How Non-State Actors Could Cause War in South Asia

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How Non-State Actors Could Cause War in South Asia

Pakistan-based non-state actors have an alarming ability to dictate the tenors of India-Pakistan relations.

How Non-State Actors Could Cause War in South Asia

National Security Guard (NSG) commandos look down after an explosion on the fourth floor of the Nariman House, suspected to be a hiding place for militants, in Mumbai (November 28, 2008).

Credit: REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

The September attack on the Indian army base at Uri in the state of Jammu and Kashmir by terrorists belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba proved to be a defining moment for India-Pakistan relations, triggering the worst crisis between the two nuclear powers in decades.

Having absorbed many such attacks in the past, the Indian Government chose to redraw the contours of the rules of engagement by conducting an unprecedented surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) targeting half a dozen terrorist launch pads. What followed were not only increasing claims and counterclaims by the two sides, but also an extraordinary escalation of hostilities. The incidents of cross-LoC and cross-border gunfights, which had shown decreasing trends in the past decade, have not only become more frequent but also more militarily intense. Defense experts believe that such large scale gunfights have the potential to ignite a full-scale armed conflict between the two adversaries.

The Uri attack once again demonstrated the ability of Pakistan-based non-state actors to dictate bilateral engagements between New Delhi and Islamabad. A similar attack in January 2016 on another Indian army base at Pathankot by Jaish-e-Mohammad had refrozen relations after a temporary thaw, which came about after the surprise visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan in December last year.

The Parliament Attacks of 2001 and the Mumbai Terror attacks of 2008 brought the two nuclear powers to the brink of an armed conflict. It is not unwise to assume that even a limited conventional conflict between India and Pakistan has the realistic potential of escalating into a nuclear exchange. Any such conflict would not only be detrimental for regional peace but also for global security. The risk of conflict between the two nuclear powers as a result of such terrorist actions is perhaps one of the most underappreciated threats to international peace and security.

These non-state actors, hereafter NSAs, rightly view bilateral peace in the subcontinent as an existential threat, detrimental to their survival. Consequently, they have time and again demonstrated their unalloyed goal of violating the peace process as a cynical tactic to sustain and thereby achieve their political goals. The political goal here translates to their ability to survive and project themselves as a “useful” instruments ready to be employed by their “State Patrons.” The 2008 Mumbai attacks were a glaring example of the kind of symbiotic relationship shared between Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the officers of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

What makes these NSAs so difficult to uproot even after repeated “declared” efforts by Pakistan to weed them out? How are NSAs able to hold peace hostage with their bold actions? These questions are too critical to be ignored.

The Kargil Misadventure: Upending Patron-Client Dynamics

A completely unique dimension of the Kargil conflict of 1999 between India and Pakistan was the use of insurgent irregulars by state regulars to extract political and tactical advantage. The insurgents, backed by Pakistan’s paramilitary forces, had managed to occupy Indian posts in the Kargil-Drass sector in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. The tactical use of insurgents for strategic purposes allowed Pakistan plausible deniability as to the involvement of its army and security forces. The failure the Indian army and security agencies to detect the initial incursions was predominantly ascribed to the use of civilian “freedom fighters” by the Pakistan army. The use of NSAs as part of such low-intensity campaigns also underscores the important aspect of the costs of war. While the Indian response to Kargil was an expensive air and ground campaign, Pakistan could extract this cost by employing minimal resources.

There were independent international reports that Pakistan army was making preparations to tactically deploy its nuclear war heads whereas India had already mobilized its forces for a horizontal war.

Kargil was a glaring example of the audacious use of NSAs to further state policy, albeit to a ludicrous end. Both Pakistani troops and insurgents were fighting alongside each other as brother soldiers against a common enemy. Such events create bonds based on principles of equality, as both sides tend to overvalue their own contribution. These bonds then provide strength and opportunity to clients (insurgents) to ignore future diktats from their patrons. They manage to outgrow the patron and start operating independently. This is the exact situation which Pakistan’s intelligence agencies face today, with most of the NSA outfits outgrowing Islamabad’s patronage and charting their own independent course — which at times is deleterious to the interests of their patrons.

Deciphering Key NSAs: From Proxies to Independent Players 

With an overview of the dangers these NSAs can pose, it would be pertinent to look at some of the unique characteristics of NSAs.

Lashkar-e-Taiba: A few months before the Mumbai attacks, Osama bin Laden had assessed that such attacks had the potential to ignite a war between two nuclear armed neighbors. The 2008 Mumbai attacks drew international attention to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which till then was considered merely a regional terror outfit with interests primarily in J&K. The attacks showcased the sinister striking capabilities which the outfit had acquired thank to its long association with ISI. LeT has long served as an ideal tool for Pakistan’s ISI, serving its interest vis-à-vis India to the hilt.

In the mid-2000s, surging jihad in Afghanistan and the eruption of violence in tribal areas in Pakistan ignited fierce debate within LeT regarding where to focus its energies. LeT was invariably accused by other jihadi organizations of fighting ISI’s jihad rather than the “real jihad” in Afghanistan. The younger members wanted LeT to deviate all its resources to jihad in Afghanistan and as a result many of its members started to desert the group. It was under these circumstances that LeT and ISI started planning a spectacular strike at multiple targets in Mumbai. The attacks essentially would serve three purposes. First, it could stop any further split in the Kashmir-based outfits. Second, it would provide them with a sense of achievement. Third, after the Lal Masjid incident (which was stormed by the Pakistani army in 2007), it would help shift the theater of violence from the domestic soil of Pakistan to India.

Though LeT has displayed its willingness to target the United States and some European countries in order to be seen as an active participant in global jihad, there is no ambiguity within the outfit about India being its first and foremost target. On account of growing collaboration with other jihadi outfits, individual LeT members have been able to use its military infrastructure to support their individual and group interests. This makes even the individual members of LeT an increasingly potent threat for India, wherein its individual members and infrastructure can be used by other ultra-radical outfits. The group, with its global reach, has the ability to strike at Indian targets in other foreign countries.

LeT, with its strong base in Pakistan, is one of the most formidable NSAs, with both the ability and capability to mount an attack anywhere in the hinterland of India. Each such attack would have its trail leading to Pakistan, thereby crafting a recipe for escalation of hostilities between the two countries. Any attack by LeT in India is understood by India as an attack by Pakistan. The greatest threat LeT poses to international peace is the potential to spark another war between India and Pakistan.

Ansar-ut-Tawheed: The appearance of Ansar-ut-Tawheed fi bilad al-Hind (AuT) on the jihadi landscape indicates a growing interest in enticing India’s Muslim population to carry out jihad in India. The death of an Indian national and member of Indian Mujahideen, Anwar Bhatkal, in July 2014 while fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan put the spotlight on this obscure outfit. The Bhatkal’s death in Afghanistan, coupled with the flurry of activities by AuT, gave credence to the fact that a section of Indian Mujahideen operatives in Pakistan were aligning with international jihadi outfits to participate in the global jihad. The main goal of AuT, however, is to develop a transnational network of jihadist and redirect their focus toward India.

Media reports in the past year indicate that most of the AuT members have joined Islamic State (ISIS) and are fighting in Iraq and Syria. AuT formally pledged allegiance to ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in 2014. The AuT is presently headed by Muhammad Shafi Armar, an Indian national hailing from the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Shafi, according to Indian security agencies, has grown to become an important member of ISIS. The group, however, continues to have its roots in Pakistan with some of its members operating out of Karachi.

The primary target of AuT is to attack Indian cities and to start a jihad campaign in India. There are concerns that AuT’s global extremist network may prove to be an invitation for foreign jihadis to travel and operate in India or target Indian establishments. At the same time, members of AuT share links with Pakistani agencies, which they have been using to their advantage in recent months, as revealed by the number of AuT operatives arrested in India.

With access to larger resources, knowledge of local geography, and the help of IM members in Pakistan, AuT has the capacity to stage lethal strikes in India. Such attacks would be seen by India as attacks supported by the Pakistani state, as AuT members share a long history of association with ISI. The ideology and objectives of AuT therefore pose real dangers to the prospects of regional peace in the subcontinent.

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): The creation of a regional chapter of al-Qaeda was a cherished objective for Osama bin Laden himself. Osama had expressed the desire to create an al-Qaeda wing for the subcontinent, and he believed that an environment of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan would be the ideal time for announcing the chapter. This possible catastrophe envisioned by bin Laden was nearly played out when a group of navy officers attempted to hijack a sophisticated Pakistan Navy Frigate.

In September 2014, an audacious attack was led by serving and former Pakistan Navy officers to take over the Pakistani Navy frigate PNS Zulfiqar. The alleged aim was to gain control of the vessel, steer it to open sea, and then turn its guns on U.S. and Indian naval vessels. Four persons were killed in the attempt, including two serving officers and an ex-navy officer. All the four were associated with al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Al-Qaeda had announced the creation of AQIS in September 2014, days before the attack on PNS Zulfiqar.

The attacking group was led by a “senior officer,” who was even saluted by a navy guard before other guards became suspicious of their presence in the dockyard and alerted the commandos. These officers had a complete appreciation of onboard procedures and offshore deployment of defensive vessels. Before the operation they had given a presentation to al-Qaeda seniors on the operational details of the proposed attack.

In May 2016, five mid-level commanders were sentenced to death by the Pakistan Navy for their involvement in the attack on PNS Zulfiqar. It appears that there was a relatively large AQIS module operating within the Pakistan Navy in the form of middle-level naval commanders. It would not be difficult to imagine more such modules operating within Pakistan’s army and air force.

Since its creation, AQIS has successfully managed to recruit a number of Indian Muslims as its members. Some of the arrested AQIS members have revealed a significant AQIS presence in India. The Pakistan-based chief of AQIS, Asim Umar, belongs to the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. This state, with one of the largest Muslim populations in India, has always been a fertile ground for radical ideas.

Further, AQIS has access to the al-Qaeda core and its resources. Al-Qaeda views a conflict between India and Pakistan as a momentous occasion which would pit the entire Muslim Ummah (community) against the army of “infidels” (India and the West).

Turning the Tables: Remove the Threats, Do Not Just Rein Them In

Though Pakistan joined the global war on terror, yet its approach toward targeting terror groups has been faulty and selective. India-centric terrorist outfits were conveniently overlooked as they did not apparently pose a direct threat to the United States and other Western allies. It was only when Pakistan started getting singed by the very inferno it had helped to stoke that Islamabad realized the cost of such patronage.

In the past few years Pakistan has realized that the biggest threat to its existence is not from outside but from within. Its western borders have been converted into a virtual battleground. The insurgency from its tribal areas has taken a heavy toll, both in terms of civilian and military casualties. The insurgent groups, with their fledgling religious ideologies, have successfully created cracks within Pakistan society and establishment.

It may be too early to say who authorized the Pathankot or Uri attack, but both attack clearly benefit those who risk going out of business if the peace process between India and Pakistan moves ahead. With numerous attacks on Pakistani military installations, Islamabad’s former clients have shown their willingness to take on their “masters.” Their actions are not only damaging to India but also detrimental to Pakistan’s national interests. Islamabad needs to realize that its continued tolerance of these NSAs as anti-India proxies is prohibitively costly. Pakistan has in the past tried to rein in these actors but its efforts were cosmetic.

Interestingly, it is not the threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons but the threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that poses a bigger danger to the regional peace. It may be safe to assume right now that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is and would continue to be under the firm control of its army. However, assumptions regarding an inherently unstable nuclear subcontinent do not provide much confidence. Pakistan’s army has enormous incentives to ensure the safety of its weapons, but still in an extreme situation, the Pakistani arsenal is highly vulnerable to insider terrorist cells. In a highly unlikely but still plausible situation, NSAs, with the assistance of insiders, might be able seize a warhead being transported during a crisis with India. This would spell doom for not only Pakistan’s nuclear security but also to global security, let alone regional peace.

The idea of reining in these groups by restricting their activities has failed miserably. Pakistan needs to devise a solution to this anathema by completely removing, rather than reining in, these threats. The key to Pakistani’s success in eliminating NSAs lies in its will to completely divest itself of its terror protégés. Pakistan by now should realize that there are no “good” or “bad” terrorists. The militants of JeM and LeT may now be operating as independent actors, but these groups have for so long remained under ISI control that any plausible deniability seems farcical.


Having understood that any future attack on Indian military targets by a Pakistan-based insurgent group could invite more surgical strikes and thereby possibly trigger a full-blown armed conflict, Pakistan needs to collaborate with India in denying operational space to these NSAs.

Global peace cannot be held ransom by these sinister NSAs. Their potential to stoke a conflict is in itself a challenge to the legitimate states and their sovereign authority. Making peace and war alike are sovereign decisions and any illegitimate influence on such decisions can lead to the breakdown of state authority. To forge peace in the subcontinent, both India and Pakistan need to show immunity to the misadventures of NSAs. Pakistan can show its commitment to regional peace by uprooting these NSAs, who very often have challenged the legitimate sovereign authority of the Pakistani state.

Constructive engagement between the two countries is paramount for regional and international peace. Both the countries carry a huge burden of past legacies; however, history is made not by perpetually carrying these burdens but by shedding them.

Sajid Farid Shapoo is a highly decorated Indian Police Service officer at the rank of Inspector General (two star general) with 18 years of progressively senior experience in sensitive and high profile assignments across India.  He is  currently pursuing a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University , New York.