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Strengthening Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS): Is it equipped to counter ‘emerging’ threats?

Anant Mishra

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Intelligence agencies in Afghanistan are outstandingly failing to collect information of high value beneficial for Afghan’s domestic security. Deploying under-trained and inexperienced intelligence officers with limited knowledge of technical tools or key operational skills results in the collection of inadequate information [as well as inefficient] flow and management. With amateurish operational skills, these agents are unable to collect vital information for state security; some, even in the best of their experience, collect poor quality intelligence. Information collected from major known terror outfits and key government institutions could force policy makers and military leadership to make wrong decisions. The main objective of intelligence gathering is to maintain a swift flow of information, but the NDS officers are not well versed in this task. For example, the successful capture of Kunduz (a province in northern Afghanistan) by the Taliban did not occur because of their weapons superiority or technical expertise in battlefield; it happened because of massive failure of intelligence cooperation and coordination between the NDS, the National Security Agency of Afghanistan (NSA), the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the Interior Ministry (MoI).

This was a particular case of intelligence failure in so far as alerts from security agencies coupled with available collected intelligence reports highlighting Taliban’s plan to capture the city were all simply ignored or refuted by the Ministry of Defence and the NSA, even after receiving regular real-time Taliban movements. However, the fall of Kunduz did not come as a surprise, particularly considering the territory already controlled by Taliban. The subsequent siege of Kunduz, even after receiving real-time Taliban movements confirmed by security alerts and already available intelligence inputs points towards a massive intelligence failure. It is important to note that, right from the initial establishment of the NDS with the assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), collecting and disseminating intelligence, managing information flow and formulating clear operational objectives have all constituted major challenges.

Additionally, the saga of lost-in-translation and unclear objectives massively affected the relationship between the Pentagon, the NDS, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which all approached differently the ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan. These different visions and perspectives towards war on terrorism in Afghanistan, impacted negatively the Afghan National Army (ANA)and the NDS. This was especially the case after the withdrawal of US troops in late 2014; the challenges faced were beyond the capacity of the NDS. Since then, the Taliban attacks compromised Kabul’s control over many territories. ANA endured major casualties during the early days of US withdrawal, forcing it to operate thinly within the territories under their control. The Taliban attacked from Pakistan’s side of the border, crippling an Afghan effective response. The NDS failure to adequately and systematically collect vital intelligence, especially in rural regions, remains a challenge which hinders its ability to respond to or even identify sudden attacks.

Political and military interventions by neighbouring countries, various warlords, violent non-state actors such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State, are the main factor behind the prolonged civil war which continues to pose a grave threat to Afghan’s national security today. It is important to note that after each attack the only statement received from security institutions in Kabul is that the attacks were carried by elements operating beyond the border. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has been a haven for terrorist groups, but Afghan national intelligence agencies on numerous accounts, severely compromised domestic and regional security.

On numerous accounts, the then President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, admitted the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to train and equip militants in Pakistan and then sending them to Afghanistan to carry out terror attacks. It is also important to note that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recruited and trained over 250,000 mujahid fighters (between the ages of 14 to 45) in the last century, whereas the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded the ISI to train those fighters along with Pakistani military and ISI intelligence officers. General Musharraf acknowledged the nation’s practice of arming and training militant groups, especially acknowledging the role of ISI in providing financial aid to Taliban within its territory. He even acknowledged the existence of on-going operations conducted by ISI in Afghanistan with a special emphasis on financial and military assistance provided to the Taliban in an effort to carry out attacks against Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) through-out the country.

In addition to this, Pakistan’s former ambassador to US Husain Haqqani, on numerous occasions, confirmed the Islamabad’s policy of sponsoring terrorism through violent non-state actors. Moreover, there were vital documents highlighting that the financial assistance sent from Washington to the Pakistani military which was strictly meant to assist in counter terrorism, was significantly used by the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence to sponsor and arm violent militant factions. It is an un-deniable fact that the famed Pakistan’s ISI has been the principle sponsor and master mind of many violent attacks in Afghanistan and India, from a major participant in 9/11, to train bombings in Mumbai, the attack on Indian parliament in 2001 followed by the 26/11 terror siege, or still the attack on the Kabul International airport. Pakistan also brazenly aided and abetted famed terror leaders such as Osama bin Laden or Mullah Umar.

It was rather the failure of major nations to provide timely aid to Afghanistan, coupled with the sheer neglect to strengthen intelligence gathering units, which paved the way for Islamic violent factions to survive and prosper.

Moscow was particularly involved in regional Afghan politics until a full-scale invasion in 1978. Intelligence agencies such as the KGB were used extensively in an effort to overthrow regional leaders.

Intelligence is no longer limited to the traditional assimilation of information flow and its management; in modern warfare, intelligence is engagement with human beings to gain leverage. It is very difficult to separate the role of intelligence during peace and war-time. In the west, intelligence agencies are not only seen as warning of an incoming threat, rather they act as an informational hub — comprising varying procedures from information gathering to its secret assessment. It is important to note that reforming a national security architecture also highlights the legitimacy of the government.

Within the domain of security architecture, our approach will not focus on the challenges faced during technical and covert operations; instead it aims to identify factors which can make NDS a responsible agency while discussing the importance of NDS post-9/11. The traditional operational mechanism of Afghan intelligence agencies is largely based on human intelligence because of inadequate technical equipment’s and monetary support. The intelligence is largely gathered through local farmers, sympathetic teachers, responsible shop owners, and village headmen. Since the intelligence so gathered is deemed to come from un-reliable sources, it holds poor quality and it is doubtful. At the same time, the by the book feature is essentially absent as there is no rule book or framework.

Role of Afghan intelligence during the Soviet invasion

During the Soviet invasion, numerous domestic intelligence institutions were established with the support of the then KGB and GRU (Military Intelligence Directorate) aiming to tighten the grip around the mujahedeen fighters. In the meantime, domestic intelligence agencies such as the Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) along with Khadamar-e Aetela’at-e Dawlati (KhAD) enjoyed hospitable relations with both KGB and GRU, in the light of their extensive influence on intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Between 1980 and 1992, these intelligence agencies played a vital role in countering extremist forces in Afghanistan. However, in 1992, Dr. Najibullah’s government collapsed and so did the entire government infrastructure, including its intelligence institutions.

The period of the 1980s is usually termed as the utopian period of Afghan politics. The governments of the time, in an effort to ensure stability and security in the region, established four intelligence agencies, two external: Da Kargarano Amniyati Mu’asasa (KAM); Workers Intelligence Service, Da Afghanistan da Gato de Satalo Adara (AGSA); along with two domestic agencies WAD and KhAD. President Taraki’s regime was awfully short (between 1978-1979); the political decisions of his successor, President Hafizullah Amin, created a rift among intelligence agencies and regional communist parties. Because of these differences AGSA was dissolved.

In the early 1980s, the government replaced the intelligence agency KAM with the KhAD. In 1986, the then government systematically removed KhAD from the then Interior Ministry (MOI) while establishing a new department titled Office of the Prime Minister which was later re-named as the Ministry of State Security, Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD). The then Director General, Dr Najibullah reported directly to KGB headquarters in Moscow. In addition to this, former KGB operatives cited the manpower estimation of over 17,000 to 35,000 individuals in Wazarat-e-Amniat-e-Daulati (WAD) alone, whereas they estimated presence of over 100,000 local assets and the presence of over three to four KGB officers assisting one (KhAD) officer. Beyond the border, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence recruited trained and armed over 90,000 to 100,000 mujahid fighters between 1980 and 1990 while receiving financial assistance from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to counter Soviet armed forces.

The KhAD was specifically tasked to maintain domestic stability and security in the region while ensuring uninterrupted governance from the then communist leadership while maintaining relationship between all tribes and minority groups under the programs initiated by the then Ministry of Nationalities and Tribal Affairs. Moreover, KhAD earned the title of Secret squads of KGB by demonstrating complete ruthlessness in an effort to assist the then government to maintain absolute control over urban territories. KhAD also secretly financed religious scholars and established a separate government institution under the name of Directorate of Religious Affairs. It is important to note that the KhAD was a politico-centred intelligence agency led by President Dr Najibullah who tried to use every available means to justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While extensively emphasising the importance of urban territorial control, the then Afghan government and their Soviet advisors failed to exercise control over rural hinterlands.

In the early years of KhAD operations, intelligence officers were extensively trained in the art of torture. This training was a part of their curriculum as promoted mostly by the then East German officers (Stasi) and KGB trainers. During their reign, numerous hidden execution sites were created, and large number of Afghans were kidnapped and executed. However, with a twist in KGB leadership, officers from KhAD were tutored in electronic intelligence techniques, drifting from the traditional interrogation techniques.

According to one former KGB officer, between 1980 and late 1984 over 80,000 Afghans entered the Soviet Union. By 1986, over 25,000 officers from the KhAD were trained in special intelligence techniques. In the light of numerically few trained intelligence officers in NDS, the then leadership had no choice but to employ KGB-trained officers and deploy inexperienced recruits. In an effort to reform the entire intelligence infrastructure, especially in the light of NDS poorly executed operations, policy makers must address this issue immediately. It is imperative to reform the current intelligence architecture while establishing laws which could prevent the use of domestic agencies to achieve political gains.

Moreover, the KhAD recruited large numbers of informers and maintained a close-knit relationship with tribal lords, particularly those residing close to the border, in an effort to both maintain strict vigilance, monitor the supply routes taken by resistance fighters, and ensuring safety and security of government officers. The KGB employed numerous tactical manoeuvres. One such manoeuvre was maintaining tribal connection which they effectively used to infiltrate resistance fighters, destroy their operations, flood with incorrect information, and create an aura of mistrust within the resistance fighters in an effort to severe their relationship with local communities. Their main goal was to incite violence between the tribes, fuelling ambitions within the powerful tribal leaders, and use all means necessary to exploit their ambitions, while ensuring that they do not participate in anti-communist movements. The sole agenda of Soviet intelligence agencies was to exploit their ethnicity, identity and cultural linkage while limiting the nation to a meager tool of Soviet propaganda.

The Role of the CIA

After years of war, insecurity and instability, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was established in 2002 – with the assistance of CIA and the Pentagon – in an effort to counter the threat posed by the Taliban while collecting information from urban and rural regions. This latest intelligence agency was a replacement of the Soviet-sponsored KhAD. During the Soviet occupation the KhAD emerged as the ‘powerful domestic intelligence agency, ruthless and yet one of the most professional intelligence groups with battlefield experience’- however well known for tactics such as ‘detention without trial, forced abduction, mass execution by comparison the NDS was a strong leadership led organization; however, it lacked ingenuity, professional conduct, relevant intelligence trainings or adequate finances. Since its formal establishment, no directives/framework were established to ensure its professionalism.  Its leaders even failed to adapt CIA directives. Today the nation is in desperate need of establishing a well-informed intelligence agency which could effectively provide vital information on insurgent’s whereabouts/movements and distribute timely to a relevant group to take necessary action. The vital source of information is formed by the interaction with tribal leaders; this interaction, when properly channeled through local commanders, is the foundational route of intelligence in Afghanistan.

The command structure of the NDS is independent, which means that it does not come under the architecture of the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior; however, it does host a close-knit relationship with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at all levels. Its operations are directed by the National Security Agency of Afghanistan; the head of NDS reports directly to the President. On numerous occasions the NDS has been blamed for not adequately liaising with regional police commanders or Ministry of Defence (MOD) officials while providing un-timely and inaccurate intelligence when asked by relevant agencies. Moreover, and on numerous occasions the leadership within the NDS ignored relevant and vital information while responding untimely or withholding certain intelligence vital for other agency operations. Another failure of the NDS is the lack of technical and scientific know-how. While looking at the previous operational prognosis, the NDS repeatedly failed to assess collected intelligence which points towards another key issue related to an absent policy framework. NDS intelligence officers face no difficulty in gathering intelligence; however, they appear to be challenged during assessment. There is an absolute need to establish an operational mechanism, a framework or an institutional doctrine of intelligence agencies highlighting clear goals to be established during democratic regimes. It will not be incorrect to state that Intelligence agencies operating in Afghanistan are in desperate need for necessary technical and management systems.

In the light of repeated intelligence failures and mistrust with their sister intelligence agencies, the NDS has received acute criticism even for disrespecting and ignoring the orders of their Commander-in-Chief i.e. the President. The frequent inter agency confrontation forced discontented political leadership to initiate numerous debates on open forums acutely criticising the NDS, especially the unruly behaviour of the chiefs who openly criticised actions of the President. This sudden transition of the NDS from an intelligence agency to a political party invited acute criticism from intelligence and military experts throughout the world.

In an effort to maintain strict discipline amongst the NDS leadership, President Karzai frequently changed said leadership; however, this brought no significant change in their operations. Thus, domestic contentions between the NDS and other security agencies coupled with the successful capture of Kunduz by the Taliban and the failure to appropriately act even after receiving viable intelligence inputs broke the trust of many political leaders in Kabul. Policy makers need to understand that for every intelligence agency there is a fail-safe related to unforeseeable errors. This fail safe is further reinforced by a marriage of three pillars of the agency: the decision-making level, the operational level and the enforcement level. The cooperation and coordination of these three pillars is absolutely vital. Furthermore, failure of intelligence does not necessarily mean misinterpretation of vital information or failure for the agency to respond. Intelligence failures can occur due to failings in any of the three aforementioned pillars. To ensure that the agency remains active and aggressive, policy makers must enforce reforms while keeping in mind recent and future threats.

When an agency suffers from a failure at a strategic and operational level, it is the responsibility of the heads of these levels to conduct a thorough assessment of the machinery. Usually, intelligence failures are largely unavoidable; however, it is always imperative for various management heads to run a pre-simulation assessment before initiating an operation. Certain failures such as understanding the operation, agency’s ability to conduct, coordinate and cooperate with various actors, and inadequate dissemination of information occurs because of inadequate training of intelligence officers.

Policy makers must understand that intelligence agencies are the engine of both domestic and external security architecture, an engine whose primary function is to ensure domestic security in the country. Unlike the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or Ha Mossadle Modin in uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim (Mossad), which work on dual operational theory, most intelligence agencies are either offensive or defensive but not both. In the light of our current issue, the NDS is relatively passive. When the Taliban were defeated, one of the main challenges for Washington was to re-structure security institutions in Afghanistan. Washington tasked the re-structuring of Afghan National Army to its Special Operations Command Centre (SOCC) under the leadership of the United States’ Central Command, an agency also tasked with restructuring the NDS and local law enforcement units. There is a sheer absence of integration between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the NDS which policy makers must counter through human intelligence trainings and viable domestic security legislation. It must always be remembered that the Afghan intelligence plays a vital role in providing real-time intelligence to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assets. Furthermore, there is an absolute need to train NDS officers on new and innovating intelligence gathering and assessment techniques. This task could be handed over to the CIA which is fully capable of training Afghan intelligence officers on gathering information through human intelligence techniques.

Being the main intelligence gathering agency in Afghanistan, the NDS continues to share intel with necessary policy makers as well as provincial police commanders and political leaders. Afghan National Army recruits, the NDS comprises staffs and officers who were previously trained by Soviets or fought alongside the Mujahideen. However, in an effort to perform effectively and efficiently there is an absolute need of clarity. Although the National Directorate of Security is one of the most responsible and professional arms within the ANSF, in the light of emerging Taliban and other violent factions in Afghanistan there is no need to link with ANSF or ISAF operations – particularly considering the history of poor coordination and cooperation between the two agencies. It is vital for the NDS to maintain a strict framework of intelligence, since its officers belong to all sects, ethnicities and tribes. It has gripped every city, town and province. The NDS is a frontline plain-clothed military intelligence unit that separates violent actors from the crowd.

Although having defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda factions roughly 17 years ago, Afghanistan remains a battlefield. Since the departure of large sections of US forces, tactical aerial reconnaissance aircrafts and hell-fire armed drones, large unmonitored rural areas of Afghanistan are prone to Taliban occupation. Various Pakistan sponsored terrorist factions are inducing violence on the streets. Using non-traditional methods such as suicide bombings, vehicle laden high explosive devices, planned ambushes, assassinations and militant factions have re-appeared.

Despite receiving extensive financial assistance, the challenges faced by security agencies continue to increase phenomenally. Many experts continue to question the failure of intelligence mechanism taking place even after receiving extensive guidance from NATO and CIA officers in their 17 years of stay. This points towards the fact that the resources deployed by the CIA were not used efficiently. Also, Washington’s deployment of necessary US Special forces in Iraq and Middle East theatre seems to be at least partly responsible. Moreover, linking intelligence techniques with Afghanistan’s culture was difficult for many CIA experts whereas the State Department continued to blame woes on foreign elements and Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence interference in creating a vital strategy for Afghanistan. Traditionally, Washington and NATO have been playing the game half-heartedly. Allowing insurgency to develop was a mistake in the first place, for said insurgency soon became too aggressive and beyond the control of policy makers and their efforts regarding domestic counter-extremist policies.

There are other extremist factions besides Al Qaeda and the Taliban, including Daesh and state-sponsored elements such as the Haqqani Network. Since a large rural section of Afghanistan remains unmonitored and since the NDS in its limited passive operation cannot monitor all pathways, it is possible for many radical Islamic factions such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh seek refuge in the country. Today, Kabul continues to suffer from numerous organizational challenges – besides poor infrastructural framework, inadequate inter-agency interaction, poor cooperation and coordination, socio-economic limitations, rampant corruption, unsafe and unguarded territories, and terrorist activities. Terrorist factions will continue to be rampant and discreet.

On numerous occasions political leadership from Afghanistan and the US have bilaterally discussed the development of a dedicated Afghan Air Force. However, after identifying critical faults during initial developments in this Afghan Air Force, military and policy makers clearly questioned the capability of a sustainable air force.

With a clear mandate by President Donald Trump to deploy extensive US military forces, experts have now raised questions on the traditional operations of assisting, advising and training Afghan National Security Forces while ensuring a hand-over of governance to Afghan nationals. It is now clear that US forces will again be called if an Afghan unit is suppressed under heavy fire. The Afghan forces did manage to free the city of Kunduz but for this they required American air forces and technical mounted units to release the pressure, clearly highlighting the fact that Afghan intelligence and security forces can no longer challenge violent terror factions solely. This statement once again questions the capability of Afghan National Security Forces, which remains vulnerable even after 17 years of presence of both NATO and US forces.

Conclusion

After extensively studying intelligence gathering mechanisms of various operations conducted by the NDS it became clear that NDS officers were unable to assess gathered intelligence inputs and that the policy initiated so as to support the officers failed drastically. The basic difference between the NDS and its mother agency CIA lies in its operational mechanisms. In the history of Afghanistan’s autocratic regimes were able to thrive because of their essential reliance on intelligence agencies. The Soviet invasion came when US and its allies failed to provide a secure environment.

During a liberal and democratic government in Afghanistan, political leadership and policy makers failed to coordinate, a fact which resulted in intense confrontation between political leaders and heads of intelligence agencies. Moreover, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence assistance to the NDS in strengthening intelligence sharing mechanisms surprised many military experts. Also, the global fight between RA&W and ISI have chosen Afghanistan as a playground, a fact which drastically hinders both the NDS and CIA’s initiatives to maintain peace and security in the region. To make things worse, Afghanistan has a history of politicisation of intelligence agencies, which points towards the need to establish a viable institutional framework.

With few experienced intelligence officers operating within the NDS and with the CIA’s inability to train and recruit more expeditiously the NDS was left with no choice but to employ Soviet trained officers. To make the NDS an effective and professional organization, policy makers must focus their attention on its training and recruitment policy. Furthermore, Afghanistan continues to suffer from wounds received from a violent past while seemingly moving toward an unrevealingly bleak future. Adapting new and innovative techniques has always been a difficult task, especially re-structuring intelligence agencies so as to work democratically. Afghanistan, of course, wants to change yet in the light of its violent past, this change will be harsh and slow.

With a history of repeatedly committing the same mistakes the government has yet to introduce viable pragmatic reforms so as to strengthen its intelligence agencies. Kunduz is not just one mistake the NDS committed there were numerous entirely avoidable intelligence failures, in fact so many that they would be impossible to highlight in one article alone. With a history of repeating multiple intelligence failures, the need to strengthen the NDS and other agencies into professional intelligence institutions is the need of the hour.

References

  • Anderson, John Lee, Fall of Kunduz city: Nabil apologizes to nation, tells lawmakers intelligence reports were overlooked, Afghanistan Times, http://afghanistantimes.af/fall-of-kunduz-city-nabil-apologizes-to-nation-tells-lawmakersintelligence-reports-were-overlooked/
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  • Donati Jessica and Stancati, Margarita, Intelligence gap fuels extremist rise in Afghanistan
  • Donald, Jeremy, 1991, Amnesty International, Afghanistan: Reports of torture and long-term detention without trial, March
  • Fitzerald, Capt. James H, 1996, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster)
  • Gill, Peter and Phythian, Mark, 2006, Intelligence in an Insecure World (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press UK).
  • Haas, Richard, 2009, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, (Simon & Schuster)
  • Harper, Stephen P, 2002, Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence (Lincoln, USA: Potomac Books, Inc.)
  • Jalalzai, Musa Khan, 2014, Whose Army? Afghanistan’s Future and the Blueprint for Civil War (New York, USA: Algora Publishing).
  • Jalalzai, Musa Khan, 2015, The Prospect of Nuclear Jihad in Pakistan (New York, USA: Algora Publishing)
  • Johnson, Col. Charles, 1987, Does the USSR have a ‘Grand Strategy’? Reinterpreting the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 24, No. 4
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  • Miller, David H and Tellerby, Jospeh, Country Reports on Terrorism 2015, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258249.pdf
  • Pattison, Col H.K, 1983, Tribal Guerrilla Warfare Against a Colonial Power: Analysing the War in Afghanistan,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 27, No. 4
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  • Reves, Col. Thomas H, 1996/97 New Evidence on the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Nos. 8/9
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Anant Mishra is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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Uzbek’s Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad changed its leader

Uran Botobekov

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Former KTJ leader Abu Saloh

On April 12, 2019, Central Asia’s Salafi-Jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) issued a statement on the Telegram channel, in which it announced the resignation of its amir Abu Saloh (real name Sirojiddin Mukhtarov), a native of southern Kyrgyzstan, from the position of head of the group. According to the statement, the decision on the resignation of Abu Saloh was made at the meeting of the group’s Shura (Council) based on his own statement. In this regard, Shura also expressed gratitude to him “for the fruitful service in the name of Allah over the past six years in protecting the spiritual values of Islam and leading jihad against the enemies of Muslims.”

Abdul Aziz, a little-known in the jihadi world, an Uzbek and a native of the Fergana Valley was elected the new leader of KTJ. In the statement, a brief characterization of the new leader was given using an honorable tone, which states that “Our teacher Sheikh Abdul Aziz hafizahullah devoted his life to Allah, has many years of experience on the path of the jihad and deep knowledge of science [in the study of Islam].” In addition, the statement calls on all members of the group to strictly obey the new leader, in connection with which the Surah An-Nisa [4:59] of the Quran is quoted: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you”.

It should be noted that Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad was created by Abu Saloh in 2013 in northern Syria, which consists of Central Asia’s militants, mostly Uzbeks of the Fergana Valley. Since that period Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations has become a real-life shelter for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants, and their families. Today Uzbek militants are the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest group among the Central Asian foreign jihadist groups in Idlib Province. The approximate number of KTJ militants is about 500 people.

Under the Abu Saloh leadership, KTJ grew out of an unobtrusive regional group into a formidable and tough member of the global Salafi-Jihadi movement. In early 2015, Uzbek militants of the group swore allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. During this time Abu Saloh demonstrated his brilliant ability to successfully spread the al-Qaeda ideology on a global scale. He was and remains a faithful and aggressive propagandist of the Jihadi idea into the post-Soviet space.

KTJ is also affiliated with the Syrian rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and is currently fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. HTS has from the beginning of the Syrian war been a combat mentor for Uzbek militants.

Who was Abu Saloh?

The former leader of the group Abu Saloh, fluent in Uzbek, Uyghur, Russian and Arabic, in the early 2000s received a theological education at the Islamic University of Al-Fatah al-Islamiya in Syria. It was there that he became an ideological supporter of al-Qaeda, deeply studied the theological works of Islamic scholars, the founders of the radical current of Salafism and Wahhabism Ibn Taymiyyah and Abd al-Wahhab. After graduating from university, he returned to Kyrgyzstan, worked as an assistant to the imam in one of the mosques in the Osh region.

New KTJ leader Abdul Aziz

The persistent study of the Wahhabi literature and love of the Salafi ideology led him back to Syria in 2012. Thanks to his profound knowledge of the Koran, oratory and leadership skills, Abu Saloh quickly rose through the ranks, became a spiritual mentor of the Mujahideen. In battles with the Syrian government troops, he was wounded in the eye and treated in the city of Gaziantep in Turkey in 2014.

After conducting a comprehensive analysis of audio and video public performances of Abu Saloh, as an expert on the radicalization of the ideology of Islam, I must note that he has a deep religious erudition, knows by heart the Quran and the hadith of Imam al-Bukhari. He clearly and emotionally expresses his thoughts, confidently holds the attention of the crowd and has been able to inspire a new generation of jihadists to suicide attacks.

From time to time, in his video and audio appeals he argued in absentia with political leaders and heads of intelligence services of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. He accused them of repressing innocent Muslims, banning the norms of Islam and called them satans who sold their souls to the devil.

During his time in Syria, he avoided several attempts on his life by ISIS supporters. But on July 9, 2018, at the hands of the local member of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate in Idlib his wife and four-year-old son were killed; he himself was not injured.

Reasons for the resignation of Uzbek jihadist group’s amir

Abu Saloh’s resignation from the post of group leader may be due to several factors. First, Russia’s special services are leading a real hunt for him in Syria. Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov accused KTJ leader of organizing the terror attack on St. Petersburg’s metro in April 2017 and Kyrgyz authorities blamed Abu Saloh for the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkekon August 30, 2016.In order to avoid pinpoint strikes by Russian aviation on the locations of the KTJ group in Idlib, he may have initiated his resignation and gone deep underground.

Secondly, the possible fall of Idlib in the future will force Central Asian militants to seek new shelter places; they will most likely prefer to move to Afghanistan. To do this, they will have to use the territory of Turkey for the transit zone. If it were loudly announced, the resignation of Abu Saloh could divert the attention of the Turkish secret services from the Central Asian militants-smugglers.

Thirdly, within the KTJ group there has long been a slight opposition to his Amir, who are dissatisfied with his financial and organizational activities. Perhaps in order to avoid splitting the group, he was forced to resign and thus is trying to preserve the unity of the ranks of the Uzbek jihadists.

In the end, it should be noted that, despite his resignation, Abu Saloh remains a fanatical follower of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an ardent propagandist of al Qaeda ideology and the most wanted terrorist in the post-Soviet space.

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Illiberals and autocrats unite to craft a new world media order

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Underlying global efforts to counter fake news, psychological warfare and malicious manipulation of public opinion is a far more fundamental battle: the global campaign by civilisationalists, autocrats, authoritarians and illiberals to create a new world media order that would reject freedom of the press and reduce the fourth estate to scribes and propaganda outlets.

The effort appears to know no limits. Its methods range from seeking to reshape international standards defining freedom of expression and the media; the launch and/or strengthening of government controlled global, regional, national and local media in markets around the world; acquisition of stakes in privately-owned media; advertising in independent media dependent on marketing revenue; demonization; coercion; repression and even assassination.

Recent examples abound. They include a more aggressive Chinese approach to countering critical coverage of the People’s Republic that violates international norms of diplomatic conduct, the use of technology to spy on journalists, researchers and activists by, for example, the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; the jailing of journalists across the Middle East and North Africa and in countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, US President Donald J. Trump’s identification of mainstream media as “the enemy of the people,” and the killing of journalists across the globe including the murder last year of Jamal Khashoggi.

The effort to create a new world media order is enabled by a tacit meeting of the minds among world leaders as well as conservative and far-right politicians and activists that frames global jockeying for power in a world order that would replace the US-dominated system established in the wake of World War Two and take into account the rise of powers such as China, India and Russia.

The emerging framework is rooted in the rise of civilisationalism and the civilizational state that seeks its legitimacy in a distinct civilization rather than the nation state’s concept of territorial integrity, language and citizenry.

It creates the basis for an unspoken consensus on the values that would underwrite a new world order on which men like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Victor Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump find a degree of common ground. If anything, it is this tacit understanding that in the shaping of a new world order constitutes the greatest threat to liberal values such as human and minority rights as well as freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

To be sure, independent media have often made life easier for those seeking to curb basic press freedoms. Valid criticism has put the media on the defensive. The criticism ranges from coverage of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into now apparently unfounded allegations that Mr. Trump and his 2016 election campaign had colluded with Russia to false assertions in the walk-up to the 2003 Iraq war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The nuts and bolts of creating a new world media order are highlighted in a recent report by Reporters Without Borders that focuses on efforts by China, a key driver in the campaign, to turn the media into a compliant force that serves the interest of government rather than the public.

The 52-page report asserts that “over the course of the last decade, China has actively sought to establish an order in which journalists, scholars and analysts are nothing more than state propaganda auxiliaries.”

While the report focuses on China, the issues it raises in terms of what constitutes journalism and the role of the media as the fourth estate that holds power to account and ensures that the public has access to accurate information and continued snapshots of history as it unfolds go far beyond Beijing’s efforts.

So does the lifting of the asylum and arrest in Britain this week of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The Assange case raises issues of definitions of journalism. It also shines a spotlight on the field of tension between a free press and illiberal, autocratic and authoritarian leaders and governments that increasingly dress up their attempts to curb media freedom in civilizationalist terms.

The Assange case forces both the media and government, particularly in democratic societies, to determine the boundaries between journalism and whistleblowing.

Leaving aside allegations that Wikileaks played a role in alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and criticism of Assange’s style and personality, Wikileaks operated as a channel and post office box for whistle-blowers and as a source for media that independently authenticate and asses the news value of materials presented. In doing so, Wikileaks provided a service rather than added-value journalism.

To be fair, some of the issues raised in the Reporters Without Borders report pose broader questions about the standards on which proper journalism should operate rather than the right of governments, irrespective of political system, to try to ensure that their views and positions are reflected alongside their critics in media reporting.

The report lists among Chinese efforts the lavishing of money on modernizing and professionalizing China’s international television and radio broadcasting, investment in foreign media outlets, buying of vast amounts of advertising in foreign media, and invitations to journalists from all over the world to visit China on all-expense-paid trips.

The report also notes that China organizes its own international events as an additional way of promoting its repressive vision of how the media should function.

Hardly unique, these aspects of the Chinese effort, while noteworthy, primarily pose issues for the media. They raise questions about the standards to which media owners should be held, the way politically and geopolitically driven advertisement should be handled and whether journalists and independent media, or for that matter analysts and scholars, should accept paid junkets or avoid any potential jeopardizing of the integrity of their reporting and analysis by paying their own way.

More troublesome is the report’s assertion that China does not shy away from employing what it describes as “gangster methods.”

The report asserted that “China no longer hesitates to harass and intimidate in order to impose its ‘ideologically correct’ vocabulary and cover up the darker chapters in its history. International publishing and social network giants are forced to submit to censorship if they want access to the Chinese market.”

Moreover, Chinese embassies and Confucius Institutes serve as vehicles for attempts to impose China’s will and counter perceived persecution by what it sees as hostile Western forces that seek to tarnish the People’s Republic’s image.

China’s vision of a new world media order is grounded in a 2003 manual for Communist Party domestic and external propaganda published with a foreword of then party secretary general Hu Jintao.

The manual sees journalists as government and party propagators who exercise self-censorship by “handling properly the balance between praise and exposing problems.” Mr. Xi amplified the message in 2016 during a rare, high-profile visit to the newsrooms of China’s top three state-run media outlets, the party newspaper People’s Daily, news agency Xinhua, and China Central Television (CCTV).

“The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name. All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity. They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action,” Mr. Xi told media workers, the term China increasingly is using to replace journalists as a designation.

Chinese journalists have been banned from writing personal blogs, are advised daily by the party about which stories to emphasize and which to ignore and obliged to attend party training sessions.

The title of Reporters Without Borders’ report, ‘China’s New World Media Order’, borrowed a phrase coined by Li Congjun, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and former head of Xinhua.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, Mr. Li cast the need for a new media order in civilizational terms. Media of all countries had the right to “participate in international communication on equal terms” and should respect the “unique cultures, customs, beliefs and values of different nations,” Mr. Li said.

Mr. Li’s argument and language were straight out of the civilisationalists’ handbook that employs the theory of cultural relativism to oppose universal definitions of human rights and basic freedoms and argue in favour of such rights being defined in terms of individual civilizations. Civilizationalists also use cultural relativism to justify their tight control of the Internet that ranges from blocking websites to creating a Chinese wall between national networks and the worldwide web.

Mr. Li was two years later even more straightforward about what China was trying to achieve. “If we cannot effectively rule new media, the ground will be taken by others, which will pose challenges to our dominant role in leading public opinion,” he asserted.

China’s purpose was also evident in Mr. Li’s systematic reference to the media as a mass communication industry rather than journalism as a profession. “This is not insignificant,” the Reporters Without Borders report said. “By treating the media as an industry whose mission is to exercise influence on the state’s behalf, (Li’s) ‘new world media order’ abolishes the watchdog role the media are meant to play.”

Foreign affairs columnist Azad Essa discovered just how long the Chinese arm was when Independent Media, publisher of 18 major South African titles with a combined readership of 25 million, fired him for writing about the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mr. Essa was told his column had been discontinued because of a redesign of the groups’ papers and the introduction of a new system. China International Television Corporation (CITVC) and China-Africa Development Fund (CADFUND) own a 20 percent stake in Independent Media through Interacom Investment Holdings Limited, a Mauritius-registered vehicle.

Mr. Essa’s experience notwithstanding, Chinese efforts to create its new world media order have produced mixed results.

Various autocrats such as Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed have bought into the order’s coercive and surveillance aspects.

The two crown princes have In some ways been at the blunt edge of efforts to create a new world media order with their demand that Qatar shut down its state-owned Al Jazeera television network as one of their conditions for the lifting of the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state that has been in place since June 2017.

They also put themselves at the forefront by employing cutting edge Israeli technology and former US intelligence personnel to spy on journalists and dissidents across the globe.

For their part, Chinese technology companies that would provide much of the new world media order’s infrastructure have had something of an uphill battle.

Attempts by Baidu, China’s leading search engine, to establish local language versions in Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand and Indonesia flopped commercially.

Ironically, the very freedoms China was trying to curtail worked in its favour when a US federal court in the southern district of New York ruled against pro-democracy activists who were seeking to restrict Baidu’s ability to delete from searches terms censored in China. The court argued that Baidu’s filtering of terms was a form of editorial judgment.

Similarly, Chinese technology giants like Tencent with its unencrypted WeChat instant messaging app and controversial telecom equipment and consumer electronics manufacturer Huawei have scored where Baidu has failed.

WeChat, whose traffic passes through Tencent’s China-based servers that are accessible to Chinese authorities, claims to have more than one billion users, ten percent of which are outside China. Huawei, that accounts for 15 percent of the world’s smartphone market, has been accused of providing surveillance technology to Iran as well as Xinjiang and is suspected by a host of Western nations of posing a risk to national security. The company was accused of installing a “backdoor” in some of its products that allows secret access to data.

Even more fundamental than the role of technology providers in the creation of a new world media order, is China’s ability to persuade nations in Asia and Africa to emulate its draconic laws governing cybersecurity and the Internet.

Chinese tech start-ups such as Leon, Meiya Pico, Hikvision, Face++, Sensetime, and Dahua have achieved unprecedented levels of growth on the back of more than US$7 billion in government investments over the last two years.

Export of those technologies have prompted countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Nigeria, Egypt, Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania to introduce or contemplate introduction of legislation authorizing measures ranging from obliging Internet companies to store data on local servers to criminalizing content that authorities deem to be propaganda, calls for public gatherings or cause for disruption or divisiveness

CloudWalk, a Guangzhou-based start-up has finalized a strategic cooperation framework agreement with Zimbabwe to build a national “mass facial recognition program” in order to address “social security issues.” Zimbabwe has installed a Chinese system that allows the government to monitor passengers at airports, railways, and bus stations.

If the Reporters Without Borders report proves anything, it is that China is a major source of the problem. It is however but one source. China may have significant clout and considerable resources, but it is not alone in its civilizationalist approach towards crafting a new world media order. Its aided by autocratic and authoritarian regimes as well as the world’s illiberal democrats.

Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat drove the point home when Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin in Helsinki in July of last year. Some 300 of the paper’s billboards, lining the road from Helsinki airport to the summit, welcomed the two men “to the land of free press.”

Headlines on the billboards reminded them of their recent attacks on the media. Said one billboard: “Media-critiquing Trump has changed the meaning of fake news.”

Helsingin Sanomat editor Kaius Niemi added in a statement that the paper wanted to remind Messrs. Trump and Putin of the importance of a free press. “The media shouldn’t be the lap dog of any president or regime,” Mr. Niemi said.

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BRICS, SCO and Kashmir Terrorism

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On February 14, 2019, a suicide bomber from the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist organization drove a car filled with explosives into a bus that was transporting members of the Indian security forces, killing over 40 people. India immediately accused Pakistan of being behind the attack and started a “diplomatic offensive” against Islamabad similar to the one of it launched in September 2016 when it attempted to isolate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, make it a rogue state and thus force the country’s leadership to abandon its support of Kashmir militants. This offensive is being waged on all fronts, including at international organizations, for example, BRICS, whose final declarations at its summits in recent times have regularly featured items on fighting terror.

BRICS and Terrorism

Up until 2017, the issue of fighting terror was virtually absent from the BRICS agenda, even though India had regularly attempted to put it up for consideration and record the results in official documents. This was due primarily to the specifics of the positions taken by India and China: while New Delhi viewed the issue as mostly a regional matter, trying to get the Pakistan-based groups carrying out terrorist attacks in the Indian part of Kashmir condemned, Beijing, as an ally of Islamabad, blocked New Delhi’s attempts to declare Pakistan responsible for the terrorist attacks and generally hindered any initiatives that could be seen as directed against Pakistan. Even at the 2016 Goa Summit held soon after the attack on the army brigade headquarters in Uri that left 19 people dead, China, according to the Indian media, blankly refused to have the final resolution declare Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organizations. The document mentions only Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State and addresses the need to fight terrorism in Afghanistan.

However, China unexpectedly changed its stance in 2017. At the Xiamen summit, Beijing supported India’s proposal to include a provision condemning terrorism in the final declaration. The declaration expressed concern over the situation in the region and mentioned the threat posed by terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Islamic State/DAESH, Al-Qaida and other organizations associated with it, such as the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. India interpreted this as a major diplomatic success. Apparently, China pursued two goals: first, to hold its “A Stronger Partnership for a Better Future” summit successfully and without any incidents; second, to show India that it was ready to defuse tensions and willing to embark on a rapprochement following the Dolam incident that had taken place a few months prior.

Islamabad was concerned about China’s support for India’s statements. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan Khawaja Muhammad Asif said that Pakistan needs “to break our false image […] We need to accept the history and correct ourselves.” Asif noted that “We need to tell our friends that we have improved our house. We need to bring our house in order to prevent facing embarrassment [sic] on an international level.”

The stance taken by China and the statements made by Asif raised hopes in India. Soon, however, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi made it clear that no changes had taken place in China’s stance on Pakistan: Beijing still views Islamabad as a victim of terrorism, not as a sponsor, and China supports and highly values Pakistan’s efforts to fight militants. Significantly, Weidong Sun, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, emphasized that the BRICS declaration listed only those organizations that had already been prohibited in Pakistan. It soon became clear that China had not changed its stance when it again blocked adding Masood Azhar, leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, to the list of terrorists during UN Security Council votes.

Nonetheless, at BRICS summits, India continued to focus on the issue of fighting terrorism and succeeded in having it included in every final declaration. The document released at the conclusion of the 2018 summit in Johannesburg stated, “We call upon all nations to adopt a comprehensive approach in combating terrorism, which should include countering radicalisation, recruitment, travel of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, blocking sources and channels of terrorist financing including, for instance, through organised crime by means of money-laundering, supply of weapons, drug trafficking and other criminal activities, dismantling terrorist bases, and countering misuse of the Internet by terrorist entities.” The same year, following the informal meeting of BRICS leaders at the G20 summit, a media statement was released stating, “We deplore continued terrorist attacks, including against some BRICS countries. We condemn terrorism in all forms and manifestations […] We urge concerted efforts to counter terrorism under the UN auspices on a firm international legal basis.”

Finally, the terrorist attack in Pulwama led Brazil, the current President of BRICS, to confirm at the BRICS Sherpa meeting in Curitiba on March 14–15 its intention to make fighting terrorism one of the organization’s priorities. The Indian delegation supported this initiative, calling upon all BRICS countries to engage in closer cooperation on the issue.

India’s proposal to consistently mention the fight against terrorism in BRICS declarations raises certain questions: To what degree is BRICS suitable as a platform for discussing anti-terrorist initiatives? And can breakthroughs in this area be achieved within BRICS?

SCO and BRICS

When India and Pakistan were admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June 2017, it seemed it would replace BRICS as the principal platform for discussing regional security issues. The SCO has several major advantages over BRICS in that regard: first, it includes, either as members or as observers, all major regional actors; and it is far better structured and suited to serve as a venue for proposing initiatives on fighting terrorism. The SCO has a special body intended to coordinate relevant activities, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). The experience of RATS gave grounds for optimism: within RATS, Russia, China and the Central Asian states successfully coordinated efforts to fight cross-border terrorist groups.

However, the experience of the past 18 months has shown that while RATS worked smoothly in the “group of six” format, it was entirely unfit to coordinate the activities of the national security services of India and Pakistan, which openly accused each other of supporting terrorism. Essentially, the issue of terrorist groups being active in South Asia was taken off RATS’ table. On the one hand, this allowed both the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure and the SCO as a whole to avoid paralysis during another flareup of the India–Pakistan crisis. On the other hand, it called into question its value as a body coordinating the anti-terrorist activities of all the SCO member states. The national security services of India and Pakistan proved unable to latch onto the “Shanghai spirit” that is often mention in connection with the SCO, and it would be difficult to expect things to develop otherwise: essentially, these two states are locked in a permanent war with each other.

The problem, in this case, is systemic in nature, and it can hardly be resolved at any other venue, be it BRICS, the United Nations or any other regional organization. When India talks about fighting terrorism, it does not mean some abstract terrorism, but rather the very specific terrorism in Kashmir that is fuelled by Pakistan. In this regard, non-regional BRICS member states, such as Brazil and South Africa, are only capable of providing moral support for India.

 “The Wall of China” for India

In this connection, it would be wise to consider the ways in which India could achieve its goal through diplomatic manoeuvres.

Currently, whatever diplomatic means India uses to try and influence Pakistan, it inevitably runs into the “wall of China”: without China’s help and support, India cannot exert enough pressure on Pakistan to induce it to stop supporting Kashmir separatists. The importance of China’s position for the Pakistani authorities is demonstrated by the example of Asif and the final declaration of the Xiamen summit. However, India can gain this help and support only if collaboration with India becomes more important for China than collaboration with Pakistan, which is hard to achieve given the profound mistrust between the political elites of India and China and India’s desire to preserve strategic autonomy. Clearly, India will never become closer to China than Pakistan is, since the latter is essentially a client state of China. Consequently, the only way for India is to become an important trade partner for China so that their economic rapprochement would neutralize the political rapprochement between China and Pakistan. Excessive pressure on Pakistan is equally unacceptable for China, as it could result in the ascendancy in the Pakistan leadership of groups that are geared towards the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

India can achieve certain success at international venues, including the SCO. But this would require more active participation on the part of Russia as a country that is equally close to China and India, as well as the complete reformatting of the activities of RATS to account for the specifics of India–Pakistan relations and the transition from “Shanghai principles” to “Shanghai rules.” This, in turn, requires reciprocal steps by India and Pakistan, which do not want to internationalize their conflict. Without a certain level of international intervention (at least monitoring the situation in Kashmir), the SCO’s activities will be reduced to traditional condemnations of terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups, without any specific steps being taken.

Finally, an extremely unlikely scenario in which New Delhi achieves a direct peace agreement with Islamabad without Beijing’s participation is also possible. However, relations in the India–Pakistan–China triangle are such that Beijing’s help will make it much easier to convince Islamabad to make concessions.

It could thus be concluded that the role of BRICS as a platform for coordinating anti-terrorist activities essentially duplicates the role of the SCO, especially when the latter distanced itself from intervening in fighting terrorism in South Asia. If the SCO plans to retain its standing as the key regional organization, including in the fight against terrorism, it needs to radically reconsider the mechanism of anti-terrorist cooperation within the SCO, starting, for instance, by drawing up a combined list of terrorist organizations, something that the SCO has thus far failed to do.

First published in our partner RIAC

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