September 14, 2012

El Narco and the Jihad

Similarities between El Narco in Mexico and the Jihad enterprise in Pakistan

Last year Ioan Grillo published a historical account of the horrific narco-wars in Mexico. In his book, Ioan charts Mexico’s trajectory from a relatively minor producer of marijuana and low grade opiates, to a major trafficking node for every kind of high grade narcotics (grade 4 heroin, white powder cocaine, methamphetamine etc.). This transition occurred over several decades, and as the size of the web of drug mafias grew, they began to confront the Mexican state. Today the drug trafficking collective colloquially referred to as El Narco, sits at the epicentre of a vast social and economic system- with its own code of conduct, its own banking system, its own governing councils and cartels, its own musical form (narcocorrido), its own religious cults and even its own clothing fashions. It is for all practical purposes a living breathing independent cultural entity (sometimes referred to as narcocultura in Mexico).

Even to seasoned conflict watchers like myself, the sheer intensity of the Mexican drug war comes as a shock. Flag officers of the Police are murdered in broad daylight by criminal gangs. Severed heads and corpses are dumped into public squares as a warning to the common folk. The families of martyred Mexican military officers are massacred in retaliation for anti-cartel operations. If a kingpin is arrested, the Cartel’s “special forces” complete with the latest assault weapons, gear and tactics launch several coordinated assaults on the convoy carrying the leader and attempt to free him. The simple act of serving a warrant against a criminal leaves dozens of policemen dead even before the criminal is produced in the police station. Scarcely a day goes by without some high ranking officer of the government being accused of being in league with El Narco Cartels and relatives of high ranking politicians are convicted of direct involvement in the drug trade. Some of the most violent cartels routinely hire people from the Mexican military, for example the most feared of the Cartels- the Zetas, was actually formed by defectors from one of Mexico’s special forces units.

Photo: El cartel de San Luis

And yet no one in the Mexican national security establishment wants to see this as anything more than violent crime. Whenever a lower ranked policeman is killed by the cartels, people say that he was probably involved in taxing the trade or was probably set up by a jealous colleague. If a high ranking policeman or politician is killed, people say it is probably because he was being too obstructive to a cartel fragment and they didn’t like the price he was asking for cooperation and so they killed him. The most one hears from the usual experts inside the DC beltway is that this is a “commercial insurgency”. One gets the distinct sense that the issue is being played down by all concerned.

While our Mexican friends may have reasons for being guarded in their statements regarding El Narco, in my recollection I have never seen anything resembling this level of violence in India. In full blown insurgencies like Kashmir and Punjab, things did get pretty bad- but if I were to scale the violence levels with amount of available resources, the Mexican drug war is at least ten times more intense anything we have seen in India. There is however a place I can think of which has seen similar levels of violence- a place called Pakistan.

When one starts describing the violence in Pakistan, one is tempted to simply label it as a case of Islam-gone-badly-wrong. The Pakistani state founded on visions of using Islam to achieve social equality and a rapid economic progress simply went off track. In Pakistan, sacred Islamic concepts like Jihad became a tool in the hands of the corrupt and an epidemic of violence spread across society from their misuse. This description is essentially correct; however I feel it misses a vital dimension to the conflicts in Pakistan – i.e. the underlying narco-economic compulsions.

The Pakistani state itself is little help in this matter, whenever possible things are labeled as politically motivated insurgencies. This makes it easy for the Pakistan Army to justify its iron grip on power in Islamabad. After all when there is an insurgency on, the people are more likely to look towards the military for leadership and security. However for the rest of us who are trying to understand what on earth is happening there, this simply obscures the real picture.

For reference, Pakistan sits astride the shortest land routes out of the opiate producing regions of Eastern Afghanistan (Helmand, Kandahar, etc.). In the 1980s, a lot of the morphine base was refined in Pakistan in the NWFP and Baluchistan area and subsequently trafficked via Pakistan to India, the Gulf Countries, Europe and America. In the roaring 80-90s, everyone was said to be involved in the drug trade, from presidents to prime ministers, military people, bankers, local politicians, Jihadi group leaders… There was an elaborate “gravy train” that kept mouths fed and hands greased. There was also a vast financial network that relayed the profits of the narcotics trade back to Pakistan. Money was plentiful and some people estimated the size of the narco economy in Pakistan to be comparable to the size of its GDP.

Things changed on September 11, 2001. The Americans came to Afghanistan and delicate network of producers, traffickers and financiers fell apart. A number of the kingpins of old (such as Ayoob Afridi) were simply picked up by the Americans and locked up in US prisons, others were accused of collaborating with Al Qaeda and found themselves facing the wrong end of a Predator drone. Observers from India euphemistically termed these events as ‘reorganisation’ of the trade pattern in light of emergent realities. And quite expectedly the levels of violence in Pakistani society rose dramatically. What started as attacks on Turi Shias in Parachinar, quickly escalated into attacks on military personnel and then suicide attacks on prominent politicians, and eventually General Musharraf himself. Today even the lowest police official in Pakistan is entitled to a ‘protocol’- a convoy of several cars filled with guards armed to the teeth and major military bases in Pakistan are the targets of suicidal assaults executed with military precision. When not attacking heavily guarded military bases, the ‘insurgents’ seem to spend time cutting off the heads of Pakistani soldiers, murdering military commanders in Pakistani cities, bombing places of worship and killing politicians hoping to be Prime Minister.

The Pakistan military simply views any acts against it as being an anti-national. It dismisses these ‘insurgent’ group as being misguided religious zealots, that are working with (depending on what day it is)- the CIA/Blackwater/Xe, RAW or Mossad, to undermine Pakistan’s great Army. The Army launches anti-terrorism operations into the tribal areas, where they feel these groups shelter and wherever possible it uses heavy artillery to bring out the finer points in its position on topical matters. When a Pakistani security officer is killed, he is made into a martyr by the Army, and into a kafir by the insurgents.

While Mexican security commentators bend over backwards to tell you that any assassination of a state official is simply a case of corruption. The Pakistan Army’s mouthpieces go to great lengths to tell you how the Army commander was blameless and he was killed in a violent anti-state Islamic Jihad- even if the person accused of orchestrating the attack was also a ‘retired’ military officer with links to the ISI. Those of us who remember the circumstances of the death of Lt. Gen. Fazl-e-Haq, XI Corps Commander in Peshawar find the Pakistani Army’s stories a little hard to believe.

In Mexico a curious pattern has been observed. When two competing cartels or cartel fragments infiltrate a security organisation, they do so in the following fashion. One cartel buys off the lower level officials who have access to the ground. The other cartel typically has no choice but to buy off the higher level official. If the two cartels go to war over distribution or trafficking matters, then the cartel that bought off the lower level officials has a tendency to attack the higher level official, and the cartel that bought of the higher level officials has a tendency to kill the lower level officials. This sets the ground for a tremendous conflict inside the security agency and effectively paralyses the agency from the inside. This kind of conflict is profitable for the cartels because it reduces the amounts they have to pay in bribes. It would not be unexpected if the cartels periodically have a go at each other just to trim down their ‘administrative’ costs. This kind of behaviour by the cartels and the subsequent reactions by the state machinery usually feeds a cycle of violence that typically lasts a few months and usually kills a few hundred people… and then another round begins.

I wonder if this sort of dynamic that is driving the strangely coordinated suicidal assaults on heavily guarded military bases in Pakistan. India has repeatedly indicated that its special forces do no have the ability to operate deep within Pakistan and strike at heavily guarded targets like this. The idea of Islamist groups like the TTP being in league with India is seductive but it fails on common sense grounds. India has no leverage with the TTP. If an Indian person were to attempt to pay the Tehrik-e-Taleban-Pakistan (TTP) to do something on its behalf, the TTP would simply take the money and abscond. The Indian would be able to nothing about it. This same logic applies to other extra national players like Mossad. Theoretically the US/Blackwater/Xe could use its drones to target TTP as retaliation, but the TTP would simply respond by attacking US supply convoys and unbalance the entire US posture in Afghanistan. That hardly seems like a profitable exchange from the American point of view. Whenever I hear Pakistani Army mouthpieces rail on about CIA/Blackwater/Xe, Mossad and RAW involvement in violence in Pakistan, I am reminded of the old days in the 50s when the Chinese representative in the UN could make long speeches vehemently criticising some random eastern European country. The Chinese were in an alliance with the USSR and were afraid that a direct criticism of the Soviet leadership would cause severe problems in their delicate relationship. In order to avoid angering the Soviets, the Chinese would spit venom at random eastern European nations and then privately assure their ambassadors that they were simply using their nations to indirectly reference the Soviet Union.

It is well known that the Pakistani military uses its spy planes, the P3-Orion, the Saab-Erieye, the ELINT C-130, the Chinese AWACS to keep track of movements along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and to keep an eye on ships in the northern Arabian sea. Both of these areas are known drug trafficking routes. If the Pakistan Army is using these assets to curtail the trafficking activities of specific groups – such as those close to the TTP – then this all starts to make much more sense. If that is what is happening then it seems only natural that the TTP would use its allies in the Pakistani military to orchestrate such effective attacks on these airplanes.

Presently most of the analysis of Pakistan views event through a jihadi lens. Significant effort is expended on studying the civil-military relationship and its effect on the political climate. In addition to these efforts, it may be worthwhile to compare and contrast the situation in Mexico with the situation in Pakistan. Exploring narco-economic drivers of the conflict in Pakistan may lead to deeper insights and greater predictive power about the situation there.

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