The devil is not in the detail

From an Indian standpoint, what matters is the big picture that emerges from the Seymour Hersh report controversy

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

A report by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has stirred up the proverbial hornet’s nest. Considering the speculative nature of the report, and the uncomfortable situation that it puts all the protagonists in, the report has received a lot of flak.

Diagram of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, image courtesy: Mysid, Wikimedia Commons

The objective of this post is not to vouch for or to find holes in the report but to throw some light on the consequences of this controversy, particularly from an Indian standpoint.

  1. India stands to gain more with the report coming out than without it. The controversy surrounding the report gives credence to what India has always maintained: the complicity of the Pakistani state with terrorists. The fact that the epicentre of the controversy is US is even better, it will make future engagements with the Pakistan military establishment tougher.
  2. The controversy is good because it has enough and more in it to convince everyone about the existence of the Pakistani Military Jihadi Complex (MJC) — a dynamic network of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance. It is interesting to note that this entire episode which involved military action by one state in the heart of another country hardly features the civilian government of Pakistan. This is just one of the many indicators of the power that the MJC wields over decision-making in Pakistan.
  3. The episode also puts into perspective that this dynamic network can and does get unwieldy at times. On one hand, there are cohesive forces such as enmity towards India and the ideology of radical Islamism that bind the MJC. On the other, there are forces of repulsion caused by the underlying inconsistencies of the project and the confusion surrounding the objective of the Pakistani state. The balancing act is not an easy job and is bound to have its moments of failures.
  4. Overall, this episode is itself a result of exogenous forces which have moulded the MJC’s responses in disparate ways. First, a splurge of military aid in return of Pakistan’s partnership in the war or terror meant that it was in the MJC’s favour to keep the hunt for Osama Bin Laden going on for as long as possible. Then came the new forces: the Kerry-Lugar-Bergman legislation tightened the noose on military aid  and US increased drone strikes within the Pakistan territory. This increased the costs for the MJC in keeping the hunt for Osama going. Eventually, was it the diminishing marginal utility that caused the MJC to co-operate with the US in this operation still remains an unanswered question.
  5. How the MJC reacts to this clearly uncomfortable situation will serve as a test case to understand how strong the cohesive forces that unite it are. The Urdu media will play its part: there are already reports that project the ISI as a hero, claiming that Osama was already in ISI’s custody and the entire operation would have been impossible without the ‘help’ of the ‘generous’ Pakistani establishment. Given this narrative, the jihadi node of the MJC is bound to view the military with even more suspicion going ahead. 

India would do well to keep a close watch on the firefighting that happens going ahead in order to devise strategies that can dismantle the Pakistani military jihadi complex – an irreconcilable adversary.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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