What is common between Osama bin Laden, Velupillai Prabhakaran and Masood Azhar? Apart from being reviled perpetrators of transnational terrorism, they were all Frankenstein creations that turned against the very states that spawned them.
While these masters of terror and their organizations were originally fermented for specific objectives—Osama and Al Qaeda to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan; Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to check the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka; and Azhar and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to wrest the Kashmir valley from India—all of them ended up attacking their host states with a vengeance.
The US homeland suffered its worst ever attack at the hands of Al Qaeda and was drawn into a bloody war in Afghanistan. The LTTE handed a humiliating defeat to the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka and also assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. While Pakistan’s generalissimo Pervez Musharraf was fortunate to escape two assassination attempts by JeM, others around him were not so lucky.
Although Osama and Prabhakaran were eventually gunned down, it was not before the state had invested significant time, money and effort, and sacrificed the lives of several thousands innocents. The Osama hunt is estimated to have cost anything from $40 billion to 10 times that amount, and took nearly a decade. The Prabhakaran hunt probably cost much less, but took at least 20 years to accomplish. While Azhar remains at large, the price of eliminating him (along with several other leaders of various terrorist outfits nurtured by Pakistan’s security and intelligence establishment) might be the very existence of Pakistan.
Given this experience, is there any incentive for states to support terrorist groups even for purported national security objectives? Clearly, states are tempted to support such groups for at least two reasons: first, the option of waging a relatively low-cost proxy war; and second, the deniability factor, given that such covert and even not-so-covert support is difficult to prove.
To be fair, although both the US and India have allegedly backed a number of such transnational terrorist groups over the years, neither openly claims such support to be part of their national security policy. It is at best done on an ad hoc basis with a limited objective in mind. There is also a likelihood that the LTTE and Al Qaeda experience might force New Delhi and Washington to reconsider such support in future, however worthy the cause. Moreover, both the US and India are big enough states to be able to absorb assaults by such groups, albeit at a significant cost.
In contrast, even though transnational terrorist groups now pose an existential threat to Pakistan, Islamabad has still not recognized the danger or abjured its support to such groups. Instead, even a week before the bin Laden killing, Lt Gen. Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), blithely defended terrorism as “a technique of war, and, therefore, an instrument of policy”. Such a policy is suicidal—according to Pakistan expert Shuja Nawaz, the ISI has lost control of many of these militant groups. Indeed, the Sirajuddin Haqqani network in particular is increasingly calling the shots rather than the other way around.
The death of Osama provides an opportunity for Pakistan to reverse its self-defeating policy and take on these groups, starting with the JeM, which has posed a direct threat to the Pakistani establishment. Failing to do so would leave the state vulnerable not only to these groups but also the possibility of more unilateral US raids. Whether Islamabad has the wisdom to take this bold step remains to be seen.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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