Too Late To Stop The Third Horn

Pakistan’s call to arms

Pakistani Taliban

Pakistani Taliban

Harvard University Press
399 pages; Rs 995

There is a difference of just one day in the birth of India and Pakistan as sovereign polities, but in their political evolution they could not be further apart. One today is extolled as an exemplar of democratic values, an accommodative multi-cultural order and significant economic success; the other is perceived as a weak and divided entity at the edge of failure, a sponsor and sanctuary of extremist religious violence, and a dangerous nuclear power that is a threat both to itself and its neighbourhood.

The key to this historic divide lies in the hegemony exercised by the armed forces in Pakistan’s political order, the stranglehold they have on their country’s resources and institutions, and the near-total impunity with which they enforce their interests. The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan explains, on the basis of solid research and lucid writing, how the army achieved this all-powerful status and how it exercises power in the national polity, and then speculates about the possibility of change in the country’s power structure.

Aqil Shah maintains that the roots of the hegemony of the armed forces in Pakistan’s political order lie in certain considered decisions taken by the country’s leaders at the dawn of independence. Unlike the unswerving commitment of India’s leaders to a democratic polity, in Pakistan, Jinnah opted for the “viceregal political system” inherited from the Raj, which gave priority to centralised control at the expense of local cultures and aspirations. Thus, the insistence on imposing Urdu as the sole national language gave short shrift to regional identities and alienated communities in several provinces, particularly in East Pakistan. Again, the encouragement given by the political leadership to the armed forces’ participation in attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, followed by the acceptance of a ceasefire under international pressure, laid the basis for future “military insubordination and rebellion”.

The armed forces also used this opportunity to demonise India as a venal Hindu power and build their own identity as the guardians of the nascent Islamic state. In this regard, Mr Shah attaches considerable importance to the modernisation of the Pakistani armed forces as partners of the West in the Cold War. He says: “As they became better organized, better trained, and better equipped, military officers started to contrast their professional achievements with what they saw as the laggard pace of political developments and internal political divisions.” From this, it was but a short step to the army seeing itself as their country’s “permanent guardian and interim governor”, imbued with a deep contempt for democratic politics based on the will of “gullible and uneducated masses”.

Zia’s legacy

With Ayub Khan having set the precedent of the armed forces’ intervention in the political system, Zia-ul-Haq provided a new dimension to military rule. He sought to legitimise his coup by anchoring it in Islam, benefiting greatly as a major partner, with the United States and Saudi Arabia, in developing and sustaining the jihad in Afghanistan, and simultaneously preparing the ground for unleashing jihad upon India. The jihadi mindset has now come to define the armed forces and gives a sharper edge to their zeal to confront India.

Mr Shah points out that the curriculum of Pakistan’s National Defence University ingrains in the officers the xenophobic anxiety that India is committed to the destruction of Pakistan and actively foments internal discord by encouraging fissiparous elements in Pakistan’s Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or the FATA, provinces.

The Pakistani Army’s understanding of its political role now embraces all aspects of national security, the maintenance of domestic political stability, and ensuring the military’s institutional autonomy – principles that are sufficiently broad as to justify repeated interventions in the political domain, and direct assumption of power in periods of crisis. The armed forces’ principal instrument in the exercise of its supreme power is the Inter-Services Intelligence, which asserts military supremacy through intimidation of politicians, the judiciary and the media.

Prospects for reform

The elections of May 2013 were a landmark in the country’s history in that for the first time, power passed peacefully from one party to another. Mr Shah wonders whether this could portend real change in Pakistan. He sets out a series of benchmarks to achieve this, such as strengthening of the democratic order and regulatory mechanisms; deeper separation of civilian and military administrations and stronger parliamentary oversight; and, above all, inculcating respect for democratic values and institutions in the training of the armed forces. As of now, achieving any of this seems a remote prospect. Recent developments in Egypt affirm that armed forces that are used to the exercise of power will replace democratic regimes rather than accept civilian authority.

This book is a focused and timely analysis of what has gone badly wrong in Pakistan, and what could be done to correct the situation. It will hopefully inspire Pakistanis who care for their country – both inside and outside the armed forces – to reform their political order; otherwise extremist Islam will destroy their polity and convulse the region in violence.

Antichrist Plans For War Against ISIS

Baghdad’s Shia Plan War on ISIS

The Mahdi Is Alive

The Mahdi Is Alive
A commander of Moqtada al Sadr’s newly renamed “Peace Brigades” describes plans to reunify Iraq—with a little help from Iran. Will they fight ISIS as hard as they fought the U.S. Army?

SADR CITY, Iraq — Suicide bombers marched through the streets here last month. Soldiers of the Mahdi Army paraded through Baghdad’s Sadr city in black uniforms and face masks, bright yellow sticks of mock dynamite strapped to their chests. The militia, loyal to the militant Shia religious leader Muqtada al Sadr, vowed to defend Baghdad from the ISIS-led Sunni insurgency tearing through the country’s north.And that was the image I had as I drove through Sadr City on Tuesday to meet a Mahdi commander, Hussam al Sudani, in his home. Years before the parade, Sadr City was the site of some of the United States Army’s most intense fighting during the Iraq war. Throughout the eight-year conflict, U.S.-led forces battled the Mahdi Army in an attempt to subdue the Shia insurgency. The Mahdi Army was quieted for periods but never fully defeated.  Today it remains the authority in Sadr City and commands a loyal following among Iraq’s Shias.Since that rally last month, the militia has deployed fighters to guard Shia holy sites that have been targeted by Sunni jihadists in the past. But their mission, Mahdi leaders claim, goes beyond a narrow sectarian defense. According to battle plans revealed by al Sudani, the group will soon launch a major offensive against the forces of ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State. Mahdi soldiers already are playing a key role in Iraq, carrying the burden of fighting alongside the Iraqi army, but if this commander’s claims are true, al Sadr’s forces will soon launch an attack against ISIS in one of the group’s strongholds.Sadr City is in fact a city within a city. Originally built as public housing for Baghdad’s urban poor, it is home to one million Iraqis, almost exclusively Shia, according to official estimates. It is known to many as a restive slum, but the typically crowded streets of Sadr City were half empty on Tuesday, as businesses were closed for the Ramadan holiday and people observing the fast stayed home from work.Off a main commercial street, we followed a narrow alley down to the entrance of the Mahdi commander’s house. An iron gate opened to a small inner courtyard and al-Sudani’s brother, still in training with the Mahdi army, led us into a sitting room.We sat on carpeted floor and leaned against pillows that lined the room’s pink walls.A poster of Muqtada al Sadr hung on the wall across from me.
A large wood-paneled cabinet provided the room’s only furnishing. Behind glass doors it displayed an assortment of glasses, stacked tea cups; a small row of books; a bouquet of fake flowers.
Al Sudani soon arrived and, in some detail, began to discuss the Mahdi Army’s plans, including where it would move troops to defend certain areas and where it would launch its attack against ISIS. It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that he confided the secret behind the war in Iraq, as he saw it: Israel created and funded the group and was using it now to expand its own territory from the Nile to the Euphrates. Of course, no evidence for this theory was offered and though Sudani presented it as the ultimate truth it had no bearing on any of his other substantive claims. Sudani’s faith in the conspiracy seems to come from Iranian news reports and points to the influence Iran has over Iraq’s Shia militias, even nationalist groups like the Mahdi Army.

To begin with: “There is no more Mahdi army,” al Sudani told me, echoing an official statement made last month by al Sadr himself, “we are now only the Peace Brigades.”

The soldiers, suicide bombers, and heavy weapons parading through Sadr City last month—that was the launch of the Peace Brigades. Originally mobilized by al Sadr to protect Shia shrines and defend the Shia population in Baghdad, the group has expanded its mission.

It was a theme al Sudani stuck with throughout our talk. Even as he detailed battle plans, he insisted the purpose of defeating ISIS was to reunify Iraq. Al Sadr’s Peace Brigades are waging war, he said, on behalf of all Iraqis including Sunnis and Christians. In fact, Muqtada Al Sadr, for all his radicalism and backing from Iran, traditionally has been one of the most nationalistic of Iraq’s militia leaders.

Claiming 60,000 loyal fighters, al Sadr’s Peace Brigades could prove a crucial force in the war against ISIS. Their role, Sudani said, is not to overtake the Iraqi military but to help it. Without the Mahdi forces, Sudani said, the Iraqi army cannot succeed, but ultimately it must be the army that defeats ISIS.

Some 3,000 soldiers of the Peace Brigades are now stationed in Samarra, 80 miles north of Baghdad, to defend the city and repel ISIS forces, Sudani claimed. Iraq’s brutal sectarian civil war started in Samarra when al Qaeda forces, predecessors of ISIS, bombed an important Shia holy site there in 2006. But the Mahdi Army’s mission now is not sectarian, al Sudani insisted. “The Peace Brigades have been welcomed by the Sunni people of Samarra,” he said.

The Mahdi fighters in Samarra have created defensive perimeters 50 kilometers out from the Shia holy sites, Sudani said, proving to locals there that they are not only guarding Shia shrines but protecting the people as well.

Photos document recent patrols by Peace Brigades fighters in Samarra but there are few details to confirm the size of the group’s presence and the nature of its activities in the city.

Despite al Sudani’s claims and al Sadr’s attempt at rebranding, many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, still know the Peace Brigades as the Mahdi Army—a militant Shia group that stoked sectarian violence and targeted Sunnis in revenge killings. If it is true that some Sunnis in Samarra have welcomed them, as al Sudani claims, it’s a sign of how grave they consider the threat from ISIS and how little faith they have in the army to defend them.

After crumbling in the face of ISIS’s initial assault in the country’s north the Iraqi army has mounted faltering attempts to retake captured territory. Militia groups have taken a larger role in the fighting and as one of Iraq’s largest and most feared, the Mahdi Army, now the Peace Brigades, are at the front.

“We grow larger by the day,” Sudani said. “More volunteers are coming to join us because of the threat from ISIS.”

The Peace Brigades have 60,000 experienced soldiers ready to fight, Sudani said, giving a number far larger than most estimates. “For our fighters there are only two choices in battle,” he added, “victory or death.”

“The Peace Brigades attacks against ISIS pushed the army to advance,” Sudani said. “We love Iraq,” he said, “we fight to help the government take it back.”

“The government didn’t ask us to go to Samarra,” Sudani said. “We went because we have loyalty to our homeland. We want to protect all Iraqis from ISIS: Sunnis, Christians and Shia.”

Historically the Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army have been hostile to Iraq’s government. Their recent turn as Iraq’s saviors from ISIS has not changed their stance. “Maliki and the government don’t care for Iraqis,” Sudani said, “only themselves.”

Al Sudani blames the Iraqi army’s failures on its cowardly leaders. In his estimation, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell with barely a fight because the Army’s commanders abandoned their soldiers and fled, ceding the city to ISIS. “Any area that fell quickly, it was the fault of the leaders,” al Sudani said.

Baghdad’s call for volunteers to rebuild the army after its collapse were noble but doomed to fail, al Sudani explained. “You can’t take a civilian with no training and give him an AK-47 to fight an experienced ISIS force with heavy weapons,” al Sudani said. That’s where al Sadr’s Peace Brigades step into the breach. Al Sadr’s army is full of veterans of the fighting against U.S. forces, battle-hardened soldiers who can match ISIS.

The Peace Brigades’ next move will be to place three regiments in Karbala where they will defend the city’s Shia shrines and launch an offensive against ISIS, Sudani said. Once in Karbala the Mahdi forces will move into the desert between the city and forces in Anbar province to the north. After establishing a headquarters in the Nukhayb desert, the Peace Brigades plan to use heavy weapons, including artillery, to bombard ISIS positions in Anbar. But, al Sudani said, the forces will only attack from the desert. Anbar is too chaotic he said, the group did not want to be pulled in to what he described as human rights abuses in the region perpetrated by both ISIS and government forces.

Already, Sunni tribes and government forces are engaged in heavy fighting in Anbar, where ISIS has controlled major cities since January of this year.

Al Sudani would not say when the offensive against Anbar would begin, but suggested that it would be soon.

Once the three regiments are mobilized to Karbala, the Mahdi Army’s remaining forces will stay in Baghdad to defend the population there and prevent an assault on the city by ISIS, al Sudani said. He added that some Mahdi forces would be moved into areas of Baghdad, like the northern neighborhood of Kadhimiya, where they suspected ISIS sleeper cells of plotting attacks.

Asked to describe how he understood ISIS’s aims, Sudani began by saying that the group is led by a few Iraqis, but comprised almost entirely of foreign fighters. It’s a claim contradicted by most reporting on ISIS, but one that fits with al Sudani’s view of the foreign machinations behind the current war in Iraq.

“The real controllers of ISIS are Mossad,” Sudani said, referring to Israel’s intelligence service. “The Israelis are using this battle to reach Babylon and create a state of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates. “The Israelis call this ‘The Battle of the Hornets’” Sudani told me, using a phrase that appears to originate in an Iranian news report. According to that report, ISIS’s is a joint creation of America, Britain and Israel – and revealed by … Edward Snowden. Testing the limits of the region’s propagandists and the imaginations of their audience, seems to have paid off. The story of Israel’s nefarious role in Iraq’s war has been repeated by several Iraqis during my visit and is taken as fact by Sudani, who told me: “The real battle now is against Israel.”

Al Sudani denied any cooperation between the Peace Brigades and other Shia militia like Iraqi Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which is believed to be behind the recent massacre of alleged prostitutes in Baghdad.  But he confirmed “some coordination” between the group and Iran. Al Sudani acknowledged that the Mahdi forces have worked with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian military force long reported to be active inside Iraq, but would not elaborate on the terms of their relationship.

Despite the evidence of Iranian funding and influence, the Mahdi Army’s has a more nationalist leaning and stronger connections to the Iraqi state than other religious militias. As one of the strongest groups inside Baghdad, the reborn Peace Brigades, are vital to the city’s defense. As the group moves outside of the city to clash with ISIS in mixed areas, their claim to fight on behalf of all Iraqis is being tested.