By B. Raman
Taking advantage of the current wave of Pashtun anger against Pakistan's President Gen.Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani Army in the wake of the commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad from July 10 to 13, 2007, and the killing of Abdullah Mehsud, a pro-Taliban tribal leader of South Waziristan and a former detenu at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba, at Zhob in Balochistan on July 23, 2007, Al Qaeda has stepped up its jihadi PSYWAR not only against Musharraf personally, but also against the Pakistani Army as an institution. The stepped-up PSYWAR has also been timed to exploit the current weakening of Musharraf's image and political position in view of his confrontation with the judiciary and his manipulation of the laws relating to elections in order to have himself re-elected as the President for a second term. (Please see earlier paper of September 5, 2007 at http://www.saag.org/papers24/paper2357.html)
2. Criticism of the Pakistan Government and Musharraf by Al Qaeda is nothing new. It started in 2003. Both Osama bin Laden and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri have been criticising them off and on. Whereas bin Laden's criticism was general in nature and avoided personal attacks on Musharraf, Zawahiri's past tirade was directed at the Pakistan Government's policies as well as against Musharraf personally. However, both of them took care not to attack the Pakistani Army as an institution. In fact, some of the past messages of Zawahiri focussed on the need for the Army to raise against Musharraf before he betrayed the interests of Pakistan to the Americans, the Jewish people and the Hindus.
3. In the latest PSYWAR offensive, which started on September 19,2007, the language used is more virulent, the arguments used have been drawn from the history of Islam as well as that of Pakistan, the examples drawn are from the recent history of Pakistan and the distinction sought to be made in the past between Musharraf and the Army has started disappearing. This reflects the exasperation of Al Qaeda over the continued solidarity of the senior officers of the Pakistan Army with Musharraf despite the decline in his popularity and the public controversy over some of his questionable actions.
4. There were reasons for Al Qaeda's restraint in its criticism of the Pakistan Army as an institution in the past. Firstly, it was dependent on the continued inaction of the Army for maintaining its sanctuaries in the Pakistani territory. Secondly, the success of the Neo Taliban's operations against the US-led coalition and the Afghan army in Afghan territory depended on the continued collusion of the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with the Neo Taliban.
5. The importance of such inaction and collusion for Al Qaeda and the Neo Taliban has not disappeared. Despite this, Al Qaeda has chosen to attack the Army as an institution. This reflects its confidence that it has established itself so firmly in South and North Waziristan through its own efforts and with the support of the local tribals and the police and para-military forces that the Pakistan Army will not be able to do much damage to it. Moreover, in the perception of Al Qaeda, the anger of the Pashtun and other tribal elements at the lower levels of the army against Musharraf will ensure that the Army as an institution cannot pose a major threat to the presence of Al Qaeda and the Neo Taliban in Pakistani territory.
6. Does the stepped-up PSYWAR offensive presage a stepped-up ground offensive in Pakistan, to make it a third front in Al Qaeda's global jihad against the US and Israel and for the supremacy of Islam--- to add to the Afghanistan and Iraq fronts? Not necessarily. Al Qaeda's present ground support in Pakistan is confined to sections of the tribals in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). It has very little ground support in other areas of Pakistan and among non-Pashtun ethnic groups. Even the Pakistani jihadi organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which support Al Qaeda's pan-Islamic ideology and have joined its International Islamic Front (IIF), would not like to help it spread its influence to the non-tribal areas of Pakistan. Moreover, these organisations, which do not have much love for Musharraf, would nevertheless be averse to any Al Qaeda attempts to weaken the Pakistan Army as an institution. So too, the Neo Taliban whose criticism of Musharraf and the Army has been proforma without any undue virulence. The Neo Taliban and the Pakistani jihadi organisations know they would continue to need the covert support of the Army and the ISI--- the Neo Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pakistani jihadi organisations in India. They may not like to bite the hand that feeds them.
7. Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It has a fairly liberal civil society outside the tribal areas. It has a vigorous political class. It has a bureaucracy, which is much more efficient than those of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has a well-trained, well-armed and well-motivated Army. The people of Pakistan are patriotic and would not like their country to become the battle ground of foreign forces----wither the Americans or the jihadis of Al Qaeda brand. If Al Qaeda tries to extend its influence and activities beyond the tribal areas, it is likely to get a strong riposte from the Pakistan Army.
8. The key question is how to rid the tribal areas of the presence and stranglehold of Al Qaeda and the Neo Taliban. The Pakistan Army has shown a disinclination to do so. Any overt US intervention will be provocative and counter-productive. The weakening of the US' covert action capability over the years has partly contributed to the present dilemma. Over-reliance on overt highly-militarised counter-terrorism operations has contributed to the resurgence of the Neo Taliban and Al Qaeda. It is time to work out an appropriate covert action strategy, which would enable the US to act effectively without seeming to act. There is also an urgent need to totally revamp the US' PSYWAR and Counter-PSYWAR strategy, which hardly exists now. As a result, Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations have managed to create an impression of their being everywhere----on the ground, in the world wide web and elsewhere. It is amazing and disquieting that even six years after the start of the so-called war against global jihadi terrorism, the international community in general and the US in particular are not able to counter effectively the PSYWAR of Al Qaeda. The war will be ultimately won or lost not only by the force of arms, but also by the force of words, images and imagination.
9. This assessment is based on a study of the audio messages of Zawahiri and bin Laden disseminated by As-Sahab, the propaganda and PSYWAR unit of Al Qaeda, on September 19 and 20, 2007, respectively.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)