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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 8, February 13, 2010

Syndicate of Terrorism and ‘Af-Pak-Ind’

Thursday 18 February 2010, by Ninan Koshy

During his visit to New Delhi in the third week of January, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that the Al-Qaeda had formed a “syndicate” of terrorist groups with Taliban factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He said that the Al-Qaeda was using proxy terrorist organisations to orch-estrate attacks in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy to destabilise the region. Gates added that the Al-Qaeda was aiming also to provoke a war between India and Pakistan. He suggested that Pakistan-based militants might try a new terror assault in India to provoke a reprisal.

Gates was in fact repeating a thesis first articulated by the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her visit to India in July 2009. While talking to the media in Gurgaon, she said that “Pakistan will need to make progress against what is a syndicate of terrorism—Al-Qaeda, Taliban and many other terrorist organisations are connected in a way that is simply troubling to us and I know to others”.

Gates’ intention was clear: to draw India even deeper into the Afghan quagmire, to make India—currently an important offstage player in the Afghanistan war if possible—an onstage player and to stamp the region Af-Pak-Ind. This has come at a time when the New Delhi establishment seems to be convinced that it is India’s war that is being fought by the Americans in Afghanistan.

Gates repeated the new buzzword in the war on terror, ‘syndicate of terrorism’ in Islamabad but he could not find the kind of enthusiasm he expected there for American plans. In fact it was when Gates was there that the Pakistan Army announced that it will launch no new offensive against the Taliban in 2010. “Pakistan’s Army appears to have opened a new innings in its favourite game with the West,” wrote BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan in Islamabad. For the US, the statement by the Pak Army could not have come at a worse time. It had not recovered from the shock it received from the killing of seven CIA personnel, the worst attack in four decades. The attack was carried out by a suave Al-Qaeda double or rather triple agent.

US officials have continued to press for more action against the Taliban but the Pakistan military seems to have its own reasons for not doing so. Without the Pakistan soldiers pressing the Taliban in the tribal areas, it will be mission impossible for the US forces in Afghanistan. The Pak military believes it has strong reasons not to move against the militants. Many senior military officials have been angered by what they see are recent moves by the US and UK to expand India’s involvement in Afghanistan. The statements by Robert Gates in New Delhi only reinforced their perception.

These statements also raise two questions. First, is there a syndicate of terrorism and, if so, how was it formed? Second, how did India become the enemy and target of the US-centric Al-Qaeda?

The US may claim the syndicate of terrorism as the latest trend in international terrorism or rather global terrorism. The US State Department periodically identifies new trends. The 2006 Report highlights three trends.

The first is the emrgence of so-called ‘micro-actors’ spurred in part by the US and allies’ success in isolating and destroying much of the Al-Qaeda leadership. The result is an Al-Qaeda perceived as having a more subdued operational role, but assuming core of an ideological, motivational and propaganda role.

The second is a trend towards ‘sophistication’, that is, the terrorists exploiting the global interchange of information, finance and ideas to their benefit, often through internet.

The third is a growing overlap between terrorist activity and international crime which may expose the terrorists to a broad range of law enforcement activities.

While these are called trends, they are actually perceptions of the US. The US perceptions of threat from international terrorism understandably centre on the Al-Qaeda and therefore changes in the latter’s strategy are called trends with new labelling by Washington. It may be noted that what are identified as trends are, in some cases, responses to counter-terrorism measures of the USA including the War on Terror. There is an action-reaction process between US policies and trends in international terrorism.

The preoccupation of the USA with the Al-Qaeda and identifying it as the foremost enemy is understandable. That said, it is evident that the character of the Al-Qaeda today differs markedly from what it was when it organised and executed the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. Instead of the centrally controlled strategic assaults planned and executed from ‘the headquarters’ we see today tactically-oriented strikes undertaken by affiliated cells (and sometimes individuals) as and when opportunities arise. “In many ways the largely monolithic structure that emerged out of Afghanistan in the late 1990s now better correlates to an amorphous ‘movement of movements’, that is more nebulous, segmented or polycentric in character.”

A core premise of the US State Department’s 2006 Report is recognition that because the Al-Qaeda network is increasingly assuming the characteristics of an ideological movement, it will not be decisively defeated in the near future. Some of the polarised debate about counter-terrorism policy in the United States can be traced to persistent confusion about what the Al-Qaeda actually is and therefore what character of threat it presents at a given time.

From the start the US conflated its real enemy, the Al-Qaeda, with a panoply of unrelated organizations and states, some Islamist and some secular, creating a mythical bloc of evil-doers. And indeed it was truly “international”.

It was to deal with this ‘international terrorism’ that the Bush Administration launched the War on Terror. The terminology of war assumes that terrorism has to be combated through military means. President Bush said at the very outset: “Our war on terror begins with the Al-Qaeda but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

How was the syndicate formed? David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary gives some explanation. In an article in the Guardian on January 15, 2009, he said the idea of a ‘war on terror’ is a mistake putting too much emphasis on military force. He said the idea had unified disparate terrorist groups (emphasis added) against the West. The Foreign Secretary wrote that since 9/11 the phrase war on terror had ‘defined the terrain’ when it came to tackling terrorism and although it had ‘merit’, ultimately the notion is ‘misleading and mistaken’. Miliband wrote that the phrase was all-encompassing and gave the impression of a unified transnational enemy embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda (emphasis added) when the situation was far more complex.


How did India become the enemy of the Al-Qaeda, Why and When? It is fairly easy to say when. Till 9/11 no mention is made of India. None of the statements by the Al-Qaeda referred to India till then. After that, the situation changed. The reason is not far to seek: it is India’s collaboration with the USA in the war on terror that turned the Al-Qaeda against India.

India was one of the first, if not the first, countries to declare unequivocal support to the US’ War on Terror. India’s Foregin Minister at that time, Jaswant Singh, offered unsolicited, unlimited cooperation including the use of bases and airfields. This was followed by a letter from the (then) Prime Minister Vajpayee to President Bush offering full support to the war on terror.

While direct military support from India was not utilised by the US in its campaign in Afghanistan, the joint statement of the first meeting of the US-India Defence Policy Group in December 2002 made clear the deep involvement of India in the war against terror.

“The two sides exchanged views on the global campaign against international terrorism. They emphasised that the military operation against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan is an important step in the global war against terrorism and its sponsors every where in the world.” (emphasis added)

India became one of the important players in the Afghan war though generally offstage. A senior official of the US military acknowledged India’s cooperation in the “Operation Enduring Freedom”, the codename for the assault on Afghanistan. “After September 11, 2001, a number of countries contributed military assets to the Global War on Terrorism. An excellent example is the naval war ships India provided to safeguard US non-combatant and merchant ships transiting the Straits of Malacca, which freed US warships for mission in the area.”

In the Defence Cooperation Agreement between India and the USA signed on June 28, 2005, “collaboration in multinational operations” finds a prominent place. In Washington’s strategic parlance “multinational operations” means US-led operations outside the purview of the permission or authorisation of the UN. Such operations are conducted under the “coalition of the willing”. Washington has made it clear that it is not the coalition that decides the agenda but that the agenda decides the coalition. It simply means that the states in the coalition are not only under the command of the US but are engaged in military operations to attain US objectives. It is in such operations the main target of which is the Al-Qaeda, that India has agreed to collaborate.

It was India which declared the Al-Qaeda as enemy at a time when it was apparently not in the list of the Al-Qaeda. It was an invitation to terrorism and explains in substantial part the increase in the number of terrorist attacks in India since September 11.


During his discussions with the British Foreign Secretary David Milband at the London Conference on Afghanistan, our External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna had specifically said: “There should be no distinction between a good Taliban and a bad Taliban.” This definitely fell on deaf ears as the Conference decisions showed.

“Krishna was allocated a seat in the second of three rows of Foreign Ministers at the Conference which in itself reflected India’s peripheral role in the eyes of the international community. This despite India being the biggest regional aid-given to Afghanistan,” an Indian newspaper reported. n

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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