Pakistan Cricket’s resilient resurgence and India – CT 2017

Pakistan Cricket’s resilient resurgence and India – CT 2017

It would be an understatement to say that Pakistan’s decisive victory over India the other day made me happy. I’ll admit that I was ecstatic bordering on euphoric, not only because I had been constantly praying for them to make a ridiculously impossible comeback in the tournament, but also because it was the first time in almost 15 years that I saw the team playing with such energy and determination. It was heartening to see them diving all over the place, attacking the wickets and taking jabs at every other ball. This tournament brought out the side in them that I had been longing to see!

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The team which once ruled the Cricketing world in all formats of the game had been reduced to whipping boys in the mid 2000’s, and could be counted on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Mired in fixing scandals, administrative ineptitude and politicization, cricket in Pakistan was dying a slow death. The situation was intensified by the menace of terrorism which had been haunting the country since 2006 and which lead to every international team refusing to play in Pakistan.

I was happy to see the unifying force of sport that made everyone forget about the plethora of social and political ills that have for so long been plaguing the country. I was also pleased to see many Indians congratulating Pakistanis on the win and hoping for a revival of the team.

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I write this post not to take jabs at the Indian team, neither is it an attempt to undermine their achievements. I would however like the people of India to take a practical step in exercising their democratic powers and request their authorities to restore Cricketing ties with Pakistan. Restoration of India-Pakistan cricket (including home series) would go a long way in restoring faith between the two countries, and would also make it easier to convince international teams to return to Pakistan. India is after all one of the most influential members of the ICC and has a major stake in all of its decisions. It is a known fact that India has been refusing to play bilateral cricket with Pakistan for over 5 years now, and has lobbied internationally to ensure that Cricket doesn’t return to Pakistan any time soon. The idea of isolating Pakistan is not new, and has been around for over 10 years.

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While many disagree, there is indeed a major group of hardliners in India that influences the policies of the BCCI and the Indian government when it comes to ties with Pakistan. This was evident during the years leading up to the 2011 Cricket World Cup, which was scheduled to be hosted collectively between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s hosting rights were taken away after the Sri Lankan team was attacked in Lahore, and international players including those from India cited security concerns about playing in Pakistan. I sincerely believe that had Pakistan been allowed to host that world cup, Cricket would have returned much earlier to the country. Similar was the case of the 2009 Champions Trophy, which was stripped away from Pakistan after several countries withdrew their diplomatic support. It was in these moments that Pakistan needed India’s support the most, which it withheld.

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The Indian Premier League bans Pakistani players from participating in it, which has had an obvious impact on the physical and psychological state of our players. Whether this is due to political reasons is debatable, but there have been incidents involving Pakistani commentators as well who were told to leave India due to pressure and threats by hardline groups. And while the cricketing world evolved with the annual T20 event, Pakistan was conveniently left out of the fray, ensuring that its team would be unable to keep up. It would be a major step at creating goodwill if Pakistani players are included in the next IPL tournament.

Despite everything, the international boycott, the labels, the lack of adequate training regimes and public disapproval, the Pakistani team still manages to somehow defy the odds and produce a memorable performance.

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I’ve read quite a few ‘odes’ to Pakistan’s ‘unbelievable’ victories recently, calling for ‘more power’ to the team and thanking them for restoring the faith of people in ‘underdogs’. I’m sure it was well received.

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But voicing disapproval would go a longer way rather than conveniently playing the role of silent observers when hardliners and hate mongers demonize Pakistan in the name of ideology.

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Ghani and his familiar tirades against Pakistan

Ghani and his familiar tirades against Pakistan

Here is another statement from the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the ongoing Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar labeling Pakistan as the source of the Taliban’s sustenance over the years of the ongoing war. My response to a friend who was claiming the innocence of Ghani in the face of an allegedly conniving Pakistani state is shared below. The conversation was informal and thus uses non-academic language. I felt like posting it here because it reflected my understanding and opinion on the consistent barrage of allegations that are thrown at Pakistan.

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Me: As if Ghani and the Afghan establishment are the innocent victims of the demonic Pakistani state, and these officials are ones that have never had any kind of relations with the Taliban government during its regime and are doves for peace. Your paragraph and the statement dehumanizes the Pakistani state for something that the Afghanis themselves (whether inadvertently or not) did bring to the subcontinent. The nonsensical political atmosphere of Afghanistan which drew inspiration from the tribal codes of pashtunwali had invited the warring parties to the country, this ‘jihad’ was supported by not only Pakistan, KSA and the US but also by the so called democratic doves sitting in the Afghan parliament right now. These people believed in the same goals as the other parties of the time. Now they act as if they’ve just woken up from a cryo sleep to the realization of how inhumane and scary the Pakistani state is. You can label the Pakistani army as hawkish all you want but realpolitik dictated its support for the Taliban in the 1970s and 80s. Had India been Afghanistan’s neighbor it would’ve done the same. The Afghan state since time immemorial has been a gauntlet of warring factions vying for power by any means necessary. These very people who blame Pakistan for allegedly supporting the instability in Afghanistan forget the mediatory role that Pakistan has always tried to play in the Afghan conflict. Why is Ghani made out to be such an innocent baby face in this paragraph you’ve written? Was he not supported by Pakistan during his election campaign for the creation of a stable government? As soon as he assumed power his sights were set on creating political confusion, rather then initiating steps for stabilizing the security situation of Afghanistan. Why do people forget that when Hamid Karzai was in power his government was involved in the highest levels of corruption in cooperation with the Taliban where they squandered all the aid that was flowing in for them and only focused on filling their own pockets. The Afghan army which was suited with the best weapons and technology would desert as soon as they would realize that they couldn’t fill their pockets anymore and would rejoin the Taliban forces. When Pakistan tried to restart negotiations with the Taliban in July last year, in favor of creating a political settlement for Afghans, they decided to back out. The Afghans refuse to accept the International border that runs between their country and Pakistan, launch frequent artillery attacks across the border and protest at the Pakistani governments attempts at instigating border management systems. Their argument of Pakistan providing safe havens to militant groups is nullified when Pakistan takes the lead in trying to institute border controls which in essence benefit both countries in terms of stopping cross border terrorism and smuggling. This apathy to border management is the real issue that should be discussed. And even if the Pakistani Army has the power to bring the Taliban on the negotiating table then what is wrong with that? Should they turn a blind eye to the reality of the shithole of a place that is located in their north west (aka FATA)? Where tribal elders take pride in killing and flaunting weapons and have no respect for the writ of the Pakistani state? They’ve had to adapt and they did. And Ghani can run his mouth all he wants, people who know the reality of Afghanistan know that he is not a popular leader, only pandering to the bias of the CIA and others who want to punish Pakistan for not conforming to their interpretations of what is the solution to the war. The failed US campaign in Afghanistan, after 14 years of stalemate has refused to accept the very nature of the conflict. The Pakistani state has suffered dearly at the hands of these Taliban, who routinely attack soft targets (schools, hospitals, churches), and the state is gearing up for the 2nd anniversary of the most brutal of their attacks on 16th December, when they attacked a school in Peshawar. To allege that they (the Pakistani’s) would still support these elements is a gross mis-calculation.

A ‘Terrorized’ State of Terror?

A ‘Terrorized’ State of Terror?

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Brandishing latest assault rifles, and dressed from head to toe in black camouflage uniforms and gear – the ‘Shock Troops’ of ISIS are the representation of an elite new contingent of the terrorist organization. The Shock Troops have recently been seen in ISIS’s propaganda videos, epitomizing the sinister nature of the self – proclaimed ‘Islamic State’. Resembling a SWAT Team, these soldiers are some of most elite and brutal members of the terror group, and surprisingly comprise of not just local and regional militia, but also foreign fighters, including people from the U.S and the U.K. Their role in the activities of the group is quintessential, and their tactics seems to have been drawn up after studying some of the fiercest fighting forces the world has ever seen.

The videos of these Shock Troops follow a pattern of a provocative Propaganda campaign. The situation in the Middle East seems to be worsening by the second, with a looming humanitarian catastrophe just waiting to unfold as a result of the destruction caused by the so called Islamic State. But the recent involvement of Russia in the mix has had a significant impact on the conflict, and seems to have stalled the steady advance of ISIS.

But let’s discuss the fearsome ISIS Shock Troops first. The elite contingent is popularly known as the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, which is an Arabic word, in literal terms meaning ‘those who submerge themselves’. The title is befitting, to say the least, as it does justice to their cause of leaving no stones unturned in accomplishing their objectives. Their tactics include the use of explosive chemical devices against civilians, chopping off the heads of prisoners, the use of dead bodies as human shields and ‘suicide’ when faced with adverse circumstances. The Inghemasiyoun’s suicide tactic seems to have been inspired by the famed Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War 2, who would smash their planes into the sides of Allied warships when crashing or out of ammunition.  The brutality of these tactics would instil fear in the hearts of the Allied soldiers, if not stop their advances altogether. ISIS seems to be employing those same brutal methods in the deserts of Iraq and Syria with the help of the Inghemasiyoun.

Surprisingly, a majority of the people that sign up to become a part of the Inghemasiyoun are foreign fighters, mostly belonging to the US, the UK and other western countries. The appeal that ISIS enjoys within these developed countries is nothing less than phenomenal. One aspect that distinguishes ISIS from other terrorist organizations is their use of modern means of communication, and their massive presence on Social Media is what gives them the edge over others.

Another aspect which needs to paid attention to is the fact that over 70% of Inghemasiyoun recruits have been teenagers. As startling as that may sound, the reasons behind this trend are hardly settling. Most of the teenagers who decide to join the terror group have had to deal with unemployment issues in their home countries, in some cases a lack of purpose, and a plethora of other psychological difficulties. Many of these kids become resentful of their families and society, and thus develop suicidal tendencies. They are an easy target for the group’s manipulative propaganda machines, which capitalizes on their insecurities and promises them a ‘purpose’ to work towards. A former CIA Agent, Patrick Skinner is quoted to have said: ‘People go to ISIS to die, and ISIS is always happy to oblige’. The propaganda machines are well aware of the abundance of prospective recruits available at their disposal, and thus employ all kinds of strategies in trying to recruit them.

The no holds barred approach that the Inghemasiyoun employ has been lauded as a key component to the terror group’s offensive, and these shock troops have been credited with some of the biggest ISIS victories in Iraq and Syria. ISIS wants the world to know, with the help of these images of the Shock Troops and others like them, that they are dealing with a legitimate cause, with all kinds of offensive capabilities at its disposal. It projects itself as a formidable entity, a state with a conventional army and separate units, rather than a regular militant group. Such images have been used as trade-off’s in the past as well to the advantage of the terror group, which would depict massive weapon arsenals, torture of civilians and also beheadings of captives. But while the latest images of the Shock Troops have the Iraqi, Syrian and other western observers concerned, many believe that this show of force is part of a propaganda campaign aimed at diverting world attention from the losses that ISIS has suffered over the course of the past year.

The images come at a time when ISIS has suffered major setbacks on the battlefield, credited to a joint U.S and Turkish aerial offensive in late July and September, and also to the recent Russian aerial and cruise missile strikes that began a few weeks ago. The terror organization has been under significant pressure as a result of these offensives and is believed to be shell shocked at the sudden involvement of Russia in the foray. The group reportedly has had to deal with ‘mass defections’ as a result of the changing scenario, with many field commanders abandoning their positions.  The commanders would allegedly promise multiple wives and an adventurous lifestyle to the new recruits, but would soon face backlash and rebellions upon failure to deliver. A general lack of coordination, wide-spread corruption and unfulfilled promises, aided by the recent aerial offensives, has further hampered the group’s momentum, and are leading to desertions on the battlefield.

The involvement of Russian military elements is further exasperating the situation for the self-professed Islamic State.  Russia has moved an estimated 28 fighter aircraft to a government airbase in Syria and is launching precision airstrikes aimed at destroying the command and control centres of the terror organization. One could argue that due to consistent U.S diplomatic and military failures in the region, and due to their untethered support to so – called rebellious elements within Syria, Putin felt it was high-time to protect his strategic interests in the region, and that his sudden interest in launching an aerial campaign within Syria is aimed at safeguarding the Syrian Government and their allies. It was alleged that the air strikes conducted by Russia were actually aimed at anti-Syrian government rebels, and not at ISIS strongholds. These allegations seem to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical narrative of selfish gains, whereby it looks to re-impose Soviet era ideals of expansionism and world domination. No substantial proof has been presented yet in support of these allegations, however.

Whether or not the Russians will engage ISIS on the ground is yet to be seen, but reports from within Syria speculate a joint Iranian – Hezbollah ground offensive against the group in the wake of the air strikes. Iran undoubtedly has a huge stake in the region, and would benefit greatly by the stabilizing role currently being played by Russia. The Iranian’s have increasingly found themselves landlocked in a region filled with deep sectarian sentiments, and would sooner or later have had to deal with the conflicts in its neighbourhood spilling into its own territory. Therefore, it would look forward to the strengthening of the pro-Russian government of Bashar al Assad, and would appreciate the annihilation of ISIS as well. Now, as a result of Russia’s direct involvement, Iran can finally provide open support to the Syrian government in restoring its authority over the country. Not to forget the much under-appreciated Kurdish Peshmerga, which is already locked in heated battles with ISIS in the north of Syria and had reportedly sent ISIS fighters in a hasty retreat towards the hills surrounding Kirkuk earlier last month. The Kurds would also want to defeat ISIS, mostly because it would strengthen their narrative of being a nation and would highlight their plea for a Kurdish state.

Another aspect which needs to be paid attention to is the recent takeover of the city of Kunduz in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the biggest Taliban victory since the American intervention in 2001 which drove them out. The Taliban have resurfaced as a result of the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and are already in control of major parts of the country. The U.S President Barak Obama claimed to have ended the war in Afghanistan in a recent Senate committee dinner; the Taliban would beg to differ. Almost surprisingly, the Taliban have expressed deep anti-ISIS sentiments, at one point calling them un-Islamic and later denouncing their barbarous practices. It is clear that Taliban would look to disrupt the advance of ISIS in Afghanistan. Now as the Taliban begin to regain lost ground, one could argue that ISIS has yet another enemy to its east to deal with, one which is not only popular but also enjoys immunity from sectarian divides.

There are a plethora of battles that now confront ISIS, and they seem to be taking their toll.

Dr. Afzal Ashraf, a researcher and Counter-Terrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) was recently quoted to having said that the Russian airstrikes combined with the staggering advances of the Kurds have obliterated the group, both in terms of equipment and morale. He believes that if a coordinated offensive is launched within the next few days against the so called Caliphate, it would ‘disintegrate within a matter of hours’. This would come as a welcome relief for the West as well as for Syria’s neighbours, which have had to deal with the problem of the conflict spilling over into their countries. It would also signal a respite for European governments having to deal with the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. The refugee inflow would see a significant drop in case the terror group is decisively defeated in a battle.

Most important to note is the fact that the Russian intervention comes at the opportune time of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. By striking ISIS in the heartland of its long-term ally, the Russian’s intend to substantiate their President’s claims of being a balancing factor in the Middle East quagmire, and looks to send a message to the rest of the world that Russia intends to counter all kinds of terrorism. Russia has stepped up to the task in order to fill the vacuum created by the ineffectiveness of western powers in fighting ISIS,  and they have done so with the consent of the world powers, something until recently, no one thought would be possible. One could argue that by the application of its surgical interventionist strategy, Russia has won not only in the geo-politics of Europe (in the case of its annexation of Crimea), but now also in the Middle East. Currently, western influence is non-existent in Crimea and is now crumbling in Syria as well. By engaging ISIS, the Russian projection of power in the region has become a new force to be reckoned with, and has diminished the potential of the Islamic State to sabotage the crumbling state of affairs in Syria.

But how can the fearsome Islamic State suddenly appear so vulnerable? Dr. Ashraf believes that the only reason that ISIS has had such a ‘Superhero’ status since its inception was because of the way the Iraqi Army virtually collapsed when it was faced by the terror group. That too, was not due to the superior fighting capabilities of ISIS, but in fact due to the mediocre standards of the Iraqi Army. An army which fails to inspire can never succeed, especially once its General’s flee from the battlefield. The same was the case with the Iraqi Army.

Furthermore, the reluctance of the U.S and its allies to combat ISIS highlighted a sense of apprehension on their part, mostly because of the toll the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had taken on the U.S economy.  This acted only to further embolden ISIS, which viewed their averseness as nothing short of pure weakness. The inability of the West to appropriately engage ISIS and other such diplomatic failures lead to the belief that the terror group was far stronger than it actually is.

But this change in perspectives is not only due to the recent military offensives against the group. ISIS had dealt itself a great blow by directly trying to battle the West and others in an attempt to portray its strength and legitimize its proclaimed statehood. By doing so, it had single-handedly achieved what the international community had been unable to do for the past 3 years: galvanise world opinion against the group. Not long ago, the West viewed Bashar Al Assad’s government in Syria as its foremost enemy. Now however, with its recent beheading spree and Shock Troops depicted in propaganda videos, ISIS has captured the attention of the world as the sole aggressor in the conflict, and Russian engagement of the terror group is a clear indication of that fact.

Surely, if such precision attacks (as implemented by the Russians) had been carried out when ISIS was still nascent, the problem might never have exasperated to the extent it has in the last few years. The Russian offensive has been hailed as making major inroads in the effort to defeat the terror group. It is a well-known fact ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. Apart from its alleged sponsors, any kind of sympathy from other Muslim countries therefore, is unlikely. Whether or not the world will once again succumb to ISIS propaganda machines is unknown. However, the need of the hour is a coordinated, unified offensive aimed at destroying and disarming the group once and for all.

Has the time finally come for the world to rid itself of this poison?
Will peace finally return to Iraq and Syria?
Has the ground finally shrunk under the feet of the self-professed Islamic State?

ISIS approaches – Is an attack on Turkey possible?

ISIS approaches – Is an attack on Turkey possible?

The self-professed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has recently gained traction in its fight against the west and its allies. Even after the United States launched a major offensive against the terrorist group in July, the ground beneath the feet if the Islamic State hardly seems to be shrinking. The tactics employed by ISIS in projecting itself as a global entity are the primary reason for its outreach and popularity. With its ability to attract followers not only in developing but also in developed countries, the group now looks to fight a new kind of war from within the borders of those countries it deems as enemies.

A still from the ISIS propaganda video calling for the deposition of the Turkish government.
A still from the ISIS propaganda video calling for the deposition of the Turkish government.

A recent video by the group instrumentally urged its supporters to rise up and help it in overthrowing the Turkish government. This seems to be in retaliation of the direct involvement of Turkey in the U.S campaign against the group, and also is on the heels of the first direct fight between Turkey and ISIS last month. Now as the two are in active engagement, it is worth inquiring whether or not the threats levelled by the group can be substantiated. Does ISIS have the strength and strategy to overthrow the Turkish government?

The new ISIS propaganda video calls the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a traitor for colluding with the West.
The new ISIS propaganda video calls the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a traitor for colluding with the West.

The new ISIS video is relevant in this context because it propagates an all out war against the Turkish government. Despite its proximity to the threat levelled by the terror group, in recent years Turkey has done very little to address the threat along its border with Syria. Nearly 100 people have died as a result of ISIS related bombings within Turkey, while the government had mostly remained passive-aggressive regarding the threat to its citizens. The bombing of the city of Suruc in July served as the beginning of an open – ended campaign by the Turkish government against ISIS and all of its affiliates. The Turkish Army has deployed in large numbers along the border and is on ‘highest alert levels’.

Turkish soldiers hold their positions with their tanks on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, overlooking Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish  fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish soldiers hold their positions with their tanks on a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, overlooking Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

But all this has come after a long and endless debate over whether or not Turkey ought to directly engage ISIS. The Tuks, at one time, due to their reluctance to join the war on ISIS were implicated on the grounds that the funding for the group was in fact coming through Turkey. The claims however merely remained speculations as no substantial proof of Turkish involvement has yet been found. Just last year, the Turks were the strongest opponents of any kind of direct contact with ISIS. In the mid of 2014 when the U.S looked to launch an aerial campaign against the terror group, the Turkish airbase of Incirlik was the most favorable choice for the allies. However Turkey bluntly refused the use of not only its airbases but also of its airspace, thereby further creating hurdles in the fight against ISIS. The use of the Incirlik airbase would have enhanced the capability of the U.S in launching rapid attacks against the group. During the siege of Kobani earlier this year, the Turkish President was criticized for his passiveness when Kurdish refugees were being slaughtered throughout the city by ISIS members. Only in recent months have the Turks finally allowed the use of their airspace in engagement against ISIS. The Turkish Air Force has also been carrying out regular bombing routines within Syria on ISIS strongholds. This change in policy on the part of Turkey can be attributed to the sudden animosity that ISIS now bears towards Turkey and its government.

Turkish F-16 taking off from Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS.
Turkish F-16 taking off from Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS.

Now that Turkey has finally started to engage the terror outfit, lets consider the question of whether or not Turkey bears a threat of being over-run by ISIS. Turkey is one the of most militarily active members of NATO and is thus protected from outside attack under the NATO Mutual Defence clause. Turkey also has the 10th largest Army in the world and has some of the worlds most advanced weaponry at its disposal. The Turks also boast defence ties with the OIC and the ECO, and are also dialogue partners in the SCO. The Turkish military outnumbers the ISIS fighters by a ratio of almost 8:1, not to mention the military hardware and software at their disposal as well. Needless to say, the Turks can easily deter an offensive by ISIS, no matter what strategy the terror outfit implies.

There is one aspect of ISIS that has been the defining line for their steady advance towards the west: Unpredictability. The terror group has been successful in deposing governmental control in many parts of Iraq not only by force but also by its propaganda tactics. One of the main reasons for its success has been its ability to create ties within the ranks of its enemies, and thus start a war from within. The same is true for their rise in Syria and their brief yet potentially brutal stint in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fact that ISIS can rapidly garner new followers from every corner of the world, and that people from western countries are leaving their livelihoods behind to travel to Iraq and Syria and join ISIS is the most remarkable feat any group has ever achieved in history. Despite being known for its brutal and oppressive tactics, the popularity of ISIS, especially in the west, seems to be steadily on the rise.

This right here, is the biggest threat to Turkey at the moment, which is already facing the blunt of terrorism within its borders. Should ISIS successfully garner enough political and military support to depose a sitting Turkish government from within, however unlikely that may seem at the moment, the consequences for the region and the rest of the world will be devastating.