Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Ajai Sahni, Institute for Conflict Management


  1.  Of the various ideological streams that currently inspire and provoke political violence and terrorism in South Asia,1 the most destabilizing and lethal,2 and the one with the greatest extra-regional impact, is Islamist terrorism. A multiplicity of sub-sets and a complex, sometimes conflicting scheme of inter-linkages, has been documented in connection with the extended range of Islamist terrorist groups operating in the region.3 However, an inordinate focus on particular groups, on operational parameters, and a proclivity to reinterpret, if not distort, the realities of the ground in terms of narrow perceptions of divergent interests of state by various global powers, have tended to obscure certain core aspects of Islamist terror and its structures of support in the region. Particularly, while the evolution of contemporary Islamist terrorism in South Asia, including its roots in the anti-Soviet Afghan campaign in Afghanistan, are reasonably well known, there is an abiding confusion regarding the dynamics of its persistence and continued expansion in and from this region.

  2.  What is little understood is that extremist Islamism has long flourished in South Asia, and it is here that the world's first global Islamist terrorist movement was bred and nurtured, and from where it was exported—first into the immediate neighbourhood, and then across the continents, into the heart of "fortress America" on 9/11, and into nation after nation thereafter. Crucially, the footprint of every major act of international Islamist terrorism, for some time before 9/11 and continuously thereafter, invariably passes through Pakistan.4 After 9/11, the US campaign in Afghanistan, and the stark choice given to the Pakistani leadership,5 the dynamics of the Islamist terrorist enterprise in South Asia have undergone dramatic adaptive adjustments and modifications. Essentially, however, this dynamic, its underlying ideologies, and its motivational and institutional structures, remain intact.

  3.  This submission argues that:

  3.1  Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is the principal terrorist organisation in South Asia, and all the other major entities6 that are often named in the context of ongoing terrorism in and from this region—particularly in Afghanistan, and in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and other parts of India—are essentially its agents and instrumentalities. A minority among these has now become renegade, while elements within other "loyal" groups have shown occasional signs of restiveness and rebellion. Within this context, it is impossible to maintain a legitimate distinction between domestic/regional groups and the global jihad, as cadres, infrastructure and, crucially, ideology, overlap. The spaces created by the Pakistani establishment for "loyal" terrorist groups are exploited and make possible the operation of renegade and global groups as well.

  3.2  In this, the ISI functions as an integral element of the Pakistan Army and establishment, "as a disciplined army unit that does what it is told",7 and not as a "rogue organisation" or through some rogue or "retired" elements, as Pakistan seeks to encourage the world to believe.

  3.3  During the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan was the most active and aggressive player in the South Asian region, defining for itself a role that substantially shaped the foreign policy priorities and security concerns of all its neighbours to an extent far in excess of its size and strategic strengths. Islamist extremism and terror were the primary instruments of motivation, mobilization and execution of its policies of strategic extension. Covert asymmetric warfare and terrorism in Afghanistan and Kashmir were the manifestations of this politics of violent disruption, and they remain central to the Pakistani vision.

  3.4  Pakistan's project of strategic overextension seeks a prominent role in Central and West Asia as well, and its only instrumentalities to secure influence in these regions remain Islamist extremism and terrorism.

  3.5  These instrumentalities are also integral to the ruling establishment's strategies of domestic political management, as well as of international resource mobilisation. In the latter context, Pakistan presents itself as part of the solution to the problems it creates, combining manipulation, intimidation, and blackmail—including nuclear blackmail—often mimicking the conduct of a suicide bomber to secure its ends,8 and is then handsomely rewarded for its "cooperation". Pakistan will not and cannot abandon these instrumentalities or discontinue the ISI's support to terrorism because, in doing so, it would have to discard the only mechanisms it possesses to secure and retain an influence, both within the region and globally, that is grossly out of proportion to its natural and national endowments.

  3.6  The idea that the Pakistan problem can be "solved" by liberal developmental financing from the international community is fallacious. Each dollar of development aid or financial relief provided to Pakistan releases a dollar of domestic resources for further militarization, radicalization and extremist religious mobilization.9 Structural elements also conspire to prevent any substantial proportion of such aid from achieving its intended objectives or reaching intended beneficiaries.10

  3.7  Meanwhile, the Pakistani strategy has yielded enormous rewards in foreign assistance as well as great latitude in conduct that would otherwise be construed as unquestionably criminal and as appropriate grounds for international sanctions. It is under this benign dispensation that Pakistan has consistently remained a "minimal satisfier", doing as little as is possible to secure itself against punitive action, but preserving its instrumentalities and networks of terrorism, sustaining its campaigns of terrorism at currently available levels of deniability and the international "tolerance of terrorism".

  3.8  The effort to orchestrate a transition to democracy through a controlled military regime in Pakistan is fundamentally flawed, and has, in fact, immensely weakened democratic and secular forces, even as it has further entrenched revanchist elements within the country.11

  4.  The problem lies at the very foundation of the Pakistani state and the ideology of political Islam that led to its creation: the theory that people of different religious communities cannot coexist. The seeds of the terrorist threats confronting us today were sown decades ago, in the radical Islamist ideologies of the early 20 Century. The history of these movements and ideologies is much too long to consider here. But it is useful to recall that, in the mid-1920s, Maulana Sayyid Abu A'la Maududi, the founder and head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, began to articulate an ideology of political Islam that gave primacy to jihad over and above all the other "duties" imposed by the Faith.12 Islam was, in this conception, in irreducible conflict with all nationalisms, as well as with every form of governance other than Sharia (Islamic law).13

  5.  This ideological core has been overlaid by cynical processes of the instrumentalisation of Islam by all political forces in Pakistan, including the military and the supposedly secular. This tradition was firmly established by the professedly secular and reputedly atheistic "founder" of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who repeatedly and without scruple exploited the Muslim identity for violent political mobilisation14 and specifically for jihad when these suited his transient political objectives.15 The instrumentalisation of Islam and jihad have remained an integral element of the political and strategic ambitions and outlook of the military-feudal-fundamentalist bloc that has ruled Pakistan since its creation.

  6.1  The rationale and continuance of this strategy is now increasingly visible in Pakistan's proxy "re-conquest" of extended areas of Afghanistan through the Taliban.16 After 9/11, and under US threat, Pakistan apparently disowned the Taliban and claimed to be enthusiastically "hunting" the Al Qaeda. In reality, a duplicitous policy helping relocate these organisations and allowing them significant operational space on Pakistani soil, was combined by a pretended participation in the "global war against terrorism". Pakistan's "cooperation" in the war on terrorism has been, and remains, entirely coerced, except in the case of a handful of domestic sectarian terrorist groups and a few "renegades" who turned against the establishment in Pakistan. At the same time, the Taliban has been actively supported to recover from the reverses of Operation Enduring Freedom, and has carried out a campaign of escalating terrorism in Afghanistan from bases and widely known operational headquarters in Pakistan. Over the past five years, they have successfully disrupted Kabul's influence in a widening area that now covers more than a third of the country's territory on conservative estimates. Today, exhausted and desperate Western Forces are striking deals with local Taliban commanders, and the idea of accommodating an oxymoronic "moderate Taliban" in Kabul is finding increasing support in Washington. Pakistan has managed to wait out the storm, with its strategic tool, the Taliban, substantially intact.17 The calculation has always been that the US and Western powers will eventually lose patience in Afghanistan and return, in desperation, to the earlier "franchise" arrangement, restoring Pakistan and its Taliban proxies to influence over Afghanistan.

  6.2  A comparable calculation dominates Pakistan's terrorist enterprise in India as well. Gradually, it is expected, the permitted space for terrorism will expand under the umbrella of Western indifference, exhaustion or preoccupation elsewhere—in Iraq, West Asia, concerns on "homeland" security, the management of rising terrorism in Europe and the possibility of war in Iran—allowing Pakistan to restore its campaigns of terrorism in India to pre-9/11 levels, or to escalate these well beyond, given the capacities that have now been consolidated across much wider areas outside J&K.

  7.  The arrests of Islamist terror cells across Europe, America, South-, Southeast and Central Asia, Australia and Africa have shed light on Pakistan's ongoing role as an incubator of global Islamist terror and subversion. A far more insidious danger also continues to be nurtured in, and exported from, Pakistan—the propagation of the ideology of jihad, of communal polarization and hatred, and of the demonization of all other faiths in the eyes of Muslims. It is not only the madrassahs and radical Islamist groups that are involved in this enterprise, but the entire state system, including the public educational infrastructure created and supported by the Government.18

  8.  Islamist terrorists do not recognise international boundaries, though state responses in target societies continue to be tied down by irrational and self-imposed constraints, and on the presumed barriers of the state's territorial frontiers, its presumed interests and "sovereignty". Vast spaces for free terrorist operation and consolidation have also been created by the international community's "tolerance of terrorism", particularly where terrorism appears to have a "domestic" profile, as against a purported "international" mandate and objectives.

  9.  An ideology exists wherever it has believers; a method will be employed wherever it has calculable likelihood of success. Unless the sources of Islamist ideological mobilisation and the possibility of terrorist "successes" do not become the principal and relentless targets of international and non-discriminatory counter-terrorism efforts, the dangers of international Islamist terrorism will only continue to escalate.

  10.  Attempts at "incremental reform" of various component systems within the broad dynamic of the Islamist extremist and militarized politics of Pakistan fail to accommodate the sheer size and complexity of the system, and the impossibility of monitoring compliance.19 Specifically, there is little possibility of "incremental reform" of the Islamist extremist and terrorist forces in Pakistan. Any effort to absorb them into the "mainstream" political system results in an increasing radicalization of that system, and an undermining of democratic structures and formations, rather than a moderation of the radical elements. International compellent strategies for Pakistan must target the "enduring strengths and weaknesses" of the larger system, to secure clearly defined objectives that comprehend the fullest restoration of democracy; complete military subordination to civil authority; constitutional government and rule of law; and the dismantling of the Islamist terrorist infrastructure and its feeder mechanisms—the madrassahs, components of the school and university curricula, the wider network of radicalized social and cultural institutions, laws and practices that have systematically promoted religious fanaticism and hatred.

  11.  If these ends are to be secured, this will require an immediate end to the system of concessions and aid that has unintentionally but systematically rewarded predatory and irresponsible policies on the part of successive Pakistani regimes and particularly the current regime headed by President Pervez Musharraf. It will require, further, the imposition of unbearable costs on Pakistan—and particularly targeting its power elite—for policies and practices that fail to adhere to norms of civilized governance, that encourage or support terrorism and extremism, and that lead to the expansion of the sphere of authoritarian and unaccountable governance.


  1 The various ideological streams that have, in varying measures, employed terrorist tactics in South Asia principally include, but are not exhausted by, Islamism, Maoist or Left Wing Extremism, and Ethnicity-based exclusionary and separatist movements.  

  2 At least 4,299 persons (civilians, security force personnel and terrorists) have been killed in connection with Islamist terrorism just over the period 2005-06 (up to 8 October 2006), in India (2,950), Pakistan (1,302) and Bangladesh (47). Data compiled from the South Asia Terrorism Portal at, and based on open-source monitoring.

  3 The most widely known are, of course, the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, located in Pakistan-Afghanistan, and the array of Pakistan-based Islamist groups prominently including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mumhammad, the Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen, the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, among others. For a detailed listing, see "Terrorist and Extremist Groups of Pakistan", South Asia Terrorism Portal,

  4 For an exhaustive and updated listing, see K P S Gill, "Pakistan: The Footprints of Terror," in Islamist Extremism and Terrorism in South Asia, South Asia Terrorism Portal, The 9/11 attacks themselves were a culmination of this process, and virtually all the perpetrators and conspirators had trained, resided or met in, coordinated with, or received funding from or through Pakistan. More specifically, the then-serving Chief of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was directly implicated in a transfer of US$ 100,000 to the principal architect of the 9/11 bombings, Mohammad Atta. See, for instance, Ahmed Rashid, "Musharraf is Untouchable", The Telegraph, 6 October 2006.

  5 General Pervez Musharraf acknowledges the harsh existential choice he was offered and his decision after he "war gamed" the US, in his In the Line of Fire, New York: Free Press, 2006. See pp 199-203, particularly his claim on Richard Armitage's alleged threat to "be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age", p 201. Armitage subsequently denied the statement; see "Armitage Refutes Musharraf's Claim", CBS News, 22 September 2006.

  6 See n 3 above.

7 William Milam in Eben Kaplan, "Backgrounder—The ISI and Terrorism: Behind the Accusations", Council on Foreign Relations, 10 October 2006,

  8 Ajai Sahni, "Pakistan-USA: The State as Suicide Bomber", South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 1, No 49, 23 June 2003,

  9 At least some aid funds flow directly to the terrorist groups, as was recently illustrated in revelations linked to the multiple hijack conspiracy in the UK. See "15 held in Pakistan as scale and intricacy of threat is revealed",,,1844769,00.html; "Investigators believe alleged plot tied to Asian quake relief",

  10 See Ajai Sahni, "The Dynamics of Islamist Terror in South Asia", Journal of International Security Affairs, Fall 2005, No 9.

  11 Ibid.

  12 Maulana Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi, Fundamentals of Islam, (Ed Khurram Murad), New Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami Publishers, 2002, p 285.

  13 Ibid. pp 296-302.

  14 As in the calls for "Direct Action" on 16 August 1946, which resulted in the slaughters that came to be known as the "Great Calcutta Killings", as well as further riots and killings across Bengal and Bihar. See, for instance, Rafiq Zakaria, The Man Who Divided India, p 109, 119-125.

  15 The banner of "Jihad" was raised by Jinnah himself in the North West Frontier Province. Jinnah has often been projected as being extraordinarily secular in his perspectives, and his last speech in the Pakistani Parliament is cited as testimony to his vision of a Pakistan where religion, caste, creed and other differences would not matter. Wali Khan, however, describes Jinnah's conspiracy with Iskandar Mirza, to foment a jihad in the NWFP, when the province, under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, sought to distance itself from the demand for Partition. Quoted in L C Jain, The City of Hope—The Faridabad Story, New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1998, pp 2-4, citing Wali Khan, Facts are Facts, Vikas Publishers, New Delhi.

  16 Ajai Sahni, "The Stupidity in Afghanistan", South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol 5, No 15, 23 October 2006,

  17 See, Ahmed Rashid, "NATO's Top Brass Accuse Pakistan over Taliban Aid",, 6 October 2006, DCMP=EMC-new_06102006; Tunku Varadarajan, "An `Ally' with his own Agenda", The Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2006; G Parthasarathy, "Re-emergence of Taliban: Towards Waziristan-style deal in Afghanistan." The Tribune, 19 October 2006; Barnett R Rubin and Abubakar Siddique, Resolving the Pakistan Afghanistan Stalemate, Special Report, Washington: United States Institute of Peace, esp pp 11 and 14.

  18 See, for instance, Ajai Sahni, "Why do they hate us?" South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 2, No 38, 5 April 2004,; The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad,; Yvette Claire Rosser, Islamisation of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks, New Delhi: Rupa, 2003.

  19 Several commentators have noted "compelling reasons" why Pakistan's "comprehensive strategic makeover will not happen". See, Hussain Haqqani, "The Role of Islam in Pakistan's Future", The Washington Quarterly, 28:1, pp 85-96; Robert Wirsing. "Pakistan's Transformation: Why it will not (and need not) happen", Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Volume 4, Number 2, January 2005,; Christine Fair, "The Counterterror Coalitions: Cooperation with India and Pakistan", Rand Corporation Monograph,—MG141.pdf, 2004; Ashley Tellis, "US Strategy: Assisting Pakistan's Transformation", The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2004-05.

Dr Ajai Sahni

29 October 2006

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