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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Rise of religious parties: blind love or hybrid war?

According to Syed Muhammad Ali, the timing of the recent protests is conspicuous as the protests occurred during a time when Pakistan was in the middle of six major national and regional developments. The protests could be an attempt by India to present Pakistan as a politically unstable state.

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”- Friedrich Nietzsche

Love is considered to be the most precious part of human nature. For most Muslims around the world, the love for the last holy Prophet (PBUH) represents one of the core values of their faith that transcends way beyond all interests and relations.

However, love, like various other aspects of human behavior is also socially constructed and unless guided by education, civic sense, and social responsibility, can potentially become a source of destruction and chaos, particularly once exploited by those who aim to strategically benefit from it.

Therefore, how this core Muslim value manifests itself and is exercised within any society affects its stability, security, and prosperity.

Read more: Respect Muhammad (PBUH) like we respect Moses, Jesus: Lord Nazir

Present Crisis in Pakistan

A few weeks before the Federal budget and few months before the FATF review, a demand was made that the government should expel the French Ambassador. Interestingly, FATF’s head office is in the French capital, Paris. Although the government did not agree to this demand, the French Embassy advised its citizens to leave the country temporarily.

There are 32 French companies working in Pakistan’s key sectors including energy, transport, public works, civil engineering, environment, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods while over 185 French companies are members of the Pakistan-France Business Alliance and France is also an important export market for Pakistan.

Read more: French embassy advises its citizens to leave Pakistan over ‘serious threats’

What happened on the streets of Lahore in the last few days deserves a dispassionate and
comprehensive reflection. The scale and level of violence used in the form of sticks, canes, and guns which caused significant damage to public property and created chaos, forced the Federal cabinet to ban TLP.

On Sunday, an attack was carried out on the Nawankot police station early in the morning and a DSP and ten policemen were taken hostage and tortured. Subsequently, the hostage crisis was averted through successful negotiations and the hostage policemen were released.

However, till the writing of this analysis, further negotiations were still expected.
Now let us zoom out and try to connect the dots and piece together a bigger picture.

Read more: Talks underway with banned TLP: Will government sign a new agreement?

Coincidence or careful strategic planning?

The timing of these violent protests was interesting as these took place in the wake of six major regional and national developments which need to be analyzed together to understand the big picture.

First, the US announcement of its troop’s departure from Afghanistan. Second, the
improving security cooperation between Arab countries and Israel. Third, the recent South
Asian visit of Russian Foreign Minister in which Indian Prime Minister did not meet him while the Russian leader reportedly offered Pakistan all possible cooperation. Fourth, Pakistan’s return to seeking IMF program. Fifth, the forthcoming Federal Budget, and sixth the FATF review.

Read more: Lavrov’s trip: a major event for India and Pakistan

If these geopolitical, geoeconomics and geostrategic developments can be pieced together then it seems that this crisis was built up at a time when the US needed Pakistan’s good offices in the talks with the Afghan Taliban and to help facilitate a peaceful US military departure, the Russian interest in improving relations with Islamabad is greater than ever since the 1970s, while the Chinese commitment towards Pakistan and recently interest in Iran is also on the rise.

This indicates a possible Indian motive, which does not favorably view Pakistan’s growing positive relevance with important global and regional powers.

Amidst this geostrategic environment, the revival of religious violence, in the context of the growing Indian clout over the US and FATF, should be seen as providing the ideal instrument to shape Pakistan’s domestic environment in a manner that can help build a case that why Pakistan does not deserve easy terms for the IMF bailout, a FATF good grade, international trust, and significant foreign investment.

Moreover, it also shakes the public confidence in the present government and
revitalizes the political opposition.

Read more: Rise of Islamophobia: Why is Indian media accusing Pakistan of doing propaganda?

In addition, according to former Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, who has also served in
Brussels, France along with Germany, virtually enjoy veto power over the decision of the
European Union regarding awarding GSP Plus status to any country.

Therefore, demanding Pakistan to expel the French Ambassador will badly damage good relations with the European Union and sabotage whatever goodwill Islamabad has earned through its economic diplomacy to develop France as a growing export market.

Read more: #BoycottFrenchProducts: What does Pakistan import from France? The answers are worrying

Moreover, social unrest harms the national economic activity which will further reduce the government’s ability to meet the direct and indirect tax revenue targets before the upcoming Federal budget and will increase Pakistan’s reliance on external borrowing, which does not come freely or cheaply.

Simply put, social chaos harms the national economy, hurts investor confidence, and makes the country more vulnerable to external economic coercion.

Read more: Why Pakistan’s Economy is fragile after 72 years?

Indian support?

Furthermore, notwithstanding the violent protestors on the rampage on the streets of Lahore, what was most interesting was the extraordinary international support that they received from more than 380 Indian WhatsApp groups in the cyber world.

An initial analysis of 400,000 hostile tweets related to the TLP protests revealed that more than 70 percent of these were generated from fake accounts.

Now let us unemotionally look at the main narrative of these 400,000 tweets. The meta
narrative of most of these tweets had nothing to do with the love of religion or the last Prophet (PBUH), who according to the Holy Quran was sent as divine mercy for the entire universe, but aimed to maximize the social chaos through terms such as ‘Civil War in Pakistan’ etc.

Read more: Video of fake army officer threatening COAS Bajwa, Govt goes viral

This indicates that those supporting the street protestors in the cyber world were neither merely local ragtag sympathizers, illiterate madrassa students nor religiously motivated individuals but a large force of dedicated cyber professionals who had carefully planned and intended to strategically exploit the environment shaped on the ground in Lahore and internationally present Pakistan as an unstable country.

Earlier, some very irresponsible remarks about Pakistan’s missile and nuclear program were also made at similar rallies. Such statements from any person, particularly those seen in the religious context by the general public, also help those who intend to internationally shape a perception that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not safe and could fall into irresponsible hands.

Read more: Arming against a new era of threats by cyber-warriors

Lessons from the crisis and the way forward

The government and the relevant national security institutions must carefully evaluate all the dimensions of this crisis and its specific dynamics in each domain of national interest.

In the political domain, the government should interpret national security in a comprehensive manner and transcend beyond a silo-based approach towards foreign policy, national security policy, internal security, external security, economic security, human security, and national defense.

Read more: Misinformation: a threat to Pakistan’s national security

National security should be conceptualized on the basis of 21st-century environment and national interests rather than the structures or institutions that evolved during the 20th Century and individually pursue these interests.

For example, in order to deal with a situation like this, our Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) should develop modern crisis management capabilities and regularly wargame emerging and likely internal security scenarios that should include learning how to negotiate during delicate hostage situations. It should not merely be left to the political leadership to negotiate with such situations unless they are professionally trained for it.

Read more: Should political leaders of Pakistan be called terrorists? Constitutional lawyer questions…

Secondly, our institutions must develop professional capacity and skills to timely and tactically defuse a local law and order situation beyond the traditional options of buying time, offering compensation, or arresting them, before it escalates into a national crisis that forces the national leadership to take the nation into confidence.

The kinetic response should always be the last resort after all options have been evaluated, tried and exhausted, because it is always politically costly for the government, weakens the public trust, and erodes investor confidence.

A country that aims to become a trading nation by offering a viable and secure regional CPEC corridor cannot afford its bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies not to be public service-oriented and maintain its colonial culture.

Read more: Pakistan’s bureaucracy needs overhaul

Tackling the hybrid warfare

Our several relevant institutions regularly monitor the cyber and media trends but these also need to be comprehensively seen in the context of their co-relation and implications for other geo-economic, geo-strategic and regional geopolitical trends as well.

In hybrid warfare, the physical battleground might be a small local neighborhood, but similar to the air and artillery support in case of a conventional land war, the psychological, media, and cyber reinforcement and support usually come from across the borders.

Read more: FATF Battle: Islamabad is confident to win despite Indian propaganda

This helps maximize, magnify and export the tactical and limited physical impact of a local incident way beyond the streets of a city, in order to psychologically disturb the entire nation, financially disrupt the national economy, and shake the confidence of all those around the world who have an interest or goodwill towards Pakistan.

In short, this street protest’s somewhat crude, tactical, and local action received well-planned, extensive, and highly sophisticated international support that aimed to create the strategic impact of nationally destabilizing and globally isolating Pakistan.

Read more: Failure of Indian rhetoric to isolate Pakistan in the international community

Role of FIA

Pakistan Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has a Cyber Crime Cell. It needs to be expanded to timely monitor, trace, and identify all hostile cyber activities and coordinate with the relevant national security institutions to block those hostile sites.

It should also timely inform State Bank, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Information, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs for timely measures in all domains shaping an effective national narrative as well as taking an accurate, proportionate, and comprehensive national security policy decision accordingly.

This will also improve Pakistan’s national ability to control the escalation of hybrid warfare in several domains, simultaneously.

Read more: FIA accused of ‘unprofessional behavior’ with harassment victim

Those individuals using, owning, running, managing, or investing in organizations, websites, IP addresses and mobile phones which are found to be involved in hostile anti-state activities must be legally dealt with in a transparent manner and identified and punished accordingly.

The punishment must not be merely physical or financial. Their identities must be kept in a comprehensive national crime database which must be developed with the help of NADRA.

Besides offering a comprehensive national database of all criminal or anti-state activities, the history of these individuals and entities should also be shared with all financial institutions, FIA, State Bank, and insurance companies to ensure that gradually all anti-state activities are financially and professionally disincentivized and their credit ratings for future loans, insurance, and visa issuance are downgraded.

Read more: Indian Chronicles: Disinfo database suggest Pakistan to formulate new policies

Legalization of all entities

More importantly, all websites, religious organizations, madrassas, political parties, and NGOs must be identified and legally registered and laws and rules must be made to get their accounts independently audited along with adequate financial disclosure requirements regarding all foreign remittances, donations, aid, or gifts that they receive or foreign transfers they themselves might make.

This will not only reduce the vulnerabilities related to hybrid warfare, help meet the challenge of financial transparency, reduce internal security threats, but also assist in addressing the FATF money-trail-related requirements.

Read more: 10 questions if FATF is biased against Pakistan

It is hoped that some of these suggestions will get timely and adequate consideration not only in the national interest but also in the interest of public safety and the government’s own political interests.

Most importantly, these measures will help ensure that our passions, religious sentiments, constitutional right to peaceful protest, our growing habit of using cell phones, and the internet are not strategically exploited by non-state actors, criminal elements, and external adversaries to wage hybrid warfare within Pakistan.

The author is Director (Nuclear & Strategic Affairs) at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, a Pakistan-based think tank. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.