Countering Jihadi Strategies in the Subcontinent

Pakistani army soldiers escort a suspected Taliban militant in Mingora, capital of the Swat valley, on May 28. (Photo: Tariq Mahmood/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the deadly attacks in Mumbai, the expectation of repeat attacks and copycatting is eerily high. The jihadists who seized a few buildings in India's financial center and wreaked havoc at several locations in the city have brought to the attention of national security analysts a concept for the future: urban jihad.

Projections of al Qaeda and other jihadi tactics should be based on a patient and thorough observation of their literature and actions over the past decades. By now, the public realizes that such scenarios are not only possible but highly likely in the future. In all countries where jihadi cells and forces have left bloody traces over the past eight years, at least counter-terrorism agencies have been put on notice: it can happen there as well.

But the Mumbai Ghazwa (raid) reveals a more sinister shadow hovering over the entire subcontinent, if not all of Central Asia. Although a press release was issued by the so-called "Indian Mujahideen," many traces were left—almost on purpose—to show Pakistani involvement, or to be more precise, a link to forces operational within Pakistan, one of them being Lashkar-e-Toiba. Other suppositions left investigators in the region with the suspicion that elements within the intelligence service in Pakistan were involved, even if the cabinet wasn't aware of it. This strong probability gave rise to much wider speculation, since this attack took place in the midst of dramatic regional and international developments.

In the United States, the Obama Administration is gearing up to redeploy from Iraq and send additional divisions to Afghanistan where the Taliban forces have been escalating their terror campaign. In a counter move, the jihadi web inside Pakistan has been waging both terror and political offensives. In Waziristan and the Swat Valley, just prior to the latest attempts to strike deals with local warlords, Pakistani units were compelled to retreat. A few weeks later, Islamabad authorized the provincial administrators to sign the so-called Malakand agreement with the "Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law," headed by Sufi Mohammad, in which local Taliban would enact religious laws instead of the national secular code.

Across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, it has become clear that the jihadists are acting as an overarching regional force. While Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi are consumed with domestic challenges, ethnic and territorial crises, the nebulous network that began with al Qaeda and stretched to local jihadi groups across the land is acting as one, albeit with many faces, tongues and scenarios. The jihadists have become continental, while the region's governments are forced into tensions among each other and within their own societies. Consequently, exploring the regional strategies of the jihadists is now a must.

Pre-9/11 Strategies

In the post-Cold War era, a web of jihadi organizations came together throughout the Indian subcontinent from Kandahar to the Bay of Bengal. This included Islamist movements that took root in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The cobweb is extremely diverse and not entirely coordinated. In many cases, competitions and splinters characterize its intra-Islamist politics. But from political parties to student unions, to jihadi guerrillas, the main cement of the network has been a solidly grounded ideology, inspired by local Deobandism and West Asian-generated Wahabism and Salafism. The "jihadi causes" make a variety of demands—political, sharia, ethnic, territorial. However, all these platforms end in the necessity of establishing local "emirates," which in turn become building blocks towards the creation of the Caliphate-to-come.

Inside Pakistan, the Islamists fight secularism, impose religious laws and desire an all-out Islamist—not just Islamic—nation. From Pakistan, a number of groups have been waging a war on India for the secession of Kashmir in order to establish a Taliban-like state. The Pakistan-based Kashmiri jihadists have connected with their India-based counterparts, who in turn have built bridges with jihadist operations across India, including the Islamic Student Union and later the Indian Mujahideen. Their influence stretches east to Dhaka and south all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Unfortunately, neither Western nor non-Western scholarship in the field recognized the regional dimension of the jihadi threat on the subcontinent before the 2001 strikes in America and the subsequent attacks in Europe and beyond. jihadism in South Asia has conventionally been linked to local claims and foreign policies, while in reality the movement has developed a regional war room. Even before the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, jihadists had been seeking transnational achievements.

The post-Soviet grand design of al Qaeda was to incite national entities to act in concert with one another, even if their propaganda machines put out different narratives. Based in Kabul since the Taliban takeover in 1996, the initial plan was to grow stronger inside Afghanistan, make it a "perfect emirate" model to follow, and from there expand in all directions. Evidently, the first target was Pakistan, starting with the northwestern regions.

Terror analysts argue that one of the long-range goals of the 9/11 attacks was to provoke massive jihadi uprisings in Muslim countries, especially in Pakistan, with help from insiders and the armed forces. The pre-9/11 plan was to infiltrate Islamabad from Kabul, then penetrate Kashmir and back a massive campaign inside India. The enormity of developments was supposed to enflame Bangladesh as well. In short, the plan was to "Talibanize" the region from Kabul to the Gulf, slicing into as many enclaves in northern India as possible. Plan A collapsed, however, as U.S. and NATO forces crumbled the Taliban regime and dispersed al Qaeda.

Post-Tora Bora

As Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar crossed into Waziristan at the end of 2001, their strategy for the region shifted to Plan B. But the basic goal— to establish a series of emirates—did not change. What changed were the launching pads and the priorities. The epicenter shifted to valleys inside northwestern Pakistan, and the strategic hierarchy imposed a new agenda. First, the tribal areas had to become a no-go zone for Pakistan's armed forces and a new Afghanistan-in-exile was to be established—al Qaeda's remnants in the center, surrounded by a belt of Taliban, themselves surrounded by an outer belt of fundamentalist tribes and movements. General Pervez Musharraf understood that sending the bulk of his forces there meant an all-out civil war; hence he kept a status quo—to the frustration of Western governments.

But the jihadi forces took the offensive inside Pakistan via bombings and assassinations, including failed attempts against the former president and the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Not only border areas were falling to the insurgency, but segments of many cities as well. The Red Mosque bloodshed was only an example of the generalized push to seize more power. The initial goal was to "immunize" Waziristan and the surrounding valleys against incoming attacks while launching blitzkriegs from these areas in two directions—bringing the Taliban back inside Afghanistan and striking inside India.

To the west of Waziristan, the equation was reversed. Instead of a Taliban regime in Kabul spilling over Islamabad, the post-Tora Bora situation witnessed the emergence of a quasi-Taliban regime inside Pakistan spilling over to Afghanistan, paving the way for the renascence of operations in the latter's provinces. Eastbound from Waziristan, the network used the Pakistan-based Jihadists as strategic decoys.

Indeed, the best way to confuse the Pakistani military is to draw New Delhi into a renewed conflict with its western neighbor. Shrewdly, via Lashar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Kashmiri and Indian jihadists launched many terror attacks in Indian territories, including strikes against the Parliament, trains and other targets. The inflaming of the India-Pakistan theater was and remains a key strategic design in the hands of the regional jihadists. This is why the recent strikes in Mumbai were ordered.


Inside the jihadi war room, preparations are underway to meet two forthcoming challenges. One is the decision by the Obama Administration to send two additional divisions to Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, commander of CENTCOM, and his fellow military strategists have recommended a surge-type campaign to remove al Qaeda and its allies from inside most of the country and, with the help of other NATO forces, push back the Taliban all the way to the borders. Their second concern is possible military pressure on Waziristan from Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad.

Plan C from the Taliban and al Qaeda will likely be to try to derail both offensives before they happen. In war games scenarios, if you were the jihadist, you would make all possible efforts to delay and weaken the forthcoming NATO-led surge. How they will go about accomplishing this is a good question, but they have more than one tool at their disposal: striking at NATO allies, disrupting NATO supply lines originating in Pakistan, assassinations, and even possible strikes on American soil.

One other tactic may also be under consideration: luring Washington into negotiations with the Taliban. Already, jihadi propaganda machines from different corners of the planet, including via connections inside the Western media, are pushing the idea that discussions with the "good Taliban" are a viable and pragmatic option. Recently, a particular drive toward considering radical Islamism a "fact of life" has materialized in a publicized Newsweek article. Painting the Jihadists as credible partners in a peacemaking equation is, in fact, part of a devious maneuver to gain time and delay U.S.-led efforts to defeat them in Afghanistan. Similar moves were undertaken in Pakistan. In order to delay Islamabad's new secular government’s preparedness to confront the Taliban once and for all, good cop-bad cop tactics have been employed: suicide bombings target officials and civilians alike, while local Islamists shower the authorities with ceasefire offers.

The recent Malakand agreement, signed between Sufi Islamic and Pakistani authorities, allows the implantation of sharia in the province and guarantees a truce for a while. With time, the Taliban will use the agreement to its advantage to indoctrinate youth, recruit fighters and suicide bombers, repress civil society movements and eradicate government presence. Look at the 2006 Waziristan Accord as an example.

Another trap to avoid is calling those who are reconcilable the "good" Taliban or the "little" Taliban. We should resist assigning these labels to armed opposition groups or other groups that may associate with the Taliban on a peripheral level. Just as it would have been a strategic mistake to label the members of the Sahwa in Iraq "little" al Qaeda or "good" al Qaeda, it would be a blunder to consider as Taliban those who cooperate with the Taliban out of fear or a basic need to feed their family.

As stalling tactics are employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, reverse moves will be executed in India. Unfortunately, the regional war room will more than likely order terror activities on Indian soil to diminish the will of the Pakistani government to go to Waziristan. If violence erupts on its eastern border with India, Pakistan cannot send troops to battle the Taliban on its western frontiers. Inflaming tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad causes the latter to redeploy forces from the F.A.T.A. and Northwest Frontier Province to the border with India, thereby relieving some of the military pressure the Taliban faces in northwest Pakistan. What can and should be done about this Plan C remains the most important question.


Any counter-strategy design must begin with the following affirmations:
• The threat is strategic and regional, not just local and legitimate.
• The counter strategies must put the confrontation of the regional threat above all local considerations and issues.
• The United States and its allies, operating out of Afghanistan, are determined to engage that threat with all the tools at their disposal and with the largest alliance it can muster.
• Pakistan and India should realize that they are both targeted by the jihadists regardless of their quarrels over ethno-territorial issues.

With these principles accepted, a global set of counter-strategies can be set to deal with al Qaeda, Taliban and their jihadi networks in the subcontinent.

Engagement Strategies

The U.S. and NATO should not be dragged to the path of so-called partnership with jihadists to defeat other jihadists. In this game, the more ideological and sophisticated factions always win. Instead, the international coalition must engage the democratic forces and sustain them in order to win the intellectual and political battle.


The U.S.-led NATO coalition should proceed with reinforcement of expeditionary force to levels capable of insuring full control of the country. At the same time, a gigantic effort must be made in three directions: training and equipping the Afghan Army and Police, supporting a vast network of civil society NGOs countrywide, and reaching out to countries that haven't yet participated in the post-9/11 counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, such as Russia, India, China, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria. These countries should be invited to join the consortium in sectors of their choice. The more international the campaign, the more isolated the ihadists will become.


The present government must undertake a full reassessment of its past strategies and reform its forces so that it can ready itself to implement a national mobilization, part of which will be on the military level. The most significant part, however, must be on the popular and political levels. The campaign to counter the terror forces can be successful only if large segments of the population are engaged in the struggle against fundamentalism.


New Delhi, too, will have to reshape its plan to counter jihadi strategies in the region and on its soil. While the military and security engagement against local terror groups will continue, the war of ideas will have to tap Indian resources. As a major economic and technological power, India has the capability of opening a new front against radical ideologies, using linguistic, cultural and intellectual skills—all crucial to the battle. The establishment of a vast network of television and radio broadcasts, NGOs, and intelligence capability based on Indian soil can weaken Islamist radicalism.

All of these national strategies must be integrated. If the United States, NATO and other international partners can bring together the three democratically-elected governments of the subcontinent—Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (and perhaps Bangladesh)—to work under a unified and coordinated global strategy, jihadi forces will be isolated and gradually rolled back.

Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy and the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad." Dr Phares teaches global strategies at National Defense University.