Iran's Soft War

The Obama administration shouldn't give up on embattled Iranian democrats. Here's how America can help the Green Revolution succeed.

Iran's government has used violence, intimidation, and incarceration to keep the country's opposition at bay since the flawed election there last June. Now, the news trickling out of Tehran this week suggests that a more sophisticated ideological effort is underway -- the "soft war" reported in the New York Times. This goes further than closing opposition news outlets and now reportedly includes placing Basij militia instructors in elementary schools, more media controlled by the country's Revolutionary Guard, and expanded surveillance of the Internet.

Iran's leaders claim they are facing nothing less than a Western-directed "color revolution," just as Russia's allies did in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 swept the streets with democratic fervor. But the Orange Revolution was a genuine expression of popular anger, not a plot orchestrated from Washington or Brussels. It was however, aided by diplomacy. Western diplomats can draw on experience learned in Kiev to help the "green movement" in Tehran. The United States and particularly Europe should be doing much more to engage and cultivate this newly vocal "other Iran," sustaining its calls for a democratically chosen government.

Despite obvious differences, the Ukraine of the 1990s had some similarities to today's Iran in its nondemocratic character. Athough Ukraine held regular elections during that period, the U.S. NGO Freedom House noted in 2001 that fewer than 25 percent of Ukrainians considered their country a democracy. Reform-minded politicians had been ousted, and civil liberties were trampled. 

But the situation began to evolve in 2002. For the first time, Ukrainian voters expressed strong support for the opposition in parliamentary elections, despite irregularities, government tampering, and violence against reformers. Following that, Washington and European governments joined the Ukrainian opposition to apply pressure for fair and independently observed elections. Election-monitoring organizations also helped amplify the message. Diplomacy helped transform the next election into a matter of international, not just domestic, concern. This should be a key goal in Iran.

As part of the Ukraine initiative, Washington helped forge an effective multilateral alliance with the European Union. Ukraine's neighbor, Poland, played a pivotal role, having had its own experience with democratic transition.

So by the time flawed elections occurred again in December 2004, the opposition had lines of communication to the international community. Exit polling cast doubt on the credibility of official voting results. And though change came from within, supplemental pressure from outside played a key role in supporting nonviolent resistance to an unpopular regime whose time had passed.

Of course, Iran is not Ukraine. Unlike the latter, Iran does not belong to a regional organization such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the European Union, nor does it have any desire to join such a grouping. Creative diplomacy can find similar pressure points to apply, nonetheless.

One effective strategy borrowed from the Ukraine experience, for example, would involve foreign heads of state convening round tables of the various domestic parties with foreign mediators. In Ukraine's case, this meant Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski engaging directly with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and bringing together opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. For Iran, possible candidates might include French President Nicolas Sarkozy launching a round-table discussion with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and candidates from the last election. This is not implausible if it is pursued seriously; Tehran has conducted talks repeatedly with European governments on a number of sensitive issues over the past decade, and this precedent could provide impetus for current talks. Despite its actions against the opposition, Tehran would be hard-pressed to spurn a call from a major European head of government, and the call itself would aid the voices of reform.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso could meanwhile rally governments represented in Brussels to support a meaningful diplomatic initiative, which includes a discussion of election legitimacy. As Iran's largest trading partner, with some $35 billion in trade last year, the European Union has considerable economic influence over Tehran. European leaders can also seek the involvement of countries like Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states in a dialogue with Tehran.

There is one political obstacle in all of this: Conventional wisdom holds that discussing Iranian governance would only complicate ongoing nuclear-related negotiations. But history shows the opposite can be true. Some of the West's greatest strides in arms control with the former Soviet Union, for example, came in the 1980s, when the West was pushing the country hardest on human rights issues.

There is no time to be lost.  Even if new elections in Iran are far off, now is the time to begin laying a foundation by preparing for election monitoring and giving the Iranian opposition an open channel to the outside world.



India's 9/11

How it could happen again.

One year ago this Thursday, 10 gunmen wreaked havoc across Mumbai. The targets they attacked included two world-class hotels, a café popular with foreign tourists, the headquarters of India's Central Railways, and a Orthodox Jewish center. One hundred and thirty-eight Indians were killed in the attacks, and 28 foreign nationals lost their lives as well. It took almost 60 hours before commandos from India's National Security Guards killed the last of the remaining terrorists. One of the gunmen was captured in the early hours of the attack. Muhammad Ajmal Amir Kasab admitted to being a member of the Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most powerful militant groups in South Asia. Pakistani promises to dismantle the group in the wake of the Mumbai attacks remain unfulfilled. A year later Lashkar remains a potent force, capable of striking Indian as well as Western targets.

Lashkar's rise was facilitated by the Pakistani government, which supported the group's participation in the insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir. After the Sept. 11 attacks in Washington and New York, Lashkar took pains to present itself as a purely Kashmir-focused organization, but its interests are much broader. Although India has remained its primary target, Lashkar began waging a peripheral jihad against the West soon after 9/11. It has been involved in terrorist plots against Western targets and several years ago began deploying fighters to engage coalition forces in Afghanistan. Despite this, Lashkar managed to maintain a low profile relative to its potent capabilities. That changed last November.

The training and preparation provided to the militants involved in the Mumbai attacks highlight Lashkar's impressive organizational strength, and explain why the gunmen were able to carry on for several days. Prior to the attack, the militants  underwent approximately 10 months of training, including religious indoctrination, strength and endurance conditioning, extensive firearms practice, swimming and maritime instruction, map reading, and classes in counterintelligence. They were taught to speak Hindi by an Indian national who was working as a Lashkar trainer, and received false identification cards with Hindu names in order to confuse Indian authorities and hide their true nationality.

Lashkar also commissioned extensive surveillance. Two Indian operatives are currently facing trial for providing reconnaissance on targets selected for the attacks. Indian authorities are investigating whether David Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, two Pakistani-Americans who were arrested by U.S. authorities and allegedly connected to Lashkar, also assisted in surveilling some of the targets attacked last year.

One of Lashkar's goals was to halt peace talks between Islamabad and New Delhi and possibly to invite Indian retribution. Peace is not only antithetical to Lashkar's ideology, it also would make the group irrelevant to the Pakistani state. A belligerent Indian response would have increased Lashkar's utility to Pakistan and strengthened hardliners within the Pakistani security establishment.

The Mumbai attacks may rank as the most successful "terrorist spectacular" since 9/11 and certainly marked Lashkar's emergence onto the global jihadi scene. Although Pakistan took some small steps to limit the group's activities, it never came close to dismantling the infrastructure that made Mumbai possible. This reinforced the belief that Lashkar continues to enjoy the protection of the Pakistani military, especially its powerful spy agency, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate or ISI. The question of whether elements in the Pakistani security establishment directed, supported, or were aware of the attacks remains unanswered. Delhi has leveled accusations, but there is no definitive evidence to suggest official involvement. Nevertheless, Lashkar historically has been Pakistan's most reliable proxy and, at the least, continues to enjoy the passive support of the state.

Pakistan has charged seven men in relation to the Mumbai attacks, including Lashkar's operational commander, Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi. However, the court has yet to issue formal indictments, and the proceedings remain in the pre-trial phase. Some Indian officials have expressed concern that most of the militants on trial are functionaries and criticized Pakistan for not going after more of Lashkar's leadership. Pakistanis retort by complaining their country is not getting enough credit for putting these men on trial, even as some of them recognize more could have been done.

Approximately 100 Lashkar members were detained after the Mumbai attacks, but almost all of them were allowed to bleed back out onto the streets in the months that followed. They ostensibly face travel restrictions and are subject to monitoring by the police. But in my conversations with Western officials based in Pakistan as well as with several Lashkar militants, it became clear these restrictions have not impeded the group's ability to operate.

Lashkar's infrastructure also appears to remains more or less intact. In the weeks after the attacks, Pakistani authorities shut down a number of relief camps run by the group's above-ground social welfare wing, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), that were used for training purposes. These were replaced in relatively short order according to conversations with Lashkar militants and other interlocutors in Pakistan.

Some of Lashkar's training takes place in the ungoverned spaces of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but much of it is done in and around Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where the military and police have a strong presence. Some of the camps are mobile, but it is hard to believe the authorities are not aware of these activities. For example, a government report seen by the Islamabad bureau of the BBC in June 2009 reported that Lashkar and several other militant groups were expanding operations in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Locals told the BBC they complained to the authorities, but the report did not advocate any action other than continuing to observe the militants' activities.

The group's major compound at Muridke, where indoctrination for Kasab and many others allegedly began, is technically under government supervision. But during a visit in May 2009 I saw no government administrators. According to one JuD official at Muridke, these administrators oversee operations from Lahore, more than an hour's drive away, and only make weekly visits. The situation at JuD headquarters in Lahore was no better. I was denied access, but two Pakistani colleagues gained entrance to offer Friday prayers. In addition to Lashkar commandos armed with submachine guns, they saw two functionaries openly soliciting donations for Lashkar's jihad and posters in the bookstore advertising jihadi literature. This was not the only instance in which the group was flouting a state ban on fundraising or the sale of jihadi propaganda. I saw collection boxes and the sale of jihadi propaganda elsewhere in the country during my last visit. These activities continue to date, according to colleagues currently in Pakistan.

There is little question that Pakistan wishes to maintain the capability for proxy warfare, and Lashkar remains a lynchpin of this strategy. Many of the country's other erstwhile proxies have all but abandoned the fight against India in favor of warring against the United States and their former masters. Lashkar is different. India remains its primary target, making the group Pakistan's most reliable proxy against its hated rival.

The issue of Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars, plays a major part in this calculus. One senior member of Pakistan's security services told me that Lashkar's military infrastructure could be dismantled if Kashmir were settled appropriately -- the subtext being that Pakistan would be willing to force the matter only if Kashmir were taken off the table. But Kashmir is not the only obstacle to Lashkar's disarmament. Members of the Pakistani security establishment remain convinced that India poses an existential threat to Pakistan. They cite India's force structure, defense spending priorities and its doctrine of "cold start" designed to enable rapid deployment for limited war against Pakistan. Given the disparity between the two countries in terms of size and economic strength, Pakistan cannot hope to compete with India on a level military playing field. Developing a nuclear capability was one means of redressing this imbalance. The use of irregular outfits like Lashkar is another.

There are domestic reasons for the group's survival too. Lashkar not only continues to offer higher benefits as a geopolitical tool against India, it also poses lower costs than other militant groups in Pakistan. Unlike most of these outfits, which have turned their guns on the state, Lashkar abstains from launching attacks inside the country. Officials in Pakistan argue that it is foolish to crack down too swiftly, since this risks drawing Lashkar further into the war currently raging within the country's borders. The dominant perception is that other countries -- most notably India -- would reap the benefits of dismantling Lashkar while Pakistan would be left to deal with the costs.

The largest threat Lashkar poses to Pakistan stems from the chance that another mass attack in India could envelop the country in a war with its nuclear-armed rival. Earlier this month, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram issued one of his sternest warnings to date when he said India would respond to another major attack "with the force of a sledgehammer." As historically has been the case, Pakistan has tried to control Lashkar instead of dismantling it. But this balancing act has become a lot more delicate in recent years as Lashkar has grown bolder -- a fact born out by the Mumbai attacks.

A number of those I spoke with in Pakistan -- inside and outside government -- agree the group will need to be dismantled at some point. But the consensus is that dealing with Lashkar will come at the tail end of any process to demobilize militant groups in the country. As a result, the infrastructure that made the Mumbai attacks possible is likely to remain intact for the foreseeable future.