations").
Lashkar's recruits are mostly from the middle and lower classes, and an overwhelming majority of them have college education. Most young recruits do not join Lashkar to make a career in terrorism. They join it motivated in equal part by religious conviction, and a desire for adventure and a sense of purpose. Most recruits leave after two years of fighting across the border to return to Pakistan and pursue other careers.
Lashkar in its early days discovered a simple and innovative tactic to spread terror - that of staging suicide attacks where armed men storm a secure location amidst a hail of grenades and gunfire. The expectation is to temporarily capture an area with no expectation of return and with the certainty of death in the subsequent shootout with security forces. The first instance of such an attack was the storming of the Border Security Force headquarters in 1999 in Bandipora in Jammu and Kashmir.
These "fidayeen" methods were backed by forced theological dogma and historical examples including that of Hasan al-Shibh, a Shia leader who rebelled against Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. The pro-Pakistan groups fighting in the Kashmir valley, which organised themselves into the United Jihad Council in 1994, found Lashkar an anomaly and for years, the group operated alone. When it joined the council in 2003, it steadily infiltrated and diluted the council's agenda from one of independence to joining Pakistan. This is believed to have caused the split between Kashmiri political parties advocating secession from India and the parallel militant movement. In terms of targets, Lashkar has often attacked soft targets like religious shrines and economic targets in order to stir sectarian strife even as its main targets remain symbols of state.
From the perspective of ideology, Lashkar is unique within Pakistan in that it was born out of the Jamaat-Ahl-e-Hadith sect rather than the Deobandi sect like the majority of militant groups in the country. The Ahl-e-Hadith sect is a puritanical movement that opposes veneration of saints and occult practices and almost all facets of the Sufi strains of Islam historically popular in South Asia. In recent years however, the group has acquired ever greater Salafist overtones and there was even friction between Lashkar's founder and leaders of its parent Ahl-e-Hadith sect. It must be noted that Lashkar's ideology is not Luddite and the group embraces modern technology like mobile phones and TVs. (In fact, Hafiz Saeed has been interviewed several times on television.)
The Ahl-e-Hadith is the largest Islamic sect in Bangladesh and has more adherents in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. Hence, Indian suspicions of Lashkar strengthening its presence in Bangladesh as well in a bid to stir up trouble in India's north east since 2001, come as no surprise.
Links to global jihad
Many in the west did not know about Lashkar-e-Taiba before the Mumbai attacks. However, the group has appeared on the west's radar several times in the past decade. When the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles in 1998 into Taliban controlled Afghanistan as retaliation for the East Africa embassy blasts, several of the missiles inadvertently hit Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps. After the launch of the "war on terror", Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaeda leader was captured in March 2002 in a Lashkar safe-house in Pakistan. In 2004, Australia swiftly banned the group after the arrest of a French-born member of the group planning to strike targets in the country. In 2003, the FBI indicted 11 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba for training for jihad on paintball ranges in Virginia in the United States. In 2006-07, three relatives of Hafiz Saeed were arrested in Massachusetts for committing fraud with religious visas. Rashid Rauf, the Briton who was the chief accused in the 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners is also believed to be one of the Lashkar's recruits.
In a recent article, Steve Coll mentions a conversation with Lashkar's senior cadre in early 2008 where the latter proudly talk of a "HR policy" to allow junior members to go on leaves of absence to fight alongside the Taliban in western Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Coll also mentions the group's amphibious operations in the lake near its Lahore compound.)
Lashkar since 2001
When Pakistan banned Lashkar after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 under US pressure, the group appeared to splinter into several groups (e.g. Al Arifeen, Al Nasireen), but the core soon reincarnated as Jamat-ud-Dawa. Although the US banned the new avatar as a foreign terrorist organization in 2006, Musharraf refused to follow suit citing lack of evidence. In fact, Lashkar was arguably the only militant group banned by Pakistan after 9/11 which did not declare war against the Musharraf administration. Although Hafiz Saeed continued to make weekly sermons at the Qudsia mosque in Lahore, including hateful calls for jihad against the US, Israel and India, and even accused Pakistan's rulers of selling out to Americans, he never named Musharraf as a target. In a 2005 interview with NBC, Musharraf slipped up and argued that Lashkar had never been banned. The Musharraf administration turned a blind eye to the presence and activities of Lashkar.
After the 2002 ban, the group stepped up activities in India's hinterland. The most spectacular of these attacks was in 2006, when the group bombed the commuter train network in Mumbai killing 209 people. Simultaneously, Lashkar tried to exploit inter-religious tension within India, for instance through a suicide attack on a temple in western India in 2002 - an attack which bore eerie resemblance to the Mumbai attacks. The attack was claimed to be in revenge for the communal pogrom that killed thousands of Muslims earlier that year. Lashkar also raised money for its activities by claiming it was gathering funds for the benefit of riot victims. In short, Lashkar tried to set up action- reaction cycles which would further polarize Hindus and Muslims in India and create outright conflict between extremists of either religion. The Malegaon bombings by suspected Hindu militants suggest that Lashkar's agenda of division has blossomed poisonously.
Inside Pakistan, since 2002, Jamat-ud-Dawa established itself as a charitable organization, raising millions of rupees in donations. It chose education as its main medium of proselytization and claims to now run 197 schools and at least one university in Pakistan. These schools are not all madrasas. Several of them are English medium and teach modern science and math. But in all of them, armed jihad is taught to the students as an obligatory duty. Besides schools, Jamat-ud-Dawa runs an ambulance service, hospitals and blood banks in Pakistan, and was involved in massive relief and rehabilitation activities after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir and after the October 2008 earthquake in Balochistan. The relief activities were accompanied by propaganda using loud speakers preaching armed jihad.
Perception within Pakistan
Although the group started with and continues to have a "liberate Kashmir" agenda, it has over the years metamorphosed into one with the agenda of creating a super-state by restoring "the throne of Delhi to Muslims". This species of nationalistic rhetoric merges comfortably with the group's pan-Islamist rhetoric. The group sees itself as a guardian of Pakistani and Muslim identity. Thus, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, Lashkar-e-Taiba is a "civilian militia". The group's members are generally seen as patriots. Unlike other radical groups with a Kashmir-based agenda, Lashkar has never entered Pakistani politics or displayed aspirations of political power. The group's compound near Lahore is a self-sustained community, not very different from those of religious cults.
Thus, while the majority of Pakistanis would not ever join the organization nor endorse its violence, they find the organization to be a just force of citizens fighting for an ideal, largely sympathizing with its anti-Americanism and anti-Indian sentiment. This understanding is important in seeing why the government of Pakistan may be reluctant to provoke the public by handing over Hafiz Saeed to the Indians.
In recent years, Lashkar has built up operations in Karachi in southern Pakistan, away from its traditional base in the north in Punjab.
Lashkar's resilience and mutability are real causes for concern. Most terrorist groups do not survive ten years of operation. Lashkar has only grown stronger in its fourteen or so years of existence, despite bans by the US and Pakistan and the pressure on terrorist groups after 9/11. It has successfully adapted itself to the changing political environment in Pakistan (from democracy to dictatorship to democracy) and transformed itself from a largely militant organization to one with extensive philanthropic activities, without losing its capacity to commit terrorist acts outside Pakistan. It has attracted young, urban professionals and enjoys wide support within its constituency.
It has shed the lure of branding just like al-Qaeda and operates under a number of aliases. Its not-so-clandestine charity front and the charity's vigorous work in post-disaster relief operations have helped it raise millions of rupees which will help it survive international crackdowns. The Mumbai attacks testify to its intelligence gathering and planning capabilities in a hostile environment. Specific tactical details of the standoffs in Mumbai, (such as the blowing up of an elevator in order to take cover inside the elevator shaft) indicate the level of professionalism its cadres have achieved. The very modus operandi of the attack (an amphibious landing) could rank it alongside the Tamil Tigers in terms of innovation.
Last but not least, Lashkar's leadership is ambitious. Even if their agenda has been impacted by al-Qaeda, they aspire to achieve the status of "liberators" and will not be content to play second fiddle to any larger group. Thus, we must be prepared for more attacks from this group. Mumbai's tragedy may just have changed the game.
The wave of terror attacks earlier this summer in India has brought delayed attention to Islamist militant activity in the country. While international media focused only briefly on the bombings, their brutality is comparable to the outrages perpetrated in Madrid and London. More than 100 people were killed in the serial blasts in three cities in north, west, and south India in May and July. These attacks sit in a continuum with serial blasts in New Delhi and Mumbai in 2005 and 2006. India's position in a volatile region further compounds the threat. No other democracy grappling with Islamist terrorism must also cope with neighbours like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, all of which are home to intensifying Islamist violence.
But what must make New Delhi's counter-terrorism mandarins really toss in their sleep is the growth of indisputably indigenous terrorist groups. The emergence of the "Indian Mujahideen" asks probing and tough questions not only of India's security forces, but of the very resilience of the country's pluralist democracy.
A proliferating threat
India entered a new, definitive phase of in its confrontation with terrorism after the attacks on the Red Fort and then the Indian Parliament in 2001. Since then, jihadist incidents have become almost routine, reaping grisly tolls; the blasts on Mumbai's commuter trains in 2006, for instance, killed 174 people. Unlike its incarnations in Europe, Islamist violence in India stems from at least three separate strands of militancy: "Kashmiri separatism", "global jihadism" and, perhaps most worrisomely, "indigenous jihadism".
After the post-9/11 crackdown by US and Pakistan, pro-Pakistani Kashmiri separatists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba moved their activities deeper into India, establishing sleeper cells across the country. They struck targets which were symbols of national identity and pride, such as the Indian Parliament and the Indian Institute of Science. The primary agenda of these groups is to draw international attention to Kashmir in a bid to force India out of the disputed territory.
The "global jihadists" consist of foreign militant groups, the foremost being the Harkat ul Jehadi Islami of Bangladesh (HuJI-BD), which over the last three years has targeted Hindu and Muslim religious places hoping to provoke communal clashes. HuJI-BD was a charter member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Jihad Front.
The third strand - the "indigenous jihadists" - have recently shot to notoriety. A student organisation called the Students' Islamic Movement of India has been held responsible for providing logistical help to the Kashmiri separatist groups and HuJI in their attacks. The organisation is now banned and some of its alumni have formed the "Indian Mujahideen", which claimed responsibility for the latest attacks in July.
The growing influence of indigenous militant groups like "Indian Mujahideen" demands further reflection. India has the largest Muslim minority in the world, in both proportional and numerical terms. Unlike Muslims in the west, who are mostly descendants of immigrants or recent converts, Muslims in India are ethnically indigenous; Islam has been in India for over a millennium. Even the minority of Indian Muslims who trace their roots directly to Persia and Turkey have few ties with those lands.
Islam has long and intertwined history in the subcontinent. Muslims maintain numerous sites of pilgrimage within India. Shrines of Sufi Muslim saints are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Even though orthodox Islam and conservative madrasas (the ultra-orthodox Deobandi school of Islam to which the Taliban trace their theological origins, started in northern India) are no strangers to India, taking up arms against the state is only a very recent phenomenon. While India has a history of nationalist Islamist movements waged against the British, jihad against fellow countrymen is a recent and unsettling trend.
After the Partition of British India in 1947, many elite and rich Muslims moved to newly-formed Pakistan. Muslims remained in India in their millions (until recently, India had the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia), but many were mired in poverty. Over the next fifty years, the economic and educational disparity between Muslims and other Indians only widened. The plight of Muslims is not a result of direct state policies; after all, the state has fairly uniformly failed to alleviate the conditions of the poor. However, Indian politicians have historically treated Muslims as an important "vote-bank", selectively pandering to them without addressing their real socio-economic problems. While Muslims bemoan the gap between rhetoric and reality, Hindu nationalists complain that the Muslim minority receives undue attention from politicians. Such selective interpretations have built high communal walls where once there were none.
Some scholars say that the radicalisation of Indian Muslims began in the early 1990s during the convulsions of the Babri Masjid dispute, when right-wing Hindu chauvinists managed to inflame passions across the country after they demolished a centuries-old mosque. The 2002 riots in Gujarat, in which over one thousand Muslims were killed, further deepened the sense of alienation felt by many Muslim across the country. But despite the persisting communal flare-ups, the participation of Indian Muslims in terrorist incidents was a rare occurrence until recently.
A potpourri of tactical and strategic objectives motivates Indian Muslim militants. They see themselves as fighting a defensive struggle against Hindu right-wing extremists; as seeking revenge for the 2002 riots; and as waging a war to regain control of political power in India, a large part of which was ruled by Muslim dynasties before the arrival of the British. Where radicals elsewhere rely on the common rallying cries of Palestine or Iraq, such invocations are rarer in India (though India's growing strategic alliance with the United States is unpopular amongst a majority of Indian Muslims). Most Indian jihadists do not advocate the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate as a primary objective.
The political response in India to jihadist terrorism strikes a stark contrast to that of other democracies. While political parties in the US and Europe are united across ideological lines in passing anti-terrorist legislation, in India some opposition parties regularly accuse the government of using terrorist attacks as a pretext for the persecution Muslims. In some cases, within hours after the arrest of an alleged terrorist, politicians rush to the suspect's home to console his relatives and condemn the government. Such behaviour may be the sign of a healthy, self-critical democracy; it also suggests that Indian counter-terrorism is susceptible to the corrosive effects of petty politics.
The indigenous threat opens up new frontiers in the country's battle with terrorism. Terrorist incidents in India, when not pegged to sub-national insurgencies, were mostly limited to high-profile, "elite" arenas, targeting major metropolises or passenger aircraft. Yet recent police investigations have unearthed jihadist training camps deep within the hinterland, in states such as Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Small-town Indians must find it strange to now see their luggage checked at railway stations, or to find their backwater towns targeted by jihadists. By turning from the bright lights of big cities to the quieter streets of the interior, indigenous terrorists aim to widen the rift between the majority and the minority Muslim community in an altogether new way. Not addressing the changing nature of terrorism in India carries catastrophic risks for the country's pluralistic democracy.